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Mary Jane West-Eberhard Retires

March 18, 2013

Mary Jane West-Eberhard Retires

At the time, the only scientific information about tropical wasps was a book published in 1933 by Phil Rau, who did his fieldwork on Barro Colorado Island

In 1965 Mary Jane West Eberhard flew in a plane for the first time from the U.S.-where she was working on her doctorate at the University of Michigan-to Cali, Colombia, where she would spend five months studying wasp behavior.

At the time, the only scientific information about tropical wasps was a book published in 1933 by Phil Rau, who did his fieldwork on Barro Colorado Island.

In 1973, Martin Moynihan, then STRI director, invited Mary Jane and her husband Bill Eberhard to give seminars in Panama leading to a part-time job for Mary Jane and later to a full appointment to STRI's scientific staff in 1986.

Driven by curiosity, Mary Jane has always focused on the little things, “The trick is to start with the specifics—a single wasp species or a biological process that doesn't seem especially significant—and to arrive at much more general interpretations of nature. I asked: why organisms live in societies. It doesn't matter if they're insects, elephants or human beings.”

Weighing evolutionary theory against the details of wasp societies, led her to write her magnum opus, Developmental Plasticity and Evolution first published in 2003, a 816-page tome lauded by critics who compared its thoroughness to Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

“In my book I show that the ability of organisms to respond to their surroundings—to changes in temperature, in season, the availability of food or to attacks by predators or disease, affects their development and their evolution.”

In honor of her work, Mary Jane was invited to join the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the United States National Academy of Sciences, serving as vice-chair of its Committee on Human Rights. In 2005, she joined the world's oldest scientific society, the Italian Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei. At STRI, Mary Jane established the Adelante fellowship program, actively promoting the careers of young scientists working in Latin America.

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