UGA professor honored by Ecological Society of America

Athens, Ga – University of Georgia professor James “Jim” Porter has never put teaching second, despite a busy research schedule. The UGA Institute of Ecology professor has consistently gotten rave reviews from students lucky enough to get into one of his courses. Now Porter will be honored for his outstanding success on Monday, Aug. 8, with the Eugene P. Odum Education Award presented by the Ecological Society of America.

The award recognizes exceptional work of an individual through teaching, outreach and mentoring activities that help relate basic ecological principles to human affairs. The award was named after the late UGA professor Eugene P. Odum, who is also known as the “father of modern ecology.” Porter is the first faculty member from UGA to receive this prize, which was established in 2000.

Porter, who has a solid, well-regarded research record in the area of coral reef ecosystems, was instrumental in pushing for an environmental literacy requirement at UGA. The requirement was later adopted by the Georgia state university system, far ahead of the rest of the nation.

Porter’s classes are among the most popular on campus, and the most effective, according to students – including two Rhodes Scholars – as well as top-ranked scientists and teachers. In a letter of nomination for the award written the month prior to his death in 2002, Eugene Odum wrote, “I know of no other ecologist who has accomplished this level of success with undergraduates.”

“The reason I am where I am is because of Jim Porter,” said Colleen Cavanaugh of Harvard University. “His amazing enthusiasm in his teaching, his love of learning and research, and his encouragement as a professor and advisor are the reasons that I chose research and marine ecology as my career…Jim made scientific research come alive for me.”

Rhodes Scholar Beth Shapiro, who took Porter’s undergraduate courses, concurs. “I have experienced academia in two countries, and I fear that less value is being given to teaching now than ever…Dr. Jim Porter inspires the students who walk through the door of his class to stop and think. His is a rare skill that should not only be rewarded, but held up as an example for others to follow.”

“I am sure it is rare, indeed, for undergraduate students to applaud a teacher at the conclusion of his lectures. I saw this response from Jim’s students several times,” Dr. Samuel Linhart of the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine once commented after witnessing Porter in action. “On two occasions students in his class were seen leaving with tears in their eyes.”

Porter doesn’t restrict his teaching to campus. His research on the cause of coral decline in the Florida Keys attracted a lot of media attention when he and his students discovered that a fecal coliform bacterium found in humans was causing the problem. The findings, vividly described by Porter in the press, on network television and on national radio, caused municipalities throughout the Florida Keys to upgrade their waste water treatment systems. He has testified as an environmental expert before congress five times.

“Jim used ecological theory to explain why expensive (exceedingly expensive) infrastructural upgrades would be required to protect coral reefs in the Florida Keys,” said Deevon Quirolo of Reef Relief in Key West, Florida. “He did this, not by dumbing down the theory, but by illustrating the theory so clearly and so cleverly that everyone in the audience understood it.”

“I feel strongly that researchers need to do a better job at informing the public about the urgency and importance of environmental issues. Teaching is a good way to learn the skills to do this,” said Porter upon learning he was to be honored.

“I was inspired by extraordinary teachers,” he added. “If your aim is to change the world, my advice is that dictators do not have a lasting influence, but teachers do. To save the world, you must teach the world.”


Note to editors: A photo of Jim Porter conducting coral research in the Florida Keys is available at http://www.ugaphoto.alumni.uga.edu/news/21609-x001.jpg.