University to bestow seven honorary degrees at 519th Convocation

Distinguished scholars earn honorary degrees in science, humane letters

Steve Koppes
Associate News DirectorUniversity Communications

The University of Chicago will present honorary degrees to seven distinguished scholars during the 519th Convocation on Saturday, June 14 on the Main Quadrangle.

The honorary degree recipients are astronomer Wendy L. Freedman, microbial geneticist Jeffrey I. Gordon, philologist-linguist John Huehnergard, paleontologist Andrew H. Knoll, mathematician Grigoriy Margulis, linguist-philosopher Barbara Partee and statistician-geneticist Terence Speed.

Wendy L. Freedman, a world leader in astronomy and cosmology, will receive a Doctor of Science honorary degree. Freedman is the Crawford H. Greenewalt Director of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Pasadena, Calif.

Freedman served as scientific leader for a team of 30 astronomers who carried out the Hubble Key Project to measure the current expansion rate of the universe. At the project’s start in the mid-1980s, the age and size of the universe ranged between 10 and 20 billion years. The project’s final results resolved this longstanding debate, determining the age of the universe as 13.7 billion years with an uncertainty of 10 percent. She served as co-leader of the Carnegie Supernova Project to study exploding stars to provide constraints on the nature of dark energy, a mysterious force that appears to be accelerating the expansion of the universe.

Currently, Freedman focuses on measuring both the current and past expansion rate of the universe, and on characterizing the nature of dark energy. She is leading a project to use the Spitzer Space Telescope to measure the expansion rate to an accuracy of three percent.

Freedman is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and of the American Philosophical Society. She also is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Physical Society. Additional honors include the American Physical Society’s Magellanic Prize, as well as the Gruber Cosmology Prize.

Angela V. Olinto, the Homer J. Livingston Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics and department chair, will present Freedman at Convocation.

Jeffrey I. Gordon, MD’73, a pioneer in the study of the genetics and metabolic contributions of beneficial microbes in the human gut, will receive a Doctor of Science honorary degree. Gordon is the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Microbial communities in the human gut have been found to profoundly impact human health. They can shape postnatal development and affect physiological, metabolic and immunologic variations and disease predispositions.

Gordon’s studies have helped create a new field of research to better understand how microbes affect these functions. His work has provided an extended view of humans as a composite of species, where microbial genomes have contributed to our evolution.

His group has developed new experimental and computational approaches to identify the characteristics of human gut communities. He and his students now address how gut microbes impact nutrition, including obesity, childhood undernutrition and the metabolism of food. His findings have implications for 21st century medicine, including how changes in cultural traditions, lifestyles, diets, technology and biosphere are impacting human biology.

Gordon has been the research mentor to 120 PhD and MD/PhD students and postdoctoral fellows since he established his lab at Washington University. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

Godfrey Getz, the Donald N. Pritzker Professor Emeritus in Pathology, Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and the College, will present Gordon at Convocation.

John Huehnergard, a widely admired scholar of Semitic languages and linguistics, historical linguistics, writing systems and ancient Near Eastern history, will receive a Doctor of Humane Letters.

Huehnergard is professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and professor emeritus of Semitic philology at Harvard University. He received his PhD from Harvard University in 1979.

He is the author of several books and many articles on the history and grammar of the Semitic languages, his main area of research. He concentrates on ancient Semitic languages, especially Akkadian—the cuneiform language of ancient Mesopotamia—Aramaic and Hebrew. He is also interested in theoretical aspects of comparative and historical linguistics, and in the history of writing and literacy.

Among current research projects are a revision of the standard lexicon of biblical Hebrew, with his wife and colleague Jo Ann Hackett, and a book on comparative Semitic grammar.

Huehnergard teaches graduate courses on Semitic linguistics and various Semitic languages, and undergraduate courses on the world’s writing systems and on lost languages and decipherment.

His work was the topic of a 2012 Festschrift, Language and Nature, co-edited by Rebecca Hasselbach, associate professor in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and Na’ama Pat-El of the University of Texas at Austin.

Huehnergard was nominated by Dennis Pardee, professor in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Christopher Woods, associate professor in the Oriental Institute and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and the College, will present Huehnergard at Convocation.

Andrew H. Knoll, who, with his students, has provided much of the paleontological evidence for life in the early oceans, along with much of the data used to constrain environmental history in deep time, will receive a Doctor of Science honorary degree. Knoll is the Fisher Professor of Natural History and professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University.

Knoll’s research focuses on the early evolution of life, the environmental history of the Archean and Proterozoic eons—which ended approximately 540 million years ago—and the interconnections between the two. His discoveries stem from field research conducted in Spitsbergen, Greenland, Siberia, China, Australia and Namibia. He has worked extensively on plant, animal and phytoplankton evolution, with particular emphasis on the evolution of physiology. He chaired the international committee that established the Ediacaran period, the first new period of the geologic time scale in more than a century. Knoll also serves on the science team for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover mission.

Knoll is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. His honors include the Walcott and Thompson medals of the National Academy of Sciences, the Phi Beta Kappa Book Award in Science for Life on a Young Planet (2003), the Moore Medal of the Society for Sedimentary Geology, the Charles Schuchert Award of the Paleontological Society, the Paleontological Society Medal, the Oparin Medal of ISSOL (the International Astrobiological Society) and the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London.

Michael J. Foote, professor of geophysical sciences, will present Knoll at Convocation.

Grigoriy Margulis, the 1978 Fields Medalist for outstanding mathematical achievement, will receive a Doctor of Science honorary degree. Margulis is the Erastus L. DeForest Professor of Mathematics at Yale University.

Margulis earned the Fields Medal, widely regarded as the mathematical equivalent of a Nobel Prize, for his work on discrete subgroups of real and p-adic Lie groups. He has made contributions to differential geometry, ergodic theory, dynamical systems, graph theory and number theory. Soviet authorities, however, opposed his travel to Helsinki to collect the award at the International Congress of Mathematicians. He finally received the medal in 1979 at a special ceremony in Bonn during his first trip to the West.

The son of a mathematician and a librarian, Margulis published his first paper as a graduate student in 1966, then won the Moscow Mathematical Society’s prize for young mathematicians two years later. He spent the first two decades of his career at the Moscow Institute for Problems in Information Transmission of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Margulis is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an honorary fellow of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and a fellow of the Fields Institute and the American Mathematical Society. He has received the Medal of the Collège de France, Humboldt Research Award, Lobachevsky Prize, Wolf Prize, and the Dobrushin International Prize. In 2008, the Pure and Applied Mathematics Quarterly honored Margulis with a special issue.

Benson Farb, professor in mathematics and the College, will present Margulis at Convocation.

Barbara Partee is a pioneer in the field of semantics: the study of meaning in linguistics. She will receive a Doctor of Humane Letters.

Partee is Distinguished University Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy Emerita at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she taught from 1972 to 2004. She continues to teach part-time, including one course in formal semantics in Moscow each year.

She was in the first class of linguistics PhD students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she studied with the legendary linguist Noam Chomsky. As a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Partee encountered the logician Richard Montague. Her research soon turned to the challenge of synthesizing Chomsky’s syntax with Montague’s semantics.

Partee’s subsequent research provided the foundation for, and contributed to advances in the field of formal semantics and stimulated collaboration among linguists, philosophers, logicians, computer scientists and cognitive scientists. She is now writing a history of the field, The History of Formal Semantics, for Oxford University Press.

She was president of the Linguistic Society of America, is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Chris Kennedy, professor in linguistics and the College and linguistics department chair, will present Partee at Convocation.

Terence Speed, who combines mathematics and statistics to help solve computational problems in medicine and biology, will receive a Doctor of Science honorary degree. Speed heads the division of bioinformatics at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, and is a professor emeritus of statistics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Speed’s health issues as a child and subsequent recovery have influenced his career in biomedical research. His application of statistics to genetics and molecular biology has resulted in a large and influential body of work, both theoretical and applied.

Speed focused much of his work on the mapping of genes in mice and humans. His interests also have included the analysis of DNA and protein sequences microarrays, where he introduced the basic statistical tools that led to the flourishing of this methodology.

Speed is a fellow of the Royal Society of London, the Australian Academy of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Statistical Association and the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, of which he also is former president. He also has received the Australian Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, Victoria Prize for Science and Innovation in the life sciences, the Achievement Award for Excellence in Health and Medical Research from Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council, the Australian Government Centenary Award Medal, Macquarie University’s Moyal Medal and the Statistical Society of Australia’s Pitman Medal.

Stephen Stigler, the Ernest DeWitt Burton Distinguished Service Professor in Statistics and the College, will present Speed at Convocation.

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