Diarmaid ÓFoighil and Patricia Wittkopp. Image credits: Dale Austin and CRLT

On July 1, 2020, the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology will have a change in leadership as Professor Patricia Wittkopp succeeds Professor Diarmaid Ó Foighil as chair.

“I am excited to begin working with you as department chair later this summer, and am grateful to Diarmaid for his past, present, and future help to make this transition as smooth as possible,” Wittkopp, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and the Sally L. Allen Collegiate Professor of EEB and Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, wrote in an email to the department.

“As I see it, our department has many strengths, including cutting-edge research programs and scholars that are international leaders in their fields, world-class museums, a shared dedication to the teaching mission of the university, a long-standing commitment to enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion, talented and dedicated staff members that make all of this possible, and perhaps the most engaged and passionate graduate and undergraduate students on campus.  

“But it also has some significant challenges. First and foremost is making sure that all past, present and future members of our community—especially those that are members of groups historically underrepresented in science—are welcome, supported, heard, and able to do their best work. In addition, the unprecedented impact of SARS-CoV-2, including restrictions to working spaces, changes in teaching practices, and tightening of budgets has also created obstacles that must be overcome. Addressing these issues will require all of us working together.

“Because I believe that considering diverse perspectives leads to the best possible solutions for difficult problems, I plan to spend as much ‘chair-time’ as I can in July, August and September talking with people about the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities they see for the department. I anticipate that these conversations will generate new ideas and help me refine my own thoughts about what might benefit the department most.”

The Wittkopp family – Trisha, Morgan, Jacob, Keith – in Heidelberg where Trisha was recently on sabbatical. "As I step into this new role, I will personally be searching for ways to provide efficient and impactful leadership for the department while also continuing to support my lab members, my research program, my family and myself. My hope is to find some ways to help all of us with this juggling act."

A little history about the new chair: Wittkopp is a biologist working at the interface of developmental, evolutionary and computational biology. She earned her B.S. from the University of Michigan in 1997, studying interactions among genes; her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 2002, studying the evolution of development; and was a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University studying how gene expression evolves. In 2005, she returned to her alma mater, the University of Michigan, as an assistant professor. She has a joint appointment with Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, and is affiliated with the Center for Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics, Center for Statistical Genetics, and Program in the Biomedical Sciences.

In collaboration with members of her laboratory, Wittkopp studies the genetic basis of trait differences within and between species, with an emphasis on the regulation of gene expression. Both fruit flies and baker’s yeast are used as model systems in this work, integrating methods from molecular and developmental biology, population and quantitative genetics, and genomics and bioinformatics. Wittkopp was named a “Scientist to Watch” by The Scientist magazine, an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, a March of Dimes Starter Scholar, a recipient of the Society for the Study of Molecular Biology’s Margaret Dayhoff Mid-Career Award, a Guggenheim Fellow, and most recently, received the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Wittkopp is also a passionate teacher and mentor whose efforts have been recognized by multiple awards at U-M including the highest faculty honor, an Arthur F.  Thurnau Professorship, Sally L. Allen Collegiate Professorship, Elizabeth Caroline Crosby Award, John Dewey Award, Faculty Recognition Award, Work/Life Champion Award for Supervisors, Excellence in Education Award and being invited to speak at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Honors Program graduation ceremony. She is a member of education committees for the Genetics Society of America and the Pan-American Society for Evolutionary Developmental Biology and was a member of a National Science Foundation funded REBUILD program, working to improve undergraduate STEM education at U-M. Currently, she  serves as a senior editor at the journal eLife and associate editor at the journals Molecular Biology and Evolution and GENETICS. She has presented her research in more than 150 invited talks in 18 different countries.

Diarmaid Ó Foighil at an EEB fall retreat showing Annette Ostling and Yin-long Qiu a beach find.

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Reflecting on his term as chair, Ó Foighil said, “Our department has undergone two major waves of change over the past six years that have strengthened and renewed our academic program. The first involved the co-location of our two museum units in the renovated Research Museum Center and of all of our faculty in the new Biological Sciences Building.

“The second has been more incremental, but is no less profound. We have had a greater than 50 percent turnover of EEB tenure-track faculty that has led to a large drop in our mean age, coupled with a significant increase in our diversity. Over the past six years, EEB has become a substantially new department in a completely new work setting. The timing is therefore perfect for a new EEB chair and I am very pleased indeed that my esteemed colleague Trisha Wittkopp has agreed to take on this role. She has excelled in all aspects of being a U-M faculty member and I know that she will excel as our new chair.”

Some colleagues chimed in to honor and recognize Ó Foighil’s six years as EEB chair:

"Diarmaid managed to keep us all moving forward during a remarkably challenging period to be chair,” said Mark Hunter, Earl E. Werner Distinguished University Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “He helped us to navigate our complex move into the Biological Sciences Building, and worked to ensure that our unit kept focused on its mission as the COVID-19 pandemic and associated shutdown developed.

"While Diarmaid has been a strong voice for EEB in the college and the university, he has never lost sight of the individuals who make up our unit. His care and attention to the wellbeing of students, staff, and faculty has made a tremendous difference during these challenging times," Hunter said.

“As department chair, Diarmaid dedicated substantial time, effort and creativity to the needs of EEB,” said EEB Professor Catherine Badgley. “He motivated us to increase the number and diversity of faculty in EEB through several university hiring initiatives; these have brought an energetic cadre of scholars into the department. He has taken seriously the concerns about well-being and inclusion from students, faculty and staff. I have appreciated his perspective as a citizen of Ireland and a first-generation university student; these perspectives have brought insight and empathy to his role as department chair.  He has made a lasting, positive impact.”

Jo Kurdziel, Beverly Rathcke Collegiate Lecturer said, “I think Diarmaid tried to do a lot to improve the climate in EEB. He pushed to get the EEB Dropbox in place and always listened carefully and sought out a diversity of perspectives.” (The Dropbox is an anonymous way to submit concerns about the department).

EEB Professor André Green added, "I am deeply appreciative of Diarmaid's efforts to make EEB a more diverse and inclusive community."

“I noticed how proud Diarmaid was of EEB and its people from our first meeting when I came for my interview visit,” added EEB Professor Hernán López-Fernández. After I moved here he came around a couple of times a week to ask how I was doing and make sure I had everything I needed. This first impression was personal, but it quickly grew into a fuller idea of how much he has been invested in ensuring the entire department is taken care of and that everyone is doing well. He led the department through an extraordinary and prolonged set of transformations that, despite the enormous challenges they represented, left us in a completely different and rejuvenated state. Not only did we move into a new building and museum, but we also saw an exceptional amount of diverse and excellent faculty additions in every discipline within the department. He leaves his position as chair with a legacy of renewed energy that promises a bright and innovative future for all of us.”

Ó Foighil added, “I am very optimistic about the department’s future under Trisha's leadership – our best days lie ahead!”

Read more about Wittkopp in previous EEB web news Wittkopp’s trifecta of awards and Wittkopp named Sally L. Allen Collegiate Professor of EEB and MCDB

And in the article EEB’s three Thurnau Professors demonstrate commitment to undergrad teaching, from the fall 2017 issue of EEB’s alumni newsletter, Natural Selections