April 26, 2016

Cornell Evolutionary Biology Professor Rick Harrison Ph.D. ’77 Dies at 70

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Prof. Rick Harrison Ph.D. ’77, ecology and evolutionary biology — a “leader in the field” of speciation and hybridization — died April 12, according to a University press release. He was 70.

Harrison’s research focused on how species arise and recombine, according to the release. He received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from Cornell and was chair of the University’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology for many years.

In a 1990 paper, Harrison wrote an overview of hybrid zones — areas where two species mate and produce offspring of mixed ancestry — that was a “tour de force” in the subject, according to a tribute published in the journal Genetica in 2010.

Harrison’s work was “held in highest regard by his peers,” according to Prof. Ronald Hoy, neurobiology and behavior.

Prof. Charles Aquadro, molecular biology and genetics, added that Harrison was also known for his eloquence and scholastic integrity.

“If Rick published something, you could believe the results completely and trust that his interpretation was balanced and objective,” Aquadro said. “This level of intellectual honesty is all too rare and will be sorely missed.”

Prof. Kelly Zamudio, ecology and evolutionary biology, said Harrison’s contribution to students and mentees was as great as his contribution to evolutionary biology.

“He was incredibly giving of his time,” Zamudio said. “He had a really high dedication to the department and to people in the department.”

As a professor, Harrison had an “open door policy” and encouraged students to discuss their work with him, according to Prof. Erik Dopman Ph.D. ’05, biology, Tufts University, whom Harrison mentored while Dopman was a graduate student at Cornell.

“He helped us sift through ideas and questions to get to the ones that we should and must address,” Dopman said.

Harrison’s advice to students ranged from academic guidance to personal advice on work-life balance and careers in biology, according to Dopman.

“He provided a clear voice and sound reason to a conceptually challenging field and to many young scientists wishing to place their mark upon it,” Dopman said. “The loss of his insight, his humor and his leadership will be felt by many.”

Aquadro added that Harrison “brought out the best” in his advisees and colleagues.

“What is terribly sad is that we will no longer benefit from new scientific, professional and personal insights from Rick,” he said. “But we are all better scientists, people and advisors for having known [him].”

A memorial event honoring Harrison will be held in the late summer or fall, according to the University.