Peter Morrison Vitousek ’71
Doctor of Science
A political science major who graduated from
Amherst in 1971, Peter Vitousek surprised his teachers by becoming an astonishingly
fine scientist. The Clifford
G. Morrison Professor of Population and Resources at Stanford University, he
is, by all accounts, one of the world’s leading environmental biologists.
Described as a visionary who can see both the big picture and the detailed
processes involved in ecological change, Vitousek has led a Stanford team that
studies nutrient cycling in tropical and temperate forests. This research,
which focuses on the ecosystems of Vitousek’s native Hawaii, has demonstrated
that biological invasions by exotic species can drastically alter ecosystems,
including water, air, and soil. Vitousek’s interests extend well beyond
the local, however, to the ways in which various ecosystems interconnect to
make up our biosphere.
During his junior year at Amherst, Vitousek enrolled, almost by accident,
in a course on the literature of science, where he read Charles Elton’s
book, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants. This text resonated with
Vitousek’s observations about Hawaii, where many imported species have
wiped out native plants and animals. Then, working with Amherst biologist Lincoln
Brower, he and other students established an environmental action group, and
Vitousek’s life was launched on a new path. After earning a Ph.D. in
biology at Dartmouth, Vitousek taught at
several universities, and in 1984 he joined the faculty at Stanford.
Named America’s best ecologist last year by CNN and Time Magazine, Vitousek
is committed to taking his work out of the laboratory and
making it useful in the “real” world. He has served on a number
of public policy boards, including the National Research Council’s Board
on Global Change and the National Science Foundation’s Ecosystem Studies
Panel. A fellow of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy
of Arts and Sciences, Vitousek has received many other notable awards, including
the 2002 Princeton Environmental Prize.
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