This article was originally published on the Duke Department of Evolutionary Anthropology Website by Marie Claire Chelini
Susan Alberts, Robert F. Durden Distinguished Professor of Biology and Evolutionary Anthropology, is a co-recipient of the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Ecology and Conservation Biology.
The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, now in their 15th edition, recognize and reward contributions of singular impact in science, technology, the humanities and music. The award is funded with 400,000 euros in each of their eight categories.
Alberts, who until last year was Duke’s chair of Evolutionary Anthropology, will join the Trinity leadership team in July 2023 as the next Dean of Natural Sciences.
Alberts shares the award with her doctoral dissertation advisor, Jeanne Altmann, Eugene Higgins Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Emerita, at Princeton University, and with Marlene Zuk, Regents Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota.
Alberts and Altmann have dedicated their careers to the study of primate social interactions and have been close collaborators for almost four decades on the Amboseli Baboon Project, one of the longest running studies of wild primates in the world, focused on the savannah baboons, Papio cynocephalus, of Amboseli National Park, in Kenya.
In an interview with the BBVA Foundation, Altmann recalls how “thirty-nine years ago we were both told we shouldn’t be doing this, and we kept being told that for about 15 to 20 years, but the extent to which our work was paying off for us personally and professionally, and also for the field, was becoming increasingly clear.”
Alberts and Altmann were nominated by Duke alums Jenny Tung, associate professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and by Elizabeth Archie, professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame. Alberts now co-directs the Amboseli Baboon Project with Elizabeth Archie, who completed her Ph.D. at Duke in 2005, and Jenny Tung, who completed her Ph.D. at Duke in 2010.
“Jeanne and Susan are inspirational scientists who have had the stamina to make discovery after discovery over the course of more than fifty years,” said Tung. “Jeanne had the vision to not only launch the Amboseli Baboon Project in 1971, but implement rigorous observation and recording methods that mean the data remain valuable to science today. Susan sustained and expanded this vision, integrating new approaches in genetics and demography as they came online. In the process, they have changed lives through their mentorship and training, both in the United States and in Kenya — teaching not only scientific rigor and a taste for the right problems, but also the skills to navigate the academic world with empathy and humanity.”
Tung also emphasizes that Alberts and Altmann’s work demonstrates the power of long-term field studies and their impact across fields, being influential figures not only in behavioral and evolutionary ecology, but also evolutionary biology, anthropology and human biodemography.
“The work that we’ve been doing, and that a number of other people have been doing, has helped us determine that the social environment is as important as the physical environment for determining health and survival for our study species and for many other organisms that are highly social creatures,” said Alberts in an interview with the BBVA Foundation.
“I think it has also taught us, very importantly, that this feature of our species, this dependence on the social environment, is something that has very deep evolutionary roots,” she continues.
For the committee, “the work of Alberts, Altmann and Zuk enriches our understanding of the need to incorporate social interactions into conservation plans for animal species.”
When asked about the importance of her work with regards to biodiversity conservation, Alberts points out that the Amboseli baboons are currently facing one of the worst droughts of the past 60 years, due to habitat degradation and global climate change.
“By carefully documenting and studying how baboons can accommodate and adapt, or fail to adapt, to various degrees of habitat change we can gain insight into how many different types of species are likely to respond in the face of such challenges,” she said.
Alberts is the third Duke researcher to be awarded a Frontiers of Knowledge Award. Robert J. Lefkowitz, The Chancellor's Distinguished Professor of Medicine and James B. Duke Professor of Medicine and Biochemistry, was a recipient of the award in the Biomedicine category in 2010. Ingrid Debauchies, James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Mathematics and Electrical and Computer Engineering, received the award in 2012, in the category Basic Sciences.
Read more about all three awardees and watch their interviews at the Frontiers of Knowledge website.