Charles Langley’s path to an academic research career in evolutionary genetics was anything but typical. He did not start reading until the fourth grade, he spent three years in high school in Germany in the 1960s, he dropped out of college multiple times and did not major in science until his senior year.
So when the 64-year-old distinguished professor of genetics received word in March that he had been named the 2009 Faculty Research Lecturer — the highest honor his colleagues at UC Davis have to give — his immediate reaction was surprise.
“I’m not a person who has a long history of good grades and winning scholarships, or a big collection of things that I’ve gotten recognition for,” he said. “But I have a huge amount of respect for my very esteemed colleagues here, so I am honored, just honored, to get their recognition. And I hope I’m worthy.”
Langley, however, may be the only person on campus for whom the award comes as a surprise.
“Despite a number of truly deserving nominees, this was an easy choice,” noted the Academic Senate committee charged with selecting this year’s award winner. “(Charles Langley) has been an internationally recognized leader in evolutionary genetics since the late 1970s …(and) has pioneered new molecular methods that have revolutionized our understanding of genetic variation within and among species.”
Ken Burtis, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, was equally pronounced in his praise of Langley, who is a member of the college’s Department of Evolution and Ecology.
“Chuck is a brilliant faculty member and one of the foundations of our long tradition of great genetics in the college,” Burtis said. “As one of the main players in the field of genomics, he is doing exciting work in this important area at a critical moment in its history.”
In following the tradition of award winners, Langley will deliver a public lecture on a topic of his choosing. Free and open to all, the lecture will be held at 4 p.m. May 6, in the ARC Ballroom.
Pioneer in molecular population genetics
Langley has spent much of his career conducting both theoretical and empirical investigations of the forces that shape genetic variation within populations. Working mostly with the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, he has made a number of breakthroughs in mapping and analyzing patterns of variation in the genomes (the complete set of DNA) of organisms.
Two of the principal areas he has focused on during his 20-year tenure at UC Davis are the search for genes that are associated with complex traits in fruit flies, such as wing shapes and bristle numbers, and the development of technologies to explore and analyze the genomes of populations of organisms.
“When you can find a genetic variant that is associated with a complex trait or a human disease, and then show that the variant gene’s protein plays a role in that disease, then you can begin to understand the molecular pathway of the disease’s development,” he explained. “And that’s when you can start to devise drugs to treat it.”
‘Fruitful’ fly research
From 1996 to1997, as the Human Genome Project was working on its first goal of completely sequencing the DNA of a single human being, Langley served on the National Institutes of Health’s committee charged with planning the future of federal genomics research.
Convinced that sequencing the genomes of thousands of individuals was the most logical and effective path to fundamental advances, Langley started to focus his research on developing the technologies and instrumentation to collect such data in Drosophila.
In 2007, Langley and David Begun, a professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, and their collaborators at the Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University Medical School published the complete genomes of six strains of Drosophila. Sometime later this month, Langley’s and Begun’s laboratory groups will release preliminary data on more than 40 independent D. melanogaster genomes. Their ongoing project will greatly increase both the depth of sampling of genomes and the data quality.
Born on a Virginia military base in Virginia during World War II, Langley spent most of his grade-school years in southern Indiana.
Uncomfortable in school, he did not learn to read until the fourth grade. The year he turned 13, his parents offered to send him to a high school in southern Germany. The stay, that was supposed to last just a few months, extended to three years, and Langley did not return to the U.S. until his senior year of high school.
It was a good time to come home, he remembers. “The real influence of the youth culture was starting to be felt: from music to civil rights. It was very formative for me.”
Rejected by Stanford (“because my English was so much worse than my German at that point”), he entered an experimental college at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. He soon dropped out to spend time in the more exciting atmosphere he found in Berkeley. After more travels and destinations, he joined the volunteer organization VISTA and worked as a community organizer for a year in New York and New Orleans’s 9th Ward.
Statistical test of DNA
The political unrest of the 1960s began to get him down. Searching, Langley decided to return to school, this time to the University of Texas at Austin, where he received a B.S. in zoology in 1968, and a Ph.D. in 1971.
Just two years later, while a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he refuted a widely held theory by devising a statistical test that showed that mutations do not accumulate randomly in DNA sequences that encode proteins.
From Madison, Langley moved to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’s campus in Research Triangle Park, N.C. After 17 years there, he grew discouraged with the institutional policies that shifted senior scientists like him into management. In 1989, searching for a place where he could concentrate on research and interact with students, he was drawn to UC Davis.
In 1999, Langley received the Genetics Society of America Medal for his work, and in 2007 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Over the course of his career, he has written well over 100 scientific publications.
A reception for Langley and other teaching and research award recipients is scheduled for April 16 in the Activities and Recreation Center Ballroom. The program lists a no-host bar, light refreshments and hors d’oeurves from 5 to 5:45 p.m., followed by the awards presentation. People planning to attend are asked to arrange reservations with Bryan Rodman, (530) 752-3920 or firstname.lastname@example.org.