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2 alumni win Darwin-Wallace Medals

  • Alumni awards
    Alumni awards  H. Allen Orr '82, '85 (left) and Mohamed Noor '92 give a thumbs-up at the ceremony.  Courtesy Mohamed Noor
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Two sides of the Darwin-Wallace medal...Two William & Mary alumni are among 13 of the world’s scientists who will receive the Darwin-Wallace Medal from the Linnean Society of London this week.

Awarded once every 50 years since 1908, the Darwin-Wallace Medal is one of the highest honors in evolutionary biology. The class of recipients will include College alumni Mohamed Noor ’92 and H. Allen Orr ’82, ’85. The presentation will be made in London by David F. Cutler, president of the Linnean Society, and is scheduled to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin on Feb. 12.

“It is extraordinary that two graduates of the College of William & Mary are among 13 recognized by the august Linnean Society of London, which dates to 1788,” said William & Mary President Taylor Reveley.

The Linnean Society award presentation is one of the major observances of Darwin Day being conducted around the world. William & Mary will observe Darwin’s 200th birthday with a symposium, Darwin Across the Disciplines, at 7 p.m. in the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium.

Noor is a professor in the biology department at Duke University. Orr is University Professor/Shirley Cox Kearns Professor in the biology department of the University of Rochester.

The Darwin-Wallace Medal honors “major advances in evolutionary biology since 1958.” The 2008 announcement of the awards commemorated the 150th reading of the joint Darwin-Wallace paper “On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection” at the Linnean Society of London in 1858.

While at William & Mary, both Noor and Orr were students of Bruce Grant, an evolutionary biologist who taught and conducted research at the College from 1968 until his retirement in 2001. Both Noor and Orr went on to conduct graduate work at the University of Chicago under another of Grant’s students, Jerry Coyne ’71.

Coyne, Orr and Noor came through Grant’s lab almost exactly 10 years apart and each of them participated in research projects with Grant. Even though each had Grant as an undergraduate mentor, all three worked on quite different projects.

“My interest changed around,” Grant explained. “It’s the nice nature of William and Mary that you can pursue your interest. Jerry is now known as Mr. Speciation; he actually developed his interest in speciation back then, because that’s what I was interested in at that time. When Allen worked with me, I was working on local mate competition in parasitoid wasps, which is what Allen worked on. By the time Mohamed worked with me, I was working with peppered moths, and so he worked on that.”

In their scientific careers, both Noor and Orr have used the study of various species of Drosophila (fruit flies) to advance science’s understanding of speciation—genetic changes that permit species to adapt to changes in their environment and that can eventually result in the formation of new species. Noor was the first to demonstrate experimentally the concept of reinforcement, an important component of natural selection. He also contributed to the sequencing of the genomes of 12 species of Drosophila.

Orr combined his lab studies of Drosophila with theoretical work. He is the co-author, with Coyne, of the definitive book Speciation. Orr also is an active voice in the refutation of intelligent design and creationism.

 “This is a huge deal. The award has only been given to about 40 people in the last 150 years,” said George Gilchrist, Marjorie S. Curtis Term Distinguished Associate Professor of Biology at William & Mary. “The 13 honored at this time are among the most influential scientists in the world. It is a testimony to the life and work of Bruce Grant that two of his undergraduate students are among the recipients.”  i