Ecology professor wins prestigious award

David Tilman received the Balzan Prize for his world-renowned contributions to the fields of ecology and biodiversity.

Zoe DiCicco

In the mid-1990s, University of Minnesota ecology professor David Tilman and his team of researchers set up the world’s first biodiversity experiment — a study of diversity within ecosystems — forever changing the way scientists and researchers look at ecosystems.

Nearly two decades after the groundbreaking experiment, Tilman received a phone call from an international number notifying him that he had won a top research award earlier this month.

“I was totally shocked. I had no idea,” Tilman said, adding that he hasn’t stopped smiling since the call.

Tilman, who is a regents professor, a McKnight Presidential Chair in ecology and the director of the University’s Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, received the Balzan Prize for his contributions to theoretical and experimental plant ecology.

“[Tilman’s research] underpins much of our current understanding of how plant communities are structured and interact with their environment,” the International Balzan Prize Foundation stated in a Sept. 8 press release.

Growing up on the edge of Lake Michigan, Tilman’s love for nature burgeoned as he wandered the woods, sand dunes and shores of the lake.

In high school, he spent his days volunteering for his biology teacher. But Tilman said he didn’t realize the potential to make a career out of the field until he took a biology course during his undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan.

After that, he was hooked.

“I felt like somehow I had come home,” Tilman said. “This is really my true love.”

Tilman took his love for nature and combined it with his math and physics skills to lead the first biodiversity experiment, demonstrating the theory that ecosystems thrive when they’re composed of a diverse group of species.

Lewis Gilbert, managing director and chief operating officer with the Institute on the Environment, where Tilman is a resident fellow, said Tilman’s introduction of the concept that diversity is an important characteristic in an ecosystem and his continued research caused a major shift in ecology studies at the University.

“He’s done just absolutely groundbreaking work in ecology,” Gilbert said.

Clarence Lehman, associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Biological Sciences, said Tilman’s success is due to his ability to combine theory with practice, noting that scientists generally specialize in one or the other.

“Putting the two together is very rare, and that’s what he does uniquely well,” he said.

Lehman, who is a former doctoral student of Tilman, said one of the best things about working with the professor is that he provides a unique perspective.

And after the many years of research — which once made him the most-cited environmental scientist and won him the global Heineken Prize in 2010 — Tilman said he wouldn’t be where he is today without the help of his many colleagues along the way.

Like biodiversity’s importance within an ecosystem, Tilman said, he’s learned over the years “the incredible importance of having an intellectually diverse team of people working together.”

Along with the award, Tilman will receive $800,000 in prize money, half of which will go to student researchers who work with him.

Tilman said his passion for the field is the driving force behind his success.

“You can’t get to be at my point in a career without doing the work because you love it,” he said.