Focus on Faculty

Alan Covich

Sophomore mathematics major AliAnn Xu, left to right, talks with ecology professor Alan Covich, and classmate sophomore MIS major Eric Hyun after Covich's Ecological Basis for Environmental Issues class inside of the Science Learning Center.

Alan Covich, a professor in the Odum School of Ecology, studies the natural and economic impacts of disturbances such as hurricanes and droughts on ecosystems.

Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?

I have a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in economics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in biology from Yale University. As a professor of ecology in the Odum School of Ecology, I enjoy teaching students in the field and helping with their projects. My own research focuses on long-term field studies of tropical rivers and on local rivers and reservoirs, with help from many undergraduate and graduate students and colleagues.

When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?

I came to UGA in 2003 as director of the Institute of Ecology. I had been at UGA on a sabbatical in 1989 and was interested in the innovative research on stream ecology. My wife, Becky, and I moved from Colorado State University in Fort Collins to Lexington, where we live in a funky farmhouse with our pets, including a horse, chicken, two dogs and a lot of aquarium fishes. I enjoy combining teaching and research, so after my administrative responsibilities as director of the Institute of Ecology were completed in 2006, I have had more time to teach with my colleagues in a wide range of courses that directly relate to my research interests.

What are your favorite courses and why?

My favorites are whatever courses I am currently teaching because every semester I learn some new ideas from our students. This fall I enjoyed team teaching freshmen in the Honors discussion section of “Ecological Basis of Environmental Issues” (ECOL 1000) and our ecology majors in “Professional Development for Careers in Ecology” (ECOL 3400). I look forward to team-teaching “Principles of Ecology” (ECOL 3500) again this spring. Teaching is always gratifying because our students are highly motivated and talented, although most are still unsure about what they want to do to help improve the environment and how they can develop a career in ecology. Also, over the years my interactions with graduate students interested in the ecology of lakes and streams has resulted in team teaching with colleagues from several disciplines on campus. Many topics in freshwater ecology are related to environmental engineering, geography, fisheries, disease ecology, natural resources policy and other research areas focused on water quality and food webs.

What are some highlights of your career at UGA?

My research since 1988 on impacts of hurricanes and droughts on rivers in the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico now includes evaluating the cumulative effects of four hurricanes and two major droughts since our studies were first funded by the National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research Program. The results of our field experiments and observations on the combined effects of these natural disruptions on the rainforest watershed are now of national concern after the severe disturbances from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Predicting how long it will take for these resilient ecosystems to return to providing clean drinking water supplies has been an ongoing interest — and full of surprises. Explaining the ecological consequences of these abrupt changes to the reporters also has helped me improve my teaching and to clarify the limits of ecological predictions. I am working with a former student to determine how to couple solar- and hydro-power production while sustaining river water quality after hurricanes and landslides.

How do you describe the scope and impact of your research or scholarship to people outside of your field?

Much of my research and teaching, as well as what our ecology students do in their research, is based on concepts of network analysis. Food webs, river drainages, energy-supply grids, and road networks all intersect in ways that are affected by natural disturbances. These global issues have major economic impacts. I have worked with economists on campus to evaluate the value of biodiversity in providing natural ecosystem services and with colleagues at Resources for the Future to relate science-based concepts to sustainable economic development.

How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?

My research provides some in-depth case studies to illustrate several of the ecological concepts I want students to learn. Every semester the students ask new questions that help improve how we approach the issues for discussion. The framework continues to develop, and some questions from students do become new research projects.

What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?

I expect our students to think critically and to evaluate the evidence they use to form their ideas and their values regarding how ecosystems work under very different and dynamic conditions. Our students and former students provide important feedback that contributes to revising the curriculum in a number of ways that make teaching continuously enjoyable.

Describe your ideal student.

Our students are already highly motivated and curious about the future. They are open to new ideas and advice on how to prepare to meet their long-term goals. They are developing their communication skills as well as their understanding of ecology as a science-based discipline.

Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…

Hanging out in the ecology building and its courtyard is a great way to meet a wide range of people, especially after seminars and the various events that happen every week. And it is a short walk to the Creamery to fulfill my need for chocolate ice cream.

Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…

International travel is one of the most enjoyable adventures I have had, dating back to my first experiences in the Neotropics as an undergraduate. Those opportunities to learn from firsthand experiences have shaped my personal worldview as well as my teaching and research. I hope to spend more time teaching and doing research at the UGA campus in San Luis, Costa Rica. The excellent facilities and people there were one of the reasons I was first attracted to UGA 14 years ago.

Community/civic involvement includes….

I try to help the very talented people involved in planning recreational opportunities in local parks, such as our nearby Shaking Rock Park in Lexington. My wife and I also enjoy tours of homes, farms and gardens around Athens that raise funds to enhance the quality of life. We actively support UGA’s Museum of Natural History, the State Botanical Garden of Georgia and WUGA. I am especially interested in the early history of ecology at UGA that included much of the Athens community and is well documented in Special Collections archives on campus.

Favorite book/movie (and why)?

I enjoy mystery novels and, having read all of Tony Hillerman’s books, I am now excited to read the new series by his daughter, Anne Hillerman. I am reading the “Song of the Lion” now. My all-time favorite book is “Drifting into Darien,” one of the many I value by Janisse Ray. Meeting Janice several times on campus after her lectures has inspired me to think more about the diverse cultural connections that different people make to their local environments. Dac Crossley’s books provide similar intrigue and adventures that combine natural history and mystery. Science is solving mysteries, so having the cultural connections to the solutions is key to really enjoying what I do.

The one UGA experience I will always remember will be…

My first introduction to faculty in the Environmental Ethics Certificate Program occurred soon after I arrived in Athens. They were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the program, and my friend Frank Golley invited me to attend. Everyone was from different academic backgrounds, and they were meeting at Gene and Martha Odum’s log home in Ila. As the group moved indoors during a brief rainstorm and gathered around the fireplace, I met some new friends who have inspired me in many ways. It was the first of many such encounters at UGA. These connections have provided new links across a growing network of colleagues through the International Association for Ecology (INTECOL) and the Human Ecology section of the Ecological Society of America.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

As the Odum School of Ecology celebrates our 10 years of progress and our origins 50 years ago with the Institute of Ecology and the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, we are proud of being the first interdisciplinary unit on campus. I am excited about seeing the future growth that will sustain our statewide and international programs. We have a strong global reputation, and many alumni around the world will be coming back to campus this month to help us celebrate. This year is a great one for UGA and ecology.