July 13, 2006
Vol. 25 No. 19

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    Organizational shifts to strengthen ‘Darwinian’ sciences programs

    By Emily Jordan
    Medical Center Public Affairs

    The “Darwinian” sciences are evolving at the University this summer, as new leadership has been put in place in the departments of Organismal Biology & Anatomy and Ecology & Evolution.

    In May, Neil Shubin was named Associate Dean for Organismal Biology & Anatomy and the Committee on Evolutionary Biology as well as Provost of the Field Museum, effective Saturday, July 1.

    The newly created Provost position is geared to foster closer cooperation between the two institutions, as well as among the closely related departments in the University’s Biological Sciences Division.

    “Each new role is exciting, each institution is renowned, and the opportunity to take on both at once is a scientist’s dream,” said Shubin, whose work has helped the paleontology program to rank No. 1 and Ecology & Evolution No. 4 in the 2006 U.S. News & World Report survey of the “Best Graduate Schools.”

    Jan-Marino (Nino) Ramirez will replace Shubin as Chair of Organismal Biology & Anatomy, and Joy Bergelson has been named Chair of Ecology & Evolution, replacing Chung-I Wu, who recently stepped down.

    “Shubin will be a great asset to both our departments in being in a position to advocate for the Darwinian sciences,” Bergelson said.

    Shubin’s studies on limb evolution have led him around the world, uncovering his most recent finding, Tiktaalik rosea—deemed to be the “missing link” between fish and land animals—on Ellesmere Island, above the Arctic Circle in Canada. Shubin co-authored two papers describing Tiktaalik in the April 6, 2006, issue of Nature. He will spend six weeks this summer on Ellesmere Island to conduct further research.

    Shubin earned a Ph.D. in organismic and evolutionary biology from Harvard University in 1987. His many distinctions include a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship and publishing nearly 20 articles in the journals Science and Nature. He began his department chair appointment in Organismal Biology & Anatomy in 2001.

    “Shubin’s position at the museum is an important link,” Ramirez said. “We have paleontologists and geologists here at Chicago who study what the Field Museum scientists study, but each with different character. By combining forces, we can reach new understandings of biomechanics through paleontology.”

    Ramirez came to Chicago in 1996. His work on neuronal control of breathing has advanced the scientific understanding of SIDS, Rett syndrome and pediatric epilepsy.

    “When I first started research I didn’t think we could understand the mammalian brain,” Ramirez said, “so I studied insects. Now my work on locusts and my recent work on mice have given insights into human medicine. There are many exciting interactions between different biologists and clinical scientists, and it will be important to build as many interdepartmental bridges as possible, without losing the flavor of each department.”

    Ramirez’s honors include the Helmholtz scholarship, the Heisenberg scholarship and membership on the scientific advisory board of the German Rett Syndrome Association. He has published more than 80 papers in journals, including the Journal of Neuroscience, the Journal of Neurophysiology and the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

    Bergelson, who came to the University in 1994, will work alongside Ramirez under the new deanship. She studies plant-enemy interactions from the point of view of chemical ecology, ecological genomics and molecular evolution.

    A Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Bergelson has received Marshall, National Science Foundation Presidential and Packard scholarships. She has published over 80 papers, has been an associate editor of five journals and currently serves as editor of Evolution.

    “These shifts in organization should strengthen our connections to the rest of the Division,” Bergelson said. “We have an outstanding group of colleagues who are poised to take advantage of a wealth of genomics data to address ecological and evolutionary questions,” she said.