KU Names Three New University Distinguished Professors

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A captivating opera singer, a groundbreaking geoarchaeologist and a renowned ecologist have been awarded the University of Kansas’ most prestigious faculty honor.

Faculty members Joyce Castle in the School of Music, Rolfe Mandel in anthropology and geoscience, and Jorge Soberón in ecology and evolutionary biology have been appointed University Distinguished Professors, an esteemed title bestowed on only about 60 individuals at the entire university.

"The title of University Distinguished Professor is a truly special honor, reserved for only a select few of our finest faculty,” Vitter said. “Professors Castle, Mandel and Soberón are three of our most esteemed faculty, and their receiving this title is a reflection of their many accomplishments and contributions to KU, ranging from excellence in the classroom to ground-breaking research.”

Jorge Soberon

Vitter noted the broad variance in academic disciplines was a testament to KU’s stature as a comprehensive research institution. While the three distinguished faculty members don’t share much in common in research, they have a common bond in their commitment to excellence for their students and for KU.

Danny Anderson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, noted Soberón’s record extended beyond his nine years at KU. “His record is clearly one of a distinguished scholar, mentor and teacher but seems to go well beyond his own research discipline, having a global benefit. At KU, he brings the experience of someone who has been among the most influential in developing his field and someone who has had a major influence on public policy.”

Soberón joined KU in 2005 and has carried with him advice he received from the provost at that time, David Shulenburger. “One phrase I have not forgotten is, ‘We expect you to help us to form good citizens,’” Soberón said. “These words have been in my mind since then, and I have reflected a lot about their meaning. They mean that you are expected to do much more than just teach good classes, and I have tried my best. I am thankful to this marvelous university for giving me the opportunity to help my colleagues and authorities in this most-important task.”

Through 2012, new University Distinguished Professors were appointed only when a position became vacant. KU has since opted to accept nominations for University Distinguished professorships on a biannual basis. The University Committee on Distinguished Professorships reviews nominations and forwards its selections to the provost for final approval. Major criteria for selection include record of scholarship, participation in university affairs and professional organizations, service to community and the success of their students, colleagues and institutions.

The first Distinguished Professors were established at KU in 1958. That year, four were awarded. In 1963, the first University Distinguished Professors were announced. A complete list is available online.

Soberón is a research scientist at the Biodiversity Institute and a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. A world-renowned scholar in interdisciplinary biodiversity science and ecology, he is acclaimed for his creativity, novelty and synthesis across theoretical and empirical studies. His nomination packet for appointment as a University Distinguished Professor includes letters of support from a Nobel Prize winner, a former director of the National Science Foundation, members of the National Academy of Sciences and other luminaries in international science and policy.

Beginning with his appointment as executive secretary of Mexico’s national biodiversity commission in 1992, Soberón’s scope of research has encompassed global biodiversity and ecology and how the knowledge gained from this research could best inform local, national and international science and social policy. His specific research themes include theoretical and computational modeling of species’ richness across landscapes, as well as the past, present and future geographic distributions of species under scenarios of environmental change as well as the processes underlying those biodiversity patterns. His body of work has established him as a worldwide authority in these arenas, and his ideas and prototypes are now the gold standard in modeling and forecasting the richness and spatial distribution of plants and animals across habitats.

Soberón is co-author on the first synthetic book on ecological niche modeling, and his work on biodiversity patterns is revising the metrics used by the global community. His research has been funded by major grants from the NIH, NSF and Microsoft Research, and his papers have been published in the highest-ranking journals in his field.

Soberón’s work merges KU’s four strategic initiative themes. His research on environmental patterns and processes develops and utilizes the most advanced analytics and computational modeling tools for forecasting biotic phenomena, including the potential spread of invasive species, disease vectors and emerging diseases under different scenarios of climate change, and the social consequences to populations and habitats in different geographic regions. As such, his work is creating at KU the interdisciplinary research synergies that society needs to tackle the grand environmental challenges of the 21st century.

For example, during the past 15 years, he has grappled with the question how genetically modified organisms (GMOs), particularly crops, will affect native organisms in surrounding ecosystems. His research has similarly helped foster international policy regarding invasive species, cultural heritage, local economies and indigenous rights. More recently, he has also addressed Kansas-specific issues, such as prairie conservation, science education in the state and international educational opportunities at KU. Full news release on all 2014 Distinguished Professors available here: https://news.ku.edu/2014/06/23/ku-names-three-new-university-distinguish...

From his academic beginnings as a young professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), Soberón has been a superb teacher and mentor of students. At UNAM, he successfully mentored three doctoral students, three master's students and eight senior undergraduate thesis students. Some of his former students are now in academic posts; others serve as director of conservation of the Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability at the U.S. National Zoological Park and as regional director of Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas. Because of his record, Soberón was asked to serve as coordinator of graduate studies for UNAM’s science faculty.

In his second academic career at KU, Soberón is an accomplished teacher at undergraduate and graduate levels, team-teaching courses in ecology, conservation and wildlife biology, methods in quantitative biogeography, biogeography and topics in environmental studies for the IGERT program. He also developed his own courses in quantitative ecology for graduate students and international environmental policy for both undergraduate and graduate students. In one of his major teaching innovations, he leads an annual, year-round, interdepartmental graduate student/faculty working group in spatial ecology, which, to date, has resulted in six major papers published with students. Such teaching investments are well beyond what is expected given his appointments and speak well of his commitment to both the education and research training of the next generation of scientists.

While at KU, Soberón has led a paradigm shift among international biodiversity researchers to adopt open data-sharing, making species taxonomic data, occurrence data and environmental data freely accessible to the broader scientific and educational communities. In this vein, he was elected unanimously in October 2013 by more than 30 member countries as first vice-chair of the Executive Committee of the Governing Board of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development intergovernmental platform.

As two of his nominators conclude in their nomination letter: “Professor Soberón is the quintessential distinguished professor, meeting and exceeding its expectations in character and career. He is a world-renowned researcher; he has international stature as a statesman for science, policy and environmental issues; since coming to KU, his achievements in teaching, training graduate students and course offerings have well exceeded what his position requires, and he has provided wise counsel and insightful guidance to both the Biodiversity Institute and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

“Indeed, when the history of this science is written, KU and Professor Soberón will be credited with helping to develop and demonstrate ecological niche modeling as a powerful tool for predicting and testing environmental phenomena – a tool now adopted by biodiversity scientists, ecologists, evolutionary biologists and natural resource managers worldwide.”

News Type: 
Award Grant News