Alexander Lalejini is a dual doctoral degree candidate pursuing degrees in computer science, in the College of Engineering, and ecology, evolutionary biology and behavior, in the College of Natural Science. Lalejini said he is passionate about reaching out to students who lack access to science education through outreach and by creating tools that can be accessed and understood by anyone with an internet connection.
“Growing up in Mississippi, I have first-hand experience with how little exposure to the science of evolution K-12 students can receive because of anti-science cultural views and poorly-supported science classrooms,” Lalejini said. “Evolution was barely discussed in my elementary, middle, and high school science and biology classrooms and was often a taboo topic at family dinner tables. I would have discovered evolution’s importance in understanding the natural world, and its applications in computer science, much sooner in life if I had better access to educational materials on evolution. I don’t want to see students miss out on learning science because of their socio-economic circumstances.”
Lalejini’s current research is focused upon using self-replicating computer programs to study evolution.
“I fell in love with robotics and artificial intelligence, and like any student love struck by a particular topic, I took every course I could that was remotely related to robotics and artificial intelligence,” he said. “As a computer scientist, my interests have been captured by the diverse set of algorithms encoded in the genomes of biological organisms. Many of these algorithms have been under active development for roughly four and a half billion years. My goal as a scientist is to analyze the algorithms developed by evolution.”
Lalejini said he wants to leverage ideas from both computer science and evolutionary biology to make scientific contributions to both fields. Additionally, he said he wants to develop web-based visualizations and software tools that will make it easy for anyone to watch and interact with complex evolutionary processes in action.
“My goal for graduate school is to become both a computer scientist and an evolutionary biologist,” Lalejini said. “This is an essential stepping stone in my pursuit of a lifelong career as a research scientist at the frontier of both fields, linking ideas in both computer science and evolutionary biology.”
The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship award consists of a three-year annual stipend of $34,000, along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees. Lalejini said receiving this award ensures his ability to pursue his goals, giving him the flexibility and resources to simultaneously focus on making scientific advancements and improving the accessibility of evolution education.
“I am honored to receive this award,” Lalejini said. “It relieves the stress and anxiety of securing funding via teaching or research assistantships for the next three years. I will be able to maximize the accessibility of my work, something that can be very challenging when juggling teaching duties or working on that next grant to fund you through the next semester.”