International fellowship award deepens ASU-German ties

By

Margaret Coulombe

The Carl Friedrich von Siemens Foundation board of directors has awarded Robert E. Page Jr., university provost emeritus and Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University, the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Fellowship for fiscal year 2017-2018.

Designed to free an awardee from university duties and enable undisturbed and concentrated work in Munich, this highly prestigious award will allow Page to also promote deeper ties to the scholarly community in Munich and in the foundation.

“Scholars are chosen from a list of those who gave outstanding talks and whose scholarly body of work and the fellowship promotes the composition or conclusion of significant work,” wrote Heinrich Meier, the director of the foundation and professor of philosophy at the University of Munich.

The foundation awarded the first fellowship in 1993. Page is only the second biologist to receive the award. The prior award winner in biology was Frans de Waal, a famous primatologist.

“Page is a world expert on honeybees and has made several landmark discoveries about their complex social interactions,” said Bertram Jacobs, director of the School of Life Sciences . “The fellowship creates an opportunity to expand the impact of his discoveries and communicate with a broader public audience.”

Page’s research has identified the primary sex-determination gene, which plays a key role in honeybee behavior, and his ingenious experiments linked genetics, sensory neurobiology, gene expression and behavior to illuminate key steps in the major evolutionary transition to complex insect societies.

He has authored hundreds of articles and five books, including “The Spirit of the Hive: The Mechanisms of Social Evolution” based on his study of bee genomics and evolution and published in 2013. The “Spirit of the Hive” developed from an Ernst Mayr Lecture that Page gave to the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities in 2009.

Page sees the Siemens fellowship as an unparalleled opportunity to pursue a range of creative endeavors, including a second book on his favorite topic, social insects.

“I told Katharina Biegger, the scientific director at the Wissenschaftskolleg Zu Berlin, that I was writing ‘The Spirit of the Hive’ for her and the people who worked in the reception office; educated people with broad interests but without specific deep knowledge of biology,” said Page. “However, in the end, the ‘Spirit of the Hive” was too technical. It was for experts.

“I’d like to try this time to write a book for people who have a basic understanding of biology, to talk about the complexities of social evolution and simplify it. Since I’m not a naturalist, I want to go back to philosophers, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and look at the formation of political theory and basic social theory. I’d like to explore how the social contract laid out by these early political theorists — touching on loss of independent freedom, loss of reproductive ability, policing and enforcement — might also be applied to honeybees.”

Page’s research ties in Germany emerged from his longstanding personal ties in Europe. While in the Army, he was assigned to U.S. Army Europe Headquarters in Heidelberg, Germany. There, he met his future wife, Michele, married and had their first child. Their close relationship with the country and her people continued even after their return to the U.S., where he pursued his BS and PhD degrees, courtesy of the GI Bill.

Seven postdoctoral fellows from Germany have trained with him, including Jürgen Gadau, now a professor with the School of Life Sciences. Page has returned to Berlin every summer since 1996 to connect with colleagues who are also working in the fields of neuroscience and behavior. In addition, Page and Manfred Laubichler established ASU’s first “global classroom” in Europe in coordination with Leuphana University. Germany’s Mercator Foundation funded the project.

Page was the founding director of ASU’s School of Life Sciences and he established the Social Insect Research Group and ASU Honey Bee Research Facility. In addition to serving as university provost, he was vice provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences . In 2011, he also founded ASU Night of the Open Door, a series of public events at ASU that attracted more than 30,000 members of the community to ASU in 2016. Prior to coming to ASU, Page was with Ohio State University and University of California-Davis, where he chaired the Department of Entomology.

In the U.S., Page’s honors include being named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Entomology Society of America. In Germany, he received the Alexander von Humboldt Senior Scientist Award (the Humboldt Prize), the highest honor given by the German government to foreign scientists. He’s also an elected fellow to Leopoldina — the German National Academy of Sciences and the longest continuing academy in the world, as well as to the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.

Along with an endowment, the Siemens fellowship offers an apartment and subsidy for living expenses and travel within Germany, in addition to travel to and from Germany from ASU.

The Siemens Foundation is housed in one of the villas of the Nymphenburg Palace, the equivalent of a “Bavarian Versailles” in Munich. The foundation supports knowledge creation in fields other than science, including humanities, public awareness of science, grants to libraries in Germany and other programs.

The School of Life Sciences is an academic unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.