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The Forum to present award-winning science writer Ann Gibbons

RELEASED: Nov. 17, 2010

Ann Gibbon photo
Science journalist Ann Gibbons in Kanapoi, Kenya. "I found part of a tooth of the four-million-year-old Australopithecus anamensis, so I guess I have a special fondness for that species."

EAU CLAIRE — An award-winning science writer who is chronicling the recent series of spectacular discoveries in the search for the first human will appear Dec. 1 at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Ann Gibbons, the primary writer on human evolution for the prestigious journal Science, will present "The Human Race: The Quest to Find Our Earliest Ancestors." The Forum presentation will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Schofield Auditorium.

Gibbons is the author of "The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors," a finalist for the 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her book provides meticulous research and vivid first-person reporting as Gibbons follows four international teams obsessed with solving the mystery of human evolution, and relates the intense rivalries that propel them.

"Gibbons tells of hard-driven, dedicated teams contending with extreme heat, blowing sand, illness and other hazards of fieldwork in Africa, where success demands years, or decades, of persistence," wrote Scientific American, which called the book "an engrossing, fast-paced read."

"I had an idea I could not resist," Gibbons said. "The human story of the quest to find the earliest ancestors, as well as the science, was so compelling that I could not pass it up, even though I had four-year-old twins and a seven-year-old daughter at the time.

"In paleoanthropology, the competition is fierce because of limited access to fossils and prime fossil sites," Gibbons said. "There are only a few places of the right age with well-preserved fossils where scientists can also get permits to search for fossils. As a result, the most aggressive researchers often succeed. Paleoanthropology obviously is one of the most cut-throat fields in the world, and that is part of what makes following these scientists so fascinating."

She traveled to Africa to cover the work of Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, co-leader of an international team with an unmatched track record of significant discoveries in eastern Ethiopia; French paleontologist Michel Brunet, who discovered a seven-million-year-old skull in northern Chad; Welsh zoologist Meave Leakey, whose team found fossils of Australopithecus anamensis at Kanapoi, Kenya; and Martin Pickford and Brigitte Senut, a British geologist and French paleontologist whose team discovered fossils of Millennium Man in the Tugen Hills of Kenya.

"There is no substitute for seeing researchers at work in their milieu — and for trying to do the work yourself," said Gibbons.

Gibbons' most recent writing concerns Ardi, the 4.4-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus discovered in 1994. An almost complete female skeleton was discovered in the Middle Awash region of northeastern Ethiopia. Ardi is 1.2 million years older than the celebrated Lucy, and offers a fascinating look at what the last common ancestor we share with chimpanzees may have been like.

"It took a multidisciplinary team 15 years to excavate Ardi, digitally remove distortions, and analyze her bones," Gibbons wrote in the December 2009 issue of Science magazine, which named Ardi the "breakthrough of the year."

While older hominid fossils have been discovered, Ardi is the most complete specimen yet found. More than 125 pieces of her skeleton were recovered, as well as 6,000 additional identifiable animal fossils and 135,000 other bone and tooth fragments. Plant remains and other paleoenvironmental clues allowed the research team to reconstruct the ancient woodland environment in which Ardi lived.

Following the publication of a series of studies in a special October 2009 issue of Science, the Discovery Channel presented a world premiere special — "Discovering Ardi" — that documented the investigation. Gibbons and members of the Middle Awash Project team were interviewed during an hour-long panel discussion that followed the broadcast.

A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Gibbons is primarily interested in research related to human evolution, paleoanthropology, genetics, molecular evolution and evolutionary biology. She began writing for the journal Science as a senior writer in 1990 and has been a contributing correspondent, based in Pittsburgh, for more than a decade. She also teaches science writing at Carnegie Mellon University and has written articles for The New York Times, Discover, Insight travel guides, and other publications. She has been a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Science Journalism Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. She found her first fossil in Spain at the age of 11.

Established in 1942, The Forum presents the world's greatest minds and imaginations. A typical Forum includes a 60-minute lecture, a 30-minute question-and-answer session, and an open reception. The program will be signed for the deaf and hard of hearing. Assisted listening devices and large print programs are also available upon request.

Tickets are $8 for the public, $6 for those 62 and older and UW System or Chippewa Valley Technical College faculty and staff, and $4 for those 17 and younger and UW System or CVTC students. Student tickets are half price, $2, until the day of the event. On the day of the event, students must pay the full student ticket price.

Patrons also may charge their tickets to Discover, MasterCard or Visa when ordering by phone. Call 715-836-3727 or, outside the immediate Eau Claire area, call toll-free 800-949-UWEC. A $3 handling fee will be added to all telephone charge orders.

Wisconsin Public Radio and Community Television have contributed generous promotional support for The Forum. The Forum is also funded in part by Visit Eau Claire ... The Unexpected Wisconsin. Best Western Trail Lodge Hotel & Suites (715-838-9989), 3340 Mondovi Road, is The Forum's exclusive accommodations partner.

The Forum is funded by the students of UW-Eau Claire and administered by the Activities and Programs office of the University Centers.

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JS/DW

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