The University of Michigan Regents salute Deborah E. Goldberg by naming her Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emerita, Margaret B. Davis Distinguished University Professor Emerita of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and professor emerita of ecology and evolutionary biology. Goldberg retired from active faculty status May 31, 2019.

Goldberg attended Barnard College, Columbia University where she earned a bachelor of arts in 1974. She then attended the University of Arizona where she earned her doctorate in 1980. Following postdoctoral and visiting assistant professor positions at the Kellogg Biological Station, she joined the University of Michigan faculty as an assistant professor in 1983 and was promoted through the ranks to professor in 1998. Professor Goldberg served as interim chair of the newly established Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) from 2001-2002 and as chair from 2003 to 2013, expertly guiding its establishment and development. In 2014 she was elected Fellow of the Ecological Society of America and also Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. At the U-M, she was appointed as the Elzada U. Clover Collegiate Professor of EEB in 2007, as an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in 2016, and as the Margaret B. Davis Distinguished University Professor of EEB in 2018.

Goldberg is an internationally recognized leader in population and community ecology. Her foundational research explores the processes that control the structure and function of ecological communities over a variety of spatial and temporal scales and how these processes are affected by environmental change.  She is especially renowned for her work on resolving the components of competition in plant communities and in recent years her work has expanded to include microbial communities. Goldberg is legendary for her effectiveness and influence in myriad departmental, college, university and professional service functions. She has received multiple U-M service awards, including the Distinguished Diversity Leaders Team Award (2009), the Sarah Goddard Power Award (2012) and the Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Award (2012) and she has played a central role in U-M undergraduate STEM education, in part through establishing the M-Bio/M-Sci* and Authentic Research Connection programs. (Preceding paragraphs are from U-M Regents retirement memoir.)

Deborah Goldberg collecting wetland plants to measure biomass allocation.

As for retirement plans, Goldberg moved to Arizona in mid-June. “I’m excited about being able to go hiking in the desert, which makes me very happy,” she said, thinking of the big sky and western sunsets. “I’m certainly going to continue working on research,” she added.

Goldberg is part of ongoing and pending grant proposals in Norway related to climate change, and on existing and proposed grants in Michigan related to invasive plants and wetlands. Since she’s not the lead on these proposals, she gets to “have the intellectual fun with none of the responsibility. I get to talk about ideas, suggest analyses and experiments, and work with students, but don’t have to manage a lab or deal with budgets.  How lucky can you get?”

She’s in the process of setting up an adjunct appointment at the University of Arizona where she has many good EEB colleagues and friends. While she has no specific teaching plans right now, she may develop a graduate or first year seminar. “I love teaching and have a feeling I’m going to miss working with students.”

Goldberg spent a lot of time in the last 10 or more years working on various diversity, equity and inclusion activities, such as supporting women in science, and developing programs to increase student retention and eliminate disparities among demographic groups.  She has been exploring the landscape of DEI activities at the University of Arizona to find out where her experience can be most helpful. While she’s not looking to start new programs, she’d like continue her work to make a difference in these areas.

Digging trenches for wetland mesocosms at the E.S. George Reserve.

She’s still on several graduate committees, including new ones joined this year, in EEB and the School for Environment and Sustainability for students who have agreed to consult via Skype or Blue Jeans. Goldberg looks forward to continued discussions of interesting questions to help shape student’s research.

“There’s lots of joy in seeing students grow and change and it also keeps my mind sharp.”

A favorite aspect of her career is “the intellectual excitement of science – getting into a really good argument about something, starting to clarify ideas, that pure intellectual joy – of wow – it’s starting to make sense, we’re starting to get somewhere. My colleagues and students here are such an amazing group of smart, interesting, knowledgeable people.”

“Michigan – I think more than most places – has supported me in being entrepreneurial in starting programs, in making things happen. The barriers are relatively low here. You have an idea and you start talking to people, looking for funding, looking for people to help – and you can actually make that happen. I feel quite lucky to be in a place that has allowed me to do that and fostered a network of brilliant and dedicated faculty and staff, who have helped make various things happen; the ability to reach outside the department and across the university. It has just been fantastic.”

One of many, and perhaps lesser known, new programs Goldberg started is the Distinguished Faculty Fellows in Sustainability. When she was asked several years ago to run the Dow Postdoctoral Fellows Program at the Graham Institute of Sustainability, her stipulation for doing so was to create a corresponding faculty fellows program, modeled after the Michigan Society of Fellows, which is one of her favorite U-M experiences. “The faculty and postdoctoral and graduate fellows have dinner once a month and take turns giving talks on our ongoing work on sustainability – it’s a great way to connect across the U.” She’s been part of several university-wide committees like this including recently co-chairing the committee that helped shape the School for Environment and Sustainability, and the Rackham Graduate School executive board.

Deborah Goldberg circa 1980s.

What will she miss? Goldberg already misses teaching Population and Community Ecology, which she taught for 15 years, but said she will never miss the grading. “I will miss having this group of amazing colleagues around me. And especially our newer faculty. It’s so much fun to see them coming in with new ideas and commitments. I’ve really enjoyed mentoring new faculty. I hope I don’t stop doing that. I told my official mentees in the department, I’m their mentor for life, they can’t get rid of me.”

Goldberg’s words of wisdom for up-and-coming scientists, “It ought to be fun. It’s not an easy job. I know there are really stressful parts of it, but it can be an incredibly enjoyable and rewarding career. If you’re not having fun, if it’s not rewarding, it’s not worth the commitment.

“And, always, make time for yourself. Vacations are critical. Don’t try to get another two hours of work in – go out to dinner with friends. Go play with your kids.”

Also, “Speak up. We need people who speak up about injustice, about what’s going wrong, about what we need to do better.”

Finally, “I’m just really grateful both to the institution and to my friends and colleagues here for making it such a rewarding career. John Vandermeer is my longest serving colleague and has always been a wonderful mentor, colleague and friend – and somebody really fun to argue with.” Vandermeer, who joined the department in 1970, has been in EEB the longest, then Barry OConnor (1980), then Goldberg (who arrived in 1983). At a recent faculty retirement luncheon, Vandermeer said, “I’m very disappointed in Deborah and Barry, who are retiring so young.”

Goldberg summed it up, “So, the bottom line is I’m going to ‘fail’ in retirement but I’m going to have a good time. I like what I do, I’ve been very lucky to have the career that I have, so I don’t want to stop.”

Time to travel, of course, is part and parcel with retirement. “I’ve never been to Africa, I’ve been to Australia once 25 years ago. I’ve got a lot of cool places to go.”

Bon voyage, Deborah!

*See accompanying news: M-Sci Fund honors Goldberg’s commitment to diversity in STEM>>

Read more in previous EEB web news

Goldberg honored with Distinguished University Professorship

Goldberg awarded prestigious Thurnau Professorship