Thomas Near to be next master of Saybrook College

Thomas J. Near, associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) and curator of the ichthyology collection at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, has been named the next master of Saybrook College.

Thomas Near

President Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway announced the five-year appointment Feb. 27 in a joint letter to the Saybrook College community. The appointment begins July 1.

“It is a great pleasure to welcome Professor Near and his family to the Saybrook community,” President Salovey said. “Professor Near is a beloved and respected teacher and mentor in Yale College, and I’m certain he will bring those same qualities to his new role, enriching the lives of Saybrook College students.”

Near’s scientific inquiry has been devoted to the complex interplay of fish species around the world and their importance to the biodiversity of our planet. His scientific excursions to Antarctica, for example, have yielded both essential data and a trove of specimens for a unique collection at the Peabody Museum.

His work focuses on the “tree of life” of fish, investigating patterns and mechanisms of lineage diversification from a phylogenetic (evolutionary history) perspective.

He has published more than 100 papers in scientific journals and received several National Science Foundation grants to carry out his research. His popular undergraduate course in ichthyology introduces students to the biodiversity of fish, and his research travels have taken him, along with Yale College students, to the Southern Ocean of Antarctica and the wilds of the southeastern United States.

“I really believe in the life of learning,” Near said. “I view it as the ultimate gift, and I don’t take it for granted. There is no better way to immerse yourself in learning than being a Yale College master.”

Paul Turner, chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, said Near’s enthusiasm for teaching and his strength as director of undergraduate studies for the department has helped spur the growth of EEB as a major at Yale.

“He’s a tremendously gifted scientist, and a great, creative person,” Turner said. “I know he craves that challenge of working closely with students, and he’s entering into this new role with a great deal of excitement.”

Born and raised on the north side of Chicago, Near came to Yale in 2006 from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he began his faculty career following postdoctoral fellowships in the Center for Population Biology and the Department of Evolution and Ecology at the University of California-Davis. He earned a B.A./B.S. in history and biological sciences, and an M.S. in biological sciences from Northern Illinois University. He received his Ph.D. in ecology, ethology, and evolution from the University of Illinois in 2000.

Near said Saybrook College, in particular, was an important entry for him into the larger campus community when he arrived at Yale. A number of Saybrook undergraduates were students in his first course, and he later became a Saybook College fellow, which allowed him to explore intellectual interests with faculty in a variety of disciplines.

Joining him at Saybrook will be his wife, Allison Murray Near, who practices criminal law at the New Haven firm of Sheehan, Reeve, and Near. Previously, she worked as a staff attorney at New Haven Legal Assistance. Allison Near earned a B.A. in English and French from Colgate University and a J.D. from Northeastern University. The Nears have two daughters, Alice and Rebecca, who will be 5 and 3 years old, respectively, when they move into the Saybrook master’s house this summer.

“Allison and I view this as a unique and wonderful opportunity for our family,” Near said. “I also believe that I’ve had a set of experiences that can help students as they go about their lives. For me, it was that sort of interaction that fed my interest in other intellectual fields. I want to represent the sciences, and also promote and maintain a broad respect for all areas of learning.”

Salovey and Holloway thanked the members of the search committee — chair Stephen Stearns, Megan Barnett, Patrick Casey ’15, Will Fleming, Christopher Moates ’16, Elihu Rubin, Nicole Teran ’15, and Sijia Yang ’16 — for their thoughtful work.

They also expressed gratitude to Master Paul Hudak and Associate Master Cathy Van Dyke for their service to the college and its students.