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Paleontologists Honor UC’s Arnie Miller for Significant Work

The Paleontological Society has awarded UC scientist Arnie Miller with the prestigious Centennial Fellow title in recognition of his contributions to the field of paleontology.

Date: 11/9/2007
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826
The University of Cincinnati Geology Department returned from the annual Geological Society of America meeting with the usual paraphernalia — business cards, stray rocks and minerals, e-mail addresses, literature. Department Head Arnie Miller also brought back a feather in his cap — designation as a “Centennial Fellow” by the Paleontological Society.

Arnie Miller, head of UC
Arnie Miller, head of UC's Department of Geology. (Photo by Dottie Stover)

The Paleontological Society  held its annual luncheon and awards ceremony coinciding with the Geological Society of America meeting in Denver. At the meeting, the society announced seven new Centennial Fellows — including Arnie Miller, head of UC’s Department of Geology in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences.

Miller received his bachelor’s of science from the University of Rochester in 1978, his master’s of science from Virginia Tech in 1981 and his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1986. What he calls the “major push” of his career started in the mid-1990s, when his research was fueled by his first major grants from NASA and NSF. The research seeds that he sowed in the 90s are bearing fruit.

Miller’s work has been widely published and cited, especially in one of the journals that the Paleontological Society publishes: Paleobiology, the most cited journal in the field of paleontology. In addition to serving a stint as editor, Miller has had approximately a dozen papers published in its pages. He has also published in such journals as Science and PNAS.

Miller acknowledges how moved he is at receiving formal recognition from his peers. “You do things and you get nice comments from time to time,” he says, “but I admit that it feels nice to get a small pat on the back."

Besides acknowledging his personal contribution, the honor also reinforces the value of the University of Cincinnati’s paleontology program, which is ranked 7th in the nation by US News & World Report. UC’s paleontology faculty are going to be jumping over the next two years, as UC has been asked to host the quadrennial 2009 North American Paleontological Conference, marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species.

About the Paleontological Society Fellows
“The Fellows were established as an honorary cadre of members of the Paleontological Society in 2004,” says Roger D. K. Thomas, the John Williamson Nevin Professor of Geosciences and chair of the Department of Earth and Environment at Franklin & Marshall College, and secretary of The Paleontological Society. “A Committee on Fellowship was established to evaluate nominations and to prepare lists of candidates for election to Fellowship. All active Fellows of the Society are called upon to vote on these nominations.”

The by-laws of the society state that “the category of Fellow is established to recognize members of the Paleontological Society who have made significant contributions to paleontology through research, teaching or service to the profession.”

Arnie Miller and then-graduate student Chad Ferguson get close to marine life — living and fossilized.
Arnie Miller and then-graduate student Chad Ferguson get close to marine life — living and fossilized.

Miller’s research is specifically in the area of biodiversity and ancient extinctions. A unifying thread in his research is the investigation — and explanation — of compositional variations in biotas at scales ranging from a few centimeters in local, Upper Ordovician rocks to trends throughout the history of marine animal life in global biodiversity.

“My mentors were big on reconstructing and explaining the history of global biodiversity,” says Miller. “What I did was to begin building databases that permit us to dissect those patterns, in that they contain more than just the first and last known global occurrence of a particular fossil species, but are multifaceted records of what lived where and when throughout the history of life."

For example, Miller says "there was a whopping big increase in global biodiversity during the Ordovician period, some 450 million years ago, but whether the event occurred uniformly around the world wasn’t really known." With his data collected from published records worldwide, Miller has been able to show that different regions affected by geological processes like volcanic activity and high rates of sedimentation in shallow water were characterized by very different patterns of diversification than other regions throughout the period. This is helping researchers to understand what caused such a major increase in the first place.

Building on this work, Miller helped to create The Paleobiology Database, a growing, community-wide, Web-hosted effort to catalogue faunal and floral occurrences from both the marine and non-marine realms throughout the history of life. He was a member of the three-person executive committee that oversaw the project during its first eight years.

“It’s a multifaceted repository where we’re trying to capture the entire fossil record on a computer,” Miller explains.

Another way that Miller has made a mark on the paleo world is with the publication of the third edition of Principles of Paleontology, which Miller revised with colleague Michael Foote from the University of Chicago. Principles of Paleontology, originally written by David Raup and Steven Stanley, has been the book of choice for paleontology students nationally for more than 30 years.

Prior to the original Principles of Paleontology, most textbooks addressed paleontology systematically through description and classification of fossil organisms, with each chapter representing a taxon, identifying the organisms by their biological characteristics. Miller says that Raup and Stanley broke that mold with their text—changing how the science was taught, and thus how it was practiced. The Foote/Miller version, based on the Raup/Stanley model, emphasizes the use of fossils as data for answering questions about the history of life, but about 90 percent of the third edition is new, reflecting the enormous changes to the field since the second edition was published in the mid-1970s.

Paleontological Society Fellows are no stranger to UC — Prof. Carl Brett, another faculty member of McMicken’s Geology Department, became a charter member of the Fellows dint of having won the Schuchert Award in 1990, an award presented annually to a person under 40 whose work reflects excellence and promise in the science of paleontology.

To become a Fellow, one has to be nominated by an active member. Miller’s nomination materials contained high praise:

“[Miller] has conducted innovative studies in evolutionary paleoecology, addressing the relationship of brachiopod and bivalve diversification, onshore-offshore studies, age and area effects, dissection of global diversity patterns (especially comparing patterns in different regions), and paleoecological approaches to high-resolution correlation. He is a leader in quantitative paleobiology and has played a vital role in development of the Paleobiology Database, using it in several major analytical studies. He has served the profession well as a past editor of Paleobiology. He is coauthor with Paleontological Society Fellow Michael Foote of a new and completely re-written version of Principles of Paleontology, the successor to Raup and Stanley's classic text.”

Currently, the Paleontological Society has 1445 members. Of these, 52 had been inducted as Fellows through 2006. The election of seven new Centennial Fellows, including Arnie Miller, was announced at the Annual Meeting of the Society on Oct. 29, 2007.

Related stories:

10/26/2007 UC Geologists Explore Biodiversity, Water Quality and Climate Change
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The Department of Geology specializes in providing a warm, welcome environment for study and research.
The Department of Geology specializes in providing a warm, welcome environment for study and research. (Photo by Dottie Stover)

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For UC geology students in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences, their place is clearly at the center.

UC's Paleontologists Achieve Recognition, Again
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[PDF] UC Research Winter 2007

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