Remembering Dr. Kurt Pickett

Remembering Dr. Kurt Pickett
Dr. Pickett had an impressive career as a biologist. He received his undergraduate degree
at Louisiana State University in 1996, and his Masters (1998) and Ph.D. (2003) from
Ohio State University. He did postdoctoral research at the American Museum of Natural
History (New York) from 2004 to 2006 before joining the Department of Biology at the
University of Vermont.
Dr. Pickett had a passion for the vespids (commonly known as wasps) and he was
fascinated by the evolution of social behavior. In the wasps he found the perfect study
subjects as there are groups that exhibit solitary behavior, groups that are highly social,
and groups that are somewhat social. Dr. Pickett was determined to uncover how this
complex behavior that we call sociality came to be. And towards that, he left no stones
unturned. In the absence of physical traits, he relied on nest architectural attributes to
trace historical behavior. His research combined time-honored data from sources such as
morphology with more modern molecular data from genes and proteins, and he
conducted revisionary taxonomy, phylogenetic systematics, and ecological investigations
into the evolution of social behavior across the wasp family. His empirical work
compelled him to consider issues of theory and led him to investigate various
methodological and computational issues in phylogenetics. One of his last endeavors was
seeking to clarify the history and relationship between the philosophies of the conflicting
variants of Bayesian thought with the mathematics of those variants. Dr. Pickett was a big
thinker, with big ideas, big plans and an even bigger desire to take on some tough
Dr. Pickett was an expertly trained insect taxonomist who knew every external feature of
his favorite little creatures like the back of his hand. He collected thousands of specimens
from the world over, from field expeditions and museum drawers, which he then studied
describing and documenting hundreds of morphological characters and creating new
taxonomic keys so the relationships among these organisms could be understood. The
ability required to identify, describe and score the different states of these characters is
certainly a gift, and one that we should be grateful that people like Dr. Pickett had an
abundance of. It is primarily through this type of obsessively detailed and painstaking
work that we owe much of our understanding of natural history.
In addition to his research, teaching, advising, and service to UVM and the profession,
Dr. Pickett was curator of the invertebrate specimens of the Zadock Thompson Natural
History collection at UVM. This is the official and only research zoological collection of
the State of Vermont and one that, sadly, has been largely under-funded for decades and
has survived but only for the will of a few individuals. This unique collection is a
valuable resource for scientists like Dr. Pickett who are interested in understanding the
diversity of life, and also for those interested in climate change, and by artists and
photographers and amateur naturalists.
Dr. Pickett had a vision and a plan to restore the elegance of this collection so that it
would be available and useful to scientists and students, and enjoyed by the public at
large. He had great ideas for educational exhibits and outreach activities. During his time
at UVM, Dr. Pickett made quantum improvements in the collection, though much still
remains to be done. The Department of Biology is committed to adopting his vision and
plan that will one day, soon, restore dignity to this one-of-a-kind collection. Please
consider making a donation to support this important mission.
Dr. Pickett had a significant impact on his students and colleagues. To honor his memory
the Department of Biology established the Kurt Milton Pickett Award to be awarded
annually to a student with outstanding academic performance and excellence in research
in Biology.