A life cut short: Kurt Milton Pickett Ph.D. (1972-2011).There is grandeur in this view of life ... from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, 1859
Kurt M. Pickett, the entomologist and Associate Professor at the University of Vermont, died on February 11, 2011. He was 38 years old. Having been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma in 2006, he underwent a stem cell transplant in 2010 when all other treatments failed. Sadly, this transplant was not successful. Kurt is survived by his loving partner of 11 years Greg Tolman, his mother, Kathy (Beard) Pickett, his father, Henry, and four brothers, Hunter, Joshua, Benjamin and Henry.
Born in Shreveport Louisiana, Kurt attended the Magnet High School in Shreveport before earning an undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences from Louisiana State University, Shreveport (1996). It is here at LSUS that Kurt first became interested in entomology--a scholarship in his name has been established for students who are interested in sciences and social issues, including gay rights. Kurt was intrigued by the evolutionary systems that derived from cooperative efforts, as opposed to those systems that were driven by competition. His interest in entomology followed closely his obsession with political economy and social dynamics (something he learned from an early age with his activism in the gay community). He favored economic systems that are based on cooperation rather than parasitism or competition. Continuing towards a career in entomology and systematics, Kurt moved north to Ohio, where he obtained a Masters and Ph.D. from the department of Biology (Entomology) at Ohio State University, Columbus, under the direction of John Wenzel. During his time in Ohio, Kurt's research focused on the vespid wasps Apoica and Polistes in the subfamily Polistinae. Kurt investigated the two major shifts in life history strategies found in polistines--solitary to primitively social behavior (Polistes), and primitively social to highly social behavior (Apoica). In addition to this work, Kurt also became interested in phylogenetic theory and methodology and went on to publish broadly on this area, including problems associated with Bayesian-based systematics, the Phylocode, and the statistical properties of parsimony.
Upon receiving his doctoral degree in 2003, Kurt moved to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City where he was awarded the Theodore Roosevelt Post-Doctoral fellowship. Continuing with the taxonomic revisionary work and phylogenetic systematics of the Vespidae that Kurt began during his Ph.D., he visited numerous museum collections around the globe, and conducted extensive fieldwork in New World localities. Using morphological, molecular, ecological and behavioral data, Kurt's research aimed to elucidate the phylogenetic relationships of New World Polistes. This work was the foundation for his first NSF grant (with co-PIs Jim Carpenter and Ward Wheeler).
Following a highly successful and productive time at the AMNH, Kurt accepted a position of assistant professor at the University of Vermont, Burlington and moved there in January 2007. A gifted teacher, his enthusiasm for all areas of scientific inquiry--especially those that centered on evolution, social behavior, and of course entomology--was infectious. Teaching evolutionary biology, field zoology (entomology) and a graduate seminar on Darwin, his classes were challenging, but always interesting: difficult concepts were easily explained in innovative and often entertaining ways. In addition to mentoring a large number of the undergraduate student body, Kurt was the primary advisor for five graduate students, a postdoc, as well as serving on the committees of numerous others. To honor his memory, the Department of Biology has established the Kurt Milton Pickett Award--to be awarded annually to the student who showed outstanding academic performance and excellence while conducting research in some area of biology. During his time at UVM, Kurt was also appointed the Curator of Invertebrates, overseeing the Zadock Thomas Natural History Collection at the university. This collection is an important catalog of invertebrate diversity in the New England region. Kurt made significant improvements to these collections during his time at UVM.
In addition to the taxonomic work, which was the main thread through all of his research, Kurt's research parlayed into proteomics and with this came his second major NSF grant (2009). Continuing his collaborative work with Jim Carpenter and working anew with Bryan Ballif (UVM), this research seeks to understand the digestive function of the wasp colony. Specifically, this research aims to decipher the protein aspects of the division of labor in the colony of yellow jackets and hornets and to eventually trace the evolution of this trait--the larvae in the colony appear to be the only ones that digest the food.
In his brief, but extraordinary scientific career, Kurt published 27 papers (15 of which he was the first or sole author), with an additional two papers published posthumously, in collaboration with Jim Carpenter. He was a gifted and entertaining speaker who presented close to 30 invited and contributed presentations in a diversity of scientific meetings. His involvement in and service to the scientific community and society at large was unquestionable: associate editor (Cladistics, Annales Zoologici Fennini); referee (too numerous to mention); NSF panel member; varied departmental and university service; tree of life project contributor; and active member of many societies (Animal Behavior Society, Entomological Society of America, Society of Systematic Biology, Willi Hennig Society among others). The Willi Hennig Society, of which Kurt was a past council member, has established a travel award, in his name, to support the attendance of students at the society meetings (five awards of $1,000 for intracontinental travel).
A few weeks prior to his death, Kurt received tenure and was promoted to Professor, four years after joining the UVM faculty.
In addition to his many scientific contributions, Kurt was an intrinsic member of ACT-UP, Shreveport, where he energetically worked as both lobbyist and activist for gay rights. He affected the lives of many by helping them to deal with their sexual orientation or HIV status. He was also instrumental in the early development of the Philadelphia Center, an HIV/AIDS Resource Center that services ten parishes in northern Louisiana. This early work, involving the advancement of gay rights, seeded a life-long commitment towards advocacy--such as women's rights, student's right and patient's rights.
You will note that none of the terms most often associated with someone whose ultimate cause of death was cancer, appear in this obituary--battle, fight, struggle. Kurt would surely be annoyed with me for invoking such terms here. Kurt did not believe in the militarization of terms associated with dealing with cancer. Early in 2010, shortly after his stem cell transplant, Kurt began a blog (http://www.apoica.com) wherein he discussed the connection he saw between the social behavior exhibited in wasps (the transition from solitary to social) and the process of modern stem cell transplantation (populations of cells that split off from the parental swarm and colonize new territory). His training as a biologist, and more specifically as an evolutionary biologist, helped him understand the cause of the cancer inside his body a genetic mutation caused the hyper expression of the bcl-2 gene, which makes a protein involved in apoptosis or cell death. Kurt likened the cancer cells inside his body to cheaters in a wasp's nest. By looking at it in such a clinical way it helped him understand that he was not being punished in having cancer, but merely that those cancer cells were simply following their natural history. Quoting from this blog he empathically states "Cancer happens because change is the fundamental property of living things ... Some might find this view cold. Perhaps. But it is the truth. I happen to be comforted by the knowledge of the true nature of the natural history of cancer. As a famous biologist once wrote, "there is grandeur in this view of life.'"'
Please consider making a donation in Kurt's name either to the:
Kurt M. Pickett Scholarship
University of Louisiana in Shreveport
One University Place
Shreveport, LA 71115
where the check should be made out to "LSUS Foundation" and it should be noted on the check that the donation is for the "Kurt M. Pickett Scholarship,"
or to the:
Shreveport, LA 71104
where it should be noted on the check that the donation is in Kurt's name.
Louise M. Crowley, 2011