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Beckett Sterner

Assistant Professor
Faculty, TEMPE Campus, Mailcode 4501
Asst Professor
Faculty, TEMPE Campus, Mailcode 4501

Beckett Sterner studies how mathematics is transforming biology, including biodiversity data aggregation, evolution of biological individuality, evolutionary tempo and mode, and methodology in systematic biology. He came to ASU in 2016 as an assistant professor in the Biology and Society Program and affiliated faculty in philosophy.

He started his career working in a computational biology lab studying protein function during college at MIT, and then switched to doing history and philosophy of science for his doctorate at the University of Chicago. He was a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the Field Museum in Chicago (2012-2014) and a postdoctoral fellow with the University of Michigan Society of Fellows (2014-2016). 

  • Ph.D. in history and philosophy of science, University of Chicago 2012
  • M.Sc. Statistics, University of Chicago 2011
  • M.A. Philosophy, University of Chicago 2009
  • B.S. Mathematics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2006


Research Interests

My research focuses on the question, “When and why is mathematics useful for biology?” Biologists have determined the sequences of billions of nucleotides in thousands of genomes, and they have measured the expression levels of tens of thousands of genes across numerous species. However, their appetite for data is quickly outrunning their ability to give it theoretical significance. The movement to quantify life, exemplified here by genomics and its descendants, is no simple benefit to biology: at minimum, it poses major challenges for the nature and practice of biological theory. One leading solution is the introduction of computer modeling into biological theorizing, but little consensus exists among biologists on how and when computer modeling helps.  

I investigate these issues by studying the process and outcomes of mathematization — i.e. the consequences of making math indispensable for scientific research. Some new and ongoing projects include: the impact of computational workflows on the methodology and social structure of systematic biology (taxonomy/phylogenetics); big data and principles for managing flawed data aggregation; integrating model selection and hypothesis testing in paleobiology; and incorporating explicit landscape geometry into our theory of population lineages.



Sterner, B. 2019 (in press). "Evolutionary Species in Light of Population Genomics." Philosophy of Science.

Franz, N. and B. Sterner. 2018. “To Increase Trust, Change the Social Design of Biodiversity Data Aggregation.” Database. doi: 10.1093/database/bax100

Sterner, B. and S. Lidgard. 2018. “Moving Past the Systematics Wars.” Journal of the History of Biology. doi: 10.1007/s10739-017-9471-1

Sterner, B. 2017. “Individuating Population Lineages: A New Genealogical Criterion.” Biology and Philosophy. 32 (5): 683–703.

Sterner, B and N. Franz. 2017. “Taxonomy for Humans or Computers?” Biological Theory. 12 (2): 99–111.

Sterner, B. 2015. “Pathways to Pluralism about Biological Individuality.” Biology and Philosophy. 30 (5): 609–628.

Sterner, B. 2014. “The Practical Value of Biological Information for Research.” Philosophy of Science 81 (2): 175–94.

Sterner, B., and S. Lidgard. 2014. “The Normative Structure of Mathematization in Systematic Biology.” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 46 (April): 44–54.

Sterner, B. 2009. “Object Spaces: An Organizing Strategy for Biological Theorizing.” Biological Theory 4(3): 280–286.

Li, S., F. Zhao, B. Sterner, and J. Xu.  2008. “Discriminative Learning for Protein Conformation Sampling.” Proteins: Structure, Function, and Bioinformatics 73(1): 228–240.

Sterner, B., R. Singh, and B. Berger. 2007. “Predicting and Annotating Catalytic Residues: An Information-Theoretic Approach.” Journal of Computational Biology.  14(8): 1058–1073.

Book Chapters:

Sterner, B. Forthcoming. “The Epistemology of Causal Selection: Insights from Systems Biology.” Causal Reasoning in Biology, Minnesota Studies in Philosophy of Science.

Sterner, B. 2017. “Individuality and the Control of Life Cycles.” In Biological Individuality, edited by Scott Lidgard and Lynn Nyhart. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 84­–108.

Sterner, B. 2013. “Well-Structured Biology: Numerical Taxonomy and Its Methodological Vision for Systematics.” In The Evolution of Phylogenetic Systematics, edited by Andrew Hamilton, 213–44. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Essay Reviews:

Sterner, B. In Press. “Review of Data-Centric Biology: A Philosophical Study.” Philosophy of Science.

Spring 2019
Course NumberCourse Title
PHI 394Special Topics
BIO 394Special Topics
HPS 394Special Topics
BIO 495Undergraduate Research
PHI 598Special Topics
HPS 598Special Topics
BIO 598Special Topics
BIO 615Biology and Society Lab
HPS 615Biology and Society Lab
Fall 2018
Course NumberCourse Title
BIO 345Evolution
HPS 615Biology and Society Lab
BIO 615Biology and Society Lab
Spring 2018
Course NumberCourse Title
HPS 314Philosophy of Science
PHI 314Philosophy of Science
HPS 512Philosophy of Science
BIO 615Biology and Society Lab
HPS 615Biology and Society Lab
Fall 2017
Course NumberCourse Title
HPS 615Biology and Society Lab
BIO 615Biology and Society Lab
Spring 2017
Course NumberCourse Title
BIO 590Reading and Conference
Fall 2016
Course NumberCourse Title
PHI 420Topics in Philosophy
BIO 494Special Topics
HPS 494Special Topics
PHI 591Seminar
HPS 598Special Topics
BIO 598Special Topics
HPS 615Biology and Society Lab
BIO 615Biology and Society Lab