05 April 2009

"Rift Valley" : Obit-Symbol of Evolutionary Primatology's Loss

A sponsored obit in the NYT today announced the loss of Dr. Elizabeth Hunt Harmon, a professor at Hunter College in NYC who had co-directed a paleontological project in Southern Ethiopia's Rift Valley. I don't know Dr. Harmon, and don't study in this field. But as I mulled the particular character of this loss, the name "Rift Valley" seemed to take on additional meaning: the rift between the politics of federal R&D spending and attempts to quantify the benefits of fields like paleontology; the rift created by the loss of Harmon's perhaps 30 or more years of her own investigation, or by inspiring the investigations of others; the rift between one's career plans and what fate permits us to achieve.
Following was my hurried post.

I did not know Elizabeth Harmon, but the loss of a one hitting her stride mid-career, obviously well-liked by students at Hunter College and pursuing original research under the demanding conditions of her work in Southern Ethiopia, must lace a sense of injustice with the grief felt by those who loved her. This leaves unmentioned the greater loss experienced by a quiet but sizeable community wishing to better understand our past and counting on the steady work of Dr Harmon and others like her, to press on with that task.

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