Commencement 2017: Biographies – Sean B. Carroll, SK83

Sean B. Carroll, internationally recognized evolutionary biologist and Vice President for Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is awarded an honorary Doctor of Science during the Phase I ceremony of Tufts University's 161st Commencement on Sunday, May 21, 2017.
Photo by Alonso Nichols/Tufts Photography


Internationally recognized as an evolutionary biologist, you are also an award-winning writer and master storyteller, acclaimed for building graceful bridges between science and the humanities. You write eloquently and engagingly about the biological patterns that regulate life, and their implications for the future of our planet’s increasingly fragile ecosystems. The vision of evolution you offer your readers draws on the path breaking research in your laboratory at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where you use genetics and the tools of molecular biology to trace how animals evolved, hundreds of millions of years ago. Amplifying the impact of your own work is your service as vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute—a role for which you are uniquely qualified. We are immensely proud that you received your Ph.D. in immunology from our own Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences. In celebration of your scientific accomplishments and your wide-ranging work to communicate both the beauty and the lessons of science, Tufts University is delighted to award you the honorary degree of Doctor of Science.


When SEAN B. CARROLL, SK83, was growing up in Toledo, Ohio, he kept all types of snakes, fascinated by the beautiful and intricate patterns on some of their skins. Searching in nature for other kinds of patterns—the rules that govern life—has become his life’s work. The Allan Wilson Professor of Molecular Biology, Genetics, and Medical Genetics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the largest private supporter of science education activities in the United States, Carroll is an internationally recognized evolutionary biologist and science communicator.

Carroll graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in two years and came to Tufts, earning a Ph.D. in immunology from the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences. He became consumed with the question of how animals develop, and is now recognized as a pioneer in the field of evolutionary developmental biology. Early on, he studied how fruit fly wings are patterned from their earliest stages and demonstrated how genes known to have key roles in the development of one insect work differently in other bugs, pointing to early evolutionary origins.

“What really distinguishes Sean is his ability to bring together molecular biology and genetics with classical questions of evolutionary biology. He has an outstanding sense of how to approach old questions in new ways, ” said Matthew Scott, a professor of developmental biology at Stanford University and a former fellow Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. The two collaborated studying the embryonic development of fruit flies.

Carroll is a recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science from the Franklin Institute and has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Last year he received the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science, recognizing his body of work. His books include Endless Forms Most Beautiful (2005), which the Guardian called “one of the essential books of our time, explaining for a general audience how the shapes of organisms are produced by genes, ” as well as The Making of the Fittest (2006) and Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species, which was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for nonfiction. His most recent book is The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Understand How Life Works and Why It Matters (2016). In a review of his latest work, the Financial Times called Carroll “one of the top storytellers in contemporary science. ” Carroll is also the architect of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s science filmmaking initiative, and has served as an executive producer and on-screen presenter for a number of feature and short films for outlets including PBS, the Smithsonian Channel, and IMAX.

For his work in education, he has received the Stephen Jay Gould Prize for the Improvement of the Understanding of Evolution from the Society for the Study of Evolution, the Distinguished Service Award of the National Association of Biology Teachers, and the Viktor Hamburger Outstanding Educator Award from the Society for Developmental Biology, as well as numerous honorary lectureships. Carroll was named one of America’s most promising leaders under 40 by Time magazine in 1994.

Tufts will award the Sackler School alumnus an honorary Doctor of Science degree.