Chicago students, alumni garner Romer, other top paleontology prizesBy Steve Koppes
Chicago’s paleontology students and alumni are piling up awards like they are scientifically priceless specimens from a rich fossil graveyard.
At the 2003 meeting in St. Paul, Minn., in October, Gina Wesley, a Ph.D. student in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology, became the third Chicago student in the last three years to receive the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s highest student honor, the A.S. Romer Prize.
And on Monday, Nov. 3, Chicago alumnus Steven Holland (Ph.D.,’90), professor of geology at the University of Georgia, received the Paleontology Society’s Schuchert Award for outstanding young paleontologists. Holland is the ninth Chicago alumnus or professor to receive the award since it was established in 1973.
The Romer prize is awarded for “original and important research in vertebrate paleontology and a presentation of the highest quality at the annual meeting.”
“Wesley competed in one of the largest sessions ever, with 17 students presenting in a plenary session attended by most of the 1,000 meeting participants,” said John Flynn, Associate Chairman of the Committee on Evolutionary Biology and the MacArthur curator in geology at the Field Museum.
Wesley’s talk was titled “The Morphological Diversification of Carnivores in North America.” In her talk, she traced the evolution of Carnivoramorpha, a group of meat-eating mammals, including dogs, cats, bears and their extinct relatives.
When the Carnivoramorpha first appeared in the fossil record, the creodonts, an entirely extinct group of mammalian meat-eaters, also were present and probably were the dominant predators of the time. In her research, Wesley addressed the proposal that the creodonts prevented the early diversification of the Carnivoramorpha. The proposal stemmed from the timing of the creodonts’ decline, which coincided with the rapid proliferation of new modern Carnivoramorpha families approximately 40 million years ago.
Wesley’s measurements of Carnivoramorpha teeth contradict this proposal. Because teeth are directly involved in food consumption, their shapes serve as indicators of diet and ecology. Wesley compared the shape of the teeth with the diversification of the Carnivoramorpha over 30 million years of their evolution in North America. Her measurements suggest that the presence of the creodonts did not hinder the evolution of the Carnivoramorphs.
Wesley also received the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s Predoctoral Fellowship in 2001, a feat duplicated by Allison Beck, Ph.D. student in Evolutionary Biology, in 2002.
Chicago’s Karen Sears, Ph.D. student in Evolutionary Biology, received the Romer Prize in 2002, as did Christian Sidor, Ph.D. student in Organismal Biology, in 2001. Advising both Wesley and Sears is Flynn, himself a former Romer Prize winner.
Raymond Rogers, Geophysical Sciences (Ph.D.,’95), took the prize in 1993, followed by John Alroy, Evolutionary Biology (Ph.D.,’94), in 1994.
Also during the meeting, Rainer Zangerl, a former Committee on Evolutionary Biology faculty member and Field Museum Curator Emeritus, was awarded the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s highest honor, the A.S. Romer-G.G. Simpson Medal. Both the Romer Prize and the Romer-Simpson Medal are named in honor of comparative anatomist Alfred Sherwood Romer (1894-1973), who was a Chicago faculty member from 1923 to 1934.
The Schuchert Award is another Chicago tradition that Steven Holland has extended in taking home the award.
“This is the major award for mid-career paleontologists,” said David Jablonski, the William Kenan Jr. Professor in Geophysical Sciences and Chairman of the Committee on Evolutionary Biology. “Chicago and its alums have received a greater share of them, more than any other university in the world.”
David Raup, the Sewell Avery Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Geophysical Sciences, received the first Schuchert Award in 1973 while serving on the faculty at the University of Rochester.
The other recipients were the late Thomas Schopf, Professor in Geophysical Sciences, in 1976; the late J. John Sepkoski, Professor in Geophysical Sciences and the College, in 1983; Jablonski, in 1988; Peter Crane, former Professor in Geophysical Sciences and the College and former MacArthur curator of the Field Museum, now director of the Royal Botanical Garden in Kew, England, in 1993; Susan Kidwell, the William Rainey Harper Professor in Geophysical Sciences and the College, in 1995; Charles Marshall (Ph.D.,’89), professor of paleontology at Harvard University, in 1999; and Michael Foote, Professor in Geophysical Sciences and the College, in 2000.