Alumni Day: Four graduate students and *78 alum among those honored

Written by
Emily Aronson, Office of Communications. Adapted by Graduate School Communications.
Feb. 26, 2024

Princeton gave top alumni honors to AI visionary Fei-Fei Li and renowned ornithologist and graduate alum John Fitzpatrick on Saturday, Feb. 24, during an Alumni Day program that demonstrated the impact of Princeton’s “audacious bets” on talent and potential. Four current graduate students were also recognized as recipients of the Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellowship, Princeton's top honor for graduate students.

Jacobus Fellows lauded for contributions to knowledge

Six people posed in a line for a photo

Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber and Dean of the Graduate School Rodney Priestley (center) stand with the winners of the Jacobus Fellowship (from left to right), Geneva Smith, Pasquale Toscano, José de Jesús Montaño López, and Ryan Unger.

“Today I have the honor of recognizing several students who demonstrate what is possible when we make audacious bets on human talent,” said President Christopher L. Eisgruber, introducing the Jacobus Fellows and undergraduate winners of the Pyne Prize. “This year’s honorees have demonstrated remarkable talent, tremendous dedication and exceptional promise.”

The Jacobus Fellowship was awarded to graduate students José de Jesús Montaño López, a sixth-year doctoral student in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering; Geneva Smith, a sixth-year doctoral student in history; Pasquale Toscano, a fifth-year doctoral student in English; and Ryan Unger, a fifth-year doctoral student in mathematics. The research of this year's Jacobus Fellows ranges from biofuels to black holes to slave courts to the role of disability in epic literature. 

A look at the research of the 2023-24 Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellows from Alumni Engagement, Princeton on Vimeo.

Fitzpatrick *78 wins Madison Medal

John Fitzpatrick, who earned his Ph.D. in biology in 1978, was given the James Madison Medal in recognition of his distinguished career as a leading ornithologist dedicated to the conservation of birds around the world.  

John Fitzpatrick in foreground talking to audience with Dean Rodney Priestley off to his right watching him speak
John Fitzpatrick *78 answers audience questions after being awarded the James Madison Medal for his work as an ornithologist. Rodney Priestley, dean of the Graduate School, moderated the Q&A. 
Photo: Sameer Khan/Fotobuddy

Fitzpatrick, who has been called “North America’s most prominent ornithologist,” has devoted his life to studying and saving birds. His Alumni Day remarks, “Wild Birds Are Canaries, and Our Planet is the Coal Mine,” demonstrated how birds are essential to our ecosystem and serve as harbingers of its future.

“We are at the opening of what will become a global opportunity to look at very fine details of how bird populations are doing and measuring what they’re telling us about their local situations — some good, some worrisome, some downright catastrophic,” Fitzpatrick said.

From 1995 to 2021, Fitzpatrick was director of the renowned Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. At Cornell, he oversaw the creation of eBird, a global bird-observation website that documents and tracks more than 100 million bird sightings annually. He continues to work on the ecology and conservation of the endangered Florida scrub-jay.

“The James Madison Medal award is bestowed upon a Graduate School alumnus who has led a distinguished career, advanced the cause of graduate education, or achieved an outstanding record of public service,” Dean of the Graduate School Rodney Priestley said in his introduction. “This year’s honoree has soared in all three areas.”

Fitzpatrick, who noted he was the first biologist to receive the Madison Medal, said he has loved birds since he was a young boy growing up in rural Minnesota.

“Why birds?” he asked rhetorically. “Birds have enormous power.”

Birds are models for how nature works, birds are extremely sensitive to environmental indicators, birds’ migration patterns represent the “heartbeat of earth’s annual cycles,” and birds connect humans to nature, Fitzpatrick explained. 

Through decades of research, Fitzpatrick and colleagues have observed significant declines in many avian populations throughout North America. Data collected through eBird, which he called “the world’s largest citizen science project,” has been essential to his field, as have artificial intelligence tools that help researchers analyze avian population trends. 

“We now have this relationship with birds, aided by the technology of computation, that gives us the chance that we can actually learn how humans fit in with all this grandeur,” Fitzpatrick said. 

While each species has “its own story,” Fitzpatrick noted various reasons for avian declines, such as habitat loss and a decline in the group of insects that birds eat. He said light pollution from large city centers disrupt migration patterns across the country, but public awareness campaigns like “Lights Out Texas” have shown that humans can change their behaviors to help birds. 

John Fitzpatrick makes binoculars with his hands, peering out at the audience, during his remarks

Renowned ornithologist John Fitzpatrick *78 addressed the Alumni Day crowd in Richardson Auditorium. Photo: Sameer A. Kahn/FOtobuddy

We all can play a role in protecting birds and their habitats, Fitzpatrick said, such as not using pesticides on gardens and lawns and supporting local land trusts. 

“Remember the powers that birds bring us and that every one of you can be contributing to understanding, in more detail than we’ve ever been able to, how we interact with natural places around the world,” he told the audience.  

More than 1,000 alumni, faculty, staff, students and guests attended the annual mid-winter gathering on campus. The 109th Alumni Day also included the annual Service of Remembrance memorial ceremony and smaller alumni gatherings around campus, including events with the Graduate School's GradFUTURES team, the Graduate Student Government, and the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni. A compilation of videos and remarks from the day is available on the Princeton Alumni website

Alumni Day 2024 from Alumni Engagement, Princeton on Vimeo.