Stanford University
Three men standing with a plaque

Jon Payne Receives Charles Schuchert Award

BY Ker Than
ClockNovember 02, 2015

Jonathan Payne was presented with the prestigious Charles Schuchert Award this past weekend for his work in the field of paleontology.

Payne, an associate professor at Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and chair of the department of Geological Sciences, received the award during a ceremony at the Geological Society of America annual meeting in Baltimore on Sunday.

The Schuchert Award is presented by the Paleontological Society each year to a scientist under 40 whose early work reflects excellence and promise in the science of paleontology. "It is an honor to be named alongside so many of the people who have inspired, instructed, and befriended me," Payne said.

Presenting the award was Payne’s PhD advisor, Andrew Knoll, a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. Knoll said he remembers first meeting Payne sixteen years ago, when he visited Knoll's lab to discuss PhD programs. "Even then, Jon didn’t need me to suggest research topics," Knoll said. "He liked big questions in life’s history, he really liked mass extinction, and he absolutely loved the end-Permian mass extinction."

After joining his lab, Payne "quickly established a research trajectory that, fifteen years later, continues on a strongly positive arc," Knoll said.

In his acceptance speech, Payne recalled first being introduced to paleontology when he was six, after a scientist took him to visit a quarry in upstate New York to look for fossils of extinct, hard-shelled marine creatures known as trilobites. Payne didn't find any trilobites that day, but he did stumble upon a very fine specimen years later, while throwing rocks into a stream with a friend.

The story, Payne said, highlights the fact that the best discoveries are often ones you aren't trying to make, and that paleontology is not a solo enterprise.

Collaboration continues to be a key part of Payne’s research today, and he attributes much of his success to the professional partnerships. "When I consider the state of paleontology and of the Paleontological Society, what strikes me most is the stunning level of collaboration," Payne said, "both within the discipline – for example, in the construction of data sets at scales that were only recently unimaginable – and with other disciplines, including ecology, microbiology, sedimentary geology, planetary geology, geodynamics, geochemistry, computer science, and statistics."

Knoll also praised Payne's remarkable willingness and ability to forge fruitful alliances with other scientists. "Jon has emerged as one of paleontology’s rising stars," he said, "an unusually broad and deep thinking paleontologist who is leading our field into new partnerships with geologists, geochemists, physiologists and evolutionary biologists."

A major area of focus of Payne's research at Stanford involves using physiology to address questions of evolutionary history and animal diversity throughout time. A recent paper by his group that was published in the journal Science found fresh evidence in marine fossils for Cope's rule, a theory that states that animal lineages tend to evolve toward larger sizes over time. Another key insight to recently emerge from his lab has been that evolution has produced unique species to fill new or vacated ecological functions by tinkering with just a few basic body blueprints that have changed little in hundreds of millions of years.

Payne said that he is excited to have been a part of so many unexpected discoveries and looks forward to the years ahead. "I anticipated none of this when I entered the field," he said, "and it thrills me to think that there are equally many surprises awaiting paleontologists in the coming decades."

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