Ecology prof wins global award

David Tilman was one of six scholars and scientists to receive the Heineken Prize.

Jessica Van Berkel

One of the worldâÄôs most prestigious ecological awards was given to University of Minnesota Regents Professor David Tilman this week. The Heineken Prize is awarded to scientists from all fields. Since there is no Nobel Prize for ecology, itâÄôs the Heineken that distinguishes the âÄúlegends of environmental science,âÄù said Bob Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences. The prize is awarded by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and includes a $150,000 gift. It has been awarded biannually since 1988. Tilman was chosen for his contributions to ecology through âÄúmathematical theories, laboratory research and field experiments,âÄù according to the Academy. His work on ecosystems and biodiversity has made him one of the best-known ecologists in America, and the Heineken Prize is the second international prize he has won in the past two years. The other was the International Prize in Biology, which is bestowed by the Emperor and Empress of Japan. When it comes to awards, âÄúheâÄôs kind of sweeping it,âÄù Elde said. Winning came as a total shock, Tilman said. He doesnâÄôt know who nominated him, but theyâÄôve put an âÄúimmovable smileâÄù on his face all week, he said. Tilman started working at the University as an assistant professor in 1976 and is now a regents professor and the director of Cedar Creek Natural History Center. His time at the University âÄúis the story of pure science to practical applications,âÄù said Clarence Lehman, the associate director of Cedar Creek and a former student of TilmanâÄôs. In the 1980s and 1990s, TilmanâÄôs work focused on how plants and animals compete for resources in an ecosystem, and helped form what is now considered textbook theory on the subject. More recently, his studies have helped expose the dangers of modern agriculture and the loss of plant diversity. He is active in spreading the message of eating and farming sustainably. Tilman predicts a coming loss of more than half of the worldâÄôs rainforests and tropical habitats, unless people change the way they eat and grow food. In the past year he gave more than 30 speeches around the world on eco-diversity and food. He hopes the Heineken award will increase awareness of this message. Along with raising awareness, he plans to study more about why and how there came to be 5 million species on earth. The process of âÄúposing mysteriesâÄù then trying to solve them is really what science is about, Tilman said. ThatâÄôs what he tries to do in the undergrad and graduate courses he teaches, Tilman said. TilmanâÄôs teaching style is to lead by example, Lehman said. He has a knack for âÄúwringing more water from what seems to be a dry dishrag of theory than anyone I have ever seen,âÄù he said. Lehman and Tilman spend a lot of time teaching and supervising young scientists who are collecting information on plant growth at Cedar Creek. From the studies they construct mathematical models of how the systems work and the effects of human impact. Cedar Creek is âÄúthe place that the modern science of ecosystem ecology was created,âÄù said Lehman. âÄú[Tilman] had lot to do with that … heâÄôs really one of the worldâÄôs leaders on that.âÄù