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September 22, 2008

UW professor wins prestigious MacArthur fellowship

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David Montgomery, a University of Washington professor of Earth and space sciences noted for his study of how soil and rivers shape civilizations, has been named one of 25 new MacArthur Fellows.


The fellowships, often popularly called “genius grants,” were announced Tuesday (Sept. 23) by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Since their inception in 1981, fellowships have been awarded to 781 people in the United States. Each carries an unrestricted five-year, $500,000 grant. The awards are intended to allow fellows to accelerate current activities or take their work in new directions.


“It could fundamentally change the way I do things and open all kinds of doors in the next five years,” Montgomery said.


“I’m going to use it to support research, writing and music. Those are the three most creative things I do.”


Montgomery was honored for fundamental contributions to understanding forces that shape our world. His research has ranged from looking at why the Skokomish River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is so prone to flooding to the complex forces at work along the Tsangpo River in Tibet, the highest river in the world. His work has been published in peer-reviewed journals such as Science, Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


He also has written two well-received books, “King of Fish: The Thousand Year Run of Salmon” and “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations,” that explore different aspects of how rivers and soil have influenced history and human civilization.


In “King of Fish” he describes how vast salmon runs were depleted in England in the early 1700s and again a century later in northeast North America, and argues that history could be repeating itself today in northwest North America.


In “Dirt,” he traces the downfall of a number of civilizations to depletion of their soil, and he warns that humans could be on the verge of exhausting Earth’s supply of arable soil unless farming practices are changed.


“With a scientist’s rigor, a historian’s curiosity and an environmentalist’s passion, Montgomery is leading investigations into the ecological consequences of a wide range of Earth surface processes,” the MacArthur Foundation said in a statement.


Montgomery expects to use the MacArthur award money to support field research in remote parts of the world and underwrite work on a new book, “Phantom Deluge,” which will explore how geology and theology have influenced each other in the accounts of great historic floods.


“I’ll also probably buy a guitar or two,” said Montgomery, a guitarist and vocalist with a rock-folk band called Big Dirt.


The selection process for the MacArthur awards is confidential and Montgomery has no idea who nominated him. “I’m just incredibly thankful to whoever it was.”


He noted that, though he was sworn to secrecy, he received word of the honor on Sept. 16, the day after he had begun a sabbatical. “It’s absolutely the best way to start a sabbatical,” he said.


Montgomery received his bachelor’s degree from Stanford University in 1984 and a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1991, the same year he joined the UW faculty.


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For more information, contact Montgomery at (206) 685-2560 or dave@ess.washington.edu.