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Washington State University
CAS Connect April 2015

In Motion: Omar Cornejo tackles Tolstoy, cacao genome

Advances in genome science are propelling our understanding of evolution and enabling us to alter plants, microbes, and other living organisms in the world around us.

Omar Cornejo
Omar Cornejo

Assistant professor of biology Omar Cornejo specializes in population genetics, genomics, and the evolutionary biology of infectious diseases. When he is not in the lab exploring how genes in a malaria causing parasite change in the population or coming up with new ways to make cacao trees more productive, Cornejo spends his time taking care of his newborn son and salsa dancing in the kitchen with his wife.

What brought you to WSU?

My job here at WSU is in a way a fulfillment of a long-time career goal. I knew I wanted to be a professor way back when I was an undergraduate at Universidad Simon Bolivar in Venezuela.

My wife, Joanna Kelley, and I came to WSU in September 2013. I found the School of Biological Sciences intriguing because the faculty study a diversity of organisms which is essential for the kind of work I do. I love coming into work every day and talking to my colleagues about the different plants, animals, and microbes they are researching. I interact with all of them to figure out how to integrate my own research into the department.

What is population genetics and what piqued your interest in the field?

Population genetics is a body of theory that tries to understand how genetic variation in a population changes in time and space.

How I got into the field is an interesting story. When I was an undergraduate, I had this fabulous zoology professor. Of all things, he and I bonded over Russian literature. We would talk about short stories by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, aspects of Russian history, you name it.

And then, suddenly we shifted to talking about biology. He happened to be not only a zoology professor but also a population geneticist. He started telling me about the kinds of problems he was working on and from then on I was just hooked in population genetics.

What are you currently researching?

One of the projects my lab is focusing on revolves around the population genomics of cocoa. We worked with Mars, the company that makes Mars Bars, to put together a reference genome for cocoa.

While working on the assembly of the cocoa genome, we proposed to Mars to sequence a multitude of genomes in wild and domesticated cocoa plants to try to understand how the pattern of genetic diversification has changed over time. We have sequenced more than 200 genomes to date.

The information we have gathered is helping us understand the basic biology and evolutionary history of cocoa. It will also help to map the genetic bases that control the expression of certain physical traits in cocoa that are of interest to the industry, like pod thickness and resistance to particular diseases.

What do you enjoy about teaching at WSU?

I enjoy having personal interactions with my students. It is far easier to transmit information when you are talking to small groups of students or working one on one as opposed to working with students in a large lecture format.

A lot of what I do is computational work and students today are very good with computers. So naturally, it is very easy for them to fly away clicking buttons and running programs when we are working in the lab. But at the end of the day, if we don’t talk about what we are doing and the theory behind it, they are just typing on a computer.

So, an important aspect of my teaching is sitting down with students, especially undergraduates, and going over concepts. We go over questions like, ‘Why are we doing what we are doing, and why is certain information generated?’ at each step of the research.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

The most rewarding aspect of my job is figuring out something new. The best feeling in the world is when I can say, ‘I nailed it!’

What do you do to unwind in your free time?
Cornejo and his son
Cornejo and his son, Allen Eduardo.

I don’t have a lot of free time because my wife and I recently had a child. But when I do have a moment, I love to read. I am now reading Captain Alatriste by Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte Gutiérrez. It is about a seventeenth-century Spanish swordsman who sells his services to the highest bidder. It is actually quite hilarious. My wife catches me reading aloud sometimes in a thick Spanish accent and it just cracks us up.

Snapshot: School of Biological Sciences

The School of Biological Sciences (SBS) is the largest academic unit in the College of Arts and Sciences and home to two of the University’s most popular majors, biology and zoology. Specializations within the degrees include animal care, botany, ecology and evolution, education, entomology, and options for students interested in health professions. In addition to its two primary undergraduate degrees, the school also coordinates the General Studies degree programs in biological sciences and basic medical sciences.

Abelson Hall, WSU Pullman
Abelson Hall, with its rooftop greenhouse, is among locations of SBS laboratories, classrooms, and offices.

Faculty are active researchers engaged in innovative studies ranging from improving drought resistance in crops to the microbiome of human milk to the ecology of animal diseases. The school sponsors a robust weekly seminar series during the academic year that is open to the community.

SBS facilities include the stable isotope core laboratory, greenhouses and environmental growth facilities, the Franceschi Microscopy and Imaging Center, the Marion Ownbey Herbarium, and the Conner Museum of Natural History.

Degrees offered
  • Bachelor of Science
    • Biology
    • Zoology
  • Master of Science
    • Botany
    • Zoology
  • PhD
    • Botany
    • Zoology
By the numbers
  • Undergraduate student credit hours: 25,872
  • Enrolled graduate students: 44
  • Full-time faculty: 52 (including Vancouver and Tri-Cities)