April 18, 2006

Matthew Tornow wins dissertation award

by K.C. Jaehnig

(College and newspaper editors: Note alumni/hometown names; educational affiliations and hometowns appear in boldface)

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Anthropologist Matthew A. Tornow, a former doctoral student who used measurements of the fossilized teeth and bones of an early group of small primates to determine relationships within the group and to the higher primates, has won Southern Illinois University Carbondale's annual outstanding dissertation award. He will receive a $1,000 cash prize during Graduate School commencement exercises May 13.

Organic chemist Songwen Xie was runner-up. Xie, now an assistant professor at Indiana University-Kokomo, synthesized estrogenic compounds that did not contain steroid components and described how they affected prostate and breast cancer cells. She found these compounds reduced the spread of prostate cancer cells without the feminizing effects of regular estrogen treatment.

Richard E. and Donna T. Falvo, retired faculty members living in North Carolina, sponsor the dissertation competition, now in its 18th year.

Tornow, who titled his dissertation "Phylogenetic Systematics of the Eocene Primate Superfamily Omomyidae, "focused on a widely scattered, diverse group of primates similar to present-day mouse lemurs and galagos. These small creatures lived 25 million to 55 million years ago in North America, Europe, Asia and perhaps Africa, and many scientists believe they may constitute the ancestors from which monkeys, apes and even humans evolved.

Scientists who study them do so largely by looking at dental remains, the fossils most often found for this group. While Tornow did that, he took additional measurements of the teeth as well, providing new information that will help later researchers in classifying Omomyidae fossil materials.

But Tornow didn't stop there. In recent years, scientists have turned up increasing numbers of skeletal remains, especially fossilized ankle bones. Tornow included measurements of these fossils, too — a first in the field.

"He clearly documents that the inclusion of this information in his study strengthens his conclusions about some of the debated evolutionary relationships," wrote Professor Herbert H. Covert, director of graduate studies for the anthropology department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, in a letter supporting Tornow's candidacy for the award.

Covert noted that Tornow also provided important information on variation within the species.

"It has been difficult to include this information in the computer algorithms that have been developed in the past decade to study evolutionary relationships," he wrote.

"Matt did a wonderful job in converting continuous, quantitative data into discrete character states for these analyses."

Gregg F. Gunnell, associate research scientist at the University of Michigan's Museum of Paleontology, said in his letter that Tornow was the first to analyze the entire Omomyoidea superfamily.

"No one has attempted such a detailed analysis in the past, partly because the task is so daunting," he wrote.

"It will have a broad impact on our understanding of this group of primates as a whole, particularly with respect to their relationships with anthropoid or higher primates. The origin of Anthropoidea is a hotly debated topic at the moment, making Matt's work even more timely."

John G. Fleagle, distinguished professor at the State University of New York Stony Brook and winner of a 2001 MacArthur "genius" award, described Tornow's dissertation as "a major advance in our understanding of primate evolution," while MacArthur Fellow K. Christopher Beard from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History wrote, "As a specialist who has devoted much of my professional career to research on this group of extinct primates, I am deeply impressed with Dr. Tornow's dissertation."

Articles on Tornow's research already have appeared in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and the Journal of Human Evolution, two of the field's top-rated, peer-reviewed journals.

Tornow, a native of Peoria, is now an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minn. He is a two-degree graduate of SIUC, having earned his bachelor's here in 1993. He has a master's degree, received in 1997, from the University of Montana.

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.