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Steven Stanley wins top national honor for research in paleontology

Steven Stanley and Alfred Fisher

Steven Stanley and his mentor, Alfred G. Fisher

Dr. Steven M. Stanley of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s Department of Geology and Geophysics is the recipient of the 2013 Geological Society of America (GSA) Penrose Medal, the society’s highest honor. This medal, which is awarded for eminent research in pure geology, was presented at the GSA Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, at an awards ceremony on October 28, 2013.

Stanley has been a research professor at UH Mānoa since 2005. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Geology at Princeton University in 1963 and his PhD in Geology at Yale University in 1968. He was previously a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

“I have been privileged to take part in two revolutions in paleontology,” said Stanley. “The first, getting under way when I was a graduate student, was the injection of biology into paleontology on a large scale: paleontology expanded into paleobiology.”

“In fact, my dissertation work dealt entirely with living animals, with the aim of bringing fossil creatures to life. No one questioned my motives, and my results were widely appreciated!” quipped Stanley.

Key Largo Limestone

Stanley at the Key Largo Limestone of the Florida Keys, the site of his undergraduate thesis.

Since the blockbuster movie Jurassic Park, people have become fascinated with paleontology. The GSA Penrose Medal was most recently awarded to a paleontologist 20 years ago, when it went to Princeton’s Alfred G. Fisher, considered by Stanley to be an academic father figure, thus making the award all the more meaningful.

Stanley is known for his work employing fossil data to make a case for the punctuational model of evolution. This model holds that most species are generally stable, changing little for millions of years—then, most evolution is concentrated in brief events, when new species arise from others. Among many other contributions, Stanley has also shown that changes in seawater chemistry over the course of geologic time have influenced what kinds of marine organisms have flourished as major reef builders and limestone producers.

“A second renaissance in paleontology is under way,” said Stanley, who continues to publish widely in his field. “It entails our efforts to interpret the history of life in the context of past environmental change. My efforts in this area have for the most part focused on major climate change and on changes in seawater chemistry over the course of hundreds of millions of years.”

Stanley’s book credits include the best-selling textbook Earth System History as well as The New Evolutionary Timetable: Fossils, Genes, and the Origin of the Species, which was nominated for an American Book Award. He has been elected to the National Academy of Science (NAS) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In 2006, Stanley received an NAS medal for his analysis of the meaning of shell forms of bivalve mollusks and for his studies of patterns of large-scale evolution and extinction in relation to global environmental changes of the geologic past.

“If I had a time machine and could show myself, as a graduate student, all of the things I have gotten into during the past four-and-a-half decades, the result would be utter disbelief!” said Stanley. “I owe a great deal to all those who have produced remarkable advances over the years in such fields as paleoclimatology and paleoceanography, opening up all kinds of new avenues for research.”

About the GSA Penrose Medal

The GSA Penrose Medal, established in 1927 by R.A.F. Penrose, Jr., recognizes outstanding original contributions or achievements that mark major advances in the science of geology. The Penrose Medal is considered one of the GSA’s highest individual honors, awarded to one eminent researcher in pure geology each year.

About the Geological Society of America (http://www.geosociety.org)
The Geological Society of America (GSA) is a global professional society with a growing membership of more than 25,000 individuals in 107 countries. Through its meetings, publications, and programs, GSA enhances the professional growth of its members and promotes the geosciences in the service of humankind. Headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, GSA encourages cooperative research among earth, life, planetary, and social scientists, fosters public dialogue on geoscience issues, and supports all levels of earth science education.

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