History of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and its ancestors
Over the past century, biology has developed from a science largely based on observation and empirical work to one based on the fundamental principles of genetics and evolution. The discovery of the structure of DNA and the subsequent decoding of entire genomes provided the foundation for a modern biological understanding of life processes. Technological advances have enabled biologists to make precise measurements of the state and activity of biological agents and to generate massive datasets that catalog not only the entire genetic blueprint of an organism (its genome), but also which genes are transcribed into molecular messages at a given place and time (transcriptome), the proteins that are produced (proteome), and the set of small molecules that support metabolism (metabolome). Genomic data and computational power have led to advances in untangling complex regulatory and evolutionary pathways that will allow us to understand the mechanisms driving the generation and maintenance of the diversity of life on earth.
Learn how the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) evolved from the beginning. The first faculty member hired after the university committed to move to Ann Arbor was Asa Gray, professor of botany and zoology.
Until the latter half of the twentieth century, most biological sciences at most universities were organized into the traditional departments of Botany and Zoology. Increasingly, however, life science research has addressed questions and adopted concepts that apply generally to plants, animals, and other organisms, and the traditional departments often were merged into departments of Biology. However, biology then became increasingly organized along "levels of organization," most conspicuously at the levels of molecules and cells, individual organismal function (e.g., physiology, development), and organismal diversity (evolutionary biology, ecology). Because competition and cultural differences often resulted in severe tension among these major interest groups, beginning in the 1960s, many universities, established different departments, now distinguished by level of organization. At the University of Michigan, this history was played out in 1975, when the venerable Departments of Botany and Zoology were brought under a Division of Biological Sciences, in 1986, when the division became a single Department of Biology, and in July 2001, when the Departments of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) were established by fission of the Department of Biology.
Because the first faculty member hired after the University committed to move to Ann Arbor was Asa Gray, professor of botany and zoology, EEB and MCDB have the oldest pedigree of any departments at the University. Professor Gray was appointed on July 17, 1837, traveled in Europe for the next year purchasing the books that established the University Library, and traveled to Ann Arbor in 1838 to consult on plans for the campus. However, construction moved slowly and in 1842 he resigned his professorship to take a position at Harvard without ever teaching a class in Ann Arbor. Gray went on to become one of the most distinguished botanists in the world. The Museum of Zoology and Herbarium, fully included in EEB as of 2011, similarly have pedigrees that go back to the beginning of the University, as direct descendants of the Cabinet of Natural History established by the Michigan legislature in 1837.
Over the next 100 years, Botany and Zoology at Michigan both became internationally distinguished departments with clearly distinct missions focused on plants and animals, respectively. The Museum of Zoology and the Herbarium similarly developed into world-class biodiversity collection and research units. The history of all of these units up to about 1975 is described in previous documents, so most aspects will not be repeated here, except to emphasize the central role they played in the development of the sciences of ecology and evolution.
In 1948, Nelson Hairston Sr. joined the Zoology Department to initiate 20 years of influential work in ecology, including generating a whole new field of ecology--trophic cascades. That work, along with that of colleagues Larry Slobodkin (in the department from 1953 to 1968), Frederick Smith (in the department from 1950 to 1966) and Francis Evans (who arrived in the department in 1948 and remained until his retirement in 1982), made Michigan one of the leading centers for ecological research from the late 1950s through the 1960s. Arriving to Zoology around 1970 was another group of future leaders in ecology, including Dan Janzen, Steve Hubbell, and John Vandermeer, a future Asa Gray Distinguished University Professor. Hubbell and Vandermeer together started the weekend field ecology course around 1971 for graduate students, a course that Vandermeer is still teaching! These three all became internationally known for their work in tropical biodiversity, although Janzen and Hubbell ending up spending the major parts of their careers elsewhere. Vandermeer’s career continued at Michigan, integrating the theoretical research of the Zoology Department with applied problems, focusing his work, both empirical and theoretical, on tropical agroecosystems. These ecologists, as well as other members of the Museum of Zoology played an important role in developing the Organization for Tropical Studies, a consortium of which the University had been a member for many years. They also contributed to the courses and the research opportunities that the Organization offers in Costa Rica. The Department of Botany had many fewer ecologists; William Benninghof, who studied Quaternary paleoecology, was probably the best known; Professor Benninghof also served as the director of the Matthaei Botanical Garden.
In evolutionary biology, Warren “Herb” Wagner, in addition to his fame as a systematic botanist specializing in ferns, was recognized for his pioneering contributions to the development of a rational way of inferring phylogeny from the characteristics of extant species, a methodology elaborated in important ways by Arnold Kluge and his students. Richard Alexander was recognized for his studies on the evolution of animal behavior, especially social insects, as well as making substantial contributions to the new disciplines of sociobiology, including controversial applications to human behavior. Both Wagner and Alexander were elected to the US National Academy of Sciences. The departments also maintained their traditional preeminence in systematic biology, thanks in large part to the department faculty who had joint appointments in the Museum of Zoology or the Herbarium, although surprisingly, one of the most distinguished systematics, Herb Wagner, did not have a Herbarium appointment.
By the early 1970s, significant overlap developed in the research and educational missions of the Departments of Botany and Zoology due to the hiring of numerous faculty who focused on areas such as population genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology, microbiology that did not clearly belong to either of the taxonomically focused departments. During the terms of Botany Chair Charles Beck (1971-74) and Zoology Chair Carl Gans (1971-74) this led to extensive and sometimes heated discussions about the proper organization of the life sciences within the College of LSA. With firm guidance from the then LSA dean, Frank Rhodes, the resolution of this discussion was the amalgamation of the two units into the Division of Biological Sciences, which was approved by the Regents in June 1975.
Division of Biological Sciences: 1975-1986
The first chair of the Division of Biological Sciences was William Dawson (1975-82), a very prominent comparative animal physiologist, who had chaired the steering committee charged with effecting the merger. The division chair and Executive Committee handled core functions such as budgeting, faculty hiring, and promotion. The division also managed the courses required during the first two undergraduate years. However, for the purpose of planning upper level undergraduate courses and organizing the graduate programs, there were four subdivisions. The division also managed the courses required during the first two undergraduate years. However, for the purpose of planning upper level undergraduate courses and organizing the graduate programs, four subdivisions or “departments” were created: Botany, Experimental Biology, Cell and Molecular Biology (CMB) and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB). Over the next 11 years these four departments “evolved,” dividing, fusing, changing names, until by 1986 only two remained – corresponding roughly to the present day departments of MCDB and EEB.
During the first few years of the Division of Biological Sciences, three prominent senior faculty were recruited in EEB areas. Peter Grant, a preeminent evolutionary ecologist, joined the faculty in 1977. In 1984, Professor Grant relocated to Princeton as the chair of the department. His renowned long-term work on the Galapagos finches is recognized as the single best understood and most rigorously documented example of natural selection acting in the wild. William Hamilton, probably the most prominent evolutionary theorist of his generation, joined the faculty as professor of evolutionary biology in 1978, but in 1984 he was recruited back to his native United Kingdom to accept a position at Oxford. In 1980, Wesley Brown joined the faculty as a visiting associate professor, and he became a tenured faculty member in 1983. Professor Brown was a pioneer in using molecular methods based on mitochondrial DNA and protein sequence comparisons to infer phylogenetic relationships. Also joining the department during the Dawson era as assistant professors were plant ecologist Beverly Rathcke, fungal systematist and ecologist Bob Fogel (jointly with the Herbarium), and limnologist and aquatic ecologist John Lehman.
Michael Martin, an expert in the chemical biology of insects, served as chair from 1982-85. In a single year (1983) he hired five future departmental chairs. In addition to moving Wesley Brown onto the tenure track, he was responsible for hiring plant ecologist Deborah Goldberg, the future Elzada U. Clover Collegiate Professor and a future chair of EEB; neurophysiologist Richard Hume, the future Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and chair of MCDB; developmental neurobiologist Kathryn Tosney, who after leaving Michigan in 2005 became chair of Biology at the University of Miami, Florida, and plant evolutionary biologist Jeffrey Palmer, who eventually became chair of Biology at Indiana University in Bloomington (leaving UM in 1990).
Department of Biology: 1986-2001
Charles Yocum became chair of the Division of Biological Sciences in 1985. By that time it had become clear that most of the major business of the unit was being handled at the level of the division, so in 1986 the four superfluous departments were abolished, and the unit name changed to the Department of Biology. Under the new department structure, faculty associated with one or more interest groups, whose main responsibility was to oversee graduate requirements and curriculum. By 1993, those groups were Botany; Cellular and Molecular Biology; Developmental Biology and Genetics; Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology; Environmental Biology; Molecular Evolution and Population Genetics; and Neurobiology. In 1994, Botany was renamed as Plant Biology, to be more inclusive of the plant cell and molecular biologists. However, by 1995, most of the smaller groups had coalesced into two larger groups called Ecology, Evolution, and Organismic Biology (EEOB) and Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB), which foreshadowed the eventual division of Biology into the two departments of EEB and MCDB. The Plant Biology group was the last to disband as a graduate group, but was maintained as the Plant Biology Policy Committee to have a mechanism to increase interaction among all the plant biologists in the department from biochemistry to ecology and to provide advice to the department on undergraduate curriculum and recruitment of plant biologists to the faculty. The committee consisted of representatives from EEOB, MCDB, and the Herbarium.
Professor Yocum continued to serve as chair until 1991 and made several notable hires in the EEB area. With the move of Peter Grant to Princeton University in 1984, the EEOB group was in need of senior leadership and in 1985, Earl Werner was hired from the Kellogg Biological Station of Michigan State University. Professor Werner was already extremely well-known for his combination of mathematical theory and elegant experiments to understand how individual-based foraging behavior could lead to important patterns in the dynamics of fish communities in lakes. At UM, he developed a major experimental pond facility at the E.S. George Reserve and developed a long-term research program there on amphibian communities, including seminal studies of trait-mediated indirect interactions and metacommunity dynamics. Professor Werner also served as director of the E.S. George Reserve from 2005-2013. He helped maintain the strength of community ecology at UM, along with Professors Goldberg, Rathcke, and Vandermeer, as well as Professor Gary Belovsky in SNRE. Robert Wetzel, a highly distinguished and internationally recognized limnologist was hired in 1986, also from the faculty at Kellogg Biological Station; unfortunately, he moved to the University of Alabama after only 5 years. In 1986, David Gates, biophysical ecologist, stepped down after 15 years as director of the UM Biological Station and James Teeri, a physiological ecologist and former chair of the Evolutionary Biology Program at the University of Chicago, was hired as the new director of UMBS. In addition, Priscilla Tucker, who is widely recognized for her studies of evolution of the Y chromosome and of hybrid zones in the house mouse, was hired as an assistant professor with a joint appointment as curator in the Mammal Division in the Museum of Zoology. Two other assistant professors, also jointly hired with UMMZ as curators, were hired during this era but did not succeed in obtaining tenure.
During the Yocum era, the Kraus Natural Science Building, originally built in 1916, underwent a $12.8 million renovation (1988-1990), involving a complete overhaul of the plumbing and electrical systems with installation of central air conditioning, renovation of 80% of the research and classroom laboratories, and replacement of all windows. The renovation also involved moving some faculty laboratories between floors so that the spatial arrangements better reflected research areas; this reorganization later facilitated the split of Biology into the separate departments of EEB and MCDB.
Wesley Brown succeeded Charles Yocum as chair of the Department of Biology (1991-96). Two hires spanned the growing gap between the EEOB and MCDB groups within the department. Robert Denver’s work on hormonal control in vertebrate development incorporated approaches and questions from molecular and cellular biology, development, neurobiology, and ecology and evolution. Greg Gibson’s research blended molecular development and population genetics to study the evolution of development. Two faculty were hired jointly as curators with the Museum of Zoology, both combining molecular and specimen-based approaches to questions of systematics and evolution and both destined to become directors of that important unit: David Mindell (2003-2005) and Diarmaid Ó Foighil (2011-2014). Professor Ó Foighil became the next chair of EEB in September 2014. Professor Mindell left in 2008 to become dean of Science and Research Collections at the California Academy of Sciences. Robyn Burnham replaced the retiring Charles Beck in paleobotany as the only member of the department with a joint appointment in the Museum of Paleontology (all the other members of the museum of Paleontology have joint appointments in geological sciences). One hire was made in ecology to strengthen the renowned program in aquatic ecology at Michigan; George Kling, now the Robert Wetzel Collegiate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
When Julian Adams assumed the chair of the Department of Biology in 1996, some of the key faculty members hired in the 1960s to build up cell and molecular biology had begun to phase into retirement, so hiring in these areas became a major focus for the department. Only two faculty in EEB areas were hired during the Adams era, both jointly with other units as part of an initiative by the International Institute. Mark Wilson, in the ecology of infectious disease, was hired jointly with the Department of Epidemiology in the School of Public Health and Lisa Curran, in forest sustainability, jointly with the School of Natural Resources and Environment.
Department of EEB: 2001-Present
In 1999, the new dean of LSA, Shirley Neuman, commissioned an external review of the Department of Biology. The review committee reported that the range of research and teaching conducted by Biology faculty had become so broad that it was no longer possible to effectively manage the department, and recommended separation into two smaller departments. Further, the reviewers recommended that an external search be conducted for the chairs of both departments, and that substantial funds for building renovation and lab start-up would be necessary for them to succeed. On July 1, 2001 the two new departments went into operation, with Deborah Goldberg as interim chair of EEB and Eran Pichersky as interim chair of MCDB while searches for external chairs were initiated. The Program in Biology was also established at this time as a joint administrative unit to allow for shared management of entry-level biology, student services for the several undergraduate biology concentrations (majors), and the facilities in the E. H. Kraus building.
One of the very first debates within the new department was over the name—should it include organismal biology (as did the name of the EEOB subgroup of the Department of Biology) or not? This quickly became a substantive debate about the direction of the new department. It was not that anyone in the department doubted that understanding at the level of whole organism was an essential component of comprehensive biological understanding. Instead, the concern was that organismal biology—morphology, physiology, behavior—had become so weak at Michigan, that strengthening it would require a serious weakening of the current strengths in ecology and evolution. This was hardly a unique debate to Michigan; as biology has grown increasingly fractured into those focused on the cellular and molecular level and those focused on the processes and patterns of ecology and evolution, study of function at the individual organism, especially whole-organisms physiology and morphology, had fallen by the wayside. Other universities, notably Berkeley and Texas, had gone through a similar split and adopted the name “Integrated Biology,” a title advocated by several faculty members. Reluctantly, the new department decided to focus on its core strengths and the new unit became Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. In a five-year plan submitted to LSA in 2003 and renewed in a plan submitted to the college in 2010, the department noted that it plays a unique role within the life sciences on campus through its expertise on the origin, evolution and ecology of diverse organisms throughout the tree of life and because of its focus on biological interactions in the context of heterogeneous natural environments.
Two new faculty joined the department during its very first year after searches conducted during the last year of Biology, both destined to be major leaders in their respective fields. Jianzhi (George) Zhang, now the Marshall W. Nirenberg Collegiate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, studies molecular and genomic evolution and Mercedes Pascual, Rosemary Grant Collegiate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, studies the dynamics of infectious disease, incorporating ecological processes (such as climate change), as well as evolution. Also during the first year, the department conducted a search for an external chair and succeeded in hiring Douglas Futuyma, an illustrious alumnus of the department and author of an extremely influential textbook on evolution. However, Professor Futuyma stepped down from this administrative role after one year and then returned to his original position at SUNY Stony Brook a year later. Professor Goldberg, who had been interim chair for the first year of the new department, and associate chair during Futuyma’s leadership, then took the reins as chair in 2003, a position she held until 2013. Professor Goldberg was the first female chair not only in biology but of any natural science department in LSA.
From 2001 to 2013, the department grew from 30 to 37 faculty. Along with this net growth, a wave of retirements in the first three years of EEB allowed the hiring of 24 new faculty during this period. The department renewed strength in phylogenetics and phylogenomics across the tree of life (Paul Berry, Christopher Dick, Thomas Duda, Timothy James, L. Lacey Knowles, Yin-Long Qiu, Daniel Rabosky, Stephen Smith) and built major new groups in evolutionary genetics and genomics (Regina Baucom, Vincent Denef, Alexey Kondrashov, Patricia Wittkopp, along with Professors James, Knowles and Zhang) and in theoretical ecology (Professors Aaron King, Annette Ostling, Pejman Rohani, along with Professor Pascual). In the latter, the combination of Professors Pascual, Rohani, and King meant EEB at Michigan became the strongest group in modeling of infectious disease in the country. Biogeochemistry received a boost with the addition of Knute Nadelhoffer as the new director of UMBS after the retirement of James Teeri, along with the hiring of Mark Hunter, Henry A. Gleason Collegiate Professor, whose expertise combines population and ecosystem ecology. The interface between ecology and evolution has also been strengthened with evolutionary ecologist Meghan Duffy, along with Professors Baucom, and Dick; the community phylogenetics work of Professor Rabosky with Catherine Badgley, whose research synthesizes modern and paleogradients in diversity. An entirely new area to the department is microbial ecology, including Professors Denef and James, along with senior recruit Thomas Schmidt; the latter a first-ever joint hire between EEB and the Medical School. One area that has remained relatively weak is functional organismal biology—as noted earlier, this was a deliberate, albeit very reluctant, decision of the department at its founding. Nevertheless, the department has several noteworthy programs in functional organismal biology. Professor Elizabeth Tibbetts has developed a highly-recognized program in the evolution of animal behavior with her work on individual recognition in wasps. Professor Paul Dunlap has developed a program focused on the development and functioning of bioluminescent symbioses between fish and bacteria.
As a smaller and independent department, EEB could more easily recognize the crucial contributions and partnership with the biodiversity research collections and curators of the Museum of Zoology and the Herbarium. Curators in the museum units had been jointly appointed as professors in the Department of Biology and its antecedent units since 1956. This had not historically been a smooth relationship and thus the new EEB worked closely with UMMZ and the Herbarium to develop a shared vision of the future, reflected in a joint long-term research and teaching plan. Following a wave of retirements in the museum units, a number of jointly-appointed curators/professors were hired, including Professors James, Dick, and Berry in the Herbarium and Professors Knowles, Duda, and Rabosky in the Museum of Zoology and the chairs and directors worked well together. However, some major directives from higher levels at the University led to significant changes both in the operation of the research collections and in the relationship between the department and the museum units. In 2002, the Herbarium was moved from the North University Building (its location since 1960) to the former location of University Stores at Varsity Drive to make room for the construction of the Life Sciences Institute. In 2004, following review of long-term plans submitted by the department and the museums, LSA decided to reduce the number of curators in the UMMZ from a total of 12 to 8 (in 4 FTEs) and to formalize the reduction in the Herbarium that had already occurred from a peak of 8 to 4 (in 2 FTEs). The latter includes one full time curator, Anton Reznicek, an expert on sedges.
In 2009, the University decided that the large volume of specimens preserved in alcohol in the Ruthven Museums Building were a hazard on central campus and provided funding to create a state-of-the art facility at the Varsity Drive location of the Herbarium. LSA further decided in 2011 to move all remaining “dry” research collections located in Ruthven (including those of the Museums of Paleontology and Anthropology). Renovation of this facility began in 2014.
In 2010, a joint external review committee for EEB, the Museum of Zoology, and the Herbarium, urged LSA to merge the units entirely. While certainly many were not happy about this decision, all those involved worked together to bring about the enhanced integration that motivated the merger, and to realize organizational efficiencies, while maintaining the superb research collections and biodiversity expertise that distinguish ecology and evolution at Michigan from the large majority of its peer universities. Members of all the original units agreed unanimously on a statement of principles for the merger, including recognition that curation of the collections is a critical function of the department and therefore curator responsibilities should continue to be associated with release from some teaching duties. Also recognized was the key role of faculty directors of the research museums; they became associate chairs of the department, with responsibility for oversight of faculty curation, collection staff, and relevant operating budget and endowment funds. The merger became official in July 2011.
One major concern of the department, and indeed the whole University, during this period was the need to increase its human diversity to better reflect the diversity of the populations it serves and therefore incorporate those multiple perspectives and backgrounds into its research and educational missions. To address these issues, EEB worked with University-wide programs such as ADVANCE and the Center for Institutional Diversity and also created some new programs. In 2002 a departmental standing committee on diversity issues was established, probably the first such standing committee in the university. While the proportion of women and men in the undergraduate and graduate program were more or less equitable, women were strongly underrepresented in the faculty (16% total) with only a single female full professor. This proportion increased to 27% during the first decade of EEB. The department was also very homogeneous ethnically and racially at its inception with only 3% underrepresented minority and 9% international graduate students. Thus, EEB initiated the Frontiers Master’s Program in 2008 to attract students to EEB areas and prepare them for first-ranked PhD programs, as well as greatly increased its efforts to recruit more diverse applicants for all its graduate programs. As a consequence, the percent of underrepresented minorities and international students in the EEB graduate programs rose to 23% and 27% respectively a decade later; the faculty remains more homogeneous however. At the undergraduate level, together with MCDB, EEB initiated M-Bio to help recruit and retain diverse students into the biological sciences. The latter program then merged with a similar program in the College of Engineering and expanded to all of the natural sciences in LSA in 2013.
The extensive faculty hiring since 2001 allowed major enhancements to the undergraduate and graduate curriculum. EEB shares undergraduate majors in Biology, General Biology (for pre-professional students), Microbiology, and Plant Biology with MCDB through the Program in Biology, and also contributes much teaching to the interdisciplinary major in the Environment started in 2002. In 2006, EEB instituted its own major in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, which grew to over 100 majors and minors by 2013. A large number of both non-major and upper division courses have been established in rapidly growing areas such as infectious disease, genomics, molecular ecology, microbial ecology, biological modeling and programming, and bioinformatics. At the same time, we have maintained our commitment to teaching biodiversity courses such as mammalogy, insect biology, fish biology, and plant systematics because these are an essential foundation to understanding the origins, maintenance, and function of biodiversity—the core questions in ecology and evolution and the basis of the applied disciplines of natural resource management, conservation, and ecosystem services.
Support for undergraduate students in the biological sciences includes more than formal coursework but the Program in Biology had been somewhat stymied both by lack of space and lack of unified faculty leadership. In 2011 Laura Olsen, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, was named faculty director of the Program in Biology. In 2012, it moved its offices for student services to new headquarters in the Undergraduate Science Building, which also houses most of the teaching laboratories for EEB and Biology. With increased space and staff and a dedicated faculty director, the undergraduate Program in Biology has made significant improvements in student services and advising.
As the University of Michigan enters its bicentennial year in 2017, construction is well underway on a new biology building on central campus for MCDB and EEB faculty and their research programs. The E.H. Kraus Natural Sciences Building is almost 100 years old. Despite periodic renovations to update the research laboratory facilities, the core structural and mechanical systems are inadequate to support the needs of modern biological research, and the laboratory design and building layout is highly compartmentalized and consequently not conducive to collaboration. A modern research facility is essential to promote institutional development of interdisciplinary research in ecology and evolutionary biology and the University and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, are committed to this goal.
About the Natural Science Building
Faced with a lack of space for a growing science curriculum, the Regents in 1913 asked the legislature for a $375,000 appropriation for the Natural Science Building. Designed by Albert Kahn of Detroit, the building was completed in 1915 at a final cost of $408,000. The building originally housed the departments of Botany, Geology, Mineralogy, Zoology, Psychology and the School of Natural Resources. Situated on the south side of North University Avenue, the building faces Hill Auditorium and stands on the site of the old Homeopathic Medical School. To the east, the building looks across the Mall at the Chemistry Building. The building forms almost a perfect square and is constructed of dark red tapestry brick with a trim of light terracotta. Kahn designed the building along principles gleaned from factory architecture, using regularly spaced steel and concrete piers for support, and maximizing the amount of light and window space. Edward H. Kraus (Syracuse 1896, Ph.D. Munich 1901), Professor of Minerology, was appointed Dean of the College of Literature, Science, and Arts in August of 1933. The Natural Sciences Building was named in his honor. More about the history of the Natural Science building is available on the U-M History site.