Memories of Richard

Richard Cowen in the classroom

Memories of Richard

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Richard's Tree

A limerick for Richard Cowen.

From Cambridge came Richard all accent and wit

With fossils and lectures all perfect in fit

To life’s great historian 

We offer memoriam

Godspeed to you Richard, our wonderful Brit


Richard loved limericks as we all know. Here is mine in honor of him, with appropriate butchering of the Latin and the rhyme. 

Thank you Richard Cowen for helping build the Geology Department and for looking after me and all the other young (at the time) faculty, and students who were lucky enough to be taught by a true master of the craft. 

Jeff Mount
Professor Emeritus
UC Davis Earth and Planetary Sciences

Richard CowenJan. 24, 1940 — Jan. 8, 2020

From the Winters Express: "A Winters Tale: Richard-We shall miss you" by Bill Lagattuta

A spring of enthusiasm and wit.

Richard was my major professor when I completed my MS degree at UC Davis in the late 1970’s. Richard took me on as one of his graduate students when the person I came to Davis to study with left after my first year and went to another University. Richard was such a spring of enthusiasm and wit, always with a smile on his face. He helped this insecure student of his along the degree path and I always remember him being positive, always available for consultation, and he had the ability to get you excited about what you were working on. He was a fantastic teacher and I loved taking classes from him and listening to that lovely British accent. He was a great human being and I am so sad to see that he has passed.  

Cheers Richard,

Steve Uchytil
MS - 1979

A lasting impact on me.

I am sorry to hear that Richard Cowen has passed away.  I took one course from him while I was a student at UC Davis, but it was enough to have a lasting impact on me.

I was looking to change my major in 1982 and I took an Introduction to Geology course from him and he made it incredibly interesting.  I eventually graduated with an Applied Physics Geophysics major, and I have been working as a geophysicist for 32 years. I am still completely fascinated by it nearly every day.  I would not have started on this journey if Richard Cowen had not made Geology sound so interesting to me.  It may sound like a small nudge, but it altered the course of my life.  Thank you Richard.

Rick Jensen – Class of 1985

You reminded me that science was my passion.

Richard holds a pop quiz in the great outdoors.
A wilderness pop quiz. Richard helped me guest lecture a five day course on evolutionary biology in Sequoia 2014.

It has been nearly 25 years since the day when I found myself in Geology 1. It was just a general education requirement as I was majoring in the arts and I was not planning on taking the course too seriously but Richard's enthusiasm was utterly infections. I sat there stunned, thinking, "whatever this English guy is on, I want some". Little did I know that the course was going to entirely redirect my life.

Falcon watching.
Falcon watching.

Richard, without you I would have ended up getting a theatre degree, writing television scripts in Los Angeles and feeling like something was missing. You reminded me that science was my passion. More importantly, when everyone else was saying that I was mad to pursue a career in science writing rather than getting a PhD, you believed in me.

Richard and Jo Cowen.
Richard and Jo at our wedding in 2011.

While we have been separated by more than 5,000 miles since I graduated and only caught up in person a dozen times, you have never been far. Every time I write an article explaining some essential part of science to our readership, you are there. When our podcasting team nabs me for a segment, I often find myself thinking of how you might phrase things. When I volunteer my time to guest lecture at schools, it is always you doing the talking. Oddly, when I head to the Lake District for walking holidays, I cannot help but think of that cave where you lithified your socks as a kid. 

Thank you for everything dear friend. I will miss you terribly and remember you always.

Matt Kaplan
Science Correspondent
The Economist

What he taught and what I learned.

We were both young when I took his undergrad paleontology course in 1972.  I was torn between finishing my degree in Political Science and switching majors to Geology.  I was electrified by what he taught and what I learned. Richard's class made my decision easy, Poli Sci didn't have a chance. I fell in love with ammonites and its last living relative, the nautilus. My crush on paleontology evaporated when I left his class, but for my entire life I’ve wanted to be half as good of a teacher as he was. Rest in Peace Richard, you made a difference in my life.

Bob Stern
Professor of Geoscience
U TX Dallas

I think of him when I think about how to be a better teacher.

Richard was my first contact at UC Davis, when I was a community college student interested in a degree in paleontology. He took a cold-call from me and we talked for a good 30 minutes, as he answered all my questions and was kind and generous. He was one of the main reasons that I applied to UCD as an undergraduate. Richard’s History of Life class was one of the best courses I’ve ever taken. It’s true that he was a gifted and energetic lecturer, and he made the topic incredibly interesting and informative. I think of him when I think about how to be a better teacher.

When I applied to graduate school Richard was the person who introduced me to, and recommended that I work with, Sandy Carlson, my future advisor. It was great advice. I worked in the office space next to Richard’s as a grad student, and so had many opportunities to talk with him about any number of topics. His stories and anecdotes never failed to entertain.

I could go on, but I just wanted to say how sorry I am that he passed away, and that he had a lasting and important effect on my career and formation as a student and paleontologist. I know that my experience was the experience of many others who knew him, and his legacy truly lives on. 

Kathryn Stanton
Professor, Geology
Department of Physics, Astronomy and Geology
Sacramento City College

Richard and JoWarm, energetic, and generous.

Richard was one of the reasons the paleontology group was so tight-knit when I was a student at Davis; he was a big personal and professional influence for me.  He, among other things, taught me the importance of "telling a story" in class, as a way to reach a broader audience.  I have fond memories of Blue Oak Farms in Winters, where Natasha and I would house-sit now and again; it's like a little piece of Tuscany.  Richard was always warm, energetic, and generous. Our hearts go out to Jo and their family.  Below is a photo of them from our baby shower. We miss him.

Our Deepest Condolences,

Glenn, Natasha, and family

A creative and intelligent scientist.

Richard happened to review one of my very first papers, and the review was very thoughtful and helpful -- I learned a lot from it, and unfortunately, it set a standard that few subsequent reviewers met.  When I arrived at Davis for my postdoc, I had several wonderful conversations with Richard.  I was always impressed by the fact that Richard never took anything personally -- he genuinely just wanted to know the scientific truth.  Given our mutual interests in functional morphology, Richard became an additional "quiet" mentor for me.  He was a really nice person and a creative and intelligent scientist.

Lindsey Leighton
Professor, Invertebrate Paleoecology
Dept. of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences
University of Alberta, Canada

Enthusiasm and joy.

I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz when I first heard Richard Cowen give a talk.  He spoke with such enthusiasm and joy about his work on trilobite eyes with his student Bill Stockton that I was completely entranced.  I had had the great good fortune to have Leo Laporte teach my first paleontology course there, so I was already spoiled by truly excellent teaching and a flair for presenting information in a wonderfully engaging and informative manner.  Richard was in the same league, but the British accent and tall rangy persona added something extra to the presentation.  Tearing open the buttons of his collared shirt at the end of his talk to reveal his trilobite T-shirt underneath was the perfect finale!  Thank you so much, Richard, for everything you taught me about being a better teacher, a more critical thinker, and a more supportive colleague.  I treasure having known you and learned from you and I wish you peace.

Sandra J. Carlson
Professor of Geology
Faculty Director, CalTeach/MAST at UC Davis
UC Davis Earth and Planetary Sciences

Thoughts about Richard.

I was one of Richard's PhD students from the late 1970s/early 80s. I owe Richard so much I hardly know where to begin. He was a gentle and inspiring soul, a great teacher and a person who provided boundless encouragement. I have fond memories of him visiting me in the field in Africa, teaching me how to be a teacher and giving me a great role model as a professor. Although I hadn't seen Richard frequently in recent years, whenever I did reconnect it was almost as if no time had passed at all-we just picked up our friendship from where we left off. 

Andy Cohen

Cowen History of Life

Cowen's History of Life.

I nearly, but never actually, met Richard. He was back in England visiting relatives in late 2017, and was going to pop into Bristol to see us, but in the end it didn’t work out. This was now such a sad omission, as we had just begun to revise his textbook, ‘History of Life’. Some six months earlier, Richard had written to me, saying he was retiring, and after 25 years and 5 editions, he wanted to hand on his textbook, and chose the Palaeobiology Research Group in Bristol to pick up the torch and carry it forward. This we agreed to, and Wiley acted promptly to enable the sixth edition to be revised, rewritten and recast by ten of us, and published in September 2019. I emailed Richard a couple of times after its publication, but we did not have his take on it, but he had read the final drafts and proofs and helped with some rewrites and proof correcting, so overall I think he was happy with what we had done.

Michael Benton
Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology
University of Bristol

Here is a sort of silly, non-science thing I always remember about Richard. 

We were both in the xerox room (yes, before PDFs) and I was regretting not having children for one reason (selfish, I know), who would take care of me in old age....something like that. He stopped what he was doing and looked at me and said (with that twinkle in his eyes), "You know, there is no guarantee in life that children will take care of you." Well, I had not considered that idea or option. Just one of the life lessons I learned from Richard. 

Another thought. I was always (or so it seemed) applying for grant money or small positions and would wonder whether I would have a shot at them. Richard said, "Well you know you won’t get it, if you don’t apply."

These words may not be lofty scientific advice or knowledge, but they are nuggets to live by.

Nancy Buening
Ph.D. Geology, University of California, Davis, 1997

A first-rate scholar.

Richard’s death came as a complete shock. I have the very highest regard for Richard. He was not only a gentleman, but a first-rate scholar, highly original and creative, deeply thoughtful, always curious about a vast array of topics. He was a wonderful conversationalist, a good friend, someone with whom to discuss ideas; and he was inherently a happy man, humerous, witty, engaging. Scholars of his caliber have never been common but seem increasingly rare today. May there always be room at universities for people like Richard Cowen, an outstanding teacher and thinker who did not always conform to the increasingly burdensome requirements of team science and political correctness. I for one shall miss him.

Geerat Vermeij
Distinguished Professor
UC Davis Earth and Planetary Sciences

Richard got me through graduate school.

Richard got me through graduate school. At least once a day, he would bounce into the paleo graduate student bullpen and check to see what we were all working on. Richard had unbridled enthusiasm for whatever any of us was doing in the moment. Sometimes, that support got me through a thorny academic problem, but most times it just got me through another very rough day.

Richard also asked me the weirdest PhD comps questions. His first question was how the history of coffee was related to the historical origins of graduate students. I didn’t get that one right, although I looked it up afterwards – it’s interesting. So then he asked me to identify a rock that happened to look exactly like a Russet potato. He wanted me to say Russet. I didn’t get that one right either. Thank you, Richard. Won’t forget you.

Greg Herbert
Ph.D. Geology, University of California, Davis, 2005
Associate Professor of Paleobiology, School of Geosciences
Director, Institute for the Advanced Study of Culture and the Environment
University of South Florida

Inspiration and awe.

Richard Cowen was a singular personality whose depth and breadth of talents inspired and awed myself and many others. His knowledge, enthusiasm, and encouragement transformed my enrollment in his GEL1 course from a GE-requirement-satisfying task to an education/career/life-changing adventure. He will indeed be missed.

Greg Baxter
Thin Section Laboratory
UC Davis Earth and Planetary Sciences

A gentleman and a scholar.

I have always regarded Richard Cowen as a gentleman and a scholar, an assessment that dates from a time when those terms indicated attainment of the highest standards and deserving of the greatest respect, (without the moral ambiguity that they may now have). He was a thoughtful and engaging instructor and a creative scientist whose innovative ideas about how dinosaurs became birds were too advanced for the fossilized paleontological community that held sway at the time he presented them. He had style, equanimity and culture and was the epitome of “keep calm and carry on competently”. He will truly be missed.

Ken Verosub
Professor Emeritus
UC Davis Earth and Planetary Sciences