Laura van Holstein, ACS Egham class of 2011

"The subjects and teachers that really shaped how I ended up approaching evolutionary biology were those in English, maths, and art."

Meet Laura van Holstein, ACS alumna who proved one of Darwin's evolution theories.

Nearly 140 years after Charles Darwin's death, ACS alumna Laura van Holstein has found strong evidence that proves one of the world-renowned naturalist, geologist and biologist’s evolution theories.

After attending ACS Egham between 2008 and 2011, Laura went on to the University of Cambridge to pursue an undergraduate degree and PhD in Biological Anthropology. The hypothesis states that a species belonging to a larger genus should also include more subspecies. Laura used data modelling to prove Darwin's theory, which was not available to him.

Laura explains: "I'm way too curious about evolution, and I love this field so much, that irreverent and creative exploration feels like the only natural thing to do. That curiosity, the joy of 'figuring things out', and feeling comfortable enough to follow my instincts and to try, and try, and try again, really have their origins at ACS for me".

Her studies investigated the relationship between species and the variety of subspecies to prove that the subspecies play an essential role in long-term evolutionary dynamics as well as in future evolution of the species. Laura's research also proved that evolution happens differently in land mammals (terrestrial) and sea mammals and bats (non-terrestrial), because of differences in their habitats and differences in their ability to roam freely.

"All of my teachers seemed to experience real joy from teaching, and really loved their subjects. Consequently, anything I tried out of real interest in what I was learning was met with a lot of enthusiasm.



Laura remembers her time at ACS Egham fondly. "The subjects and teachers that really shaped how I ended up approaching evolutionary biology were those in English, maths, and art.

“Ms Barbour, who taught English, was in love with language; and she taught so creatively, and that approach of looking at something from a non-traditional angle is still something I apply in my research.

“Maths – and more specifically, the way I learnt in those classes – was honestly a joy for me. On reflection, I think I can single out the Egham maths department as the group of people from my school days who had the most long-lasting impacts on how I think, and how I work. I recently thought about a project I did in 9th grade – on Mandelbrot's fractal snowflake – because I'm writing a paper about the fractal nature of biological diversification.

“I also loved art classes. I suppose on some level, exercises like having to paint one object in different styles taught me, again, to examine things from various perspectives and to appreciate that different takes on a similar thing bring to the fore very different patterns. This is a dominant theme in my PhD thesis, albeit applied to biological systems across time. On a personal level, I felt very valued and appreciated in these classes – I'm sure I wasn't the only one because Mr Vaughan was the most enthusiastic, funny, and encouraging person to be around."

Now the Cambridge researcher is aiming to look at how her studies can be used to predict which species environmentalists should focus on to stop them from becoming endangered or extinct, something Darwin never did.

To read Laura van Holstein research article published in the Proceedings of Royal Society March 2020