Dervan, Leopold, Linton and Splinter to receive honorary degrees in May

April 15, 2015 By Susannah Brooks

A research chemist, a pioneering second-generation conservationist and two leaders who combine business and technological innovation will be the recipients of honorary degrees at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in May.

Peter Dervan, who has helped develop novel pharmaceutical methods based on DNA sequencing; Estella Leopold, a groundbreaking paleoecologist who carries on her family’s legacy of conservation; Bill Linton, founder and CEO of Madison’s Promega and a leader in ethical management and citizenship; and Mike Splinter, CEO of solar pioneer Applied Materials will be honored.

The honorary degrees, as well as doctoral and some professional degrees, will be presented at the 5:30 p.m. commencement ceremony on Friday, May 15, at the Kohl Center.

Honorary degrees from UW–Madison recognize individuals with careers of extraordinary accomplishment. The Committee on Honorary Degrees looks to sustained and characteristic activity as its warrant: uncommonly meritorious activity exhibiting values that are esteemed by a great university.

Faculty legislation “give[s] preference in its nominations to persons who are connected in some significant way with the state or with the university,” although a Wisconsin connection is not a prerequisite to an honorary degree.

Peter Dervan is the Bren Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology and scientific co-founder of Gilead Sciences Inc., a major producer of drugs used around the world to combat such diseases as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. He was a pioneer in devising means to control the decoding of DNA sequences and thereby unlocked a potent new approach to treating previously intractable illnesses.

Dervan has trained many of the country’s leading younger research scientists, and with his spouse, the distinguished chemist Jackie Barton, he has championed the advancement of women in scientific careers.

“With a pioneering vision, Dervan remolded the scientific landscape over the course of his career,” writes Bob McMahon, Helfaer Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemistry. “Dervan’s receipt of the National Medal of Science in 2006 is a reflection of both his impact on the basic science community and his remarkable ability to support translation of fundamental progress into tangible societal gains.”

Estella Leopold has devoted the last seven decades to an academic career of extraordinary accomplishment alongside an active commitment to environmental conservation. A daughter of the legendary Aldo Leopold, she graduated from UW–Madison in 1948 and received her Ph.D. from Yale in 1955.

Trained in paleobotany, Leopold broadened her focus into the relationships among prehistoric life-forms. She helped lay the foundations for the new field of paleoecology, which reconstructs the structure and function of ancient ecosystems.

In keeping with her family’s rich tradition of service to the community, Leopold has worked to preserve the landscapes and habitats of the American West and Southwest, most notably blocking the construction of dams in the Grand Canyon and establishing the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.

Leopold is an emeritus professor at the University of Washington, studying botany, forest resources and quaternary research. Throughout her career, she has also played a critical role in leading and expanding the Leopold Foundation.

“While election to the National Academy [of Sciences] is often the crowning achievement of a scientist’s career, she took this in stride,” writes Don Waller, John T. Curtis Professor and Chair of the Department of Botany, “continuing to make important contributions in the 40 years since then, both in her specialty and in her broader efforts to conserve the ecosystems and landscapes she understands, and loves, so well.”

Bill Linton has not only established his company, Promega Inc., as a leader in the field of life science supplies, he has shaped the company and his community in keeping with a broader vision of ethical management and citizenship.

Linton has lived in the Madison area since coming here for graduate study in the School of Pharmacy; he left the university in 1978 to found Promega. It now serves scientists in more than 100 countries in their search for new drugs, diagnostic techniques and modes of genetic identification.

Linton has emphasized environmental sustainability and employee wellness and support in Promega’s operations. He has also worked to promote economic and residential development in the company’s home city of Fitchburg through the Fitchburg Center initiative.

On campus, he offers insight and perspective to departments and colleges and provides opportunities for professional development to students and faculty, at home and abroad.

“The ways in which he is involved with his community, whether defined as Fitchburg or Shanghai, speaks to his extraordinary accomplishments and desire to use his success to make the world a better place,” write Steve Swanson, dean of the School of Pharmacy, and François Ortalo-Magné, Albert O. Nicholas Dean of the Wisconsin School of Business. “We believe Bill Linton is the epitome of someone ‘leading an extraordinary life.'”

Mike Splinter landed at Intel Corporation in Silicon Valley after earning two degrees at the UW–Madison’s College of Engineering. The company soon became the epicenter of microchip technology.

In 2003, he became CEO of Applied Materials, where he identified solar energy — particularly photovoltaic cells — as an area rich with opportunity. The Semiconductor Industry Association credits him with transforming the production of these cells from a “boutique industry to a meaningful source of renewable energy power to the world.”

Community service is a critical element in Splinter’s professional and personal philosophies. This commitment has taken many forms — fighting hunger through supporting area food banks, launching a program to invest in struggling local schools, and working with the Clinton Global Initiative to electrify villages in rural India.

He has always acknowledged his debt to UW–Madison as an active alumnus in the San Francisco Bay area and more recently as a member of the board of directors for the UW Foundation.

“Splinter has a rare reputation for displaying leadership and technical acumen in equal measure,” writes John Booske, Duane H. and Dorothy M. Bluemke Professor and Chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Throughout his career, he’s stayed in touch with technical intricacies and advances, applying that knowledge to formidable problems in computing, energy, and education.”

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