Swarthmore professor wins award for work in evolutionary developmental biology

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Late in December, Swarthmore biology professor Scott Gilbert was awarded the 2004 Alexander Kowalevsky Medal for a lifetime of achievement in the field of evolutionary developmental biology. According to the college’s official press release, the award is presented once a year by the St. Petersburg Society of Naturalists “for extraordinary achievements in comparative zoology and embryology.”

“I’m thrilled with it,” said Gilbert, adding with characteristic modesty that many of his contributions were in the oft-neglected “areas of pedagogy and theory.”

Gilbert, who teaches Developmental Biology and the Developmental Genetics seminar, had already been working in the field of developmental biology for 25 years prior to his arrival at Swarthmore. His current research focuses on the formation of turtle shells, which actually consist of skin converted to bone during the developmental period. Gilbert is also working on the question of why, unlike in most vertebrates, turtle ribs curve outward rather than downward.

Gilbert is also the author of what Biology Department Chair Amy Vollmer called “the premier textbook” in developmental biology. The book, currently in its seventh edition, was the first in the field to include evolutionary development as normative. Vollmer notes, “In my field, there are six [major textbooks]. In developmental bio, there’s only one. This is a textbook that people don’t sell back.”

This is not Gilbert’s first encounter with recognition. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the publishers of the journal Science, and has previously received awards from organizations in Japan and the United States. Katy Lewis ’06, who did research work with Gilbert this past summer, commented, “I can’t really say I’m surprised, as it IS Scott, but you know, good for him. One more award.”

Although Gilbert may be one of the major figures in developmental biology, to the other members of the Biology department, he remains one of the guys. He is well-known among the faculty for penning scientific lyrics to go with popular tunes, and is extremely popular among students. As Lewis says, “It’s always amusing to run into Scott and hear his little stories. He is very cute and enthusiastic, and we all love him because he is Scott.”

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