October 28, 2005

SIUC creates Center for Ecology

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A new Center for Ecology should put Southern Illinois University Carbondale on the map for scientists and students interested in studying wild things, the environment and the relationships between the two.

"While a lot of other universities have tried to emphasize some of the more trendy areas of the life sciences (such as cellular and molecular research) and have gotten away from basic field ecology, SIUC has over the years maintained its field-based programs," said Matt R. Whiles, associate professor of zoology, who with plant biologists Sara G. Baer and David J. Gibson is spearheading the new center.

"Because we also offer solid training (in laboratory, analytical and molecular techniques) comparable to those other institutions, we have a better balance of the two, which makes us unique in the state and surrounding areas — and quite appealing to students."

"We also have great outdoor resources. We're on the edge of the Shawnee Forest, and we have two major rivers, floodplain habitat and the Ozark hills."

The new center will provide a focus for a host of ecology-oriented faculty and students from forestry, geography, geology, microbiology, plant and soil science, plant biology and zoology as well as those associated with the University's Cooperative Wildlife Research Lab and its Fisheries and Illinois Aquaculture Center, organizers say.

"We realized there was a critical mass of ecological expertise on this campus, but it was spread among different departments and colleges," Whiles said in explaining how the center got its start.

"Our goal was to bring the ecologists together to facilitate intellectual interaction and the development of interdisciplinary programs."

John A. Koropchak, SIUC's vice chancellor for research and the man who will oversee the center, said such an "umbrella organization" will mean good things for the University as a whole. It will assist both in recruiting students and faculty and with placement of the students trained here. It will help SIUC build a wider reputation in this particular arena, and it will aid researchers in winning more federal grants, one of the key goals of the University's Southern@150 strategic plan, which SIUC is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.

"Bringing all these faculty members together increases the likelihood that they will find mutual areas of interest where they can collaborate on research," Koropchak said.

"That kind of interdisciplinary collaboration makes research stronger and is looked upon very favorably when researchers submit grant requests."

The center will concentrate on three broad areas: individuals and populations, which would include research on such topics as endangered species and invasive species; communities and ecosystems, which would include research in such areas as environmentally friendly agriculture and extinctions; and watersheds and landscapes, which would include studies on such issues as global climate change and the Gulf of Mexico "dead zone"created by farm chemicals. The federal government offers substantial grants to teams of researchers with broad expertise who work on these kinds of urgent ecological problems, center organizers say.

During its first five years, researchers affiliated with the center will underwrite its budget with a small percentage of the portion of their federal grants allocated to indirect costs, and it will have no physical headquarters. A three-member executive committee, elected by participating faculty, will handle the nuts and bolts of daily operation with advice from an advisory board made up of chairs and deans from participating faculty members' home colleges.

At the end of the five years, University administrators will review the center and its accomplishments. Based on the results, the University then may seek to have the center recognized by the Illinois Board of Higher Education, which would give it formal status.

Indicators of a successful center could include the number of collaborative projects, the number of grant proposals sent to federal agencies, the amount of support for graduate students, the number of undergraduate research opportunities, and the number of publications and their impact, Koropchak said.

Whiles said he hoped to see a strong, multidisciplinary culture associated with the center, enough large grants to insure self-sufficiency, applications from top-notch students, a strong collaborative approach to teaching and training those students so that they leave with superior skills, and a respected seminar series.

"We hope to continue moving forward and expanding and making this a model center, not just on campus but in the region and beyond," he said.

"I would not have gotten involved if I didn't believe we could do this. We have an exceptional group of scientists with ecological interests on this campus, and I firmly believe we will be successful."