Dean’s Corner, June 2023

Sonia Altizer

The past two years have brought many changes to the Odum School of Ecology. Summer 2023 carries another important transition, as the school welcomes incoming Dean Mark Hunter on July 1. Dean Hunter is excited to return to UGA and lead the school in its next phase of strategic development, and I’ve enjoyed working with him the past two months in preparation for the change in leadership.

From a personal perspective, it has been a joy and an honor for me to lead the Odum School during the past two years as Interim Dean, and serve alongside dedicated and inspiring colleagues. I learned so much throughout this journey, and am proud of everything the school accomplished. We can all take great pride in our achievements—I for one am amazed by the innovation, collaboration and resilience I witnessed in the Odum School as we weathered challenges and grew in new directions.

Notable Odum School highlights during the past two years include:

  • A return of pre-pandemic traditions, including Friday coffee hours, an in-person Graduate Student Symposium, Odum Lecture, Chili-cookoff, Spring Fling, and graduate and undergraduate student retreats at the Odum cabin
  • Faculty-led study away programs in Costa Rica, Africa and the southeastern U.S., and expanded service-learning courses that engage students in community projects around the Athens area
  • The launch of Ecology’s new student ambassador program and student peer mentors
  • Undergraduate enrollment continued to grow in the AB/BS degree programs to a high point of 192 majors in spring 2023
  • Continued success in the Sustainability Certificate program (housed in the Odum School), with a plan for future investment in the certificate leadership, capstone projects and enrollment
  • Expanded graduate student assistantships, increasing the number of current and incoming students funded on unit-level GRA/GTA lines
  • The recruitment of six new faculty members to join the school, including two faculty hired as part of the university-wide Presidential Interdisciplinary Cluster Hire Initiative in the area of artificial intelligence and data science
  • Welcomed the first Odum postdoctoral scholar to develop research in collaboration with Ecology faculty and instruction in general ecology and ecological methods
  • Promoted five faculty members to advance in rank with unanimous support from the unit, expanded endowed professorships in Ecology, and successfully nominated over 10 faculty members to receive prestigious university-level and external awards for research, mentoring, teaching and service
  • Increased extramural research expenditures (grants and contracts) over two consecutive years
  • Important events were hosted by Ecology’s two research centers, including the River Basin Center’s Policy Symposium and Georgia Water Resources Conference; and the Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases’ Japanese Encephalitis Virus Symposium
  • Established the Odum School’s first ever Alumni Board, to connect Ecology alums with current students, faculty and administrators in the school, and build alumni engagement
  • Ecology’s first successful nominee chosen for UGA’s 40 under 40 class of 2022 by the UGA Alumni Association
  • Expanded the donor base for annual giving in Ecology and ran three successful Georgia Funder campaigns to enhance Ecology research and expand student training opportunities
  • Secured the first ever Ecology PhD student scholarship through a UGA Board of Trustees match with support from an alumni donor
  • Rebuilt the Odum School’s core staff following departures and retirements, including Ecology’s communications director, development and alumni relations coordinator, financial director, IT director and business operations manager
  • Added three new staff positions in 2022:  grants coordinator, academic programs specialist and communications specialist (shared with RBC)
  • Upgraded space in classrooms, research labs, and commons spaces throughout the Ecology Building (including a wall mural and logo of the Odum School in the main lobby) and Horseshoe Bend, Ecology Annex, Spring Hollow cabin, Poultry Sciences, and Biological Sciences
  • Successfully recruited a new dean for the school, for the first time in the school’s 15-year history

ecology lobby
View of the Odum School’s newly updated main lobby with wall mural artwork by Freshwaters Illustrated, founded by Odum School alumnus Jeremy Monroe.

Did you know that the Odum School has 21 distinguished emeritus and retired faculty, most of whom live near Athens, Georgia? On May 9, we were delighted to host a picnic lunch at Horseshoe Bend for our emeritus faculty. Guests included Dave Coleman, Ron Carroll, Carol Hoffman, Whit Gibbons, Jim Porter, Bruce Wallace, Bernie Patten and Alan Covich (via Zoom). We recognized Professor Cathy Pringle on her upcoming retirement, and learned about new and ongoing activities in the Odum School. It was wonderful to see familiar faces and hear how emeritus faculty are staying engaged in the community, continuing with science and keeping active in other pursuits. We look forward to future engagement with our emeritus faculty in the coming years.

Ecology Emeriti at HSB facility
Attendees at the May 2023 Emeritus faculty luncheon included (from left) Pej Rohani, Dave Coleman, Whit Gibbons, Carol Hoffman, Bernie Patten, Cathy Pringle, Jim Porter, Amanda Rugenski, Sechindra Vallury, Ron Carroll, Seth Wenger, Melissa Lee and Sonia Altizer (not pictured: Alan Covich and Bruce Wallace).

One of my favorite events each year is convocation and graduation, when we celebrate Ecology graduates and their accomplishments with families and friends. This year’s graduates were mid-way through their first year of studies when a viral pandemic shut down most face-to-face activity and lead to scenarios we had only ever imagined in the preceding years and decades. I’m so proud of how Ecology’s graduates handled the past several years with determination and perseverance. I’m also grateful for the work our students have done and will continue to do to restore hope and health for the earth’s ecosystems, and lead the frontiers of science to discover how the natural world operates. To the Odum School of Ecology’s Class of 2023—congratulations, and welcome to the Odum School Alumni family!

uga stadium during commencement
View from the platform at Sanford Stadium during undergraduate commencement on May 12, 2023.

As Ecology welcomes Dean Hunter this summer, it is important to note that the Odum School has seen numerous leadership changes throughout its history, which come with exciting new ideas and initiatives, and changes in leadership styles. Yet these changes never alter our core mission, culture and commitment to excellence. For more than five decades, the Odum School of Ecology has led the boundaries of discovery in ecological science, trained future generations and developed innovative solutions to environmental problems. Together we will continue to grow the Odum School’s national and global reputation, foster discovery, support diversity and prepare global thinkers to tackle complex problems. To our students, faculty, staff and community of alumni, donors and friends, please know that the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia is your home, and we are here to support you in achieving your goals.

Sonia Altizer at UGA commencement