Sonia Altizer, an associate professor in the Odum School of Ecology, is a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering from the White House.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I earned my undergraduate degree in biology at Duke University and Ph.D. in ecology at the University of Minnesota. I am an associate professor in the Odum School of Ecology at UGA.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
After postdoctoral work at Princeton and Cornell, and a position in the Department of Environmental Studies at Emory, I was thrilled to accept a faculty position at the Odum School of Ecology in 2005. Three things brought me here—a top-notch program in ecology filled with wonderful colleagues and students, the amazing diversity of environmental and life scientists across multiple schools at UGA, and the welcoming atmosphere of Athens.
What are your favorite courses and why?
My favorite course is ECOL 4150, the Population Biology of Infectious Diseases. We focus on the ecology and evolution of organisms that make a living at the expense of their hosts, and cover topics ranging from parasitic mind control to predicting global pandemics. I also find teaching ECOL 1000, the Ecological Basis of Environmental Issues, to be especially rewarding. This class enrolls more than 300 students per semester, almost all of whom are non-science majors, and we dissect headline issues that affect all of our lives.
What interests you about your field?
As a scientist, I am captivated by the diversity of pathogens that persist in wild animal populations, and my research concerns the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases. I’m especially interested in the role of host behavior (including migration, foraging and social and mating behavior) in the transmission of infectious disease. Studying species interactions where one partner lives within and exploits the other creates a fascinating tug of war that can lead to many different outcomes. People have been studying infectious diseases for over a century, but only in the past two decades have ecological and evolutionary tools helped unravel mysteries such as why certain diseases undergo regular cycles in prevalence, and why pathogens harm the hosts on which they depend. I also love that studies in this field often cut across scales of biological organization, from the molecular scale to events happening at the level of populations or ecosystems.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
I’ve worked with some truly amazing students during the past seven years at UGA. The proudest moments for me happen when undergraduate and graduate students I’ve mentored in the lab achieve high goals and their work is recognized by funding agencies and the scientific community. In 2008, I was thrilled to receive the Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering from the White House. This award is the highest honor conferred by the U.S. government on scientists and engineers in the early stages of their research careers.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
The old adage “if you want to master something, teach it” is absolutely true. Teaching concepts I’ve studied for years in the lab and field inspires me to think more deeply and broadly about those topics and makes me a better scientist. At the same time, I believe students learn best by doing. My disease ecology class is interlaced with hands-on activities, some of which come from my own data sets and graduate student research projects.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
I hope they are inspired and simply want to learn more. I hope they feel empowered with new skills and information. And I hope they ask more questions about “why” and “how”—not just “what, when and where.”
Describe your ideal student.
Curious, cooperative and willing to take initiative on tasks rather than waiting to be told every last step. My favorite students have shared a sense of adventure, a great work ethic and a hunger for knowledge.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
I love visiting the Trial Gardens on South Campus and the State Botanical Garden on South Milledge Avenue. These are vibrant and colorful outdoor spaces. My husband and I take our 2-year-old to watch the fish and turtles in the outdoor pond between the ecology building and Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. Slimy, scaley animals are a big hit in our house.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
As a full-time faculty member and new mom, I’ve dropped a lot of former hobbies (art, poetry, gardening) but one that remains is horseback riding. I started riding as an undergraduate when a friend talked me into joining the equestrian team as a novice rider. I still have my 21-year-old horse from graduate school, who is a wonderful partner on the trail. My family and I also hike/walk at local parks when we can—Memorial Park, Sandy Creek Nature Center and Watson Mill Bridge State Park are favorites.
Community/civic involvement includes….
Part of my research involves studying monarch butterflies and a debilitating parasite that infects them. Monarchs are iconic insects, and through them I participate in several outreach activities and public workshops. For example, in 2006, my lab launched a citizen science project called Monarch Health for which we recruit volunteers from across the U.S. and Canada to non-destructively sample wild monarchs for parasites and send the samples to our lab at UGA. Participants receive test results for their butterflies, together with newsletters and updates on monarch ecology and conservation. Now in its seventh year, this project has collectively involved over 200 participants and amassed over 15,000 samples that allow us to track where and when infection rates in the butterflies are highest. Many of the participants are children that sample monarchs with their parents or teachers.
I recently read a slew of books by Gregory Maguire, including “Wicked,” “Son of a Witch,” “Mirror Mirror” and “Confessions.” The characters were fascinating and conflicted. Other favorite authors are Margaret Atwood and Stephen King. Stories that involve mystery, suspense and fantasy are a great escape. I am also a huge fan of People magazine.