Top UC Davis student pursues tree-of-life research and Nerf combatants

Six people with a Nerf gun.
Third from left, Andrew Magee, president of the Davis Urban Gaming Group, with other group leaders at a Nerf event on campus.

Andrew Magee, who pursues heady research on the tree of life and gives chase to combatants in campus Nerf games, has been named the top graduating senior at the University of California, Davis.

The San Jose, California, resident is the 2015 recipient of the University Medal for excellence in undergraduate studies, outstanding community service and the promise of future scholarship and contributions to society.

When he receives the award at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences commencement on Sunday afternoon, he’ll join an elite class of doctors, engineers, professors and others whose work ranges from seeking a cure for cancer to helping the poor in developing countries. 

"I'm just blown away," Magee said of winning the award, which includes $2,000 honorarium.

Magee achieved a cumulative grade point average of 4.0 as he earned a bachelor's degree in animal biology. And along the way, he helped lead a debate club; the Draft Horse and Driving Club; and the Davis Urban Gaming Group, a weekly gathering of 15 to 50 people who battle with Nerf guns.

"It's good for kicking back and releasing the stress of school," Magee said of the games. "It's been cool to see that we've built a community of people who are friends and spend time together."

Initially planning a career in veterinary medicine, Magee became interested in evolution and ecology, one of the fields in which UC Davis has received high national rankings.

Undergraduate research experience

Since his freshman year, Magee has researched statistical phylogenetics — estimates of the evolutionary relationships among species. He mentored fellow students in the lab, earned the top grade in a graduate-level course and published research for which he is the lead author.

He was a student and research assistant of Brian Moore, an assistant professor in the Department of Evolution and Ecology. "Andrew has repeatedly impressed me with this ability to harness a nuanced grasp of the material to ask truly creative questions that are either on the vanguard of current phylogenetic research or, indeed, have not yet been identified as questions that need to be addressed."

Magee, who participated in the University Honors Program, was a 2014 recipient of the Goldwater scholarship, considered the nation’s top undergraduate honor of its type in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering.

He will continue to work in Moore's lab — and do battle with Nerf guns — before pursuing a doctorate in evolutionary biology to conduct research and teach at the university level.

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Julia Ann Easley, General news (emphasis: business, K-12 outreach, education, law, government and student affairs), 530-752-8248,

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