This past weekend Madeleine and I attended the annual meeting of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Academy was founded in 1780 by John Adams and several dozen other scholar-patriots “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”
It was an especially exciting meeting for us because we got to see three of our dear friends inducted as new members: Paul Turner and, as International Honorary Members, Valeria Souza and Sebastian Bonhoeffer. All three of them signed the membership book, putting their “John Hancocks” alongside those of distinguished artists, scientists, scholars, and leaders (including the John Hancock) from the past 239 years, while Madeleine and I celebrated with their spouses and families.
I’ve known Paul, Valeria, and Sebastian for decades. Paul was a graduate student in my group at UC-Irvine, and then he moved with me to MSU, receiving his PhD in 1995. For his dissertation, Paul studied issues related to vertical and horizontal transmission in bacteria, including the roles of density- and frequency-dependent selection. Paul is a professor at Yale University, where he and his team study the evolution and ecology of viruses, including some that can specifically target antibiotic-resistant bacteria and have been used to cure life-threatening infections.
Valeria was a postdoc in my group, also first at UCI and then again at MSU. She worked with Paul on a fascinating, but challenging, experiment to investigate the effects of horizontal gene transfer on the speed of adaptive evolution in bacteria. Valeria is a professor at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, where she and her group conduct research and work with the local community, governmental agencies, and nonprofits to conserve the Cuatro Cienegas basin, a biologically unique and fragile system of oases in the Chihuahuan Desert.
Sebastian and I met at Oxford University in 1993, where he was a graduate student and I was on sabbatical. We collaborated on a theory project that examined the hypothesis that pathogens with long-lived propagules would evolve to be more virulent. More recently we’ve taught together in the Guarda (Switzerland) summer course on evolutionary biology. Sebastian is a professor at ETH Zurich, where he and his team construct and analyze mathematical models of population dynamics to understand, for example, the pathogenesis and spread of HIV and other viruses.
Besides being creative and talented scientists, Paul, Valeria, and Sebastian are three of the nicest people around. I’ve been incredibly fortunate not only to work with them, but also to know them as close friends.
And there were so many other outstanding inductees, some of whom I’ve also known for many years including microbial ecologist Jo Handelsman (University of Wisconsin), theoretical ecologist Mercedes Pascual (University of Chicago), evolutionary biologist Mark Rausher (Duke University), plant biologist Detlef Weigel (MPI Tubingen), and evolutionary biologist Kelly Zamudio (Cornell University).
Each of the 5 “classes” had a speaker give a short talk to all the inductees and their families. Representing the Biological Sciences, Jo Handelsman gave an impassioned talk “On the importance of soil.” It’s something almost everyone takes for granted, and yet fertile topsoil is incredibly valuable, it’s disappearing in many areas, but it can be preserved and even enhanced with improved agricultural practices. Representing Public Affairs, Business, and Administration, Sherrilyn Ifill (NAACP Legal Defense Fund) gave a clarion call to fix American democracy.
The evening before the induction ceremony there were artistic performances and presentations by several new members including jazz pianist, composer, and singer Patricia Barber. The morning after the induction included a performance by, and discussion with, the incredible playwright, filmmaker, and actress Anna Deavere Smith, who performed and described how she constructs her amazing one-woman shows.
Throughout all the events, the staff of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences were superbly organized and warmly welcoming.
[Paul Turner’s family in the theater just before he signs his name into the book of members of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences]
[Valeria Souza signing the book, with Paul Turner just behind her and waiting his turn]
[With Valeria Souza and her family following the induction ceremony]
[Sebastian Bonhoeffer and his wife Hanna (next to me) with Madeleine (next to Sebastian) and me the evening before the induction ceremony]
[Yours truly along with Mercedes Pascual, Paul Turner, and Sebastian Bonhoeffer]
[Sebastian, Paul, Valeria, me, and Luis Eguiarte (Valeria’s husband, and also a superb evolutionary plant biologist]
[Paul and I compare our biologically themed ties.]