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Breeding Rare Species of Interdisciplinary Scientist

Pigtail macaques in Thailand. Ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar. Fossil fishes in the deserts of Peru. Frogs in the mountains of Tanzania. Few regions of the world have escaped the attention of students enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Committee on Evolutionary Biology.

“I’m not sure we’ve got anybody at the poles at the moment,” says Michael Coates, committee chairman and Professor in Organismal Biology & Anatomy. But doctoral student Nathan Smith has, in fact, excavated dinosaur fossils in Antarctica. “Our students get around,” Coates says.

Evolution transcends national borders, and the Chicago evolution program has achieved striking success by crossing academic boundaries to do creative work. Drawing on the expertise of numerous University departments and even other Chicago-area institutions, the committee has developed a spirit of critical thought and questioning that spurs original research by students and faculty alike.

“What makes the Committee on Evolutionary Biology special is the scientific and administrative cooperation that really makes us greater than the sum of the parts,” says former committee chair David Jablonski, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor in Geophysical Sciences. “There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else.”

A model for interdisciplinary success

The results of that cooperation can be eye-popping. The CEB’s students and faculty have published more than 3,000 papers in peer-reviewed journals just since 1996, including 60 in the highly selective journal Nature.

“That’s more than enough to fill four complete issues with University of Chicago CEB papers,” Coates says.

Founded in 1968 as a grass-roots faculty effort to foster cross-cutting studies of evolution, the CEB is a uniquely University of Chicago species. Much more than a purely administrative body, the CEB is a graduate training program whose 67 faculty members and 32 students share overlapping academic interests, pushing each other to look at evolutionary questions in new ways.

The CEB encompasses specialists in ecology, population genetics, behavior, developmental biology, paleontology, and other fields that reflect the broad relevance of evolutionary biology as a science. The University draws some of its CEB faculty members from Argonne National Laboratory, Brookfield Zoo, Chicago Botanic Garden, the Field Museum, Lincoln Park Zoo, and the Morton Arboretum.

“It’s naturally interdisciplinary and integrative in its approach,” Coates says.

The outcomes of CEB’s distinctive formula speak for themselves. The most recent National Research Council and U.S. News and World Report surveys rank the CEB at the top nationally in evolutionary biology programs. The U.S. Dept of Education recently announced that the CEB earned a Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need grant, which provides three fellowships per year, for three years.

The most recent prominent publication appeared in the August issue of the journal Science, by CEB faculty member Jablonski and CEB alumnus Gene Hunt, PhD’03, now a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, in collaboration with the University of California at San Diego’s Kaustuv Roy. Drawing on 200 million years of marine clam fossils, they showed that vulnerability to extinction runs in some evolutionary families.

Much room for debate

CEB students often leave their mark on campus even before earning their degrees. “I know faculty members who are really excited to have CEB students in their seminars, because they know that they are going to be itching for ‘a fight,’ and there are going to be huge debates,” says Carolyn Johnson, administrative director of CEB’s graduate programs.

The speciation seminar of Jerry Coyne, Professor in Ecology & Evolution and author of Why Evolution is True (2009), has been one venue of intense intellectual conversation in the Chicago tradition. “A lot of CEB students are working with species where even the definition of species is very difficult,” Johnson says. Starting from such basic points, the debates in Coyne’s class are lively and far-reaching.

In addition to Hunt at the Smithsonian, CEB alumni hold positions at Chicago’s Field Museum, U.S. State Department, U.S. National Park Service, and faculty appointments around the world, including Duke University, the University of California-Berkeley, Oxford University in England, the University of Sydney in Australia, and Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar University.

Their work becomes increasingly important as climate change and the extinction of modern species continues apace.

“Where are those hotspots of biodiversity where we can most effectively commit our resources, which are going to be limited? How do you make those kinds of policy decisions?” Coates asks. CEB students, trained to analyze an astonishing variety of data, from the molecular scale of genetics to paleontological trends covering thousands or millions of years, can help.

“I can’t think of many other programs where people would get that breadth,” he says.

Related links:

Committee on Evolutionary Biology
CEB faculty members write dueling best-sellers
CEB faculty member Dario Maestripieri on Macachiavellian intelligence
Feature article on philosopher/CEB faculty member William Wimsatt
CEB alumnus Alex Dehgan, U.S. State Department
CEB paleontologists of the ‘Chicago-zoic’ Era
CEB student adds to fossil record, a notable prize
Darwin/Chicago 2009 Conference

Steve Koppes | Newswise Science News
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