Field Museum hires new provost

Move strengthens ties between Museum, University of Chicago

May 19, 2006

Image of Dr. Neil Shubin Photo by Dan Dry for the University of Chicago
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The Field Museum and the University of Chicago jointly announced Friday that Neil H. Shubin, PhD, will be appointed Provost of The Field Museum and Associate Dean for Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago.

An authority on evolutionary and developmental biology, particularly on the evolution of limbs, Dr. Shubin is currently Professor and Chair of the University's Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy.

He gained recent media attention as a lead scientist on important research published in Nature describing Tiktaalik roseae, a "missing link" between fish and land animals. The story of this 375-million-year-old fossil was covered around the world and resulted in Dr. Shubin being named ABC News' "Person of the Week" on April 7.

Another boost came that same week when U.S. News & World Report's "Best Graduate Schools" issue ranked the University of Chicago's paleontology program number one in the country, and ecology and evolution number four. Both areas fall under Dr. Shubin's areas of administrative responsibility at the University.

"Dr. Shubin is a very accomplished scientist and an effective administrator," said John McCarter, President and CEO of the Museum. " This dual appointment will enable us to deepen our strong relationship with the University of Chicago, building on the long-established Committee on Evolutionary Biology."

"Neil Shubin is ideally suited to combine these academic and administrative roles in ways that will deepen the connections between the University and the Museum and pull together the significant strengths of both organizations to enhance both programs," said James Madara, MD, PhD, Dean of the Biological Sciences and the Pritzker School of Medicine and Vice President for Medical Affairs at the University of Chicago.

Long interested in the origin of modern organisms, Dr. Shubin specializes in the early evolution of limbs. His expeditions to the Arctic, China, Africa and South America have led to new insights into the invasion of land by the descendants of primitive fish 370 million years ago. He has also done spectacular field research in northern China that provides a window on the origin of salamanders, 150 million years ago.

"These are two opportunities to have a real impact not just on how we understand the world around us but on how we educate people about our past and make use of it to shape the future," Dr. Shubin said. "Each new role is exciting, each institution is renowned, and the opportunity to take on both at once is a scientist's dream."

A 45-year-old father of two, Dr. Shubin grew up near Philadelphia. While an undergraduate at Columbia University, he spent much of his time at the American Museum of Natural History indulging his curiosity about evolution. In 1982, while still a graduate student at Harvard University, Dr. Shubin collected a 200-million-year-old fossil in the Arizona desert. Fourteen years later he determined that it represented the first frog. He has had over 18 papers in Science and Nature and has been awarded numerous prizes including a Guggenheim Fellowship. He earned his PhD in organismic and evolutionary biology from Harvard in 1987.

Lance Grande, PhD, will continue as The Field Museum's Senior Vice President Collections and Research and will report to Dr. Shubin. Robert D. Martin, PhD, is concluding his term as Provost this summer and will move to fulltime academic research at the Museum as the A. Watson Armour Curator of the Department of Physical Anthropology.

"I want to thank Dr. Martin for his scientific leadership," McCarter said. "His supervision of the administration of our new Collection and Research Center will clearly mark his tenure."

Dr. Shubin will help move the Museum forward, McCarter added. "The molecular world has opened an entirely new dimension to natural history. Now building on morphology, we are able to delve into the genetic detail of the evolution of life. Our work in the Pritzker Laboratory of Molecular Genetics has been outstandingly successful, and this new joint appointment will expand our access to the capabilities of the University of Chicago in the broadest sense."

Dr. Shubin's first task, however, will be to enhance the fossil record. In July he returns for six weeks to Canada's Ellesmere Island, hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle, where he hopes to find more fossils of creatures such as Tiktaalik.

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