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Dorcas Wins Teaching Award While Setting High Expectations for Herpetology Students

by Davidson College
Dorcas with some of his students
(left) Professor Dorcas with students in a week-long group investigations class in Key Biscayne, Fla. They are (l-r) Elizabeth Underwood '12, Christian Oldham '11, Chance Ruder '14, Tia Adkins '12, Sarah Bowers '14, and Maddie Kern '13.

Associate Professor of Biology Mike Dorcas has won the Meritorious Teaching Award in Herpetology for his "superior teaching effectiveness and mentoring of students" and for "making significant contributions to herpetological education."

J.D. Willson' 02, a former student and regular collaborator with Dorcas, presented the award at the 2012 World Congress of Herpetology (WCH) meeting in Vancouver, Canada in front of an audience of 1,700 expert herpetologists from around the globe. "Mike was never hesitant to invest extra time and effort in a student that was struggling or, in my case, one who simply couldn't get enough snakes and frogs," joked Willson, who is now a postdoctoral assistant at Virginia Tech. "He runs his lab like a graduate laboratory, ...entrusting undergraduates with an amount of responsibility usually reserved for the graduate level."

The WCH convenes every four years and is the largest meeting of herpetological societies worldwide. Dorcas, a leading expert on invasive Burmese pythons, attended the meeting to deliver a presentation on his personal research.

"I was pleased and excited to receive this award," said Dorcas, who's nomination by Shannon Pittman'07 was supported by letters from many past and present students. "A lot of these students have become close colleagues, friends and collaborators of mine."

Dorcas typically has three to ten students in his lab year-round focusing their research on the conservation, ecology and physiology of reptiles and amphibians. Last summer, students Tia Akin '14, Chandler Gray '15, and Maddie Kern '13 worked with him on research involving various turtles populations.

In the past three years alone, Dorcas's students have won nine major, nationally recognized awards, many of which were from the Association of Southeastern Biologists Conference. "Our students win many awards at the ASB conference," said Dorcas, "and our undergrads are competing primarily with graduate students."

Dorcas expects graduate-level achievement from his students-publication in peer-reviewed journals, presentation at high-caliber meetings and acquisition of their own external research grants.

Dorcas said, "I have very high expectations, but I find that Davidson students can often handle them, while having a lot of fun in a rigorous lab, consequently setting themselves up well for graduate school and beyond."

As recent grad Evan Eskew' 12 put it, "By expecting excellence in herpetological research Dorcas cultivates it." Eskew graduated with high honors in biology this past May and is now a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Davis.

Shannon Pittman '08, the former student who spearheaded efforts to nominate Dorcas, said "Dr. Dorcas has a remarkable ability to relate complex ecological concepts in ways that are both accessible and relevant to students. He teaches with an understanding that science is a discipline requiring sophisticated engagement with ideas, best obtained through active experiences rather than through the passive reading of textbooks." Pittmann is now a Ph.D. candidate in biological sciences at University of Missouri.

In addition to research, Dorcas encourages educational outreach by presenting to elementary age students and the public. During the school year, many of his students give herpetological and ecological lessons at local grade-schools. In August he was interviewed by Georgia Public TV to provide information about invasive species for a television episode that will air in January 2013. As he is one of the world's leading experts on Burmese Pythons, an invasive species that are having a dramatic impact on American Southeast ecological systems, Dorcas' research continues to receive national attention in media outlets like NPR and Discover magazine.