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Professor earns national ecology award

July 17, 2008

The Ecological Society of America has chosen Professor Stuart Fisher to receive the Eugene P. Odum Education Award for 2008. This award recognizes extraordinary individuals for “outstanding work in ecology education, teaching, outreach and mentoring activities.”

Fisher, a researcher in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, studies the relationship between ecosystem structure and function using stream ecosystems as a model. He’s published more than 100 articles, 95% of which were co-authored with his graduate students, largely based on research at Sycamore Creek, a desert stream ecosystem near Phoenix. Fisher was also one of the authors of the highly collaborative report created by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), which was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, shared with Al Gore, in 2007.

Fisher’s impact has, according to the Ecological Society, been particularly profound in teaching and mentoring. Renowned for his, as one graduate put it, “legendary” classes, Fisher’s “real-life and hands-on approaches in training future scientists” have empowered scores of undergraduate and graduate students. The Odum Award dedication cites his contributions thus: Fisher’s “attitude of lifelong learning and his dedicated, absorptive mentorship of graduate and undergraduate students has inspired and fledged some of the most eminent ecosystem ecologists in the field.”

Fisher’s intellectual progeny include luminaries in ecological and biodiversity sciences, such as National Academy of Sciences’ members Steve Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin and Peter Vitousek of Stanford University, both of whom were undergraduate honors students with Fisher at Amherst College.

Carpenter, deemed by the Institute for Scientific Information as “one of the world’s most highly cited researchers in environmental science,” notes of Fisher: “Stuart is a gifted teacher who has had an extraordinary influence on ecosystem ecology through his role as a mentor. He is unusually creative in mentoring, and therefore exceptionally good at evoking creativity in others.”

“Stuart is strongly motivated by the joy of seeing students make new discoveries and sets a great example for the rest of us who mentor students,” Carpenter adds.

Mentoring skills, by and large, in the scientific community have traditionally lacked support through any formal training programs, relying on informal, sometimes uneven and potentially inadequate apprenticeship-style practices. More recently, programs like Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) supported by the National Science Foundation and formal mentoring classes, such as those created by the National Academies and other scientific institutions and universities, have offered additional training options.

Strong mentoring, interdisciplinarity, and hands-on instruction have been signatures of a Fisher classroom since he started his teaching career in the 1970’s and features that he’s built upon and passed along as he’s expanded educational opportunities and mentoring for students in urban ecology in Arizona. Fisher and his colleagues will have received more than $5.9 million by 2010 for the development and implementation of an IGERT program in urban ecology at ASU. The focus of this program has been the establishment of cross-disciplinary collaborative training models for graduate students that foster an innovative educational culture that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries and limitations.

Arizona State’s research and publication efforts have landed the university in the sixth spot in Thomson Scientific’s U.S. University’s Top 10 for impact in ecology and environmental sciences. Rob Page, Founding Director of the School of Life Sciences, believes that the university’s success is due to “extraordinary faculty and research,” but also its signature cross-disciplinary research programs and approaches.

An environment of intellectual cross pollination and unbounded possibilities has been central to Fisher’s approach to science and teaching.

“The field of ecosystem ecology is collaborative as a rule. Because of this collective approach, I am preadapted to the role of mentor, though all of those in my group share responsibility for exchange of ideas, teaching, learning and professional development,” Fisher says. “My greatest professional joys have always involved graduate students. They are young, able, energetic, resourceful, open minded and not hemmed in by disciplinary paradigms,” Fisher states. “Mentoring isn’t for everyone, but for those who are motivated by the joys of discovery more than the joys of reaping credit for it, working with graduate students is a most rewarding path.”

Fisher has been a member of the Ecological Society of America for more than 30 years. He is one of eight exceptional scientists who will be honored at the 93rd societal meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in August. Founded in 1915, the society is a scientific, non-profit, 10,000-member organization with four peer-reviewed journals: Ecology, Ecological Applications, Ecological Monographs, and Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.