This is a conversation between Dr. Joanne Sharpe, friend of the Odum School of Ecology and UGA graduate, and Lee Snelling, director of development, regarding the Robert Sheldon Memorial Award. Dr. Sharpe established this award in memory of her first husband in 1970. Robert Sheldon was a Ph.D. student with the Institute of Ecology in the late 1960s and tragically died in an automobile accident. Along with a number of friends and relatives Dr. Sharpe established the memorial award to support graduate students and their field research. Dr. Sharpe now lives in Maine with her current husband, Henry Minot (also a UGA graduate), and is an independent consultant. In April 2011, Dr. Sharpe visited UGA and the Odum School to give a talk on her recently published book Fern Ecology.
Can you tell us a little about the Robert Sheldon Memorial Award and who it is named after?
The Robert Sheldon Memorial Award was established in 1970 with contributions from many of his friends, relatives and colleagues in the department. Rob went to college at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and graduated in 1967. At a biology meeting he attended during his senior year he met Eugene Odum who invited him to join the doctoral program at UGA. Rob started out taking summer ecology courses and demonstrating his skill at throwing hoops around in ecology studies out at Horseshoe Bend with fellow-graduate student Jim Richardson. After completing all of his course work in the spring of 1969 he went on a UGA research expedition to Antarctica with several professors and graduate students. He then was awarded a research fellowship to work with Lawrence Pomeroy on the ecology of marine micro-organisms at the University of Georgia Marine Institute on Sapelo Island. He was starting his second quarter of research there at the time of his death on January 5, 1970, in an automobile accident. He and two other graduate students (John Levy and Thomas Logan of the Geology Department) died in Watkinsville, Georgia, on their return trip south to Sapelo Island after registering for the winter quarter when a large truck heading north moved into oncoming traffic and hit their vehicle head on.
Rob's parents were from Texas, but he was born in 1944 in Bogotá, Colombia, where his father was a field geologist for an oil company. He and his older sister Kay then grew up in Indonesia, where his mother was a golf pro, until his father moved to the head office of the oil company in New York City when Rob was in seventh grade. He attended John Jay High School in Katonah, New York, which is where we met. We were married in 1965, and I worked in computers, both in Houston and for UGA. Rob was brilliant and totally fascinated by biology (he even built a large tank in our backyard as a Rice undergraduate where he could watch oysters react to different diurnal rhythm patterns). He would try anything. He acted in plays as an undergraduate and he and I had obtained private pilot licenses out at Jackson County Airport the summer before he died. His sister and her husband now live in Brownsville, Texas, and I have three wonderful Sheldon nieces and seven great-nieces and great-nephews who have inherited his sense of adventure.
Why was it important to provide support for field research for graduate students?
Rob was inspired by the experience of going on the research vessel to Antarctica and it totally opened his eyes to the many possible research avenues available in the global oceans. Much later in my own life, had it not been for the 10-week Organization for Tropical Studies program in Costa Rica, I would never even have been aware of all the possible research questions to be asked of tropical ferns. To have even a little funding to check out nebulous ideas "on the ground" is so incredibly valuable for graduate students.
What do you hope students to achieve through this award?
I hope it enables them to get a better sense of the challenges and potential rewards of field research. It isn't easy, and requires an attitude of incredible resourcefulness. No matter how much thinking and planning goes into preparation for a field study, there are always surprises. I hope this award enables the recipient to be able to deal successfully with those surprises, or perhaps to find out for themselves that they may not have chosen quite the path they had intended to.
Have you been able to meet any of the recipients over the years?
I have only met a few of the recipients of the award over the years, though a few have written to express their gratitude. Those communications became much more meaningful to me when my own career path changed from troubleshooting accounting computer systems to trying to understand fern ecology in the tropics. I was fortunate to have received a similar award from the Palfrey fund in the Botany Department to jump start my own field research project in Costa Rica. I wish I could have thanked Mr. Palfrey!
Can you tell us about some of your own work?
At the time of Rob's death I was a "student wife" with no thoughts about the future except to work while he was in school and eventually to raise children. Just before he died however, I had moved with him to Sapelo Island where an avid curiosity about the forest, dunes and beaches was aroused in me. After he died, I became associated with Little Cumberland Island, Georgia, where melding development and conservation objectives is a constant challenge. I continued to work in the computer field for most the next 14 years (with a brief hiatus to study forestry at UGA!). However, in 1982 I had an opportunity to enter the doctoral program in botany at the University of Georgia with Judy Jernstedt (now at the University of California, Davis) after taking night courses in botany at the New York Botanical Garden and discovering tropical ferns on a vacation in Trinidad. After six years of dissertation research in Costa Rica, I was looking for a secure site where I could do long-term studies of the role of ferns in the rainforest ecosystem when Bruce Haines put me in touch with the director of the new Luquillo Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site in Puerto Rico. For twenty years I monitored seasonal and annual changes of over two thousand individually marked ferns of several species both in Puerto Rico and in Maine, and have gained insights into the variety of responses possible in a disturbance-prone ecosystem. I was also privileged to be able to work with ferns on larger LTER projects such as a hurricane simulation experiment. With a Luquillo LTER colleague, Lars Walker, and a fern ecologist in Mexico,Klaus Mehltreter, I have also recently co-edited and co-authored Fern Ecology, the first textbook on the subject.
Can you reflect on the transformation of UGA since you were here first in the late 1960s?
I was only vaguely aware when we first arrived in Athens how important Eugene Odum and his concepts of ecology could become. I only knew that my husband thought he was absolutely brilliant, and that with a single conversation, he had certainly changed the trajectory of our lives. When I later became a fern ecologist and began to work within the LTER system, it amazed me how many of the people I met had Georgia ecology connections. This clearly reflected that the Institute, and now the Odum School of Ecology, was always on the cutting edge of thinking and research in the field. In a way it has not only trained good ecologists, it also inspires them to continue to influence many national and international initiatives in the field.
Robert Sheldon on the Antarctic research vessel
Antarctica group - Robert Sheldon--second from left in the second row from the back (tallest one wearing a hat)
2010-11 Sheldon Memorial Award recipient – Thomas Barnum, Dr. Joanne Sharpe and Dr. Alan Covich
Robert A. Sheldon Memorial Award
Donations to the Robert A. Sheldon Memorial Award are always welcome. Checks should be made out to the ‘University of Georgia’ and include ‘Robert A. Sheldon Memorial Award’ in the memo line. These generous contributions can be mailed to –
University of Georgia
Director of Development
Odum School of Ecology
140 East Green Street
Athens, Georgia 30602
|Recipent Name||Year Won|
|No Award Given||2001|
|No Award Given||1997|
|No Award Given||1996|
|No Award Given||1992|
|No Award Given||1975|
|No Award Given||1974|
|No Award Given||1973|
|No Award Given||1971|
Development and Alumni Relations Coordinator