NIU’s Dan Gebo named ‘Illinois Professor of the Year’

Dan Gebo
Dan Gebo

Having been a key member of research teams that announced discovery of the world’s smallest primate fossil in 2000 and the oldest primate skeleton in 2013, Northern Illinois University Professor Dan Gebo has made more than his share of headlines worldwide.

He also has won every award that NIU has to offer for great teaching and research.

Now Gebo, an Elgin resident who holds a joint appointment in anthropology and biological sciences, is being recognized at the state and national levels.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education have named Gebo as the 2014 Illinois Professor of the Year. The announcement is being made today (Nov. 20) during an awards luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

“In pursuit of proof for the concept that great researchers often make great teachers, one would be hard-pressed to find a better example than Professor Gebo,” NIU President Doug Baker said.

“Equally at home explaining new discoveries on the front page of the New York Times or in front of a classroom full of first-year undergraduates, Dr. Gebo is both a world-renowned primatologist and a world-class teacher.”

A teacher of nearly 7,000 students – and counting

Dan Gebo
Dan Gebo

A comparative anatomist and paleontologist, Gebo specializes in the evolution of monkeys, apes, humans and lower primates. He teaches introductory physical anthropology and a wide range of courses in primate and human anatomy and evolution.

Over the course of his 27-year career at NIU, nearly 7,000 students have taken his classes.

“A teacher needs to be part counselor and part mentor to ensure that students develop their full potential as questioners and knowers,” Gebo says. “I am committed to hands-on learning, and I bring bones, casts, pictures, data tables and other types of evidence to help students understand concepts – or to explain how these concepts are challenged and reformulated within the field.

“My goal is to help students to see a wider perspective of the world, gain insights that they had not considered before and shift their thoughts into a larger better-integrated arena of knowledge,” Gebo says. “After this, students are generally highly motivated to succeed.”

Making a difference in student lives

As an undergraduate, Eric Sargis was planning a business career. Then he took an introductory course taught by Gebo, switched majors, took more of Gebo’s classes and published a research paper with his mentor.

“Dan Gebo is the best teacher and undergraduate mentor I have ever known,” Sargis says. “I would not be where I am today if I had never taken Dan’s introductory class.”

Today, Sargis is a professor of anthropology at Yale University.

Joanna Lambert with colleagues in Uganda
Joanna Lambert with colleagues in Uganda

Joanna Lambert took Gebo’s primate evolution course during her final year as an undergraduate at NIU. “This course changed my life,” she says. “From the first day I was galvanized – not only because of the material and content of the course, but because of Dan’s passion and utter dedication to teaching.”

Lambert stayed at NIU to work on her master’s degree. Gebo served as her thesis adviser and also selected Lambert to work as a field research assistant in Uganda for a project he was conducting on wild monkeys.

“It was the most amazing learning experience of my life,” Lambert says. “I came to know, with utter certainty, what I needed and wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Lambert is now a distinguished professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She continues to work in primate biology and conservation in Africa.

Helping students across NIU

Gebo’s efforts also benefit students outside biology and anthropology.

He helped spearhead NIU’s USOAR program – for Undergraduate Special Opportunities in Artistry and Research. It has provided more than 100 undergraduates from all disciplines with funding for research, including in China, Peru, Ireland and Cuba. He also oversees the annual awarding of 16 four-year undergraduate scholarships in his role as director of the Faculty Fund.

In 2013, NIU student Mat Severson worked with Dan Gebo to create this conceptual rendering of what the newly discovered primate, Archicebus achilles, might have looked like. Credit: , Northern Illinois University

Several years ago, Mat Severson was working toward a degree in illustration at NIU when he was introduced to Gebo, who needed original artwork for his primate research. Gebo hired Severson to work on several projects.

“At first I created some simple illustrations to go along with articles he had written, but over time the projects just kept getting larger,” Severson says. “We worked to create a reconstruction image of a 55-million-year-old primate. We also completed a textbook on primate comparative anatomy.

“The experience taught me how to do my research, meet deadlines and work with publishers,” adds Severson, who is now at Georgia Regents University working toward a master’s degree in medical illustration. “Working with Dr. Gebo prepared me for graduate school in a ways that nothing else could have.”

Tiny fossils, big news

Gebo’s research has shed light on how limbs and bodies adapt over time, with a particular focus on the evolution of foot anatomy and locomotion. In his laboratory, visitors will find the tools of his trade on display, including skeletons of lemurs, chimpanzees, gorillas and humans.

But it’s the smallest treasures in his collection that most intrigue the professor.

Dan Gebo tiny primate fossils-x
Dan Gebo in 2000 when he and colleagues announced the startling find of 45 million-year-old anklebones, each the size of a grain of rice, belonging to separate thumb-length primates.

Stored away like precious gems are dozens of fossils of tiny primates, including foot bones the size of a grain of rice. Through his field work and published articles, Gebo has made a compelling and controversial case that the earliest primates were tiny animals, so small they were the prey of owls.

Not surprising, his research grabs media attention, including in 2000 when he led a team that discovered the fossils of 45-million-year-old, thumb-length primates in China that represent the origin of all monkeys, apes and humans. The find made the front page of the New York Times, Washington Post and newspapers worldwide. Recent work in China has further illuminated primate origins dating back 60 million years.

Gebo also has conducted fieldwork in such places as Colombia, Costa Rica, Egypt and Madagascar. He has authored or co-authored nearly 80 publications in top-tier professional journals, including Nature and Science.

“Dan is at the cutting edge of the discipline of physical anthropology and is a key protagonist in a number of important and ongoing theoretical debates,” NIU anthropology professor Michael Kolb says.

“As an active researcher, he is able to impart to students the idea that their coursework is not just simply reviewing past and dusty knowledge. Rather, he demonstrates that the discovery process is still ongoing and open-ended – and it is something that students can actually participate in. Dr. Gebo is certainly one of the brightest and best professors I have encountered at any institution.”

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