First in ecology

The nation’s first stand-alone academic school devoted specifically to the study of ecology began operation this week when the University of Georgia opened the Eugene P. Odum School of Ecology.

Named for the late pioneering UGA professor known as the “father of modern ecology,” the school will be the university’s 16th academic school or college and will further cement UGA’s reputation as a world-class center for research and teaching on ecological principles and processes.

The school is being created by reorganizing UGA’s Institute of Ecology, which Odum founded in the 1950s and is internationally recognized for its holistic, interdisciplinary approach to ecosystem studies as championed by Odum.

John L. Gittleman, who has been director of the Institute of Ecology since last July, has been named dean of the school. Gittleman, whose expertise in global ecology includes species extinction, emerging diseases and conservation, came to UGA last year from the University of Virginia. He earned a doctorate in biology at the University of Sussex in England and is a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London.

Gittleman said the Odum School will immediately be recognized as one of the nation’s top research programs in ecological sciences based on the strength of its faculty and international stature. The National Research Council has ranked UGA among the top five institutions in ecological research and a survey by the Ecological Society of America also tabbed UGA as one of the country’s top five universities in ecology. UGA was one of the first universities to offer undergraduate degrees in ecology.

The school also will be one-of-a-kind in America, Gittleman said. While many universities have departments of ecology, and some have schools that focus on the broader field of environmental studies, no other university has an independent, stand-alone school devoted specifically to ecology.

The school will maintain the Institute of Ecology’s research focus on understanding fundamental scientific patterns and processes of ecology including such areas as species diversity, disease transmission, ecosystem structure, aquatic ecology and global environmental change. In addition to its undergraduate and graduate degrees in ecology, the school will provide undergraduate courses for other schools and colleges and will conduct public service work, primarily through its River Basin Center.

Odum, the school’s namesake, was associated with UGA for more than 60 years prior to his death in 2002 at age 88. He wrote a dozen books, including Fundamentals of Ecology, considered a landmark in the field, and more than 200 scientific publications. Elected to the National Academy of Sciences, he was president of the Ecological Society of America and received the world’s top prizes for ecological research.

Gittleman said the school will adhere to Odum’s doctrine of a holistic approach to ecological studies, while strengthening and expanding in key areas such as community, evolutionary and ecosystem studies.