Ethan Temeles measures a hummingbird bill

Email suspicion nearly spoiled a once-in-a-lifetime moment for Ethan Temeles, the Thomas B. Walton Jr. Memorial Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies.

Having been burned (like so many of us) by spam and malware before, Temeles almost dismissed an email that arrived in January from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), but then persisted in cautiously reading the message, thankfully.

“I thought it was a joke,” he says, laughing. “I’ve gotten emails purportedly from ‘Amherst President Biddy Martin’ that have turned out to be worms, so I was terrified of opening the message’s attachment. I spent several minutes trying to verify that the senders were legitimate before I opened it and read what it was.”

“What it was” turned out to be very legitimate: Temeles had been notified that he was elected a fellow of the AAAS. The honor, one of the most prestigious in the world for scientists, recognizes “scientifically and socially distinguished achievements in the scientific enterprise,” according to the organization.

The newest class of AAAS fellows includes 564 scientists, engineers and innovators with expertise spanning a number of scientific disciplines. Fellows come from academic institutions, laboratories, hospitals and medical centers, museums, global corporations, nonprofit organizations, institutes and government agencies. In addition to Temeles, this year’s honorees include, among others, Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to travel to space; Katalin Kariko, one of the scientists whose studies of mRNA laid the foundation for COVID-19 vaccine development; and Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, who identified crucial genes involved in the regeneration of animal body parts. Previous winners have included W.E.B. DuBois and Thomas Edison.

What the fellowship should indicate to anyone learning about it is that you can do really important work at Amherst.”
—Ethan Temeles, Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies

“I am delighted that Ethan has been elected to the AAAS–this is a wonderful honor for him. It is richly deserved,” says Catherine Epstein, provost and dean of the faculty. “We are very lucky to have scientists of such distinction at the College. Scholar-teachers like Ethan provide remarkable research and other opportunities for our students.”

Temeles, who has taught at Amherst for nearly four decades, is the 29th Amherst faculty member elected an AAAS fellow since the program was founded in 1874. Others in recent years include Nicholas Horton, Beitzel Professor in Technology and Society, in 2017; John Servos, the Anson D. Morse Professor of History, Emeritus, in 2002; and Robert Romer ‘52, professor of physics, emeritus, in 1992.

Temeles’ research examines animal behavior, ecology and evolution, focusing on sexual dimorphism–the differences in appearance between males and females of the same species that can include color, shape and size, among others–and the interactions between plants and their pollinators. His studies aim to understand how ecological processes such as competition, mutualism and parasitism affect the structure of plants and animals, as well as the behaviors of animals. He is particularly well-known for his studies of the curvature of the bills of male and female purple-throated caribs as they relate to the hummingbirds’ pollination of Heliconia flowers in St. Lucia, Dominica and the Lesser Antilles. His work has been published in such publications as the AAAS journal Science.

Because the plants he studies are pollinated by the caribs in April, Temeles says that the moment spring semester classes end each year, he travels to the Caribbean to conduct his research. The timing of these hiatuses from the United State is somewhat unfortunate, as it happens to coincide with the season that many scientific conferences take place, and so he has traditionally not gotten to know many colleagues from other institutions.

His historical inability to network in that manner, though, only makes his AAAS fellowship more special to him, Temeles says. “Because people don’t really know me, getting elected as a fellow just shows the influence my papers have had. The other fellows really haven’t met me personally, they’ve only read about my research. My work is what impressed them the most.”

Such research over the years wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for Amherst, he says.

“What the fellowship should indicate to anyone learning about it is that you can do really important work at Amherst. When I think about it, it was the College’s support for my research that made my career possible, along with those of many alumni. It’s been a gift.”