The Dr. Erik B. and Mrs. Joyce D.C. Young Lecture

"The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Nature Works, and Why It Matters"

sean b. carroll


Everything in nature is regulated--from the numbers of vital molecules in our bloodstream to the number of lions on an African savanna. Over the past 50 years, two revolutions have unfolded in biology in understanding the regulation of life at these two scales.

The speaker will discuss the discovery of the "The Serengeti Rules," the ecological rules that regulate the numbers and kinds of animals and plants in any given place, and how they are being applied to restore some of the greatest wildernesses on the planet.


Sean Carroll joined the University of Maryland’s Department of Biology on June 1, 2018, as the inaugural Andrew and Mary Balo and Nicholas and Susan Simon Endowed Chair. will also continue to serve as vice president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Department of Science Education and as head of its film production unit Tangled Bank Studios. He is the first HHMI investigator to take a faculty position at UMD.

Carroll is a pioneer and international leader in the field of evolutionary developmental biology, also known as “evo-devo.” His research has shown that the diversity of animal life is largely due to the different ways the same body-building and body-patterning genes are regulated, rather than changes to the genes themselves. Carroll joins UMD from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he first established his lab in 1987 and was the Allan Wilson Professor of Molecular Biology, Genetics and Medical Genetics.

Early in his career, Carroll studied how fruit fly bodies and body parts are specified by a special set of genes. Then, he translated this fundamental knowledge into an understanding of how the bodies of many different animals are made. Comparing fruit flies and butterflies, Carroll’s team discovered that new patterns, such as butterfly eyespots, evolve when “old” genes are used in new ways, rather than evolving entirely new genes. Through further studies, his team uncovered the same principles at work in the evolution of body segments, limbs, sensory hairs and coloration. 

During his career, Carroll has published more than 125 peer-reviewed journal articles and mentored more than 60 undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. More than 35 of his lab alumni now lead their own academic labs.

In addition to his research, Carroll is passionate about storytelling and spends considerable time focusing on science education and communication. He has written seven highly acclaimed books, including his newest, “The Serengeti Rules,” and his 2005 book, “Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom,” which offers a framework of the then-emerging field. From 2009 to 2013, Carroll wrote a column for The New York Times called “Remarkable Creatures,” where he highlighted discoveries in biology.

As the architect of HHMI’s science filmmaking initiative, Carroll has been the host or executive producer of more than a dozen feature or documentary films—including “The Farthest,” “Amazon Adventure,” “The Lucky Specials,” “Spillover: Zika, Ebola & Beyond,” “Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink,” and “Your Inner Fish”—as well as numerous short films for the classroom.

Carroll has been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and an associate member of the European Molecular Biology Organization.

He has also received the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science from the Franklin Institute, the Stephen Jay Gould Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution, the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science from The Rockefeller University, the Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers, the Viktor Hamburger Outstanding Educator Award from the Society for Developmental Biology and the Kovalevsky Medal from the St. Petersburg Society of Naturalists.

Carroll earned his bachelor’s degree in biology at Washington University in St. Louis in 1979 and his Ph.D. in immunology from Tufts University in 1983. He was awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Minnesota and Tufts University.