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UGA's ecology experiment

Jul. 14, 2007



Writer: Greg Bluestein, AP Writer

Contact: Anisa Jimenez, anisaj@uga.edu


The bust of one of science's most respected ecologists stands at the entrance to what could be the nation's first university-level school of ecology with a ready reminder: The ecosystem is greater than the sum of its parts.

The quote and the bust honor Eugene Odum, the legendary University of Georgia ecologist and namesake of the university's Odum School of Ecology, which officially opened last month. And now the late scientist's favorite mantra is being put to the test.

The school is the university's smallest, and its faculty is an odd mix of aging Odum disciples and 30-something scholars who grew up reading about him.

Although administrators are buzzing with hopes that it could become a national blueprint, they also struggle with a declining number of ecology majors, a limited budget and a healthy dose of self-doubt.

And there's concern the promotion could sap some spunk from the school - dubbed "The Big O" - where bearded faculty roam the hallways chewing over their latest research and graduate students host laid-back gatherings on the first Friday of every month.

"Change brings uncertainty. This is something really novel. UGA is taking the lead with a new school of ecology," said John Gittleman, the school's dean. "Where we're going to be a year or 10 years from now is unclear. But the faculty does understand when you do a new experiment, you typically don't know where it's going to end up."

If anything is clear, administrators say, it's that the first ecology school belongs at UGA.

Odum helped put ecology on the map as a scientific discipline during his career at UGA.

The "Fundamentals of Ecology," which Odum co-wrote with his brother, Howard, became the authoritative textbook on the subject when it was published in 1953 - and Odum's credited with bringing the word "ecosystem" into common parlance.

When he died in 2002, he was widely known as the father of modern ecology, the science known to students around the world as the study of how organisms interact with each other and the environment.

At UGA, his legacy goes deeper. The Institute for Ecology that Odum helped found in 1961 soon became one of the most renowned programs in the country, and it earned its own building on campus 13 years later.

But like the dozens of other ecology departments and programs around the nation, it was buried under the umbrella of other schools, and administrators clamored to find their voice amid the din of the crowded bureaucracy.

One of a kind

In June, UGA administrators decided to elevate the ecology program from the shadow of the College of Environment and Design into a stand-alone school, the first of its kind in the nation, Gittleman said.

"Now, ecology is going to have a seat at the table," he said. "And I think it's an easy sell - everyone's worried about the environment. You've got disease, global warming, invasive species. That means ecology is at the center of a lot of these issues."

Other ecology programs are watching closely.

"Ecology, by definition, is an interdisciplinary movement," said Jay Stachowicz, an ecology professor at University of California, Davis, which is home to one of the nation's top-ranked ecology departments. "It makes a lot of sense to consolidate that sort of expertise."

UGA's school has plenty to prove before other universities follow its lead.

With a schoolwide expense budget that could hover as low as $40,000, educators will have to quickly raise outside funds. They'll also likely rethink their undergraduate offerings to succeed under the university's funding formula, which grants money based on the number of credit hours taught.

The school boasts about 75 undergraduate majors - a picture of each is featured on a collage posted on a wall of the building - but that number has dipped slightly from 80.

The drop may be linked to the tough regimen of science, math and humanities courses that students are now required to take, Gittleman said. Administrators are now considering rethinking the catalog of courses along with dreaming up broader classes to pique interest in ecology.

The changes may not go over well with all of the faculty.

"The dip is not worrying me," said Gary W. Barrett, an ecology professor who worked with Odum. "I'd rather have 75 really good students than 150 students just interested in the environment."

Ecology's future

Gittleman argues that the best way to reach out to the next generation of ecologists is by proving the field is still relevant, and he often points to the research of his faculty to bolster that argument.

Ecologist Pejman Rohani has teamed with economists to develop a theory of how infectious diseases affect the economy. He's also focused research on the Indian meal moth, a resilient bug that is one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most hated pests.

"We want to see how it works," Rohani said, "and how it can be stopped."

Another example is John Drake, an assistant ecology professor who studies the emergence of diseases and invasive species. He sets up miniature ecosystems with experimental zooplankton, and changes variable such as food, temperature and habitat to chart the rate they go extinct.

Like most of the school's scholars, Drake is treating the new school like one of his lab projects.

"I think this whole school business is an experiment," said Drake. "We'll try it and see how it goes and we'll experiment some more. I'd rather have evidence than speculation."

Either way, the ecologists say the "school" label will help cement the institute's legacy - as well as Odum's.

"Gene was worried that the ecology program would die when he did," said Barrett, his longtime friend. "I think naming the school after him fulfills his dream."

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