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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