Dr. Alex C. Keene, a leading neuroscientist, geneticist and evolutionary biologist and professor of biological sciences at Florida Atlantic University, has been appointed as head of the Department of Biology at Texas A&M University, effective August 1, announced Dr. Valen E. Johnson, dean of the College of Science.
Keene’s research at the intersection of evolution and neuroscience focuses on understanding the neural mechanisms and evolutionary underpinnings of sleep, memory formation and other behavioral functions in fly and fish models. Specifically, he studies fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) and Mexican cavefish that have lost both their eyesight and ability to sleep with the goal of identifying the genetic basis of behavioral choices which factor into human disease, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease. He was named a Kavli Fellow by the National Academy of Sciences in 2019 and also recognized that same year with Florida Atlantic’s Researcher of the Year Award.
“Alex is ideally positioned to lead the Department of Biology forward in its expanding research focus on biological clocks,” Johnson said. “He is a dynamic researcher, and I am confident that the department will continue on its extremely positive trajectory under his administration.”
Keene earned his Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 2006 and completed consecutive postdoctoral research stints at the Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna (2006-2007) and New York University (2008-2011) prior to beginning his independent academic career in 2011 as an assistant professor of biology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Four years later, he moved to Florida Atlantic as an associate professor of biological sciences in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, earning promotion to full professor in 2020. He served as a member of the Institutional Research Council and also helped develop the Jupiter Life Science Initiative into a leading research group within the university.
“We are thrilled to be moving to Aggieland and joining the Texas A&M Science family,” Keene said. “I have long been influenced by a number of research groups at Texas A&M and am excited about the opportunity to work with and support these and other groups as Department Head. The wide range of strengths within the department make it a unique place to develop interdisciplinary transformative research. I’m looking forward to working with a rapidly growing and amazing group of faculty, staff and students, and the challenges and adventures to come.”
Keene’s current research program is supported by multiple concurrent grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF) and the Human Frontier Science Program. In addition, he is involved in a number of large community efforts, including as a principal investigator for a recently funded NIH Resource-Related Research Project (R24) to develop genomic resources in cavefish. He has authored more than 80 peer-reviewed articles in a variety of leading multidisciplinary science journals and publications and co-written a book, Biology and Evolution of the Mexican Cavefish (Academic Press/Elsevier). He is also co-editor for an upcoming laboratory manual, Drosophila Neurobiology (Cold Spring Harbor Press).
Beyond research, Keene is actively involved in undergraduate education and diversity initiatives at Florida Atlantic, helping to expand undergraduate biology and neuroscience course offerings and teaching laboratories while directing the bachelor of science in neuroscience and behavior program from 2015 to 2019. He also serves as principal investigator for an NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program as well as an NIH-funded Undergraduate Research Training Initiative for Student Enhancement (U-RISE) grant. With regard to national professional service, Keene was co-director of the Cold Spring Harbor Neurobiology of Drosophila Course from 2017 to 2019 and a member of the NIH Molecular Neurogenetics Study Section from 2016 to 2021. He is a current member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity Committee for the International Behavioral and Neurogenetics Society.
“Texas A&M Biology has many different roles, from teaching the next generation of scientists to performing cutting-edge research,” Keene said. “The diverse expertise of faculty make this an incredible environment to learn about science and prepare tomorrow’s leaders. The diversity of Texas A&M University and the undergraduates in the Biology Department also provide us with enormous potential to expose students to research and to capture their interests in a field that has potential to find cures for diseases and advance our understanding of life across the planet.”
Keene succeeds longtime Texas A&M biologist Dr. Thomas D. McKnight, who has served since February 2014 as department head and the 11 years prior to that as associate head. McKnight plans to return to full-time teaching and research in Texas A&M Biology and as a member of the interdepartmental faculties of genetics and molecular and environmental plant sciences.
“Tom has provided outstanding leadership to the department, advancing its undergraduate teaching, research and service missions,” Johnson said. “Notably, he guided the department through the recent SOAR that led to a highly innovative plan to move the department forward. In addition to Dr. McKnight, I would also like to thank the department’s leadership team for their exemplary service. In particular, special thanks are due to Dr. Wayne Versaw for his exceptional service in improving the undergraduate teaching program, which has seen truly remarkable improvements in student success.”
To learn more about Keene and his teaching, research and service, visit https://www.bio.tamu.edu/faculty-page-alex-keene/.
For additional information about the Texas A&M Department of Biology, go to https://www.bio.tamu.edu.