Prof. Dorcas Honored for Outstanding Record of Mentoring Students

by Bill Giduz
Prof. Mike Dorcas hefts a python caught in the Everglades to show an audience at the Biology Department’s “Reptile Day”
Prof. Mike Dorcas hefts a python caught in the Everglades to show an audience at the Biology Department’s “Reptile Day”

Professor of Biology Michael E. Dorcas has received an Outstanding Mentor Award from the Biology Division of the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR). The award recognizes faculty who have fostered undergraduate research through their own research and through scholarly or creative projects with undergraduates.

Founded in 1978, the CUR promotes student-faculty research and scholarship in a dozen curricular disciplines, and includes individual and institutional members representing more than 900 colleges and universities. CUR award winners have outstanding records of establishing laboratory programs, obtaining funding for their work and for their students, and for publishing research findings in conjunction with undergraduate coauthors.

Dorcas has been collaborating on research with undergraduates since before he joined the Davidson faculty in 1998. He spent the previous three years as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, and conducted his first research with undergraduates there. Two of his students published their results in peer-reviewed journals. "I found early on that I loved mentoring and collaborating with students on exciting, meaningful research," he said.

Davidson's emphasis on faculty-aided undergraduate research was one of the major reasons he accepted the position here, and his extensive record of involving students in research has been a hallmark of his 16-year Davidson career.

He has directed research in the ecology and physiology of amphibians and reptiles, conservation biology, and in invasive species biology, and written or co-authored seven books in those areas. Most recently he has become one of the nation's leading experts on invasive Burmese pythons in South Florida and the damage they have inflicted on native species of mammals in Everglades National Park.

One of his first achievements at Davidson was development of the Herpetology Lab, through which many students conduct research both locally and regionally in ecology, conservation, and the physiological ecology of amphibians and reptiles. Those projects have involved an impressive number of students, and they have achieved significant results for their efforts. Sixty-nine students have published as first authors in peer-reviewed publications, representing 109 total student authorships. More than 90 have made presentations at scientific meetings, 45 have received awards at scientific meetings and six have received National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships.

Dorcas has developed long-term professional relationships with many of his students. They include one with whom he co-authored a book, and several who have returned to Davidson after receiving their doctoral degrees as visiting professors and postdoctoral fellows.

Dorcas also developed a student-based outreach program for all Herpetology Lab members in which they give presentations at local schools and participate in events promoting conservation and science education. The capstone event is the annual Davidson College Reptile Day, which attracts more than 800 visitors for close-up encounters with live animals.

In a nomination letter for Dorcas, one of his former students praised his teaching style for blending "his charismatic wit with seasoned knowledge in the classroom." The student noted that Dorcas allowed students to design their own research project, rather than conducting cookie-cutter projects.

The student noted, "Throughout this process Dr. Dorcas served as a source of stability, providing thoughtful critiques and support during the ups and downs inherent to any research project. In doing so I had the opportunity to learn valuable skills about conducting graduate-quality research and, as a result of Dr. Dorcas' stewardship, now have a first-author publication currently under review."

Another student wrote, "A class with Dr. Dorcas changed my path in college. I became increasingly interested in projects in the lab and was eager to become involved in the outreach program."

The student continued, "Dr. Dorcas fed my interests by giving me more opportunities to become involved, and I ultimately was able to do behavioral research on diamondback terrapins for my senior thesis."

She explained that he provided encouragement and expertise in helping her create a poster about her research. That led to an oral presentation at a meeting of the Association of Southeastern Biology. "Although I was intimidated at the prospect of presenting my research in front of an audience of experts, Dr. Dorcas assured me that I was fully capable of the task at hand. He reviewed my PowerPoint slides with me, listened to me practice my talk, and provided detailed feedback until I felt fully ready. Presenting at the conference is one of my proudest moments in college, and I am certain I would never have had that opportunity without Dr. Dorcas."

In addition to the recent CUR mentoring award, Dorcas has received several other honors for his research and mentoring. In 2012 at the World Congress of Herpetology he received the Meritorious Teaching Award from the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, The Herpetologists' League, and the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. He received the Senior Research Award from the Association of Southeastern Biologists in 2012, and was elected as a Fellow to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2009. In 2004, Dorcas was named Environmental Educator of the Year by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. He chaired the N.C. Scientific Council for Amphibians and Reptiles from 2009-2014.