Paleontologist chalks up another Schuchert Award for UChicago

Shortly after Gene Hunt, PhD’03, arrived on the UChicago campus in the mid-1990s, he gave what paleontologist David Jablonski remembers as an “almost frighteningly precocious brown bag talk” about his research as a Smithsonian intern on developmental patterns in a lineage of trilobites—a long extinct group of marine organisms.

Hunt, a graduate of UChicago’s Committee on Evolutionary Biology, is now a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, where he has become an authoritative and influential young voice in his field. The Paleontological Society has made this official, having presented him the 2012 Charles Schuchert Award, presented annually to an outstanding paleontologist under the age of 40.

“Gene has truly become a leader in evolutionary paleontology, skilled at turning challenging problems into crisp questions that can be addressed in the fossil record in creative and rigorous ways,” said Jablonski, the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Service Professor in Geophysical Sciences.

Hunt is especially interested in translating evolutionary processes acting on short time scales into the dynamics that are observable in the fossil record. As a leader in quantitative approaches to paleobiological approaches, he often draws upon the rich microfossil record in deep-sea cores to investigate the connections between evolution on small and large time scales. His combination of detailed tracking of individual lineages with a new statistical analysis of previous studies “was truly a game-changing move,” Jablonski said, casting new light on the long-standing debate about punctuated equilibrium as a pervasive evolutionary pattern.    

“Past and present Chicago faculty and alums have now accumulated 13 Schuchert awards since their inception in 1973, more than any other institution,” Jablonski said, who presented the award to Hunt at the Paleontological Society’s meeting in November. “We’ve been lucky to be able to attract so much talent,” he said, “and the University’s investment in the rich intellectual environment—in geophysical sciences, the Committee on Evolutionary Biology, and our links to the Field Museum and other affiliated institutions, is clearly paying off in very concrete terms—our ability to launch our graduate students into influential careers.”

Last year’s Schuchert awardee was C. Kevin Boyce, associate professor in geophysical sciences. The first Schuchert recipient was David Raup, the Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Geophysical Sciences. Other current faculty members to receive the award were Jablonski in 1988; Susan M. Kidwell, the William Rainey Harper Professor in Geophysical Sciences, in 1995; and Michael Foote, professor in geophysical sciences, in 2000.