UO's Thornton chosen for 2014 Guggenheim fellowship

University of Oregon biologist Joe Thornton, who splits his academic time with a faculty position at the University of Chicago, is among 178 scholars, artists and scientists named as winners of 2014 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowships.

Guggenheim Fellows are chosen based on their prior achievement and exceptional promise. Thornton is widely known for his research that brings evolutionary and molecular biology together. His work has involved the resurrection of ancient genes, which are then subjected to molecular experiments to trace genetic changes that have evolved to provide their present-day functions.

As a Guggenheim Fellow, Thornton said, he will write a book to articulate the conceptual and historical foundations of the functional synthesis, explain its methodologies and examine the power and limitations of incorporating history into molecular biology and molecular mechanisms into the study of evolutionary change.

"We and others have been cranking away in the lab for years developing this style of work at the intersection of disciplines," he said. "The fellowship will give me a chance to step back and look at the big picture -- to reflect on the conceptual foundations, promise and limitations of this new approach. It always helps to be conscious of what one is doing -- even in science.

Thornton joined the UO as an assistant professor in 2002. While he maintains a laboratory and faculty status at the UO, he has been a professor in the Department of Human Genetics and Ecology & Evolution at the University of Chicago since 2012.

After studying English literature at Yale University, Thornton spent a decade as an environmental activist, working with Greenpeace on issues related to chemical pollution. He then pursued graduate and postdoctoral training in evolution and molecular biology at Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History. While in graduate school, he also wrote "Pandora's Poison," a book on chemical policy and pollution.

Thornton previously has won the U.S. Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers given by the White House, an Early Career Scientist award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship, the Richard T. Jones New Investigator Award and the Hans Falk Award from the National Institute for General Medical Sciences.

Since its establishment in 1925, the Guggenheim Foundation has granted over $315 million in Fellowships to more than 17,700 individuals. Among them are scores of Nobel laureates, poets laureate and winners of Pulitzer and other prizes from myriad fields. This year's winners came from more than 3,000 applicants and hail from 56 disciplines, 83 different academic institutions, 29 states and two Canadian provinces; 48 of the new fellows have no academic affiliation.

- by Jim Barlow, UO Office of Public Affairs Communications