BIG PRIZE: Prof who studies evolution, ecology receives $40,000 scholarly prize
March 23, 2010
By Andy Fell
Questions matter to Rick Grosberg.
That is how he carries out his research on evolution and family conflict and what he tries to show his students: that science is not just about mastering a body of knowledge, but also about asking the right questions and challenging authority.
One question — “Who is the best professor at UC Davis?” — was answered March 12 when Chancellor Linda Katehi interrupted Grosberg’s class with a cake to announce that he is the recipient of the 2010 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement.
Established in 1986, the prize comes with a check for $40,000, believed to be the largest cash prize of its kind in the nation. The prize was created to honor faculty who are exceptional teachers as well as scholars. There will be an event on May 13 to celebrate the award.
“Professor Grosberg understands the value to our undergraduates of the hands-on research experience and, as a mentor, he is deeply committed to ensuring our students’ success,” said Chancellor Linda Katehi. “That mindset is one that we place a very high value on at UC Davis and it is at the very heart of the UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement.”
Ken Burtis, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, said, “Professor Grosberg has a truly extraordinary passion and talent for teaching, whether mentoring small groups of students exploring the interface between math and biology, or delivering the fundamentals of biology to hundreds of students through his highly praised lectures. He exemplifies the best that UC Davis has to offer.”
“Professor Grosberg is another sterling example of the caliber of teachers and mentors at UC Davis,” said Kevin Bacon, ’72, the UC Davis Foundation vice chair, who attended the classroom announcement. The foundation stewards the endowed fund that supports the prize.
A huge debt to teachers and mentors
Grosberg said he was “deeply honored,” adding, “I owe a huge debt to my teachers and mentors, who challenged and inspired me throughout my education, my family and my students — all of them — who continue to challenge, inspire and teach me every day.
“I feel incredibly fortunate to have landed at a university where teaching and research are jointly held in high esteem and so generously recognized, thanks to the donors who created and support this award.”
Science is partly a process of understanding problems based on what people have done before, Grosberg said, but it’s also about the art of asking the right questions.
“Students often get taught science as if it were a settled body of knowledge instead of a series of misunderstandings and seemingly lucky discoveries. But what makes a discovery ‘lucky?’
“It’s as crucial to teach students about ‘bad’ questions that seemed smart at the time as it is to tell them about the great questions, and what makes them great,” he said.
Having to explain scientific concepts to a hall full of students also helps him ask better questions in his research, Grosberg said. “I’m a much more incisive researcher as a result of teaching.”
As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, Grosberg did not initially consider biology as a profession. He considered majoring in English. “I just assumed that being a scientist reflected the way I’d been taught science: It was received knowledge, a fact-finding mission.”
Then he took Cowell Biology, an eclectic course on the history of biology and the personalities who created the field.
People who step outside of their culture
“It showed me that biology is about people who step outside their culture and society and ask novel questions, and the best example is Charles Darwin,” Grosberg said. “That turned me on to biology.”
Grosberg earned his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1982 and spent a year at the University of Padua, Italy, as a NATO postdoctoral fellow. He joined UC Davis as an assistant professor in what was then the Department of Zoology in 1983.
His research deals with conflict and cooperation between living things, usually marine invertebrates.
“Sometimes we help each other and sometimes we kill each other, and there are good evolutionary reasons for both,” he said.
Having grown up in West Los Angeles riding the bus to the beach every afternoon, Grosberg was drawn to study ocean life. And he felt that the social evolution of marine invertebrates, many of them “brainless bags of snot,” was understudied.
The evolution of altruism is an old problem in evolutionary biology. Why should one animal expend effort and energy to help another, instead of conserving resources so it can leave the most descendants?
The answer, in most cases, is that animals share many of their genes with close relatives. By helping a sibling who shares half your genes, you can still have a genetic impact on the next generation.
On the other hand, relatives can also come into conflict. Those conflicts might be between individuals, between the sexes, between siblings, between generations and sometimes all those at once.
Father snails protect their babies
For example, a decade ago Grosberg began studying a species of snail that lives in Baja California. After the snails mate, the female attaches the egg sac to the male’s shell, and the male then provides all the parental care — carrying around the baby snails and protecting them.
It’s unusual enough for males to provide all the parental care after eggs are fertilized. But at the same time, the baby snails within the sac engage in some extreme sibling rivalry: Perhaps 200 eggs are laid, but only two or three snails finally emerge, having eaten all of their brothers and sisters.
“It’s a beautiful system for studying sibling conflict, parent/offspring conflict, male/female conflict — all on the back of a snail,” Grosberg said. “These conflicts are a microcosm of our lives.”
Grosberg has also studied animals that form colonies of genetically identical animals, such as sea squirts (our closest living invertebrate relatives) and sea anemones. When two colonies run up against each other, they may fuse together if they are closely related — or they may fight it out.
“All the animals I work with can tell self from non-self and close from distant kin,” Grosberg said. “That’s true for anemones, sea squirts, sponges — and for us.”
It’s fundamentally the same system that can cause a transplant patient to reject a kidney, or that allows our bodies to fight off infections and tumors.
There’s some evidence that social interactions in higher animals are guided by chemical cues that allow us to distinguish between close relatives who share our genes and unrelated individuals who would make better mates.
“ ‘Chemistry’ might literally be chemistry,” Grosberg said.
Chemistry with students
Grosberg certainly has chemistry with his students.
“Enthusiastic” is the term that comes up again and again in student evaluations of Grosberg’s classes, along with “energetic” and “entertaining.” His teaching ranges from the team-taught “Introduction to Biology: Principles of Ecology and Evolution,” which teaches about 2,000 students a year, to the CLIMB (Collaborative Learning at the Interface of Mathematics and Biology) training program, which includes just seven or eight students.
“He made me want to learn more,” one student wrote of Grosberg’s introductory evolution class last year. “The best instructor I have had so far,” wrote another.
“Rick is an absolutely phenomenal teacher” who focuses on building students’ critical thinking skills, said Maureen Stanton, chair of the Department of Evolution and Ecology, who is herself a past winner of the UC Davis Prize.
Grosberg has been especially active in remodeling UC Davis’ biology curriculum to reflect the new state of the field, a more quantitative discipline where students need strong skills in mathematics, statistics and use of computers.
Led transformation of intro biology
Burtis, the biological sciences dean, said that Grosberg had taken the lead in transforming the introductory biology course series. The old approach treated different life forms in isolation. But with Professor Martin Wilson, Grosberg created a new curriculum based on concepts, drawn from genome sequencing, that unite our view of life and evolution.
In 2003, Grosberg developed a new Interdisciplinary Minor in Quantitative Biology and Bioinformatics.
Two years later, Grosberg and colleagues Carole Hom, academic coordinator in the College of Biological Sciences, mathematics professor Angela Cheer and Cynthia Passmore, assistant professor of education, were awarded a five-year grant by the National Science Foundation to set up the CLIMB research training program.
Among his other professional honors, Grosberg was awarded the Division of Biological Sciences Teaching Award in 2000 and the UC Davis Academic Senate’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2002. In 2004, he was president of the American Society of Naturalists.
He has served as an advisor to The Nature Conservancy, the American Farmland Trust and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He is an elected fellow of the California Academy of Sciences and former director of the UC Davis Center for Population Biology.
Grosberg sees research and teaching as being inextricably linked, and says that this the strength of the University of California.
“The gift I was given was to be able to go to UC and, from the very start, work in labs and benefit from inquiry-based learning. That ignited for me an overwhelming desire to do research and to teach students about the process of discovery,” Grosberg said.
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