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Alumni and Friends

Message from the chair

Patricia Wittkopp

Dear Friends,

As I write this letter, the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor (aka Tree Town) is ablaze in autumn hues and buzzing with life again, in stark contrast to the COVID-19 induced quiet campus of last fall. While we certainly haven’t put the pandemic fully behind us, it’s heartening to see the progress we’ve made so far. This fall, we were delighted to welcome our newest cohort of six master’s students and 13 doctoral students into our EEB community; they are an inspiring group!

We’re also happy to return to a print edition of Natural Selections this fall. Our COVID cover story features some of the myriad ways we’ve pivoted in our roles in order to support each other, especially our students. While admittedly a difficult time, we’ve found some silver linings among the storm clouds. Our students, faculty, postdocs and staff have proven resilient and creative in how they’ve carried on with their teaching, learning, research and administrative activities. We’ve been incorporating many positive things we’ve learned as we move forward.

In this issue, we are delighted to feature two of our newest faculty who we welcomed in 2020: Drs. Aimée Classen and Nathan Sanders. Professor Classen’s research tackles an essential aspect of climate change, how plants and soils, and the microorganisms that live in them, regulate the global carbon cycle. She also directs the U-M Biological Station. Professor Sanders, who directs the Edwin S. George Reserve, reveals how, for him, all signs pointed toward studying ants. You will learn more about how his research program explores the mysteries of biodiversity. We are also honored to take part in the Michigan Society of Fellows Program and to have Roberto Márquez as our newest assistant professor and Michigan Fellow. Dr. Márquez’s research integrates a variety of approaches to understand the evolution of warning coloration, toxicity and associated traits in poison dart frogs. 

Another article highlights our world class EEB Museums – the Herbarium and the Museum of Zoology – and their tireless efforts to digitize their collections. As the article states, these ongoing efforts transport crucial information onto the internet via databases accessible to researchers across the globe, making museum collections more usable and relevant than ever before. I encourage you to use the links at the end of the article to check out some of these digital specimens online.

One of our Museum of Zoology Curators, Associate Professor Dan Rabosky, won the new University of Michigan Biosciences Initiative award that recognizes mid-career excellence. Dr. Rabosky studies snakes and lizards in some of the world’s most biodiverse regions, including South American rainforests and Australian deserts. EEB faculty have also received prestigious awards for the exceptional teaching and education they performed during the pandemic. Dr. Luis Zaman won the Education and Outreach Award from the International Society for Artificial Life for a tool he designed to help people navigate decision-making during the pandemic. His award-winning website describes why he created simulation models for disease transmission and how they work. Dr. Alison Davis Rabosky, who you’ll read more about in this issue, won the Meritorious Teaching Award in Herpetology, presented by the Herpetology Education Committee from the U.S. herpetological societies. Dr. Melissa Duhaime won the 2020 Best Paper Award from The ISME Journal for her paper on how viruses reprogram cells into different virocells. Our outstanding faculty receive many honors throughout the year, these are a few of the highlights. As always, our graduate students received a multitude of awards summarized on our website at this link:

Our popular annual photo contest results from 2020 are once again featured on the back cover and our 2021 contest is underway. The photos, taken through the lens of science, are always stunning and sometimes surprising. The creative and artistic side of science never fails to impress and inspire.

On a solemn note, we were saddened to learn of the passing of Professor and Curator Emeritus Jack Burch, who had an extraordinary, long-lived, and highly influential career in science serving as professor and curator of mollusks at the University of Michigan since 1962 (Emeritus since 2001). And more recently, the passing of Margaret (Peggy) Burch, his partner of 69 years. Peggy worked at the U-M Biological Station officially for 10 years and unofficially for more than 50 in the summer office and the dining hall. Those who knew them best express what a joy it was to know them, in so many ways. 

We held our first fully virtual Early Career Scientists Symposium in March of 2021, which had the theme “Natural History Collections: Drivers of Innovation”. This virtual event drew an audience five times larger than prior in-person events, with 570 registrants and over 700 attendees. Our JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) Committee is in the planning stages for our 2022 symposium themed Racial Justice in EEB Research.

Finally, it was with sadness for us and happiness for her that we celebrated the retirement of Nancy Smith, EEB’s long-time Chief Administrator, this summer. Nancy served in this critical role for 20 years and helped the department grow from a new academic unit into the vigorous department we have today. In the last year, I greatly benefited from her deep knowledge of UM and LSA policies and practices, EEB history, and problem-solving skills nearly every day. Recently, we’ve welcomed our new Chief Administrator Jennifer Wolff to the department, who joins us from the LSA Business Office. We look forward to what the future holds!



Patricia Wittkopp
Professor & Chair

Read the Fall 2021 Natural Selections online