Avian Expert Joins Biology Dept.

Scott V. Edwards ’86 has returned to Harvard to take the fifth-largest bird collection in the world—located at the University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ)—under his wing.

Edwards, a former professor and natural history museum curator at the University of Washington, was appointed professor of organismic and evolutionary biology in January.

Agassiz Professor of Oceanography and Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology James J. McCarthy said Edwards will bring a “modern perspective on ornithology” to Harvard.

“We expect with his arrival that the bird collections of the MCZ will see a new use worldwide as people once again become aware of how extraordinary our MCZ bird collection is,” McCarthy said.

Edwards said he was attracted to the diverse endeavors of Harvard’s Department of Organismic Evolutionary Biology (OEB).

As a world leader in avian and reptile research, Edwards emphasized the importance of modern technology in the study of evolutionary biology.

“The OEB at Harvard is a very strong and well-rounded department. There are people in the department who study plants, salamanders, butterflies—the entire spectrum—but it clearly sees the need to keep abreast of modern development such as genomics,” Edwards said.

Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby said in a press release that Edwards’ ground-breaking research has greatly influenced the field of evolutionary biology.

“His work has increased by an order of magnitude the avian DNA sequences available for genetic analysis, leading to new insights into avian genome evolution and population genetics,” Kirby said. “He will bring a valued modern perspective on avian biology to the Harvard faculty.”

Edwards said he will bring research projects to Harvard that tie together avian ecology, evolution and behavior.

One project, Edwards said, involves a study on how the genomes of birds and reptiles evolve over time and differ between species.

He said he is also interested in genes that enable birds to fight disease in the wild, and how disease molds the evolution of avian species.

“Parasites are a very powerful evolutionary source, affecting everything from a bird’s genetic makeup to plumage, to the way it behaves, so we are trying to understand what happens when a bird meets a new pathogen,” Edwards said.

In addition to his research goals, Edwards said that in his new post he hopes to recruit more minority students for careers in science.

“I am African American myself, and one of my goals is to get Harvard undergraduates involved in research, especially minorities, to consider careers in science,” Edwards said.

He said he will encourage minority students to explore a National Science Foundation program which sponsors 15 undergraduates from around the country to attend annual meetings of the Society for the Study of Evolution.

Edwards has served on the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration and has won multiple grants from the National Science Foundation.

—Staff writer Risheng Xu can be reached at xu4@fas.harvard.edu.