Laudatio (Swiss Zoological Society)

One of the rewarding things about life is the chance to meet someone who makes a difference – who is ready to share knowledge, experience, ideas, advice, and constructive criticism. It is in this spirit of gratefulness, felt not only individually by many of its members, but also as a representative of the scientific community in our country, that the Swiss Zoological Society awards a honorary membership to Stephen C. Stearns, Professor at the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Yale University.

Stephen C. Stearns was professor of zoology at the University of Basel from 1983 to 2000, when he moved to Yale University, the alma mater where he had graduated in 1967, before earning a M.Sc. from the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia.

The focus of Prof. Stearns’ research interests is life history evolution, which connects ecology and evolutionary biology. His work in the area of life history evolution has substantially contributed to raise scientific awareness for this field (“The Evolution of Life Histories”, Oxford 1992). He has most likely been the first organismic biologist in Switzerland to appreciate the importance of the upcoming genomics techniques for evolutionary biology, and to start to use them in his work. His research interests also cover evolutionary medicine (“Evolution in health and disease”, Oxford 1998).

During his nearly two decades in Switzerland, Prof. Stearns enormously enriched research and teaching in zoology, well beyond the walls of the atheneum on the Rhine shores. His successful research, his dedication to expose students to the international scientific community - resulting in innovative forms of teaching such as the Guarda seminars, as well as in memorable wine tastings organized by Steve and his wife Beverly at their house in Arlesheim -, and his commitment to promote organismic biology and evolutionary ecology at the national and international level have been exemplary. He founded and has served as the president of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology and the Tropical Biology Association, was founding editor of the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, and has been a vice president of the Society for the Study of Evolution. In Switzerland, Steve has been the driving force in strengthening evolutionary biology. In this spirit the annual meeting of Swiss organismic biologists, now called BIOLOGY, has been invigorated, rejuvenated, becoming thriving and of high academic standards in recent years. He and his students (Jacqui Shykoff in particular) first established Darwin’s birthday party in Basel in 1992, an event that has become an essential highlight of the BIOLOGY conferences. Above all, the success of his efforts is reflected by the brilliant academic careers of many of his former collaborators and students, to whom he has been a wise advisor and a source of inspiration. Steve’s impact is further witnessed by the fact that his view of teaching and education continues – the Guarda seminars, where Steve always attracted brilliant faculties, have now become an international tool for student education, and this formula has spread from the peaks of Graubünden to those of Valais, where similar workshops are held in the framework of the 3ème cycle romand. Steve’s and his assistants’ courses in ecology, evolution and behaviour (EOV) finally changed the life of many young biologists.

Steve’s contribution to zoology and evolutionary biology in our country, to our scientific standards and academic performance, to our views and values, has been and continues to be very substantial and a point of reference, and is the gift of a very committed and generous scientist.

Those who attended Darwin’s birthday party held during the meeting of the Swiss Zoological Society in 1992 in a castle near Basel will never forget that in those days Darwin himself seemed to have paid us a visit.

Basel, February 2005, The board and general assembly of the Swiss Zoological Society