Dr. E. O. Wilson is an esteemed alumnus of the University of Alabama Department of Biological Sciences. He was a born naturalist and a pioneer in the field of evolutionary biology. Sadly, Dr. Wilson passed away on December 26th (read his obituary in the New York Times and learn more about his remarkable career here), but his work will continue to influence the biological sciences indefinitely. He will be missed not just by those who have read his many papers and books, by by the folks who knew him personally as a humble, chummy guy who really liked ants and the outdoors. Below is a letter written to Dr. Wilson by recent recipients of the Department of Biological Sciences E. O. Wilson Fellowship, which supports field research by graduate students in Biological Sciences.
Dear Dr. Wilson,
You know the beauty of fieldwork. The peace of connecting with an organism so intimately in its natural environment couples with the thrill of revealing the formerly unknown to produce an experience that mimics enchantment. For many of us, your books provided our first glimpse of that beauty. Your words fanned a tiny spark of passion for scientific exploration into a flame that will never be extinguished. For all of us, your fellowship has afforded the opportunity to pursue that passion. In our collective travels over the past 5 summers, we have journeyed more than 47,000 miles and spent countless hours in the field, experiencing the beauty of fieldwork for ourselves and joining the ranks of researchers dedicated to the understanding and preservation of biodiversity. We have contributed to the management of threatened, endangered, and invasive species, discovered new populations of organisms, investigated ecology and natural history, and performed genetic and computational analyses to understand biodiversity a little bit more.
Sitting down to a luncheon with you, one of the world’s most eminent naturalists, was a surreal experience for all of us. What was meant to last an hour stretched to two, and two still were not enough. Your stories carried subtle, yet weighty, commentary on the state of science over your career while providing relatable anecdotes that humanized yourself and the other giants alongside you. You questioned each one of us about our research, commented on our studies’ value, and supported our progress. You advised us to be “a little rebellious” with our science, and not to be afraid to challenge dogma if necessary. You encouraged us to persist in our endeavors and to be open to blending old methods with new. When we met later to discuss the luncheon among ourselves, many of us commented on your kind and supportive spirit, and how, despite our expectations of being intimidated, you put us immediately at ease. Life changing, meaningful, reinvigorating, enduring, and wonderful are just a few of the words that were used to describe your impact on our lives.
I doubt you will ever realize the full extent of your impact on us (and the world we live in). Each of us E.O. Wilson fellows has been given the unique opportunity to pursue our scientific dreams while being supported, in more ways than one, by a true hero of science. Not only has your fellowship provided financial assistance essential for our research endeavors, but you have also impacted us through your books and words. Every single one of us is immensely grateful for your support. We are striving to become, as you charged us, not only experts, but the experts in our respective fields.
The E.O. Wilson Fellows