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Butler Wins Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award

ODU marine biologist Mark Butler

Mark Butler, a marine biologist at Old Dominion University whose research promotes the stocks of blue crabs along the mid-Atlantic coast and of spiny lobsters in the Caribbean, is a 2011 recipient of the Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award sponsored by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

He is ODU's 25th winner since 1991, when sociologist Karen Polonko brought the university its first SCHEV faculty award. During those two decades, only the College of William and Mary has won more SCHEV awards.

Twelve faculty members at colleges and universities in Virginia were chosen for the 2011 awards from among 106 nominees. Each recipient will receive an engraved award and a check for $5,000 underwritten by the Dominion Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Dominion Resources. The awards presentation ceremony will be in Richmond, Feb. 17.

Butler, who was designated an Eminent Scholar at ODU last year and is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, has been the principal or co-principal investigator on more than 50 grants totaling nearly $8 million since he joined the university in 1989. Much of the support has come from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has continuously funded his research since 1995.

In recent years, Butler has led multidisciplinary research teams in the study of marine diseases and the roles that species behavior, habitats and long-distance oceanographic transport of larvae play in disease dynamics. He is currently co-principal investigator on a $2.25 million grant from the NSF to study the effects of over-fishing and climate change on disease dynamics in blue crabs in Virginia. Last year, he won $1.4 million in additional NSF support to study how disease spreads among lobster populations in the Caribbean.

Two other grants awarded to Butler in the past 12 months from the Everglades National Park and a Nature Conservancy-NOAA co-sponsored program will allow him to launch the first-ever project aimed at restoring sponge communities in Florida that have been decimated by harmful plankton blooms.

He is frequently invited to present his research at science conferences around the world. In 2010, for example, he spoke at the joint meeting of the Crustacean Society and the Japanese Carcinological Society in Tokyo on the influence of humans on the ecology and long-term sustainability of lobster populations. Altogether, he has been the author or co-author of 200 presentations at scientific conferences.

Butler has published more than 100 scholarly works, including nine book chapters and numerous articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. He co-authored a paper in the journal Nature in 2006 describing experiments to demonstrate that healthy lobsters can detect and avoid diseased lobsters and do so before the disease becomes transmissible. Media around the world, including The New York Times, publicized this first known example of quarantine behavior among animals in the wild.

Butler's collaborators in research and scholarship have included faculty members at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the University of Florida and University of Miami. His Ph.D. in biological sciences is from Florida State University.

At ODU, Butler is also known as a resourceful and dedicated teacher. He has been selected among the Most Inspirational Faculty in ODU's College of Sciences and as the Outstanding Teacher in Biological Sciences. In 2008, he won the college's Hirschfeld Award for Faculty Excellence.

Two courses he regularly teaches are particularly popular - Marine Ecology to undergraduates and Biostatistics to graduate students.

His Marine Ecology students are in the field with him every week during the course. To increase the number and variety of marine habitats that the students experience, Butler leads a trip to the Florida Keys for these undergraduates.

Graduate students appreciate Butler's demanding Biostatistics course, which has one of the largest graduate enrollments in the College of Sciences. This course, on how to design and analyze data from biological studies, is also required for biomedical doctoral students at Eastern Virginia Medical School.

Butler's professional service ranges from the international to the local. Last year he was appointed to a scientific panel charged by the United Nations to produce a policy brief on how to improve coastal marine management worldwide. He has also been an adviser to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA National Marine Fishery Service, Nature Conservancy and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Closer to home, he has served on a state blue crab fishery advisory panel and on the Suffolk Wetlands Board.

In Butler's SCHEV nomination document are more than a dozen letters of support, including one from Alison MacDiarmid from the New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. "I have worked with Mark and his students and colleagues in the Florida Keys and in Norfolk… . He works very actively with his students in the field and thus has a clear idea of their progress, shortcomings and research opportunities. He very clearly mentors them. Mark also fosters a strong team spirit while in the field, often talking with his students and colleagues till late in the night about the day's field work, research possibilities and general science issues. He thus provides his students with the very best opportunities to acquire the skill set and attitude necessary to become a productive researcher and is a wonderful model of how post-graduate supervision should be done."

Added one of his students, Alden Cleanthes, "Dr. Butler is one of the most demanding instructors I have ever encountered; but that is part of his excellence, for he challenges his students to be better than they believe they are or can be. Learning in such an environment is not only exceptional but character-building."

This article was posted on: February 1, 2011

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