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Professor honored for helping establish field of anthropological genetics

Monday, May 09, 2016

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas professor widely known for his contributions to the field of anthropological genetics has received the highest award from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

The AAPA, the primary scientific society in the field, presented the Charles R. Darwin Lifetime Achievement Award to Michael Crawford, head of KU's Laboratory of Biological Anthropology and professor of anthropology, on April 15 at its annual meeting in Atlanta.

"Although he did not coin the term, Michael was instrumental in founding and defining the field of anthropological genetics," said Dennis O'Rourke, Distinguished Foundation Professor in Anthropology. "His dedication to anthropological fieldwork, graduate student training, service to the profession, research productivity and professional leadership make him a particularly worthy recipient of the award."

O'Rourke, an alumnus who as a graduate student studied under Crawford, presented him with the award in Atlanta, and some of Crawford's more than 35 past doctoral students attended as well.

"It's a great honor. The AAPA has more than 1,700 members, so to receive their lifetime achievement award is a bit like winning an Academy Award — an acknowledgement by your peers that you've made significant and lasting contributions to the field," Crawford said. "Good students not only make the investment of time and effort feel worthwhile, they open up new collaborative opportunities and encourage us to keep up with the cutting edge of research. This is really our journey — the students and stewards of the Laboratory of Biological Anthropology — and it was fitting that many of them could make to share in the honor. They've earned it."

Anthropological genetics concerns understanding the patterns and causes of genetic variation within and among populations. Crawford's work includes delving into the genetic makeup of entire populations to help answer key questions about human history and examining how genetics can play a significant role in helping treat diseases.

Crawford is an expert on genetic markers of Siberian human populations. As a young anthropologist of Russian descent, Crawford spent many years during the Cold War quietly facilitating a Russian-U.S. scholarly exchange, and he was selected to lead the first foreign anthropological team into Siberia in 1989 as the breakup of the Soviet Union was imminent.

O'Rourke said Crawford, beginning with his own graduate work in primate genetics at the University of Washington, rapidly began applying his vision for the integration of anthropology and genetics. In 1970, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Crawford and colleague Peter Workman organized the first symposium on anthropological genetics. It brought together a dynamic mix of anthropologists, geneticists and demographers.

"It was Crawford and Workman's synthesis that provided the grounding for the research specialty," O'Rourke said.

Crawford in following decades edited a series of volumes that were influential in shaping the direction of the field, and he authored the 2007 textbook Anthropological Genetics: Theory, Methods, and Applications as well as the 1998 book "The Origins of Native Americans: Evidence from Anthropological Genetics." In addition, he has contributed to more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles, including a 2015 study that found the earliest ancestors of Native Americans migrated in a single wave from Siberia no earlier than 23,000 years ago.

Crawford also edited the journal Human Biology for more than a decade.

"Since coming to KU in 1971, Michael Crawford has been one of the giants in the field of molecular anthropology. He created the Laboratory of Biological Anthropology and has trained many of the world’s foremost experts in the field," said John Hoopes, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology. "Professor Crawford has played an essential role in helping KU achieve international recognition at the forefront of the use of DNA to answer questions about the human experience."

Crawford's Laboratory of Biological Anthropology has also served a staple in building the anthropological genetics program's tradition at KU. To continue this tradition, O'Rourke in January returned to his alma mater and is overseeing creation of a new state-of-the-art ancient DNA facility that will permit KU researchers to continue examining questions about ancient migrations and gain broader insights into the nature of human movement, behavior and adaptations in these early populations.


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