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 Published by the American Geological Institute
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences

September 2000

Society Page
This month's Society Page is a special
feature on three outstanding members
of the earth science community.
To post news in  Society Page, send e-mail to with the subject: Society Page. 
Interviews with

The MacArthur Fellows

This year the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation honored three earth scientists among its 25 MacArthur fellows to receive $500,000 each over the next five years.

Since 1981, the foundation has chosen 588 exceptionally creative individuals, ranging in age from 18 to 82, with a track record of success and promise for future advances. Teachers, activists, writers, scientists, artists and others are chosen without their knowledge and judged in secret. Diverse as the candidates are in their interests, winners often share similar characteristics of scholarship, artistic achievement, creativity and dedication to public service. The fellowships, which are often unofficially referred to as ‘genius grants,’ are provided to encourage outstanding achievers and are given with “no strings attached” to help them with their own pursuits.

In the field this summer, K. Christopher Beard, associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh; Carl Safina, vice president for the Marine Conservation program of the National Audubon Society; and Daniel Schrag, professor of geochemistry at Harvard University, started working on their wish lists. Geotimes caught up with the earth science winners on the road.

Christopher Beard
“I am checking email from Lhasa, Tibet, where I’ve been doing field work for the past five weeks or so,” Beard says. Working with scientists from Beijing’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Beard and colleagues were searching for the first early Cenozoic vertebrates from Tibet. “Lately, most of my field projects have been based in Asia because it seems that this vast landmass was particularly crucial during early mammal phylogeny.” The foundation identified Beard as someone who “consistently exhibited a willingness to challenge traditional ideas and propose bold alternative interpretations.”

Beard, 38, is a member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and has worked extensively on the early Cenozoic primate evolution in Asia. He helped clarify the evolution of North American mammals across the Paleocene-Eocene boundary. He earned his doctorate in 1989 from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In 1995, he and colleagues excited paleontologists with the discovery along the Yellow River in southern China of a complete 40-million-year-old anthropoid’s lower dentition. The find of the early primate, along with other specimens, predated the earliest known African forms and led Beard to postulate that primitive anthropoids originated in Asia first.

    Chris Beard next to a Pleistocene bison skeleton.
    Photos courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation.
The dramatic evolutionary radiation of mammals that occurred during the early Cenozoic fascinates Beard. “It is obviously a textbook case of adaptive radiation,” he says. “It also is highly relevant to the world we’ve inherited, because the evolutionary roots of the planet’s extant biota, including ourselves, can for the most part be traced back to this interval.”

When he received the phone call from the MacArthur Foundation in June he was surprised. “The MacArthur Fellows Program is very broad in its scope, extending from science to the arts and social and political activism. Even within my own small discipline there are many people who richly deserve such an award. So, to be selected is a humbling experience.” He believes his selection shows that “fundamental research in paleontology, often in a museum setting, remains a truly exciting human endeavor.”  He may use some of the money to buy a new SUV for fieldwork in Wyoming.

Dan Schrag
Dan Schrag is a talker, so when he first learned he had won the MacArthur Fellowship he was stunned: he had to keep it a secret for five days. “You’re bubbling with this news,  and you can’t let anybody else know,” he says. His next hardest task will be in determining how to spend the money.

At 34, the young geochemist and member of the American Geophysical Union has “blazed diverse trails through paleoceanography and oceanography in his work on oxygen isotope chemistry of marine fossils, early global glaciation of the Earth, and physical oceanography,” the foundation says. His interpretation that the temperature of the deep ocean during the last ice age came close to freezing has helped resolve a long-standing debate. Schrag received much attention recently for revealing that the biosphere came close to shutting down several times when the Earth was apparently blanketed with glacial ice. Indeed, this summer, as he reexamined unusual carbonate rocks on top of glacial deposits in Namibia, BBC filmed Schrag and colleague Paul Hoffman as part of an upcoming documentary on the Snowball Earth theory.

    Dan Schrag in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

Schrag earned his doctorate in 1993 from the University of California, Berkeley. He now works as professor of geochemistry and director of the Laboratory for Geochemical Oceanography at Harvard University and considers his laboratory a “geochemical playground.” His research also includes reconstructing El Niño climatic oscillations over a range of time scales from recent decades to the geologic past, and working with Mark Cane of Columbia University on modeling the shallow circulation of the tropical Pacific ocean. Both at Harvard and as an undergraduate at Yale he has also worked closely with colleagues involved in science policy. He teaches courses at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and may use the fellowship to pursue his interest in how science is used in making policy decisions.

“I want to find a use for the money that is a little bit untraditional.” One idea of his is to bring scientists together in an informal environment. “Colleagues in my field are my friends, and that social interaction is an enormous part of how I come up with new ideas and how I carry out the science,” he says. “Bringing those people together would be a way to use the money in the spirit in which it is given.”

Carl Safina

 In the Galápagos this summer, Safina left his home in Islip, N.Y., to study the habits of albatross; his next book will follow their travels to elucidate the major ways the oceans are changing. “I want my work to give people images of the ocean, which now is conceived of as a blank blue space,” he says. “We have images that spring to mind when you say Serengeti or Amazon rain forest. We need to carry with us images of what is happening on the other two thirds of the planet.”

A public advocate as well as scientist and writer, “Safina demonstrates a determination to reach beyond a scientific or traditional environmental audience to the broader public in the interest of calling attention to a growing crisis in marine resources,” the MacArthur Foundation says. “His creative use of scientific and communication skills has encouraged various regulatory bodies to acknowledge new scientific developments and to move toward better protection of the environment.”

Safina, 45, founded the National Audubon Society’s Living Oceans Program and was the author of Song for the Blue Ocean, a book heralded as a testimony for marine conservation. He earned his doctorate from Rutgers University in 1987. When the call from the MacArthur Foundation came he thought his life would never be the same. “It’s like winning the lottery with your mind as the ticket, or being told in a sudden phone call that your brain has just won a gold medal.” He will use the money to help make the time he needs for writing. 

    Carl Safina in Vancouver, Canada.

Safina is accustomed to the “usual minor tribulations of fieldwork in the Third World or in any airport counter anywhere.” But the most difficult aspect of his work is “knowing you have all the information and arguments yet losing a round due solely to political lobbyists backed by campaign contributions. That’s harder to take than any number of mosquitoes or stormy seas.”

By the time the fellowship ends, Safina hopes to see “the beginnings of real management that limits [fish] catches in ways that turn population trajectories of marine wildlife upward for the first time in decades.” Ideally in the next five years he would like for marine wildlife sanctuaries to include no fishing zones. And he calls for an end to “subsidies that prop up bloated fleets incapable of surviving in real market circumstances.”

Associate Editor Christina Reed compiles Society Page.

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