University to bestow four honorary degrees at 523rd 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 four distinguished scholars during the 523rd Convocation on Saturday, June 13, on the Main Quadrangle.

The honorary degree recipients are glaciologist Richard B. Alley, cancer researcher Titia de Lange, economist Andreu Mas-Colell, and mathematician Peter Sarnak.

Richard B. Alley, the leading glaciologist of his generation, will receive a Doctor of Science honorary degree. Alley is the Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University.

Alley has made fundamental contributions to understanding the history and mechanisms of climate change, and the role played by Earth’s large ice masses. He discovered that major climatic changes in Earth history have happened abruptly, on the order of years. He has determined how ice sheets interact with and flow over the surfaces on which they ride, forming a stream that can be much less stable than was previously supposed. And he has assessed the drivers of climate change that are intrinsic to the Earth system and complement external, astronomical forces.

As a collective body of seminal scholarly work, these contributions have given perspective on how Earth’s climate system matters as a driver of human history.

Alley is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was awarded its 2013 Arthur L. Day Prize and Lectureship. He also has received the Tyler Prize Environmental Achievement, the Seligman Crystal from the International Glaciological Society, the Agassiz Medal from the European Geosciences Union, and the Revelle Medal from the American Geophysical Union.

Presenting Alley at Convocation will be Douglas MacAyeal, professor in geophysical sciences.

Titia de Lange, the Leon Hess Professor and director of the Anderson Center for Cancer Research at Rockefeller University, is a leader in cancer research who also pioneered the field of telomere biology.

Her paradigm-shifting work has been central to advancing the understanding of the genetic causes of cancer as well as the connections between cancer and aging. Meanwhile, her contributions to the field of telomere biology have dramatically impacted the development of cancer therapies. 

De Lange was among the first to isolate the telomeres of human chromosomes. Telomeres, the protective elements found at the tips of each chromosome, are critical for the stability and maintenance of genetic information. Deficient telomere function can cause genomic alterations in cancer, and the gradual loss of telomeres has been shown to contribute to aging of human cells.

A graduate of the University of Amsterdam and the Netherlands Cancer Institute, where she earned a PhD in biochemistry in 1985, De Lange is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She’s also a member of the Institute of Medicine and is a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences.

Her honors include the Dr. H.P. Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics, the American Association for Cancer Research Clowes Memorial Award, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

Presenting De Lange at Convocation will be Funmi Olopade, the Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor in Medicine and Human Genetics.

Andreu Mas-Colell, professor of economics at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, is one of the world’s leading economic theorists. He has made significant contributions to general equilibrium theory by extending the Arrow-Debreu model that underlies all price-theoretic analysis in economics, and has made the model more directly applicable to a range of problems in finance, public economics, and industrial organization.

In recognition of this path-breaking work, the BBVA Foundation honored Mas-Colell with its Frontiers of Knowledge Award, one of the most distinguished international prizes for research and artistic creation.

Mas-Colell has also developed the theory of adaptive learning in games, which opens up an entirely new set of hypotheses about learning behavior that can be evaluated in laboratory settings. As the lead author of the textbook Microeconomic Theory, Mas-Colell has shaped the thinking of economists and the techniques used by them for a generation.

Mas-Colell, who is the current Minister of Economy and Knowledge for Catalonia, was instrumental in building the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and formerly served as the secretary-general of the European Research Council. Before returning to Catalonia, Professor Mas-Colell was professor of Economics and Mathematics at University of California, Berkeley and Harvard University.

A foreign associate of the United States National Academy of Sciences, Mas-Colell is a foreign honorary member of the American Economic Association, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

Presenting Mas-Colell at Convocation will be Hugo Sonnenschein, President Emeritus, Honorary Trustee, and the Adam Smith Distinguished Service Professor in Economics.

Peter Sarnak, who is considered by many to be the world’s most influential analytic number theorist, will receive a Doctor of Science honorary degree. Sarnak is a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and at Princeton University, in New Jersey. His far-reaching vision, along with his theorems and conjectures, have set an important agenda within mathematics for the last 30 years and have influenced mathematics research at the University. His work has distinctly shaped analytic number theory by introducing new and powerful spectral-theoretic techniques to the study of many deep and longstanding problems.

One of Sarnak’s most outstanding contributions to number theory is his study of zeros of the zeta- and related L-functions. His work on Ramanujan graphs has demonstrated a profound connection between theoretical computer science and deep results in number theory.

Sarnak is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and an elected fellow of both the Royal Society in the United Kingdom and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His honors also include the 2014 Wolf Prize in Mathematics, the Lester Ford Prize of the Mathematical Association of America, and the Levi L. Conant Prize of the American Mathematical Society.

Presenting Sarnak at Convocation will be Alex Eskin, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor in Mathematics.