Auburn native Michael Lynch didn't travel on an airplane until he was around 23, but now he's in the air every month.

Lynch said his parents were "terrified of big cities," so his family rarely left Auburn while he was growing up. Now an author, professor and director of the Center for Mechanisms of Evolution at Arizona State University, he travels nationally and internationally to give talks and attend other events. He said he's thrilled to have made contacts across the globe and encountered different cultures along the way.

Lynch is one of five former Auburn Enlarged City School District students who will be inducted into the Auburn Alumni Hall of Distinction by the Auburn Education Foundation May 17. Lynch, who graduated from East High School in 1969, was surprised by the acknowledgement, as he said he doesn't have any family members who live in Auburn anymore.

"It was just quite interesting that somebody from Auburn would have any idea who I was any longer, and it's somewhat of an honor that goes all the way back to your high school roots," he said.

Lynch has been keenly interested in biology for as long as he can remember, he said. Though his career was focused on ecology on first, and he has tackled subjects such as cell biology and genetics, he said he now primarily focuses on understanding the process of evolution and how it occurs.

The math teachers Lynch had at Auburn schools helped spark his interest in the subject, Lynch said. While he didn't realize the overlap between biology and math at the time, a lot of the work he does now deals with mathematical theory.

Lynch received a bachelor's degree in biology from St. Bonaventure University in 1973 and a doctorate in ecology and behavioral biology from the University of Minnesota in 1977. His career before he joined Arizona State included teaching subjects like biology, physics and computer science at institutions such as Indiana University and the University of Oregon. He has written or co-written four books and over 250 papers, and has held positions with various scientific groups over the years, including president of the Genetics Society of America from 2013 to 2016 and president of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution.

When Lynch talked about his advice for current Auburn graduates, he said he believes they should follow their interests.

"Not everybody ever develops a passion for something," he said. "But if you've got one, there's a lot of opportunities out there for someone who's got enough ambition to follow their interest."

Maureen Coleman, an Auburn High School Class of 1998 graduate and an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, nominated Lynch for the Hall of Distinction honor. Coleman said in an email that she had read his work in the past and decided to look him up in 2012 after he gave a research seminar in Chicago. She said she was shocked to find that Lynch also hailed from Auburn.

Coleman said she nominated Lynch because "he is an influential and successful scientist," adding that she hopes showcasing someone from Auburn who is involved in science will encourage current students to pursue such careers.

"He is at the forefront of science, combining cell biology and evolution, and his books and articles have been very influential. He truly stands out among the top biologists in the world — and I am thrilled that we share a hometown!" Coleman said.

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Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.