Mark Hunter attends a BioKIDS student science fair.

Following a remarkable and expansive academic career, including the past 14 years at the University of Michigan, Mark Hunter, Earl E. Werner Distinguished University Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, retired Dec. 31, 2020.

Hunter's integrative research interests encompass plant-animal interactions (most recently with milkweed and monarch butterflies), ecosystem ecology, biodiversity and population dynamics. His research links population processes with ecosystem processes in terrestrial environments and explores the mitigation of global environmental change.

He has published over 170 (many highly cited) research papers, written or edited six books, and has received 30 years of continuous federal funding including 18 National Science Foundation grants. His work has been widely covered in the media including by the BBC, CNN, CBC, ABC, The Times, The Business Standard, The LA Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Science Podcast, Nature World News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Natural History Magazine, Science News, Science Magazine, The Smithsonian, United Press International, and National Public Radio/Public Radio International.

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 and Distinguished University 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 EEB Professor Diarmaid Ó Foighil.

Researching medicinal plants in Greater Kruger National Park. Image credit: 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 groundbreaking book that’s received rave reviews: “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.

Hunter has an outstanding teaching record at U-M as evidenced by his stellar teaching reviews in both large- and small-enrollment courses and his diligent mentorship of students. He had a similarly outstanding record in teaching from the University of Georgia, where he was prior to U-M. Hunter’s main teaching in EEB has been in Introductory Biology and in General Ecology. 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). Hunter has been a dedicated research mentor to 42 undergraduate and 16 graduate students at U-M.

Regarding service, Hunter is legendary for being one of the most responsible and responsive members of the EEB department on the EEB Executive Committee and as acting chair for a semester in 2012.

Outside of the department, he served 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.

He played an extraordinary leadership role in diversifying EEB’s graduate student body (and, eventually, the discipline) as the founding director of the Frontier’s Master’s Program in EEB at U-M from 2008 - 2012. 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. 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 his professorship in ecology and evolutionary biology, Hunter was a professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability.

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

As for Hunter’s plans in retirement, “Most immediately, I'll spend time with family back in Scotland. That's definitely a priority. Over the longer term, I'd like to be a bit more ‘hands-on’ in conservation work. MaryCarol (Mark’s wife) has designed a couple of pollinator gardens recently, and I'd like to be more actively involved with projects like that. And music. My twin passions are ecology and music, and the latter has taken a back seat over the past 40 years. So it's time to redress the balance.”

Regarding a favorite aspect of his career, “Working at the University of Michigan Biological Station has definitely been a highlight. I can remember how excited I felt each spring, heading north to UMBS to spend the summer. Getting to study plants and herbivores as part of a community of students, faculty and staff – there's nothing quite like it. And a huge part of working at UMBS was helping undergraduate and graduate students establish their own projects. That was very rewarding. I'm still in contact with most of the students who have passed through my lab, and it's been wonderful to watch what they've done since leaving Michigan.” 

Asked for his words of wisdom for up and coming science students or early career scientists, Hunter responded, “Always ask for help when you need it. When you're surrounded by clever people, it can be hard to admit that you don't know something. Over the years, I've asked for help with everything from writing to time management to chemistry to mathematics. I've always benefited from getting help from people with expertise.”

Mark Hunter presented his Henry A. Gleason Collegiate Professorship lecture in Sept. 2016. Image credit: Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography

Many colleagues, including fellow faculty and students, wished to express their appreciation to Hunter on his significant scientific contributions to the field and even more importantly, the impact he’s had on their careers and lives:

“Mark has had a major positive impact on my career,” wrote Jacobus (Jaap) de Roode, Professor of Biology, Emory University. “I started collaborating with Mark shortly before starting my faculty job at Emory, and Mark helped me navigate the first years of my pre-tenure period, especially with guiding and securing my first NSF grants. I fondly remember our drafting our first collaborative NSF grant in a sandwich shop in Ann Arbor, where I learned above all to keep things straightforward and simple. I cannot think of a scientist with more integrity than Mark, and he has always been an inspiration to do the best honest science.

“Mark’s chemical ecology expertise has been a major driver for our collaborative work, through which we showed that the secondary chemicals of milkweeds can act medicinally against parasites of monarch butterflies. We found that monarch butterflies can use a form of medication, by laying their eggs on medicinal milkweeds that make their offspring less infected and sick. Among other things, we also found that the interaction between mycorrhizae and milkweeds below-ground affects the parasites of monarchs above-ground, by altering the concentrations of plant secondary chemicals. When Mark decided to retire, he did not do so before teaching me the chemistry that I will need to continue the work we started together, thus ensuring I have the tools to build on our collaborative work.”   

Professor Pej Rohani, Odum School of Ecology and Department of Infectious Diseases, University of Georgia, wrote, “I have known Mark for almost 20 years, over which time he has been a valued faculty colleague, a mentor, guitar teacher and personal friend. 

“The secret to Mark’s accomplishments has always been a mystery to me — how does he do it? I’ve been fortunate to have been a faculty colleague at UGA and UMich and irrespective of institution, he has always been an outstanding instructor (with packed classes and off-the-charts evaluation scores), a very productive and influential scholar (with numerous papers published every year in the best ecology journals and a steady flow of federal grants) and an exemplary departmental and university citizen (always up to speed on administrative issues and thoughtful with comments). And yet, Mark has always found time for others. After all these years, I still don’t know how he managed it all!”

U-M EEB Professor and Chair, Patricia Wittkopp, said, “I want to thank you for all that you’ve brought to the department and to me, personally, over the years. I am grateful to have had you as a colleague, benefiting from the sage advice you've shared with me. I’ve also been inspired by your commitment to mentoring, as I know many of our students have as well. I wish you all the best and hope you have some great adventures ahead.”  

U-M EEB Professor Meghan Duffy, said “You played a really key role in me moving here to Michigan and I’m really grateful for all you did in terms of that move and for the department over the years. You’ve also definitely had an impact on the research that my lab members and I do and I really have enjoyed our conversations over the years.”

Mark and MaryCarol wave “goodbye for now” from inside a snow globe in downtown Edinburgh, Scotland.

“Mark is the best combination of a scientist-educator that I know,” EEB Professor George Kling reflected. “He first grabbed my attention when he decided to teach intro bio, he wasn’t coerced into it, and he got almost perfect scores from the students in that large class. That’s just stunning to me. That combined with Mark’s really insightful and careful science has been sort of an inspiration to me in terms of how I do my science and education.

“I want to thank Mark for being a real confidant for me over the years. I felt I could share anything with Mark and he gave real insightful and honest answers to my questions. I’m going to miss that.”

EEB Professor Catherine Badgley, said, “I’d like to thank you for a number of contributions to the department. First of all, your fascinating research. I’ve always enjoyed hearing about it from you and your students. You’ve given some of the best-crafted talks I have ever heard and I’ve learned from these how to be a better speaker myself.

“Thank you for your wonderful teaching. You received the first departmental teaching award that we developed especially for you a few years ago. Many of your students have been extremely grateful to have been in your classes. Thank you also for your excellent mentoring of graduate students. Having known a number of them personally, they’ve always had glowing words about how supportive you were and how you challenged them to do well – and they did well. Thank you also for helping the department launch the Frontiers Program. It has been very, very important to us as a unit and has helped launch the careers of wonderful students.”

“For many years you’ve been one of the very best scholars, instructors, mentors and general members of the department,” Ó Foighil said. “You’ve had a first class research career here and your extensive body of work has been about the most integrative of all of our research programs. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that you did a fantastic job in your term as interim chair and you made a really important contribution to the department as the founding director of the Frontiers Program. We are going to miss you in important ways, but your legacy here is a rather profound one.”    

“Congratulations for a really amazing career,” said U-M EEB Professor Jake Allgeier. “You’ve inspired many, many ecologists in our field and certainly you’ve inspired me with your amazing work. I’ve had the sort of honor to follow you in your footsteps from University of Georgia to Michigan. I’ve also had the honor to have you as a mentor here. You have provided a lot of excellent advice and mentorship over the years that I’ve been here and I owe you a really big thank you for that. It’s been a real pleasure to learn from you and to learn with you. Certainly for that reason and many others, I hate to see you go.” 

“How do you begin to say thank you to someone who’s made such a positive impact in your life? I can argue that Mark, in a sense, changed my life but he probably doesn’t know it,” Kristel Sánchez, a U-M EEB doctoral student, said. “I first met Mark when I interviewed for the Frontiers Program in 2015 and what struck me the most about meeting with him was … first time we’ve met … he was ready to work with me, ready to switch systems, ready to find me resources to make a project happen. I walked out of the meeting feeling confident. He gave me a sense that I could do this thing called grad school, that maybe I wasn’t an imposter at all and maybe I could do research.

"Something, as your student, that I want to retain from you are all those wonderful qualities that make you an amazing scientist, that make you an amazing mentor. We will miss you a lot, Mark. I thank you for everything you did for me, the mentorship you provided, and all those conversations that we had.”

Johanna Nifosi, a U-M EEB master’s alumnus, who is now an ecology contractor, U.S. Geological Survey,  said, “I want to thank you for being the best mentor I could ever have had. I wouldn’t have achieved not even half of what I did at the university if it wasn’t for you. You always kept me on track, you challenged me positively, you pushed my limits in the most positive way, you were always organized and gave me extra time to answer those thousand questions. You even make me understand that it was normal to be homesick and struggling and thanks to that I was able to push through all those hard years for me. I want to thank you for starting the program of Frontiers. You opened the door for so many opportunities to all the Frontiers students just like me.

“Thank you for always encouraging me to think outside the box when results are not what we expect to be. Thank you for injecting in me all this passion for monarch butterflies and plant insect interactions.” 

Leslie Decker, a U-M EEB doctoral alumnus, who is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biology, Stanford University, said, "I’m so thankful for all the creativity and energy and excellence that you put into everything you do from teaching to advising to just being a good member of our community. I’ve learned so much from you as an advisor and as a person and I’m genuinely grateful for that. I’m also so excited to hear about all the great things you get up to in retirement. I know they’re going to be interesting and full of music and nature."

Hunter added, “I'll miss working with undergraduate and graduate students on their research. From interactions with individual students up to organizational work with Frontiers and Rackham, facilitating student research has been my greatest pleasure and privilege. I'll also miss the staff in EEB and the Program in Biology. They have been so kind and helpful over the years – I am so very grateful to the staff, and I'll miss them hugely.”

As evident from the sentiments expressed here, Hunter will be greatly missed by many but his legacy is lasting and profound. 

Compiled by Gail Kuhnlein

Read more in related news linked from Hunter’s EEB faculty emeritus webpage>>