Peabody to award its Verrill Medal to four eminent scientists

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Four of the nation’s most distinguished scientists will receive the Addison Emery Verrill Medal, the Yale Peabody Museum’s highest honor, at a ceremony on Friday, Nov. 4 at 4 p.m. in the Yale Law School’s Levinson Auditorium, 127 Wall St.

David Skelly, director of the museum, will present the awards at the ceremony, which is free and open to the public. Immediately following, the recipients will discuss the future of museum collections in a panel that follows. The discussion will be moderated by Alison Richard, an anthropologist who is a former director of the Peabody Museum, former Yale provost, and former vice-chancellor of University of Cambridge.

Verrill Medals will be awarded to May Berenbaum, the Swanlund Chair of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Naomi Pierce, the Hessel Professor of Biology in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University; Neil Shubin, the Robert Bensley Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago; and Geerat Vermeij, professor of marine ecology and paleoecology at the University of California at Davis.

The medalists all view the natural world as dynamic and ever-changing, where creatures as small as insects and as large as dinosaurs evolve through space and time. By advancing new understandings of how the natural world is changing, they help us confront the challenges of the 21st century. The medalists will also be featured in the Verrill Medal Symposium the following day at the Yale Peabody Museum, which will focus on the role of natural history collections as enduring engines of discovery.

The Verrill Medal was created in 1959 by then-director S. Dillon Ripley to honor “signal practitioners in the arts of natural history and natural sciences.” It is named for Addison Emery Verrill (1839-1926), Yale’s first professor of zoology and one of the Peabody’s first curators. Known worldwide for his studies of sea stars, squids, corals and other marine animals, Verrill described more than 1,000 species across virtually every major taxonomic group during his long and illustrious career. Through his efforts, the Peabody’s zoological collections became one of the most renowned in the United States.

Since the award’s inception, there have been 18 recipients. They include Ernst Mayr, George Gaylord Simpson, G. Ledyard Stebbins, G. Evelyn Hutchinson, John H. Ostrom, Peter Raven, E.O. Wilson, and Alison Richard.

Brief bios of the medalists follow:

May Berenbaum ’75 B.S.

Swanlund Chair and head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Berenbaum’s research focus is on elucidating chemical mechanisms underlying interactions between insects and their host plants, including detoxification of natural and synthetic chemicals, and on applications of ecological principles to management of natural and agricultural communities. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, she has chaired two National Research Council committees and testified in Congress about pollinator decline. Devoted to fostering scientific literacy, she has authored six popular books about insects and received the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Public Understanding of Science award and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement.

Naomi Pierce ’76 B.S.

Hessel Professor of Biology and Curator of Lepidoptera in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University

Pierce studies the ecology and evolution of species interactions, and how parasitic and mutualistic life histories can influence the evolutionary trajectories of each partner. Her work has ranged from field studies measuring the costs and benefits of symbioses between ants and other organisms, to genetic analyses of biochemical signaling pathways underlying interactions between plants, pathogens and insects. She has used molecular phylogenies to analyze life history evolution in bees, ants and butterflies. The author of over 100 papers and an edited book, she is a member of National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration, and was elected a senior fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows, and fellow of the AAAS.  She has received honors such as a Fulbright Fellowship and a MacArthur Foundation Award. 

Neil Shubin

Robert Bensley Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago

Shubin’s research has focused on the evolution of new organs, especially limbs. He uses his diverse fossil findings to devise hypotheses about the genetic and developmental processes that led to anatomical transformations. One of his most significant discoveries, the 375-million-year-old Tiktaalik roseae fossil, is an important transitional form between fish and land animals. Shubin has conducted fieldwork in Greenland, China, Canada, Africa, and much of North America, and has discovered some of the earliest mammals, crocodiles, dinosaurs, frogs, and salamanders in the fossil record. He is the author of two popular science books: “The Universe Within: The Deep History of the Human Body” (2013) and the best-selling “Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body”(2008), named best book of the year by the National Academy of Sciences and made into a celebrated PBS series. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2011 and is the recipient of a Miller Research Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Geerat Vermeij ’71 Ph.D.

Distinguished Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California at Davis

Vermeij has transformed the field of evolutionary biology and advanced the field of paleo-biology by addressing the profound influences organisms have on each other’s evolutionary histories. He is perhaps best known for his work documenting the arms race among long-extinct mollusks and their predators. In a desire to make science accessible to all segments of society, Vermeij shares his knowledge with others in the acclaimed PBS series “The Shape of Life.” His research continues to inspire not only established practitioners of science and budding conchologists, but also the blind, as he has been blind since the age of 3. Born in The Netherlands, Vermeij has received the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences, Paleontological Society Medal, MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and Guggenheim Fellowship for Natural Sciences.

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Media Contact

Melanie Brigockas: melanie.brigockas@yale.edu, 203-432-5099