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Celebrating pioneers in conservation genetics

By Pamela Peeters

Two days before The Nobel Prize for Medicine was given to a scientist who sequenced the Neantherthal Genome, the 2022 Lowell Thomas Awards for Conservation Genetics honored pioneers in the same scientific field. 

For 42 years, the Lowell Thomas Award has been a tradition of the Explorers Club celebrating pioneers from myriad disciplines who combine their explorations with excellence and innovation.  During its 2022 celebration the names of Drs. Harris Lewin, Oliver Ryder, Hopi Hoekstra, George Church, Samuel Wasser, Chao-ting Wu and Stephen O’Brien were added to its illustrious list of predecessors. 

Richard A. Garriott de Cayeux, President of the Club and Dr. Martin Nweeia, VP for Flags & Honors, addressed the attendees and invited all to the Symposium at Harvard University’s Science Center the following day. The promise? To reflect on accomplishments that transcend the preconceived notion of boundaries and highlight the passion that fuels some to discover and others to seek actions and insights that better our stay on “spaceship Earth.” 


Lowell Thomas was an acclaimed journalist, author and modern-day explorer whose career spanned five decades in travel journalism. He served as the Club’s first honorary president and led the group to acquire its current headquarters. At the height of his career, one in five Americans derived their news from his voice and just as Lowell Thomas was the first to venture into new and uncharted realms of journalistic reporting, the 2022 awardees have equally pioneered new pathways, and refreshed our sense of wonder about all that surrounds us.  


On Saturday October 1st, the Symposium started with a light breakfast. Food for thought followed with eight honored speakers during the four-hour session.  


EC50 awardees Dr. Natalie Schmitt (Australia ) and Dr. Ekwoge Abwe (Cameroon) opened the session with firsthand accounts on their biodiversity and genetic research as leaders in the next generation of science exploration. 


Lowell Thomas

Lowell Thomas Awardees then took the stage beginning with evolutionary genomicist, Harris Lewin. His pioneering global efforts will determine and affect almost every living organism on the planet. Bold, innovative, and explorer of evolutionary conservation genetics, Dr. Lewin co-founded and directs the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP), a 4.7-billion-dollar international initiative tasked with creating the largest library of genomes ever envisioned in history.  His leadership could result in the creation of a new “Silicon Valley of agricultural science and biotechnology.”  


Dr. Oliver Ryder, a geneticist and recipient of the Kleberg Genetics Chair at the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species, Zoological Society of San Diego followed. When he first heard about DNA and the story of Watson and Crick at a young age, he knew he was going to work with those amazing strands of life and today he oversees research activities in the areas of molecular genetics, genomic studies, and genetic rescue efforts, including stem cell applications – all focused on reducing extinction risk and contributing to species recovery and sustainable populations.  

Dr. Oliver Ryder

Dr Ryder shared that we are at an extraordinary moment in time and that a new paradigm in conservation using genetics had arrived. “This is as important as the telescope was for astronomy or the microscope for biology and all the information that we are obtaining thanks to genomics allows us to view the world in a different way.”  


Dr. Hopi E. Hoekstra, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and Curator of Mammalogy in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, then offered the audience insights into her research that focuses on understanding how variation is generated and maintained in natural populations. Dr. Hoekstra referred to herself as a “genome explorer” and explained the power of having a genome sequence for one species, a charismatic mini fauna better known as the old field mouse to explain molecular changes that affect fitness of organisms in the wild.  


Dr. Samuel Wasser continued the series describing methods to measure the abundance, distribution and physiological condition of wildlife from their feces, relying on detection dogs to locate these samples over large wilderness areas. He used elephant dung to assemble a DNA reference map of elephants across Africa, which is now widely used to determine the geographic origins of poached ivory. By comparing genotyped ivory to this reference map, he has been able to identify Africa’s largest elephant poaching hotspots.  


“The World bank estimates that the cost of the ravage caused by exploitation of wildlife, illegal and unregulated fishing and timber runs between the 1 and 2 trillion dollars.” 


Dr. Stephen J. O’Brien, considered by many as the father of conservation genetics and pioneer of Genetic Epidemiology, Comparative Genomics, Emerging Infections and Diseases and Genome Bioinformatics, closed the line-up of experts.  “With over 850 publications and his celebrated book Tears of the Cheetah he is considered by many scientists to be a national treasure.” We owe the survival in part to other endangered species like lions, Asian tigers, giant pandas, humpback whales and most recently, the white and black rhinoceros to the ongoing efforts of Dr. O’Brien.  


Sustainable Styles will offer different spotlights on the highlighted pioneers in upcoming issues.


More on the Explorers Club: https://www.explorers.org