The Collegiate Professorship became effective September 1, 2015, for a five-year renewable term. This is one of the highest honors the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and the University of Michigan can bestow upon an eminent member of the faculty.
“I selected Bob Payne because he is a wonderful colleague and an outstanding researcher, who has made significant conceptual contributions in evolutionary biology, especially regarding the social behavior and systematics of birds, while also promoting biodiversity study more generally as the curator of birds at the UMMZ,” said Knowles.
In his nomination letter, Professor and Chair Diarmaid Ó Foighil called Knowles a “brilliant, iconoclastic colleague” who has made “extraordinary contributions to her field.”
Although not quite yet mid-career, Knowles is already world famous and widely recognized among her peers as a deep thinker and critical innovator in a major area of evolutionary biology. She has pioneered and played a central role in establishing the modern field of statistical phylogeography, applying mathematical rigor to understanding the movements of populations and species through time. Knowles is a highly valued scientist and mentor.
In science, it's extremely rare to find someone who can work so effectively in the traditionally separate domains of theoretical and empirical biology, yet Knowles' research program easily bridges this gap. This unique combination of skills, in addition to her prodigious production of highly cited publications in leading journals (Systematic Biology, Evolution, Current Biology, Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, Proceeding of the Royal Society, and more) has resulted in Knowles’ attainment of an exceptionally high international scholarly profile. For instance, a quick glance at her invited presentations over recent years includes almost as many international (Chile, Holland, Japan, Germany, Portugal, Argentina, Mexico, Australia, Italy, Spain, Finland, Brazil, Turkey, etc.) as U.S. invitations. It is clear that Knowles is viewed as the global leader in statistical phylogeographic research, a view reinforced by the steady stream of external international researchers and students who come to collaborate with her.
In addition to her research prowess, Knowles has proven to be a remarkably effective teacher. She teaches two core courses, Evolution (EEB 390), and Principles of Evolution (EEB 516), with student evaluations for her upper division courses typically exceeding 4.5 for excellence of instructor.
Knowles is an extraordinary research mentor who devotes enormous time to training and developing her students, including undergraduates, graduates and postdoctoral fellows. At the undergraduate level, she has mentored 19 students in her laboratory, including several students from the Summer Research Opportunity Program who have gone on to Ph.D. program in biology. She has served or serves as advisor for 13 Ph.D. students (nine of them have completed to date) and two master’s students (both completed) and as a committee member for another 16 Ph.D. students. These students consistently comment on the dynamic and challenging environment that she has created in her laboratory and how helpful she has been as a mentor.
In the department, she has served with distinction on a number of committees and has been active nationally and internationally in service to the profession. As curator of insects in the U-M Museum of Zoology, her primary focus has been on biodiversity informatics and she has initiated and led the incremental electronic databasing of the outstanding UMMZ Orthoptera (grasshoppers and crickets) collection. Knowles has involved a significant number of students in her research. She engages in extensive fieldwork and she and her students actively contribute to the collections.
Knowles recently served three years as the EEB associate chair for graduate studies. She has been elected by her peers to the councils of the two leading academic associations in her area of research specialty: the Society for the Study of Evolution and the Society of Systematic Biology, for which she was recently elected president.
“How many other early-mid career scientists do we have on campus who have successfully founded a paradigm-shifting new field in their discipline through sheer, sustained theoretical and empirical brilliance?” asked Ó Foighil.