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President’s Professor: Andrew T. Smith

February 11, 2010

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is the second of a two-part series about ASU's 2009 President's Professors. The award recognizes tenured faculty who have made outstanding contributions to undergraduate education at Arizona State University. The awardees are chosen based on mastery of subject matter; teaching abilities in and outside of the classroom; innovation in course and curriculum design; and scholarly contributions.

This year's recipients are James B. Adams, in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and Andrew T. Smith, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Teaching comes naturally to Andrew Smith, a President’s Professor and Parents Professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. He earned his first teaching award as a doctoral student at University of California, Los Angeles. His secret? Communicate.

“To be good requires a combination of things,” says Smith, who teaches the courses: "Introduction to Conservation," "Conservation and Practice," and "Mammology." “You have to be enthusiastic, convey your expertise with assurance; and that expertise has to be cutting-edge and relevant. You also have to tell stories that students connect with.”

Smith has plenty of those, after teaching more than 40 years, supervising or advising 53 graduate students and taking 21 trips to China. There, he’s studied the complex relationships between wildlife, such as the fuzzy burrowing relative of the rabbit, the pika; livestock; the culture and economy of pastoralism; and community-based conservation in the Tibetan grasslands.

For example, there are Smith’s tales about his colleagues, such as John MacKinnon, zoologist, who was principal author of the management plan for the Save the Giant Panda project, and is now director of the EU-China Biodiversity Programme in Beijing, China.

MacKinnon contributed to “A Guide to the Mammals of China,” edited by Smith and published in 2008. A Chinese-language edition of their book was released in 2009 by Hunan Education Press. Smith and his colleagues pursued, and were awarded, a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society to distribute the first 800 copies to every Chinese protected-area authority office and major border crossing station – free.

“We wanted to make it possible for Chinese scientists and officials to incorporate the book into their biodiversity surveys, enforcement of international trade agreements and to help eliminate illegal transboundary crossing of illegal species,” Smith notes.

Smith’s real-world tales of his colleagues, his student’s (and his own exploits) entertain, but carry deeper messages about the realities of social and scientific innovation, the complexity of ecological systems and human policymaking, and, more powerfully, difference-making.

“Stories of the people who’ve been in my class, who’ve gone out and done amazing things, are great," Smith says. "They illustrate how fascinating, vibrant and dynamic this field is: that it has so many nuances and it’s important for humanity – economically, aesthetically, viscerally. Students have to see they can make a difference. Their edge comes from believing in themselves and their abilities. You want them to be empowered, say ‘I can do it.'"

Former student and ASU Barrett Honor College graduate Tyler Scott, now pursing a graduate degree in aquatic and fisheries science at the University of Washington, believes that the discussions of real-world implications of course materials, current events and Smith’s own problem-solving, action-oriented research show him to be a scholar with a purpose, committed to making a difference, for his students, his community and the world.

“He is anything but a sterile ivory tower professor,” Tyler says.

Evidence of Smith’s transforming approach can be found globally: in the Peace Corps in Senegal (where ASU graduate Nicholas Whipps teaches environmental education) or on the Masai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya (where Michael Green studies conservation of the spotted hyena). It’s touched the grasslands in Yellowstone National Park, where ASU alum Don Siebert did a study about bison and the disease Brucella abortus for the Fund for Animals. It’s in the heights of Kazakhstan and Mongolia, where ASU doctoral student Aimee Kessler studies the Great Bustard and develops environmental education birding programs with rural school children, with funding from the Disney World Conservation Fund. In Tibet, where Smith frequently goes to do his own National Science Foundation-funded research, Smith’s former doctoral student Marc Foggins has founded the Canadian nonprofit Plateau Perspectives. His group invests in sustainability and community-building programs, and is a launching pad for other grassroots partnerships; work that ranges from ecology workshops for teachers to a “rent a yak” program, Smith says.

In essence, Smith’s stories show how good teaching can result in real, lasting community-based change. 

His laboratory group and professional affiliations also reflect Smith’s passion, flexibility and focus on partnership-building. He is an active member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)-World Conservation Union’s Lagomorph Specialist Group, Species Survival Commission and Global Mammal Assessment project. At ASU, he’s served as the associate director for undergraduate students in the School of Life Sciences (2006-2009) and is advisor and member of the faculty council of Barrett Honors College. In China, he is a Guest Professor with Beijing Normal University’s Center for Landscape Ecology and Sustainability Science and honorary member of the Yangtze River Headwaters Integrated Conservation and Development Organization. He even offers support for the “Pika Fan Club” in Japan. Smith builds bridges, between groups and students, teaching and practice.

What’s next for Smith? While “on the verge of 64,” he won’t be retiring soon: “I like what I’m doing! There’s still so much to do – and fun to have.”

Smith tells his students a story about how to wish someone "good luck" in Tibet: “You stick your tongue out,” he says.

So, here’s to you, President’s Professor Smith.