Celebrating a half-century of revolutionary scientific research

Committee on Evolutionary Biology creates unique partnerships for faculty and students

Fifty years ago, scientists at the University of Chicago sought to break through traditional academic barriers to revolutionize the field of biology. 

They created the Committee on Evolutionary Biology, which has been a driving force behind impactful scientific inquiry at the University of Chicago ever since. To this day, its deeply interconnected graduate program is challenging conventional thinking through pioneering scholarship and a transformative education for students.

“You would think that something this effective also would be functioning in New York or London or Paris or anywhere else they’ve got world-class universities and museums and collections and zoos and botanic gardens, but it isn’t,” said Prof. Michael Coates, a world-renowned scholar of early vertebrate evolution, who chairs the committee.

By forging deep partnerships with scientific institutions in Chicago and beyond, the Committee on Evolutionary Biology creates fertile ground for faculty and students to pursue cutting-edge theory and field-defining research—from the South Side to the South Pacific, examining everything from Whatcheeria fossils to weaver ants.

“I’ve never seen a program that operates with such a strong commitment to intellectual diversity,” said Prof. David Jablonski, a leading scientist of extinction and biodiversity.

The Committee on Evolutionary Biology will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a two-day event Nov. 21-22, featuring scholars, students and alumni of the program discussing their groundbreaking research and scientific achievements.

Unique partnerships around the city

The committee is built on partnerships, both at UChicago and throughout the city. When the committee formed in 1968, it embraced UChicago’s already deep ties with the Field Museum. Since then, it has developed strong ties with five other leading institutions in greater Chicago: UChicago-affiliated Argonne National Laboratory, the Brookfield Zoo, the Chicago Botanic Garden, Lincoln Park Zoo and the Morton Arboretum. The Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole became a partner through its affiliation with UChicago that started in 2013.

“What makes it work is reciprocity and engagement,” Coates said.

So much so that Trevor Price, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution, only half jokes that its real value is in getting diverse faculty to work together. His joint research with Jablonski, the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Service Professor in Geophysical Sciences and Organismal Biology and Anatomy, has been particularly fruitful and rewarding.

Their seemingly unrelated interests—Price studies the evolution of modern-day birds, while Jablonski is a paleontologist who studies the ancient history of clams—have come together in potent ways, changing the trajectory of their research.

The two have gone so far as to combine their labs’ meetings, creating a fertile intellectual environment and forging a common language.

“I don’t know how much time we talked across each other,” Price said, “but those are the critical engagements that really help. It’s one way science is going to advance in the future.”

The scholars have collaborated on papers that explore fascinating commonalities in biodiversity in birds and marine bivalves. The findings might shed light on how species will adapt as climate change continues.

“We never would have discovered that if it hadn’t been so easy to work together under the Committee on Evolutionary Biology umbrella,” Jablonski said. “I’m already scheming what our next analysis is going to be. It’s really been fun.”

An essential ‘interchange of ideas’

When Chloe Nash was looking at graduate schools, she wanted a program that had strong basis in theory and a connection to a museum.

“I could have pursued a marine biology program, but I like the idea of keeping my education broader,” Nash said of choosing UChicago. “That way I get more interaction with people who work on different systems and can learn from them on how to build a better question and become a better scientist.”

A fourth-year grad student, Nash conducted research this past summer on the South Pacific volcanic island of Mo’orea near Tahiti. By focusing on coral reef fish, specifically the goatfish—known for its catfish-like pair of chin barbels—Nash is exploring why fish are found where they are, and whether those fascinating whiskers affect where goatfish eat.

Nash and her fellow grad students joke that they are the “ologists”—a paleontologist, an entomologist, a microbiologist, an ornithologist, a botanist and an ichthyologist. “We’re working in different areas, but we still help each other and learn from each other,” Nash said. “I think it has been really beneficial.”

Those kinds of transformative experiences are key to the committee’s success.

“I’ve never been in a place that’s close to that in terms of interaction, the quality of the graduate students, the intellectual period of time and how important the institution was,” said Patrick Phillips, SM’88, PhD’91, now provost and a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Oregon.

In many ways, the committee may only now be experiencing its true potential. Significant advances in imaging, data analytics and computational power have greatly expanded the types of questions scientists can imagine asking, let alone pursue. The possibilities are felt across a diverse spectrum of disciplines, including genetics, ecology, biomechanics and morphology, and environment and microbiome.

“You can easily lose track of relevant disciplines that might be actually working on very similar problems but in different ways,” Price said. “With the CEB, there’s an interchange of ideas, and sometimes we can see commonalities and integrate those into our research.”

—Adapted from a story by Stephan Benzkofer that appears in the fall 2019 issue of Medicine on the Midway.