UCLA Scholar J. William Schopf, Pioneer in Study of the Evolution of LIfe, Elected to the National Academy of Sciences
UCLA paleobiologist J. William Schopf, one of the world's preeminent paleobiologists and the scholar acknowledged as the pioneer in opening the study of life over the vast majority of Earth's history, was today elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
Membership in the National Academy of Sciences is one of the highest honors that can be accorded an American scientist or engineer. Schopf joins 29 other UCLA scientists and economists as NAS members.
"Bill is a remarkable scientist and an extraordinary human being," said Brian P. Copenhaver, provost of the UCLA College of Letters & Science. "His groundbreaking work on the origins and evolution of life richly deserve the great honor of Academy membership. His energetic and imaginative work in the classroom is of equal distinction."
Schopf, who has taught and conducted research on questions ranging from exploration of early life to analysis of the first lunar samples returned to Earth, has long been recognized for his breakthrough study of life during the billions of years of Earth's history that preceded the emergence of multi-celled organisms. This period accounts for more than 85 percent of the history of life on Earth --a period that was little understood until Schopf joined the field.
Until the late 1950s, most scientists considered questions about the origin and history of life during the Phanerozoic Eon to be impossible to explain. Evidence of life discovered by paleontologists spanned only the past 600 million years --only a fraction of Earth's history.
In 1958, Schopf, then 17, began a quest to solve the daunting puzzle of the evolution of life on Earth. Nearly singlehandedly, Schopf inspired the creation of a new field as he pursued one of science's holy grails: the history and origin of life on Earth.
"Scientists and family friends alike almost uniformly argued that I was not yet expert enough to take on such a basic question," Schopf said. "Yet, the problem struck me as potentially solvable. It struck me as considerably interesting. What didn't strike me was why I shouldn't do it"
For the past 40 years, Schopf has been the principal figure in the study of evolution and origin of life. He joined the UCLA faculty in 1968, and has since produced some of the landmark discoveries and publications about the milestones in the history of life on Earth. Exploring fossilized sediments from Western Australia in 1982, Schopf identified the oldest evidence of life on Earth: single-celled organisms some 3.5 billion years old that are surprisingly similar to pond scum alive today.
The author of more than two hundred scholarly publications, Schopf edited the three principal books on the evolution and history of life: the "Earth's Earliest Biosphere" (1983), which discusses the major evolutionary events of the Earth's earliest history; the "Proterozoic Biosphere: A Multidisciplinary Study" (1992), which covers the history of life between 2.5 billion and 500 million years ago; and "Major Events in the History of Life" (1992), based on a symposium held at UCLA in 1991. Schopf also teaches undergraduate courses and graduate seminars in paleontology, paleobiology, and the history of life.
Schopf has received several of the principal national and international awards for scientific achievement, including the 1986 Mary Clark Thompson Medal from the National Academy of Sciences; the 1977 Alan T. Waterman Award, which the National Science Foundation presents to the country's most outstanding young scientist; the 1974 Charles Schuchert Award, from the Paleontological Society; the A.I. Operin Medal of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life; and a Distinguished Teaching Award and the 1992 Gold Shield Faculty Prize for Academic Excellence, both from UCLA.
Schopf is also founder of the UCLA Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life, an interdisciplinary research center the brings together scientists and students from around the world to study key issues in the history of life.
Schopf joins 60 scientists and 15 foreign associates elected today to the National Academy of Sciences. The National Academy of Sciences was established in 1863 by an act of Congress, signed by Abraham Lincoln, that calls on the academy to act as an official adviser to the federal government, upon request, in any matter of science and technology. The academy is a private organization of scientist and engineers "dedicated to the furtherance of science and its use for the general welfare."