Yale University Graduate School to honor four alumni

Four distinguished alumni of the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences will be awarded Wilbur Lucius Cross Medals, the school’s highest honor, on Thursday, Oct. 11.

This year’s honorees are ecologist John D. Aber, historian Alfred W. McCoy, scientist and entrepreneur Jonathan M. Rothberg, and linguist Sarah Grey Thomason.

Each of the alumni medalists will give a talk on Oct. 11. All of the talks are free and open to the public. The topics, times, and locations follow:

  • “Thinking Like an Ecosystem: From Forests and Pastures, to the Globe” by Aber, noon, Burke Auditorium, Kroon Hall, 195 Prospect St.
  • “Covert Netherworld: The Impact of American Empire on U.S. State Formation and Global Surveillance” by McCoy, 4 p.m., Rm. 211, Hall of Graduate Studies, 320 York St.
  • “The development of high-speed DNA sequencing: Neanderthal, Moore, and you” by Rothenberg, 4 p.m., Luce Hall auditorium, 34 Hillhouse Ave.
  • “When is language contact the best explanation for a linguistic change?” by Thomason, 10:30 a.m., Rm. 208, Whitney Humanities Center, 53 Wall St.

Brief biographies of the 2012 Wilbur Cross Medalists follow:

John D. Aber, who earned his B.S. in 1971, his M.F.S. in 1973, and his Ph.D. in forestry and environmental studies in 1976 from Yale, is provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of New Hampshire. A renowned scientist, educator, administrator, and public servant, Aber is one of the world's leading ecologists, internationally known for his groundbreaking work on nitrogen cycling, sustainable ecosystem management, climate change, and the effects of acid rain on forests. His basic research and applied studies on how nutrients move through forests played a major role in defining the field of ecosystem ecology. He has authored or co-authored more than 200 scientific papers and written the basic text in his field, “Terrestrial Ecosystems.”

Alfred W. McCoy, the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, earned his Ph.D. in history from Yale in 1977. He is one of the world's leading historians of Southeast Asia and an expert on Philippine political history, opium trafficking in the Golden Triangle, underworld crime syndicates, and international political surveillance. He has been a member of the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1989, after 11 years at the University of New South Wales in Australia. In his most recent book, “Policing America's Empire: The Philippines, the United States, and the Rise of the Surveillance State,” he explores the power of police, information, and scandal in shaping both the modern Philippine state and the American internal security apparatus. McCoy's research has produced 17 books and over 200 articles, written both for scholarly and general audiences.

Jonathan M. Rothberg, who earned his Ph.D. in biology from Yale in 1991, is the founder and CEO of Ion Torrent Systems Inc., in Guilford, Connecticut, a company that innovated a successful DNA sequencing system. After leaving Yale, Rothberg launched Curagen, one of the first high-throughput genomics companies that set out to identify and target genes involved in specific diseases and then mount efforts to develop drugs to combat the diseases. Rothberg also founded 454 Corporation (now 454 Life Sciences) to develop breakthrough technology for sequencing DNA. The company created “second generation sequencing” — technologies that permitted researchers to establish the complete genome sequence of a human being in only a few months. 454 Life Sciences was the first to release the complete genome of an individual, and has sequenced the ancient DNA of a Neanderthal. In addition, Rothberg founded the Rothberg Institute for Childhood Diseases in 2001, a non-profit organization dedicated to finding a cure for Tuberous Sclerosis Complex.

Sarah Grey Thomason, the William J. Gedney Collegiate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, received her Ph.D. in linguistics from Yale in 1968. Her primary research interests are historical linguistics (the ways languages change over time), contact linguistics (the influences that languages have on one another), and Native American languages of the Northwest. Thomason has been a pioneer in the development of contact linguistics. Her book, “Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics” (with Terence Kaufman), is the standard reference work in this area. She was invited to serve on the advisory board of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, where some of the most significant current research in historical linguistics is centered. In 2010 she was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The Yale Graduate School Alumni Association established the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal in 1966. It honors graduates of the Yale Graduate School for outstanding achievement in a phase of activity in which Cross himself excelled. An alumnus of Yale College and the Graduate School (Ph.D. 1889, English), Cross was a scholar of distinction and a distinguished literary critic. He headed the Graduate School 1916-1930. Following his retirement from academia, he served as governor of Connecticut for four terms.