The National Academy of Sciences has awarded the 2015 Mary Clark Thompson Medal to geologist Susan Kidwell, the William Rainey Harper Professor in Geophysical Sciences and the Committee on Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago. The Thompson Medal, given once every three years since 1921, honors important services to geology and paleontology.
The NAS cited Kidwell “for her groundbreaking work on fossil preservation that has transformed our view of how the history of life is encoded in the rock record. Her studies have revealed the fidelity of the fossil record, and thereby have yielded powerful insights to the evolution and ecology of ancient life on Earth.”
Kidwell has combined geological fieldwork, laboratory experiments and measurements in modern environments to investigate how the fossil record forms and how best to use it to understand the past and anticipate the future of today’s biodiversity.
In comparative analyses along environmental gradients and across geologic time, she determined the major controls on how and where marine life becomes preserved, providing a strategy for extracting the most reliable data from the fossil record. This work has opened new opportunities for discoveries about the ecology and evolution of ancient life.
Kidwell also has shown that misfits between live populations and the seashells they leave behind on modern sea floors do not signal poor preservation. The differences instead indicate a recent ecological shift, one usually driven by human activities such as pollution or seafloor dredging.
This research has changed a fundamental assumption about postmortem preservation, fostering the new field of conservation paleobiology, which uses the youngest part of the fossil record to determine the baseline conditions of modern-day ecosystems and evaluate the effects humans have had on biodiversity.
Kidwell joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1985. She teaches in the physical sciences core and in the undergraduate geology concentration, in addition to advising doctoral student research in stratigraphy, paleontology and historical ecology. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Paleontological Society. In 1995 she received the Schuchert Prize, presented annually to an outstanding paleontologist under the age of 40.