Awards — August 28, 2017

Larsen, Weinberg Receive Distinguished University Professor Awards

Pictured above are Dr. David Weinberg, left, and Dr. Clark Larsen, right.

About the Distinguished University Professor Award

At the Board of Trustees meeting on Aug. 25, 2017, Executive Vice President and Provost Bruce A. McPheron recommended two faculty members to the Board of Trustees for conferment of the title of Distinguished University Professor, the highest honor the university bestows on a faculty member.  The board conferred the title on: Professor Clark Larsen, Department of Anthropology; Professor David Weinberg, Department of Astronomy.  Their Distinguished University Professor designation will be effective on September 1, 2017.

This permanent, honorific title includes automatic membership in the President’s and Provost’s Advisory Committee.  In addition, the Office of Academic Affairs designates a one-time cash award of $30,000 to be used for scholarly work.  To date, only 56 other faculty members have held the Distinguished University Professor title.

This program has a rigorous selection process that begins each August.  The Office of Academic Affairs sends a call for nominations to recommend faculty for this honor.  Department chairs, school directors or faculty awards committees forward their nominations to their college deans.  Deans develop a college review process, solicit support letters nationally and internationally, and forward their final nomination decisions to our office.

Selection committees are chosen from among the members of the President and Provost’s Advisory Committee.  This year’s committee included: Dr. Bharat Bhushan, Ohio Eminent Scholar and the Howard D. Winbigler Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; Dr. John Byrd, Director, Division of Hematology, Department of Medicine, D. Warren Brown Chair of Leukemia Research and Distinguished University Professor of Medicine, Medicinal Chemistry, and Veterinary Biosciences; Dr. Joshua Dressler, Distinguished University Professor and the Frank R. Strong Chair in Law; and Dr. Ellen Mosely-Thompson, Distinguished University Professor of Geography and Director of the Byrd Polar Research Center.


The 2017 Distinguished University Professors gave the following remarks during the ceremony in which their awards were conferred.

Clark Larsen

I work in the discipline of biological anthropology, the study of human evolution and diversity.  While I am interested in all aspects going back millions of years, I focus my work mainly on human skeletal remains—bones and teeth from archaeological contexts dating to within the last 10,000 years.  

As a scientist, I address big questions about the natural world, especially those relating to health and lifestyle.  Beginning with my graduate work at the University of Michigan in the mid-1970s, I have been pursing one specific problem relating to a global development that eventually would affect virtually every human on the planet.  The development is the transition from everyone globally living on a diet that was hunted, collected, fished, or otherwise captured, to a diet where everyone is dependent on domesticated plants—especially corn, wheat, and rice.  We can tell from the bones using stable isotope testing to determine what they were eating.

The transition began some 10,000 years ago in the ancient Middle East, and spread from there and a number of other centers in Asia and the Americas.  This dietary change has largely fueled an explosion in world population from around 10 million at 10,000 years ago to the current 7.5 billion.

In the archaeological skeletal populations we investigate, our research has shown a number of health and lifestyle-associated changes with the adoption of food production based on domesticated plants... 

  • a rise in population density-dependent infectious diseases, including a number of new ones ranging from tuberculosis and leprosy around 5,000 to 10,000 years;
  • a decline in quality of nutrition as seen in the record of iron deficiency anemia and other deficiency diseases;
  • a decline in oral health, as shown in the huge increase in tooth decay and periodontal disease due to the dominance of dietary carbohydrates in our diets;
  • appearance of rampant malocclusion and occlusal abnormalities (one of my favorite topics when I lecture to the orthodontics residents);
  • there is one good bit of news: we see a general decrease in osteoarthritis in this time frame, although with an alarming increase in knee osteoarthritis in the last few decades.

Our activity in the lab I direct—the Bioarchaeology Research Laboratory—involves juggling a bunch of projects, including in Turkey, North and South America, and Europe. The big one is the Global History of Health Project, and soon to begin its East Asian arm, starting in China next summer.  

Lastly, I’d like to say how very thrilled I am with today’s conferment.  It caps off a wonderful 16 years at Ohio State.  I’d like to acknowledge especially a remarkable succession of deans: deans Joan Huber, Randall Ripley, Paul Beck, Gifford Weary, Joe Steinmetz, Janet Box-Steffensmeier, and David Manderscheid.  The deans supported my efforts to build the department into one with national prominence. I am especially proud of the 17 Ph.D. students who have graduated under my supervision and the scores of undergraduates who have worked with me in fieldwork, the laboratory, and in the classroom.

Thank you President Drake, Provost McPheron, University leaders, Chairman Shumate and members of our Board of Trustees.

David Weinberg

It's an honor to be here, and to be here together with Clark Larsen, who is distinguished as both a great individual scientist and a great academic leader.

Astronomy is a branch of physics – the oldest and the best branch, of course. Astronomers use the laws of physics that we learn from terrestrial experiments to interpret observations and to understand how planets, stars, and galaxies work. We also use astronomical observations to discover new features of the laws of physics that could never be found with terrestrial experiments alone.

In the three decades since I started graduate school, we have learned that the dominant form of matter in the universe is not composed of the protons, neutrons, and electrons that make up the atoms of our everyday world. We call this stuff dark matter, but we still do not know what it is. Even more remarkably, we have learned that otherwise empty space is filled with an exotic form of energy that produces repulsive gravity and causes the expansion of the universe to speed up over time. We call this stuff dark energy, but we understand it even less than we understand dark matter.

Among astronomers I am known in part for my work on interpreting the clustering of galaxies in giant 3-dimensional maps, in ways that tell us about dark matter, dark energy, and the initial conditions of the cosmos. I am also known for my research on the formation of galaxies and the properties of intergalactic gas, using supercomputer simulations to model the growth of structure from tiny fluctuations that were present in the smooth early universe. While much of my work is theoretical, I have also played leading roles in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which over the last 20 years has made the largest ever maps of the distant universe and the Milky Way galaxy. You can see a tiny portion of one of those cosmic maps on my necktie. Together with Ohio State colleagues, I am now heavily involved in preparations for NASA's WFIRST mission, planned for launch in 2025, which can be loosely characterized as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey in space.

An unusual and rewarding aspect of my work has been my decade-long collaboration with artist Josiah McElheny on the design of cosmological sculptures, which are inspired by the chandeliers of the Metropolitan Opera House but also represent the key discoveries and ideas of modern cosmology. Some of you may have seen the first of these sculptures, An End to Modernity, when it premiered at the Wexner Center for the Arts in 2005. This is a collaboration that could only have happened at Ohio State, thanks to the Wexner Center. I have made a few less serious forays into popular culture, most notably The Dark Matter Rap, which I wrote as an amusement for my colleagues but which has had a surprisingly long life in undergraduate classes.

I am particularly proud to receive this award having joined Ohio State as an assistant professor and risen through the ranks. My wife Lisa Florman and I came to Ohio State together in 1995, and we are now chairs of the Art History and Astronomy departments, respectively. I'm glad that she could be here today, along with my former department chairs Pat Osmer and Brad Peterson.

My personal academic success has paralleled and intertwined with that of the Astronomy department, which over the last quarter-century has built one of the nation's premier programs. We measure ourselves against Harvard, Princeton, Cal Tech, MIT, Yale, Chicago, Berkeley; we push ourselves constantly, and we have a lot of fun doing it. Ohio State is justly proud of its breadth, of its undergraduate education, and of its strength in economically important fields like engineering and materials science and agriculture. There are also places where a combination of good hires, good environment, good leadership, and strong university investment have created world class research and graduate programs in some of the grand fields of human intellectual endeavor, like astronomy, anthropology, and linguistics. These departments are some of the jewels in the university's crown, and it's a privilege and a delight to be a member of one of them.