Four alumni of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences were welcomed back to campus last week to accept the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medals and hold public talks on their respective career fields.

The Graduate School Alumni Association gave the awards to recognize distinguished achievements in the areas of scholarship, teaching, academic administration and public service — the areas in which Wilbur Cross 1885 GRD 1889 himself excelled. The medalists — ecologist John D. Aber ’71 GRD ’76, historian Alfred W. McCoy GRD ’77, linguist Sarah Grey Thomason GRD ’68 and scientist and entrepreneur Jonathan M. Rothberg GRD ’91 — were chosen by a selection committee to receive the medal, which is the graduate school’s highest honor. They spoke in four separate lectures on Thursday about ecosystems, global surveillance, linguistic change and DNA sequencing.

“I am deeply honored,” said McCoy. “The whole event was the most elegant thing that’s ever happened to me in my life.”

All four honorees said that their academic experiences at Yale shaped much of their career paths and interests. McCoy and Rothberg said they both looked up to mentors in their departments who led them to pursue their current paths.

Aber said that as a undergraduate at Yale, he appreciated the independence given to students when choosing a field of interest to pursue, and was surprised at the lasting effect of the positive intellectual environment.

“There was a tremendous freedom and respect for students and their ability to pick a path and follow it,” Aber said. “It was a very intense time — a really rich intellectual environment. I didn’t think it would resonate so much.”

Aber, who conducts research on climate change and ecosystems at the University of New Hampshire, said his Thursday talk on ecosystems and agriculture was well-received, which he said demonstrated college students’ growing interest in creating an environmentally friendly food industry. One student even suggested that the sustainable food movement could be the “next edge for student activism,” he said, adding that most recently, Aber has focused on sustainable agriculture practices.

McCoy, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he thought the discussion during the question-and-answer period of his talk on the history of surveillance was “lively” and thought-provoking. During his time at Yale, McCoy published a book on covert Central Intelligence Agency surveillance that met considerable political controversy. He said he was “stunned” to receive the award because of the intense scrutiny surrounding his book, including a period of academic probation at Yale and an investigation into his academic affairs. He added that he found his reception back on campus “very welcoming” and that he felt his work was validated.

Rothberg studied chemical engineering as an undergraduate and later worked in the field of molecular biology at Yale, where he was able to apply engineering principles to develop technologies for understanding the human genome. As the founder and CEO of Torrent Systems Inc. — a company based in Guilford, Conn., that develops DNA sequencing systems — Rothberg said he was happy to see students and faculty express interest in his work.

“It’s great to be recognized for one’s work, and it’s even better for me to be recognized locally,” he said. “It’s better when the award is next door and your family can go attend.”

Thomason, who works as a linguistics professor at the University of Michigan, said in an email to the News that receiving the medal reminded her of the appreciation she felt toward Yale as the only woman in the linguistic graduate program in her class year. During her time as a graduate student, she said, the University prepared her well for her academic career and gave her the same treatment as male students, even though male faculty and students far outnumbered female ones.

“They might not have wanted to hire women faculty [at the time], but I was treated like all the other students,” she said.

In addition to their public lectures, the four award recipients attended a private medal ceremony with their family and friends.