Two Stanford professors win MacArthur ‘genius’ awards

David Lobell was honored with a MacArthur Fellowship for research on the impact of climate change on crop production and food security. Kevin Boyce won his fellowship for establishing links between ancient plant remains and present-day ecosystems.

Two professors in the Stanford School of Earth Sciences – David Lobell, an associate professor of environmental Earth system science, and Kevin Boyce, an associate professor of geological and environmental sciences – have been named 2013 MacArthur Fellows.

C. Kevin Boyce and David Lobell are among the 2013 MacArthur Fellows. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Lobell was cited “for unearthing richly informative, but often underutilized sources of data to investigate the impact of climate change on crop production and global food security.” He received his doctorate degree from Stanford in 2005 and was appointed to the faculty in 2009.

The MacArthur Foundation recognized Boyce “for establishing links between ancient plant remains and present-day ecosystems through a pioneering and integrative approach to evolutionary plant biology.” Boyce joined Stanford’s geobiology program from the University of Chicago in July.

Lobell and Boyce are among 24 individuals honored this year by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  According to the foundation, fellowships are awarded to talented individuals in a variety of fields in recognition of originality, creativity, self-direction and capacity to contribute importantly to society through their work. The fellows receive a $625,000 “no-strings-attached” grant over five years to use in any way they see fit.

“Both Kevin and David are distinguished researchers who work at the intersection of many scientific disciplines, where they can draw upon multiple approaches to find creative solutions to some of our greatest challenges – whether it is feeding the world or the possible impacts of ecological changes on the evolution of plant life,” said Stanford President John Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy in a joint statement. “We couldn’t be more pleased that this multidisciplinary strength has been recognized in the awarding of two MacArthur Fellowships to our accomplished faculty in the School of Earth Sciences.”

“Climate change is one of the reasons for concern about feeding people in the future, but it’s not insurmountable.”

–David Lobell

Associate professor of environmental Earth system science

A pioneer of the emerging field of crop informatics, Lobell is revolutionizing the understanding of the environmental factors controlling crop yields, with a particular emphasis on adaptation to climate change. His work provides decision makers, for the first time, with critical information about how to adapt agricultural development to climate change.

“I was completely surprised by this recognition, but am really excited by the opportunity it presents,” said Lobell, who in addition to his faculty position is associate director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford, a joint center of the Freeman Spogli Institute and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.  “To have the MacArthur Foundation recognize the value of taking new approaches and the importance of the topics of hunger and food production is deeply gratifying.”

Lobell’s research focuses on identifying opportunities to increase yields of crops including wheat and corn in major agricultural regions, with projects currently underway in Africa, South Asia, Mexico and the United States.  “I’m interested in how to feed the world and protect the environment at the same time,” he said. “While there are many theories about how to do that, my work tries to test these theories, often using data that were collected for completely different reasons.”

The citation emphasized Lobell’s work on understanding the risks of climate change, and options for adaptation. “Climate change is one of the reasons for concern about feeding people in the future, but it’s not insurmountable if good decisions are made,” he said.

When asked how he would use the funding, Lobell said he would not rush the decision. He said that some of the award would likely relieve him of writing grant proposals. In addition, he said he would consider using some toward more travel. “A lot of my better ideas in the past have started with travel and interactions with international collaborations,” he said.  “And there’s always a tradeoff between my work travel and family.  I now might take my wife and young sons with me on some extended trips.”

Widely sought throughout the world to provide expert advice, Lobell is a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report chapter on food security, to be published in 2014.

Lobell studied applied mathematics at Brown University, and before receiving his bachelor’s degree in 2000, he spent the summer of 1999 as a research intern at Stanford, developing remote sensing algorithms. He then pursued graduate studies at Stanford, receiving his doctorate in geological and environmental sciences in 2005. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 2005-2007, and returned to Stanford as a senior research scholar in the Program on Food Security and the Environment in 2008-2009.  He accepted an appointment as assistant professor in the Stanford School of Earth Sciences in 2009.

In addition to his research, Lobell teaches several courses open to both undergraduates and graduate students, including “Feeding Nine Billion,” “Climate and Agriculture,” and “Global Land Use to 2050,” as well as modeling and statistical methods classes.

Lobell received a NASA New Investigator Program Award for 2008-2011. He received the James B. Macelwane Medal from the American Geophysical Union in 2010, awarded for significant contributions to the geophysical sciences by an outstanding scientist under the age of 36.

“The evolution of plants is the evolution of Earth’s surface.”

–Kevin Boyce

Associate professor of geological and environmental sciences

Boyce is a paleontologist whose studies of both extinct and living plants across multiple timescales are establishing direct links between ancient remains and present-day ecosystems and advancing the understanding of potential ecological changes.  He has emerged as a leader in a new subfield of paleontology that brings patterns of development and physiological processes of living organisms to bear on the study of fossils.

“Plants represent most of the Earth’s biomass and they strongly influence global chemical cycling, climate, atmospheric composition, sedimentary processes, etc.,” Boyce said.  “So, in a real sense, the evolution of plants is the evolution of the Earth’s surface.”

In collaboration with colleagues in plant physiology, and climate science, Boyce has advanced interpretations of how major plant components have evolved by using such modern technology as X-ray spectromicroscopy to examine plant specimens at the tissue and cellular level. The MacArthur award cited Boyce for solving mysteries about the morphology of plants that have puzzled scientists for decades and establishing macroecological perspectives of emergent biodiversity, while also challenging evolutionary scientists to embrace new angles of research to advance knowledge and discovery.

“I am surprised to receive the MacArthur fellowship, but am happy to see geobiology and the plant fossil record get attention,” Boyce said.  “Often the most interesting projects are the ones that can’t be funded directly because they are riskier and there is no guaranteed outcome.  An award such as this allows you to focus on the fun stuff.”

Boyce received dual degrees in literature and biology from the California Institute of Technology in 1995. He received his doctorate in paleontology in 2001 from Harvard University. From 2001 to 2003, he held a National Research Council Associateship with the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Prior to joining Stanford, he was on the faculty of the University of Chicago from 2003-13, most recently as an associate professor of geophysical sciences.

In the next academic year, he is planning to teach courses including “Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems” and “The Evolution of Plant Form and Function.”

In 2011, Boyce received the Charles Schuchert Award from the Paletontological Society, presented to scientists under age 40 for early career work reflecting excellence and promise in the science of paleontology.  Concurrently he was named a fellow of the Paleontological Society. He received the William S. Cooper Award from the Ecological Society of America in 2012 in honor of outstanding contributions in the field of biogeography.