Mark Hunter studying bird migration in the Western Himalaya in 1983. Image: Ian Sleigh.

Mark Hunter has been named the Earl E. Werner Distinguished University Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Distinguished University Professorships, established in 1947, recognize senior faculty with exceptional scholarly or creative achievements, national and international reputations for academic excellence and superior records of teaching, mentoring and service.

The Board of Regents approved the appointments of seven new DUPs on Thursday, May 18, 2017. Each professorship bears a name of a distinguished person in the honoree’s general field of interest, determined by the appointed professors in consultation with their dean. 

“Professor Mark Hunter is the full academic package: a world-class scientist, an inspiring and gifted lecturer, an exemplary mentor and a true visionary in diversifying our STEM graduate programs,” said EEB Chair and Professor Diarmaid Ó Foighil.

"I was so happy to be able to recognize the trailblazing work of Earl Werner, who has inspired so many of us,” said Hunter. “I used some of Earl's papers in the first ecology class I ever taught, and I still use his papers in my classes today - they're also cited in almost everything we publish. And I can't stress enough the wonderful contributions of the graduate and undergraduate students who have contributed their time and creativity to the lab. I'm very grateful."

Ecology has developed along two complimentary bodies of theory: population and community ecology aims to comprehend the distribution of and interaction among organisms in nature; ecosystem ecology seeks an integrated understanding of the flow of energy and material among living and non-living constituents. This pattern of centrifugal ontogeny, driven by ever-increasing specialization, is common to many scientific disciplines and Hunter is famous for recognizing the conceptual shortcomings of that process for ecology and for leading the development of new integrative theoretical approaches that increase our understanding of how all components of an ecosystem actually function in nature, according to Ó Foighil. The major integrative theme of his research is investigating the role of plant chemistry in linking population dynamics with ecosystem processes.

He has published over 140 research papers (most cited paper 1072 times, and many papers have been cited over 100 times), written or edited six books, and has received 30 years of continuous federal funding including 18 National Science Foundation grants.

Hunter has received multiple prestigious awards, including a CAREER (Early Faculty Development) Award and an OPUS (Opportunities for Promoting Understanding through Synthesis) award from NSF and a Collegiate Professorship from the University of Michigan.

In 2014, he was elected a lifetime Fellow of the Ecological Society of America, the nation’s primary organization of professional ecologists, representing more than 10,000 scientists in the U.S. and around the world. “This highly prestigious award, given for his contributions to research, education and/or outreach in the ecological sciences, is typically given to scientists 10 years older than Professor Hunter, a measure of the exceptional influence of his body of work among his peers,” said Ó Foighil.

Hunter is widely regarded as one of the very best ecologists who study how plant-insect interactions shape terrestrial ecosystem functioning. His body of work can be broken down into three main conceptual areas: effects of plant chemistry on animal population dynamics, effects of plant chemistry on ecosystem processes, and linking trophic interactions with ecosystem processes.

Researching medicinal plants in Greater Kruger National Park. Image: MaryCarol Hunter.

One of Hunter’s distinctive study systems involves monarch butterflies and the implications for disease transmission in their use of pharmaceutical products in plants. He discovered that transmission of protozoan parasites related to malaria depended on medicinal compounds in plant foliage. This led to the first description of trans-generational medication in an animal in which infected female butterflies protect their offspring from disease by choosing to lay their eggs on medicinal plants. Most recently, he discovered that mutualistic fungi in plant roots change the medicinal properties of plants that influence protozoan disease transmission in animals. This is the first record of four biological kingdoms interacting to determine disease transmission, and the implications for both natural communities and human drug discovery resulted in substantial media attention and a Science news story. He has also applied the lessons learned from this theoretical work to issues of human concern including control of insect pests in forests and orchards, in agricultural systems and the conservation of endangered species including pollinators, endemic oak species, food web structure, and declining populations of subarctic insects, the effects of elevated atmospheric CO2 and increases in temperature on the ecology, evolution and conservation of species.

Hunter’s international reputation as a leading thinker and communicator in fundamental ecological research experienced a further boost with the publication in 2016 of his exciting and groundbreaking new book: “The Phytochemical Landscape; Linking Trophic Interactions and Nutrient Dynamics.” He wrote this while supported by an NSF OPUS award and it was published as part of the Princeton University Press Monographs in Population Biology series. Reviews are highly laudatory. “Hunter is an exceptionally clear writer, able to communicate the distilled knowledge of an expert scientist in highly accessible and articulate prose, thereby making the cryptic mysteries of ecosystem functioning available to the general reader,” Ó Foighil said.

“Hunter has a truly outstanding teaching record at U-M as evidenced by his stellar teaching reviews in both large- and small-enrollment courses and his assiduous mentorship of students. He came to us with a similarly outstanding record in teaching from the University of Georgia.” Hunter’s main teaching in EEB has been in Introductory Biology where his performance is “nothing short of astonishing” for any large introductory course and particularly so for ecology and evolutionary biology, given the number of pre-meds in class. Part of this is undoubtedly his extraordinary sense of responsibility to his students. We have gathered a number of letters from undergraduates who took Biology 171 with him and these speak passionately about their enthusiasm for Professor Hunter and how he has changed their attitudes and interest in biology generally and specifically for ecology and evolutionary biology.”

In addition to the large-enrollment introductory courses, Hunter has taught two advanced 400-level courses: EEB 476 (Ecosystem Ecology) and EEB 472 (Plant-Animal Interactions), a course pioneered by the late Professor Beverly Rathcke.

Hunter is a dedicated research mentor to undergraduate and graduate students. Since coming to U-M, he has mentored 42 undergraduates and 16 graduate students. “He is a close and concerned advisor for them and thinks extremely carefully about the development of each of their careers. His mentorship impact is extraordinary.”

Regarding service, Hunter is legendary for being one of the most responsible and responsive members of the EEB department. He has served with thoughtfulness and thoroughness on the EEB Executive Committee. He served brilliantly as acting chair while then-chair Professor Deborah Goldberg was on sabbatical for a semester in 2012.

Studying carbon sequestration in the peatlands of Glen Shee, Scotland, 2017. Image: MaryCarol Hunter.

Outside of the department, he current serves on the Rackham Graduate School MORE Committee (Mentoring Others Results in Excellence). He also served on the U-M Comprehensive Studies Program’s Review Task Force. The CSP aims to support and retain a diverse undergraduate student body at U-M.

“What makes him stand out is his extraordinary leadership role in diversifying our graduate student body (and, eventually, our discipline),” Ó Foighil said. Hunter was the founding director of the Frontier’s Master’s Program in EEB at U-M. This program has been a major reason behind EEB’s success in raising the proportion of minorities in the department’s graduate student body to nearly 30 percent.

Hunter directed Frontier’s from the first cohort entering in 2008 through the 2011- 2012 academic year. During those years he managed every aspect of the program. The success of the Frontiers program inspired Rackham’s successful proposal to NSF’s bridges to the baccalaureate program to expand the model to several other STEM departments in LSA.

In addition to being a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, Hunter is a professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment. Newly appointed Distinguished University Professors deliver an inaugural lecture during the first year of appointment.

Read more: Seven faculty members named Distinguished University Professors, The University Record

Compiled by Gail Kuhnlein