Best-selling author Chris Bohjalian ’82, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace President William Burns, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Ebola response manager Inger Damon ’84, astronomer and astrophysicist Sandra Faber, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Director Kirk Johnson ’82 and renowned sociologist and educator Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot will all receive honorary degrees from Amherst College during its 195th Commencement exercises on Sunday, May 22, at 10 a.m. on the school’s main quad. Amherst President Biddy Martin will deliver the address during the ceremony, and the honorees will all speak in a series of conversations that are free and open to the public on Saturday, May 21. The preliminary schedule for the weekend is available on the Commencement website.
About the honorary degree recipients
Chris Bohjalian ’82 is the author of 18 books and has seen his work translated into more than 30 languages. Since graduating Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude from Amherst, Bohjalian has penned novels that regularly appear on the New York Times best-seller list, and three have become movies. The Washington Post, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Hartford Courant, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, BookPage and Salon have named Bohjalian’s works Best Books of the Year. The Sandcastle Girls—his 2012 novel about the Armenian Genocide—won, among other awards, the Armenian National Committee of America’s Freedom Award, its Arts and Letters Award and Russia’s Soglasie (Concord) Award. The Night Strangers earned him a New England Society Book Award in 2012. Bohjalian won the New England Book Award in 2002, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Trans-Sister Radio in 2001, and saw his number-one best-seller Midwives selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 1998. He is a Fellow of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences and has written for numerous publications, including The Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest and The Boston Globe Magazine. Bohjalian was a weekly columnist for the Burlington Free Press from 1992 through 2015.
Ambassador William Burns is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a global network of policy research centers. He retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2014, after a 33-year diplomatic career, and is only the second serving career diplomat in history to become deputy secretary of state. He was ambassador to both Russia and Jordan, and is the author of Economic Aid and American Policy Toward Egypt, 1955–1981. Among his many honors are three Presidential Distinguished Service Awards. Ambassador Burns speaks Russian, Arabic and French. He majored in history at La Salle University before earning master’s and doctoral degrees in international relations at Oxford University, where he studied as a Marshall Scholar. In 2015, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Dr. Inger Damon ’84 is director of the Division of High-Consequence Pathogens and Pathology (DHCPP) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In July 2014, she was named CDC incident manager for the Ebola response in West Africa and established an operation to manage the largest international emergency response in CDC history. Prior to this role, Damon, one of the world’s foremost experts on orthopoxviruses, including monkeypox and smallpox, led the DHCPP’s Poxvirus and Rabies Branch after spending nearly 15 years with the poxvirus team. After graduating from Amherst with a degree in chemistry, she earned her M.D. and Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from the University of Connecticut. She then completed a residency in internal medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, a clinical fellowship in infectious diseases and a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular virology at the National Institutes of Health. Today, Damon is also a clinical assistant professor at Emory University and director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre for Smallpox and Other Poxvirus Infections. She is the author of multiple book chapters and has authored or co-authored more than 160 publications, mostly related to poxviruses and poxvirus-associated disease.
A University Professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for more than 40 years, Sandra Faber is also a staff member at the University of California Observatories. Among her many contributions to astronomy is the Faber-Jackson relation, the first known structural scaling law for galaxies—in this case, the relation between the mass of a galaxy and the speed of stars that orbit within it. In addition, Faber’s work has uncovered huge irregularities in the expansion of the universe caused by the perturbing effects of gravity from superclusters of galaxies. With colleagues, she used the Hubble Space Telescope to penetrate the cores of galaxies, revealing massive black holes at their centers. In 1984, Faber and two colleagues developed the “cold dark matter” theory, now the standard paradigm for galaxy and cluster formation in our universe. Faber played a prominent role in the construction of Hawaii’s Keck telescopes and is a leading expert on the Hubble Space Telescope. She currently heads a project which aims to discover how galaxies in our universe formed and evolved. Faber holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Swarthmore and a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard. Her many honors include membership in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and, in 2013, the National Medal of Science from President Obama.
Kirk Johnson ’82 is the Sant Director of the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, where he oversees the 127 million objects of the world’s largest natural history collection. In 2015, the museum hosted more than 7 million visitors, and its scientists discovered and named 396 new plant and animal species. Johnson also serves on the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration. He is a paleontologist who has led expeditions in 11 countries and 19 states, resulting in the discovery of more than 1,400 fossil sites. His research focuses on fossil plants and the extinction of the dinosaurs. In 2011, he led an ice age excavation near Snowmass Village, Colo., that yielded thousands of mastodon, mammoth, bison, ground sloth and camel bones. He has authored eight books, including Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway: An Epoch Tale of a Scientist and an Artist on the Ultimate 5,000-Mile Paleo Road Trip and Digging Snowmastodon: Discovering an Ice Age World in the Colorado Rockies. In 2015, he hosted the three-hour NOVA special Making North America. At Amherst College,Johnson majored in geology and fine arts. He holds a master’s degree in geology and paleobotany from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate in the same subjects from Yale University.
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a MacArthur prize-winning sociologist, is the Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education at Harvard University, where she has been on the faculty since 1972. She is the author of 10 widely recognized books, including The Good High School, Balm in Gilead, I’ve Known Rivers, The Essential Conversation, Respect and The Third Chapter, and has pioneered a social science methodology known as portraiture, which joins the realms of empiricism and aesthetics. A one-time fellow at the Bunting Institute and at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, Lawrence-Lightfoot received the MacArthur Prize in 1984 and, in 1993, was awarded Harvard’s George Ledlie Prize, recognizing research that makes the “most valuable contribution to science [for] the benefit of mankind.” She became a Spencer Senior Scholar in 1995 and was named the Margaret Mead Fellow by the Academy of Political and Social Sciences in 2008. In 1993, Swarthmore, her alma mater, established the Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot Chair, and in 1998 she received Harvard’s Emily Hargroves Fisher Endowed Chair, which, upon her retirement, will become the Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot Chair, making her the first African-American woman in the university’s history to have an endowed professorship named in her honor. At Amherst, Lawrence-Lightfoot will receive her 31st honorary degree.