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Stanford Report, March 13, 2002

David Starr Jordan Prize awarded to Martin A. Nowak

BY CHRISTIAN HEUSS

Stanford, Indiana and Cornell universities have jointly awarded the 2002 David Starr Jordan Prize to Martin A. Nowak, a mathematical biologist with the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, N.J. Nowak received the prize -- a commemorative medal and $15,000 -- from Stanford President John L. Hennessy in a ceremony held at Stanford March 8.

The prize is awarded every three years in honor of David Starr Jordan, a leading American biologist who was educated at Cornell; taught zoology at Indiana before being appointed university president in 1884; and was named the first president of Stanford in 1891. The prize recognizes a young scientist who contributes in innovative ways to one or more fields in Jordan's interest: evolution, ecology, and population or organismal biology.

Nowak, who heads the program in theoretical biology at IAS, was singled out for his contributions in the evolution of disease epidemiology, evolutionary theories of language and the application of game theory on evolution. He has authored more than 150 peer-reviewed publications and has received other awards, including the Akira Okubo Prize from the Japanese Society for Mathematical Biology.

In the lecture following the ceremony, Nowak focused on the evolution of language. "How human language evolved from animal communication is one of the most challenging questions in evolutionary biology," he said. Language consists of words and a set of grammatical rules, which Nowak has rendered into mathematical models of evolutionary dynamics and game theory. His work demonstrates how natural selection can drive the formation of new words and forms of communication. "Language is the most important evolutionary invention in the last few million years," he added.

"Nowak's work exemplifies the intellectual scope of imaginatively applied theory at its very best," said Ward B. Watt, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford who chairs of the David Starr Jordan Prize committee. Nowak made sound, innovative and groundbreaking theoretical contributions that paved the way to well-designed empirical work, Watt said.

Nowak studied biochemistry and mathematics at the University of Vienna, Austria, where he received his doctorate in 1989.