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[ Josephine Pemberton (photograph by Mick Crawley) ]

It is my great pleasure to pen a few words about the recipient of the 2010 Molecular Ecology Prize, Josephine Pemberton, Professor of Molecular Ecology at the University of Edinburgh. Josephine has been a trailblazer in our field for more than 20 years, and she is perhaps most well known for her work on long-term studies of island populations of large mammals. She has long championed the use of genetic markers to reconstruct parentage and pedigrees and to utilize these pedigrees to study mating systems, the fitness consequences of inbreeding and outbreeding, quantitative genetic variation and, more recently, the application of genomic approaches to studying trait variation. Josephine is a true ‘molecular ecologist’ because her work bridges genetics and ecology, perhaps as much as or more so than any previous prize recipient.

Josephine read zoology at Oxford and then completed her PhD at the University of Reading in 1983 in the laboratory of Robert Smith. Josephine’s dissertation ‘An investigation into the population genetics of British fallow deer (Dama dama L.)’ documented a complete lack of genetic variation in a sample of close to 800 fallow deer typed at 30 protein loci. It is therefore not surprising that Josephine changed both species and techniques when she moved on to a post-doc, first at University College London in Sam Berry’s laboratory where she started to work on red deer in collaboration with Tim Clutton-Brock and published some ground-breaking papers documenting associations between allozyme genotypes and fitness (Pemberton et al. 1988, 1991), then to the Department of Genetics at Cambridge where she stayed as an independent Research Fellow until 1994. At Cambridge, she shared a laboratory with Bill Amos, learned the art of DNA fingerprinting and, with Bill, founded and co-edited an in-house journal called Fingerprint News. The Fingerprint News was like a home-grown hybrid between the Journal of Irreproducible Results and Biotechniques: an enterprise that produced T-shirts and published tips for how frustrated novices could get things working again and is rumoured to have made journal editors jealous by immediately going into modest profit. Fingerprint News included some real science as well as some tongue-in-cheek works such as ‘Efficient recovery of DNA samples using an aluminium rod’—explaining how to efficiently retrieve Eppendorf tubes that had fallen out of over-crowded freezer drawers and rolled under a fridge. While at Cambridge, Josephine also published one of the first papers to demonstrate the use of DNA fingerprinting to calibrate behavioural estimates of mating success in a wild population of polygynous large mammals (Pemberton et al. 1992). She was also a very early advocate of the use of microsatellites for the study of wild populations (Schlotterer & Pemberton 1994), benefiting from exposure to denizens and visitors of Gabriel Dover’s group such as Diethard Tautz and Christian Schlötterer who brought this new technology to Cambridge.

Josephine joined the University of Edinburgh as a lecturer in 1994 where she was positioned at the confluence of streams of research excellence in animal breeding, theoretical population genetics, immunology and parasitology. From this point forward, she continued to establish herself as a major independent force in the growing field of molecular ecology. In addition to the ongoing red deer work on Rum, she advanced studies on the Soay sheep of St. Kilda using both protein electrophoresis and microsatellites (Bancroft et al. 1995a,b). The scope of her work expanded the fields of genotype–fitness relationships (Bancroft et al. 1995a; Coulson et al. 1998a) and more specifically into the genetic consequences of host–parasite interactions (Paterson & Pemberton 1997; Paterson et al. 1998). Her laboratory made important methodological advances including one of the first reports of the perils of null alleles for paternity analysis (Pemberton et al. 1995) and the perhaps most widely used parentage inference software program CERVUS (Marshall et al. 1998). Both of these papers are citation classics, with in excess of 400 and 1600 citations, respectively.

One of Josephine’s long-standing research interests is in the fitness consequences of inbreeding and outbreeding in the wild. There was a period of enthusiasm for genome-wide measures of individual inbreeding based on microsatellite data in the late 1990s (Coulson et al. 1998b; Coltman et al. 1999; Pemberton et al. 1999), which has thoughtfully segued into a deep appreciation for pedigree-based approaches (Pemberton 2004, 2008). Pedigrees of the Soay sheep and red deer populations have been invaluable tools for the application of quantitative genetics in both systems (Kruuk et al. 2000; Coltman et al. 2001), and Josephine has very much been at the core of this movement (Pemberton 2010), and by sharing these resources through collaboration, she has facilitated the development of a number of outstanding young researchers. The quantitative genetic work has been tremendously successful in terms of publications, has stimulated a great deal of other research and has even spawned ‘The Wild Evolution Group’ at the University of Edinburgh ( that also hosts semi-regular meetings in sometimes hard-to-get-to places. Josephine continues to work at the leading edge of molecular ecology, and in particular, her laboratory and colleagues have recently blazed new trails in ecological genomics. Notable accomplishments include one of the first efforts to locate QTL in a wild population using a pedigree and linkage map (Slate et al. 2002), and a series of seminal papers that have unravelled the genetic basis of conspicuous polymorphisms in Soay sheep (Beraldi et al. 2006; Gratten et al. 2007, 2008, 2010; Johnston et al. 2010).

In addition to her accomplishments and contributions to the molecular side of our discipline, on the ecology side, Josephine has been a remarkable and tireless champion for the utility of long-term studies of marked individuals in wild populations. Josephine continues to marshal the Herculean efforts required to run the St. Kilda Soay sheep field programme. Year after year, this involves coordinating the monitoring of overwinter mortality, sampling of lambs in the spring and leading the summer catch expedition which involves close to 20 staff, students and volunteers trying to outwit and cunningly trap surprisingly canny feral sheep on a windswept archipelago located more than 60 km west of the main islands of the Outer Hebrides. Like everything she does, Josephine undauntedly leads this expedition from the front. The intrepid Josephine also travels to Rum every year for the red deer calving season at the same time of the year as examinations, necessitating the timely and complicated shipping of examination scripts for marking. In addition to her participation in fieldwork and leading many of the research grants that have maintained constant funding support over the years in an increasingly difficult scientific funding environment, she has served as a tireless advocate for the conservation and protection of both study sites and populations and as an inveterate ambassador to the public. She also serves on the Deer Commission for Scotland, which deals with virtually all deer matters in Scotland.

Finally, one of Josephine’s greatest contributions has been her guidance and mentorship of trainees. I am fascinated by academic pedigrees, and I have always felt that a good measure of the career performance and contribution of an academic should include the subsequent success of their trainees. There is no doubt that Josephine would have a very high ‘breeding value’ for academic success if we considered the performance and career trajectories of the many molecular ecologists and evolutionary biologists that she has mentored. I spent 3 years as a post-doc in the Pemberton laboratory between 1997 and 2000, and four of my labmates from that time were Pemberton-supervised PhDs who went on to secure academic positions in the UK: Simon Goodman (Leeds), Ashleigh Griffin (Oxford), Steve Paterson (Liverpool) and Jon Slate (Sheffield). Personally, Josephine has been my most important mentor, and the three short years I spent in her laboratory were in many ways the most enriching, rewarding and enjoyable in my career. So much so that I came very close to naming our diminutive but independent and feisty black cat ‘Josephine’ in her honour.

In summary, Josephine is a worthy recipient of the 2010 Molecular Ecology Prize, and in my mind, there is no question that she has been a leader in this field since the inception of the journal in 1992, and I know she will continue to push the frontiers of molecular ecology in the future.

Many thanks to Bill Amos and Jon Slate for providing additional notes and anecdotes.


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  2. References
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  • Bancroft DR, Pemberton JM, King P (1995b) Extensive protein and microsatellite variability in an isolated, cyclic ungulate population. Heredity, 74, 326336.
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