Every year, LSA awards a small number of Collegiate Professorships, one of its highest honors, to faculty members who are outstanding in scholarship, teaching and service. Professor Trisha Wittkopp was named the Sally L. Allen Collegiate Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, effective September 1, 2017.
Collegiate Professorships are typically named after a University of Michigan scholar of distinction in the awardee's general research area. Wittkopp chose to honor U-M geneticist Sally Lyman Allen (1926 – 2012). Allen was professor of biology at the University of Michigan for over 30 years and was a tireless and dedicated researcher and lecturer. Allen's research at U-M focused on the genetics and evolution of the ciliated protozoa and she was recognized as a national and international leader in the field who mentored many Ph.D. candidates.
“I selected Sally L. Allen because I saw many of my own passions in her accomplishments,” said Wittkopp. “Like me, she was a geneticist at her core, focusing her research on evolutionary genetics, and was enthusiastic about sharing her love for genetics with undergraduate students, including working with honors students. I also was excited to honor someone who was a faculty member when female professors in the sciences were few and far between.”
Wittkopp received her Bachelor of Science degree from the U-M, a doctoral degree from the University of Wisconsin, and did postdoctoral work at Cornell University. In 2005, she began a faculty position at U-M. Her research investigates the genetic basis of phenotypic evolution, with an emphasis on the evolution of gene expression. Molecular and developmental biology, population and quantitative genetics, genomics and bioinformatics are integrated in this work. She was a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Fellow, an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, and a recipient of a March of Dimes Starter Scholar Award.
“Professor Wittkopp’s national and international leadership in the field of evolutionary genetics, especially in the active area of regulatory evolution, is clearly evident in the journals she publishes in, the grant support she wins and the seminar and symposium invitations she receives,” wrote EEB Professor and Chair Diarmaid Ó Foighil in his nomination letter.
Wittkopp’s work is strongly informed by the latest developments in evolutionary theory and, in turn, advances that theory. Working with fruit fly and yeast model systems, Wittkopp has established a well-funded, vibrant and highly influential research program that has led to important conceptual advances in evolutionary genetics.
“The most remarkable aspect of Professor Wittkopp’s scholarship is that it is still very much gathering pace and scope,” wrote Ó Foighil. “It is exciting to contemplate where her intellectual curiosity, drive and research momentum could take her and her field of study. Perhaps a clue is to be found in her recent ‘Big Questions in Evolution’ Voices opinion piece in Cell (2016). The second question proposed by Professor Wittkopp was: How can our knowledge of genetic and molecular mechanisms be integrated into evolutionary theories to produce more complete models of evolution? I have a feeling that the best is yet to come.”
In Wittkopp’s 12-year faculty career at the U-M, she has achieved a consistently outstanding teaching record as evidenced by her growing constellation of teaching-related awards. Most recently, she received a 2016 Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship, the most prestigious teaching award at the U-M, given to a limited number of tenured faculty members who make outstanding contributions to undergraduate education. She received the Class of 1923 Memorial Teaching Award in 2011, an Excellence in Education Award in 2013 by the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching for special efforts in the areas of classroom teaching, curricular innovation, and the supervision of student research. She won a 2015 John Dewey Award, given by the LSA Executive Committee to newly promoted professors who have demonstrated long-term commitment to the education of undergraduate students.
Additionally, Wittkopp received the Henry Russel Award in 2010 and a Faculty Recognition Award in 2014, U-M’s highest honors for faculty at the early to mid-career stage on the basis of outstanding scholarly research and/or creativity in addition to teaching and service contributions.
She has garnered significant external funding for her research. She currently has four major grants, the most significant being a five-year, $2 million Maximizing Investigator’s Research Award. MIRA is a new National Institute of General Medical Sciences program designed to provide the “nation's most highly talented and promising investigators” with longer-term, more flexible funding to optimize their ability to make important breakthroughs.
Wittkopp’s involvement with the undergraduate LSA Honors Program includes speaking at the Honors Kickoff Event in 2009, participating in a faculty panel discussion with Honors Summer Fellows in 2012, leading a discussion on the “Nature of Science” with the full Honors Program in 2012, and giving the faculty address at the Honors graduation ceremony in 2014. In 2015, she moved one-quarter of her appointment into Honors and offered a new course, “Biology and Society” to first and second year students as part of the Honors Core Curriculum.
Beyond undergraduates, she excels in teaching graduate courses including EEB 516, Principles of Evolution and a BIO 800 seminar course on Evolution and Development, and many more. She has been a faculty lab mentor to nine postdocs, who all earned external fellowships, 15 graduate students, and 50 undergraduates (as mentor or co-mentor). Wittkopp was appointed as the EEB associate chair for graduate studies in fall 2014 and chairs the graduate affairs and graduate admissions committees.
Her teaching contributions extend outside of U-M, with educational outreach to elementary and high school students, many of whom are from backgrounds currently underrepresented in science. She has contributed to science education at the national level through committee service, speaking engagements and publishing resources.
With the addition of Wittkopp, EEB is proud to count six Collegiate Professors among its ranks: including L. Lacey Knowles (2015), Jianzhi Zhang (2013), Mark Hunter (2010, superseded by Distinguished University Professorship), George Kling (2009) and Deborah Goldberg (2007).
Read more about Professor Wittkopp (particularly her undergraduate teaching activities) and the other EEB Thurnau Professors in the upcoming fall print newsletter, Natural Selections.
Read more about Sally Allen in her U-M memoir
Compiled by Gail Kuhnlein