Paleontology Professor Mary Droser wins National Academy of Sciences medal

Author: Jules Bernstein
January 26, 2022

For transforming our understanding of the earliest animals on Earth, UC Riverside Professor Mary Droser has won the National Academy of Sciences’ prestigious Charles Doolittle Walcott Medal. 

The medal, part of the academy’s Award in Early Earth and Life Sciences, is an honor bestowed on only one scientist in the world every eight years. It is presented with a $10,000 prize. 

Droser is a paleoecologist who studies the unfolding of complex life. For more than 20 years, she has been uncovering fossils in the Australian Outback. She and her students travel there annually to discover strange, ancient animals previously unknown to science.

Typically, paleontologists collect fossils and bring them to a museum for further study. Instead, Droser, her collaborators and students excavate Australian fossil beds, piece them together like puzzles and leave them in the field, intact.

What emerges is a more complete picture of the creatures that emerged during the Ediacaran period, about 555 million years ago.

Droser’s impact on the people in her field is as important as her research activities. Throughout her career she has served as a mentor to generations of paleontologists and is a public voice for science. Droser’s response to the news of her award is emblematic of her orientation towards uplifting other scientists.

"I feel as though this medal is shared equally between myself and the excellent graduate students I have worked with at UCR. Their outstanding research skills have helped advance our collective understanding of fossils, and the world that they once lived in,” she said. 

In addition to studying the Ediacaran and Paleozoic eras, Droser’s laboratory also contributes to knowledge of more modern communities of creatures. One of her ongoing projects involves gathering data about oyster reefs. 

From her laboratory website, “oysters often invoke thoughts of trendy seafood bars, but they are so much more. Many oysters are a keystone species, providing valuable habitat for entire marine ecosystems.” Due to pollution and other factors, populations of oysters are declining. Helping understand what oyster reefs looked like prior to human-induced stressors can help inform current conservation efforts. 

This is just one example of a way that paleontologists and paleoecologists can contribute to climate change science, as well as other disciplines that utilize data from the ancient past to help solve today’s problems.

Commenting on the ways her laboratory compliments the other work being done in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science, Droser said, “My work is only part of UCR’s current strength in early Earth studies. We also follow a long tradition of excellence in paleontology at this university.”

Droser and the winners of this year’s other National Academy of Science awards will be honored in a ceremony during the academy’s 159th annual meeting on May 1, 2022.

The academy is a private, nonprofit institution established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and provides science, engineering, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.