Princeton University Professor Wins National Medal of Science

Simon Levin. Photo by Brian Wilson, Princeton University Office of Communications
Simon Levin. Photo by Brian Wilson, Princeton University Office of Communications

Simon Levin, a professor of biology, ecology, and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, has been named a winner of the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor.

Levin will be honored at a White House ceremony in early 2016 along with eight fellow Medal of Science recipients and eight recipients of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

“One never expects such things, which makes them all the more gratifying when they do come,” Levin said. “For me, this recognition is the epitome. What could be better than recognition in one’s own country and from one’s own country? Princeton has been a wonderful environment that has given me unlimited opportunity to pursue the research that the medal rewards.”

Levin’s research focuses on how large-scale patterns at the ecosystem level are maintained by small-scale behavioral and evolutionary factors at the level of individual organisms. His work uses observational data and mathematical models to explore topics such as biological diversity, the evolution of structure and organization, and the management of of public goods and shared resources. While his work is primarily related to ecology, Levin has also analyzed conservation, financial and economic systems, and the dynamics of infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance.

Professor Lars Hedin, the chair of the school’s ecology and evolutionary biology department, said that Levin’s work has shaped how scientists consider the larger implications of local factors.

“The award is well-deserved and reflects Simon’s exceptional contributions to knowledge in ecology and evolutionary biology,” Hedin said. “His work on ecological theory and on how macroscopic patterns emerge from local interactions among organisms has influenced a generation of scientists, and is continuing to influence the way we think about biodiversity, complexity and human agency in a world that is undergoing rapid environmental change.”

Professor Daniel Rubenstein, the former chair of the school’s ecology and evolutionary biology department, said Levin’s work helped transform ecology from a largely measurement-based and descriptive science into one that is conceptual. He called Levin one of  “the towering figures who brought simple math to bear on ecology to reorganize and shape thinking and project design.”

“His work reaches across scales just as he reaches across fields and disciplines,” Rubenstein said. “As chair for most of his time at Princeton, I always marveled at the way he connected people and ideas, mentored graduate students and postdocs, and the way he empowered math-phobic students to harness the power of theory to enrich their theses.”

Levin joined Princeton’s faculty from Cornell University in 1992. He received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Johns Hopkins University in 1961, and his doctorate in mathematics from the University of Maryland-College Park in 1964. From 1964 to 1065, he was a National Science Foundation postdoctoral researcher at the University of California-Berkeley. He has received numerous awards throughout his career, including the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement in 2014, the Ecological Society of America’s Eminent Ecologist Award in 2010, and the 2005 Kyoto Prize in Biological Sciences from the Inomori Foundation of Japan.

The National Medal of Science was established by Congress in 1959 and is administered by the National Science Foundation.