May 23, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 18

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    Quantrell Award: James Hopson

    Professor in Organismal Biology & Anatomy "CONGRATS, KINDLY DR. JIM!" reads the banner left over from the party thrown for James Hopson by his graduate students and department colleagues in honor of his Quantrell Award. Hopson, Professor in Organismal Biology & Anatomy, is a soft-spoken and modest sort who clearly values his reputation as a nice guy. "One of my students, on the College course evaluation, said 'I wish he were my grandfather,' " Hopson said with a chuckle.

    "When I first came here I was not a very good teacher -- it took me a long time to learn," said Hopson, who joined the Chicago faculty nearly 30 years ago. "But I feel I am now, and I'm glad the students think so too. I'm happier about this honor than any other I've received."

    Hopson is a vertebrate paleontologist who teaches a course called Chordate Biology. He said he tries to give a sense of the huge span of vertebrate evolution and show how past history affects what we are today. "We have this heritage that extends back half a billion years," he said, "so I try to give them some appreciation of the whole panorama."

    A key component of the course is the laboratory, where the students study actual specimens and do dissections of various vertebrates.

    "It's very important to have a hands-on experience with real animals," Hopson said. "They're all dead and preserved, but it's less abstract than the material presented in a lecture."

    In his own research, Hopson focuses on the evolutionary transition from reptiles to mammals, and primarily on the mammal-like reptiles, or synapsids, that lived from 300 million to 200 million years ago. These animals left a rich fossil record, mostly in South Africa, where Hopson travels frequently for field and museum studies.

    According to Hopson, the synapsids had a less sprawling posture than reptiles, with their limbs more under their body in mammalian fashion. They were also undergoing the transition from an ectothermal, or coldblooded, reptilian metabolism to warmbloodedness -- a change, he said, that improved their aerobic capacity and endurance and made possible a switch from the short sprints of sit-and-wait hunting to the wider-ranging mode of foraging.

    Hopson received his B.S. in 1957 from Yale and his Ph.D. in 1965 from Chicago. He was a curatorial associate at Yale's Peabody Museum and a research associate in geology at Yale before joining the Chicago faculty in Anatomy in 1967. He has also been a research associate at the Field Museum of Natural History since 1971.

    Hopson is quick to credit others for much of his teaching success. He said he learned a great deal from teaching for many years with department colleague Eric Lombard, whom he calls a "superb teacher." He also credits his teaching assistants, a select group of graduate students. "I feel very secure about the people I've chosen," he said. "They come to me and ask to assist in the course, so I know they want to teach in the first place."

    -- Bill Burton