Stearns Graduate Student Prize

ESEB and the Journ­al of Evol­u­tion­ary Bio­logy (JEB) award an annu­al prize for the best gradu­ate paper pub­lished in the journ­al in that cal­en­dar year. The award is named after Steph­en Ste­arns, who played a major role in estab­lish­ing both JEB and ESEB (art­icle).

The Ste­arns Gradu­ate Stu­dent Prize is aimed at recog­nising out­stand­ing gradu­ate (Mas­ters or PhD) research. While pre­vi­ously awar­ded to a single win­ner, from 2022 onwards the JEB edit­or­i­al board selects up to three joint awardees. This change recog­nises the fact that research excel­lence comes in many facets, ran­ging from the innov­at­ive nature of the ques­tions addressed, over the tech­nic­al chal­lenges in per­form­ing the research to the sci­entif­ic and soci­et­al impact of the results. 

The award includes an invit­a­tion to attend the ESEB Con­gress (regis­tra­tion fee covered), where awardees will present their work in a ded­ic­ated Ste­arns Prize symposium.



The Ste­arns Prize recog­nises the out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tion of gradu­ate stu­dents to research pub­lished in JEB. Gradu­ate stu­dents are eli­gible for the prize if they led both the research described in the art­icle and the writ­ing of the manu­script itself (and super­visors will be asked to con­firm this before awards are made). Reflect­ing their role, we would then also usu­ally expect the stu­dent to be the lead (first) author. We expect papers to be sub­mit­ted with­in two years of com­plet­ing the project. 


Dur­ing the pro­cess of sub­mit­ting a manu­script to JEB, the cor­res­pond­ing author will be asked “Was this study led by a gradu­ate stu­dent?”. If the cor­res­pond­ing author answers “Yes” and iden­ti­fies the stu­dent among the authors, the manu­script is auto­mat­ic­ally con­sidered for the Ste­arns Prize in the year of its pub­lic­a­tion. Self-nom­in­a­tion is also encour­aged, where the gradu­ate stu­dent lead­ing the study is also the sub­mit­ting and cor­res­pond­ing author.

Selection criteria

For each cal­en­dar year, all papers pub­lished in JEB that were nom­in­ated at the point of sub­mis­sion as above are auto­mat­ic­ally long­listed for the Ste­arns Prize. Edit­ors will be asked to nom­in­ate papers they handled for short­l­ist­ing based on the fol­low­ing criteria:

  • paper addresses an innov­at­ive research ques­tion or approaches the ques­tion in an innov­at­ive way
  • con­tains tech­nic­ally chal­len­ging work
  • dis­plays a par­tic­u­larly robust approach to answer­ing the research question

Short­l­is­ted papers are then ranked using the same cri­ter­ia as above by a pan­el of edit­or­i­al board mem­bers who did NOT handle the papers, to min­im­ise bias towards a par­tic­u­lar field. The top papers (up to 3 win­ners) will be awar­ded the Ste­arns Prize for that cal­en­dar year. The full short­l­ist will be made avail­able online for prize year 2022 onwards.

2022 Winners

Haley Kenyon

This paper was inspired by a desire to under­stand the select­ive pres­sures driv­ing col­our pat­tern diver­gence among closely related, sym­patric spe­cies and I am hon­oured that it has been recog­nized with a Ste­arns Prize. This pro­ject was con­duc­ted as part of my PhD research at Queen’s Uni­ver­sity in Ontario, Canada in col­lab­or­a­tion with my PhD advisor Paul R. Martin. 

To study beha­vi­our­al responses to col­our pat­tern dif­fer­ences between spe­cies, inde­pend­ent of size or shape dif­fer­ences, I painted 3D prin­ted mod­els to exactly match the spec­tro­met­er-meas­ured col­ours of indi­vidu­al male museum spe­ci­mens of three bird spe­cies: black-capped chickadees (Poe­cile atri­ca­pil­lus) and their equally closely related con­gen­ers, moun­tain chickadees (P. gam­beli) and Mex­ic­an chickadees (P. sclateri). Black-capped chickadees co-occur with the more dif­fer­ently col­oured moun­tain chickadee in parts of their range, but nev­er live with the more sim­il­arly col­oured Mex­ic­an chickadee. To test the hypo­thes­is that these col­our pat­tern dif­fer­ences are driv­en by selec­tion against hybrid­iz­a­tion, we presen­ted pairs of these mod­els to naïve black-capped chickadee females and observed which mod­els they were most likely to dir­ect cop­u­la­tion soli­cit­a­tion dis­plays towards. We found that females were less inter­ested in mat­ing with more diver­gently col­oured mod­els under cer­tain con­di­tions, sug­gest­ing that col­our pat­tern diver­gence may indeed reduce mixed mat­ing, and should there­fore be favoured by selec­tion against hybrid­iz­a­tion. This exper­i­ment was extremely chal­len­ging, but incred­ibly reward­ing, and I am excited about what else we can learn about sig­nal evol­u­tion and spe­cies coex­ist­ence through this type of tightly con­trolled field exper­i­ment in the future.

Subham Mridha

I majored in zoology dur­ing my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Pres­id­ency Uni­ver­sity, Kolk­ata, India, with a spe­cial­iz­a­tion in eco­logy. Then I moved to Switzer­land to pur­sue my PhD in evol­u­tion­ary bio­logy in the lab of Prof. Rolf Küm­merli at the Uni­ver­sity of Zurich study­ing phen­o­typ­ic het­ero­gen­eity in bac­teri­al pop­u­la­tions. There­after, I pur­sued postdoc­tor­al research study­ing prey-pred­at­or inter­ac­tions in microbes. Recently I have moved to the Uni­ver­sity of Pennsylvania, USA for a postdoc in the field of immune-micro­bi­o­me inter­ac­tions. I am broadly inter­ested in field of micro­bi­al eco­logy and evol­u­tion, with the inten­tion to bridge fun­da­ment­al and trans­la­tion­al research.

In this research con­duc­ted dur­ing my PhD, we invest­ig­ated wheth­er divi­sion of labour evolve with respect to pub­lic goods in the oppor­tun­ist­ic patho­gen­ic social bac­teri­um Pseudo­mo­nas aer­u­ginosa. We observed that spe­cial­ists did not indulge in cooper­at­ive divi­sion of labour but rather could co-exist via mutu­al cheat­ing. Con­trary to pop­u­lar obser­va­tions in oth­er study sys­tems, our res­ults sug­gest that there is a nar­row range of con­di­tions under which divi­sion of labour can evolve.

(X handle: @SubhamMridha)

Donal Smith

This study was con­duc­ted as part of my PhD research at the Uni­ver­sity of Salford and the Zoolo­gic­al Soci­ety of Lon­don. Under the guid­ance of my super­visors Robert Jehle and Trent Garner, along­side col­leagues at the Insti­tute of Zoology and the High­land Amphi­bi­an and Rep­tile Pro­ject, I set out to explore the rela­tion­ship between host genet­ic diversity and capa­city to defend against nov­el patho­gens. Here, the host was the com­mon toad, and the patho­gen Bat­ra­chochytri­um dendroba­tid­is (Bd)a fungus that has caused cata­stroph­ic declines and extinc­tions across hun­dreds of amphi­bi­an spe­cies, mak­ing it the most destruct­ive patho­gen of ver­teb­rates ever char­ac­ter­ised. It is not, how­ever, uni­ver­sally destruct­ive, and some host indi­vidu­als and pop­u­la­tions fare bet­ter than oth­ers. To bet­ter under­stand this, we focused on toad pop­u­la­tions situ­ated on the north-west­ern edge of the spe­cies range on and around the isle of Skye in Scotland. 

Com­bin­ing con­trolled infec­tion exper­i­ments with genet­ic ana­lyses, we showed con­sid­er­able genet­ic diver­gence between toad pop­u­la­tions and a strong influ­ence of pop­u­la­tion iden­tity on response to this nov­el patho­gen. But this response did not seem to be driv­en by genet­ic erosion on com­par­at­ively isol­ated islands. Indeed, het­ero­zy­gos­ity showed an unex­pec­ted neg­at­ive rela­tion­ship with sur­viv­al. Our find­ings under­score the import­ance of con­text depend­ency in com­plex host-patho­gen dynam­ics, and cau­tion against simplist­ic assump­tions about the vul­ner­ab­il­ity of genet­ic­ally depau­per­ate host populations.

These days, I still focus on islands, but in a dif­fer­ent way. I work with Mon­ash Uni­ver­sity research­ing and restor­ing the eco­logy of Browse Island in the Timor Sea, help­ing a degraded island once teem­ing with seabirds to flour­ish again.