Aimee Dunlap, Nathan Muchhala sharing leadership of UMSL’s Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center

by | Feb 27, 2023

The pair chat about how they're approaching their roles as caretakers of what they describe as the center's "amazing legacy."
Harris Center interim co-directors Aimee Dunlap and Nathan Muchhala speaking at the World Ecology Award Gala

Associate Professors Aimee Dunlap and Nathan Muchhala are serving as interim co-directors of the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center. (Photos by August Jennewein)

Associate Professors Aimee Dunlap and Nathan Muchhala have had a long appreciation for the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center and its support of biology students at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

The center, with its longstanding connections to the Missouri Botanical Garden and Saint Louis Zoo, has been attracting conservation-minded scientists from around the globe to St. Louis to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees since its founding as the Center for Tropical Ecology in 1990, and Dunlap and Muchhala both said it was a selling point for them when they chose to accept their faculty appointments at UMSL in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

“This has been kind of a jewel in UMSL’s crown for many years, even before it was the Harris Center and it was the International Center for Tropical Ecology,” Dunlap said. “This is something that UMSL is known for in the ecology and evolution world. The fact that we have all these alumni from all over the world – there’s over 300 of them – I think that’s really important to international students.”

Dunlap called the center the lifeblood of UMSL’s graduate program in ecology and evolution because of its support of students, often providing the grants that are so critical in helping students start their research as they begin working toward their degrees.

So when they were asked to take over as interim co-directors of the center with the retirement of Patricia Parker, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Zoological Studies, in September, they weren’t about to say no.

“The center is a really amazing thing that most universities don’t have,” Muchhala said. “It supports the students’ research and outreaches to the community. We’ve both had pretty big labs of graduate students since we got here, and the funding has supported both undergraduate and graduate research.”

UMSL Daily recently spoke to both Dunlap and Muchhala about how they’ve been transitioning to their new positions and keeping the center moving forward.

What has the adjustment been like in this position?

Nathan Muchhala: It was definitely a learning curve coming into this role, just learning the ropes. For instance, the finances are incredibly complicated as far as which donations we have, what they can be put toward, what they can support based on donors’ preferences.

Aimee Dunlap: There are dozens of individual endowments. We knew they existed, but that’s a level of administration that I’ve not dealt with. Nathan ran our graduate program, so everything top to bottom with that he’s intimately familiar with, and I’ve had many other roles on campus seeing other layers of our administration. There’s definitely a learning curve on the administration end of things.

What goals did you have for yourselves in this job?

NM: Our first goal is just to keep everything functioning well and to try to increase involvement of the community. There are lots of possibilities of different ways to put this resource to good use as far as different ways to support graduate students, different ways to more explicitly give graduate students a way to link undergraduates to their research and get them involved.

AD: On the one hand, we’re caretakers of this amazing legacy, but on the other hand, we both have ideas for things for the future, of how to use our regular events and keep those fresh and interesting. Then, like Nathan said, we’ve always had undergraduate involvement, but right now we have record numbers of undergraduates who are interested in ecology and conservation. We’re looking at, “How can we give more of them research experiences?” We have the endowments for it – for the undergrad research experiences. “How can we do that and make it meaningful and give the students that have all of these interests these next steps that will give them cool experiences, will help them get the foot in the door for jobs or grad programs and all of that?” That’s an exciting thing.

How are you dividing up responsibilities?

NM: Early on, we sat down and did explicitly divide out some things, almost like a draft. Aimee took over a couple of our first public outreach events – the gala, our conservation forum.

AD: Nathan’s running our graduate and undergraduate grants panels. But we’ve worked together previously on stuff. We’re collaborators on this USDA grant. We’ve each been on each other’s students’ committees for years. Nathan and I already have an easy working relationship. I think that makes things a lot easier. That’s been the easiest part of the transition, really. We split up tasks before we knew what was involved in all of them, but that’s just part of the process.

NM: There definitely is a lot involved that was a bit surprising.

AD: I think it’s good because we both have slightly different perspectives on things, and that’s a really healthy part of a process when you’re trying to expand a couple of things, move some other things forward. A lot of our community events had ceased because of COVID, so this year, we were bringing things back in person for the first time. Doing that after a gap of a few years I think would have challenges for anybody. It’s a different landscape.

Has this been a good opportunity to make some changes?

AD: Yeah, there’s that kind of natural transition that means that you don’t necessarily have to do it the way it happened before. But as part of this, we had met with the most recent director, Patty Parker. The two directors before her were retired, Bob Marquis and Patrick Osborne, and we met with both of them to get a perspective on the history. We had a lot of questions by the time we met with them and what they saw as the most important aspects and what they would be excited for us to continue. I found that very useful.

What were some of your first priorities?

AD: One thing that we’re doing right now, actively working on, is reconnecting with our alumni. When Nathan and I were looking at some of the materials – there’s pictures of people in slides, alumni that are highlighted – and we don’t know who they are because they predate us. Angie Stern, our program coordinator, is digging in pretty deep, first of all, identifying all of our alumni and finding out what they’re doing now, and she’s reconnecting with them. So we’re going to have more alumni highlighted on our website and our social media going forward. That’s part of our amazing legacy that we don’t want to ever forget about.

NM: We have a few different things we’re trying to do to kind of revive it in a sense. Like Aimee was saying with the pandemic, things kind of slowed down. Things weren’t in person. We reinstated the newsletter. We got that going. We’re trying to get more of a social media presence to get regular posts on Twitter and Mastodon and Instagram.

What are the biggest things you want to accomplish going forward for the Harris Center?

NM: I think that our primary goal is to get the director, to hire a director of the Harris Center, which would be great for ecology and evolution to have another biologist here and great to have someone to fully dedicate time to the center.

AD: Another big thing is just growing our undergraduate research. That’s one of my personal goals, but we want to spend the distribution on all our endowments. We’ve learned in past years that the application process was a big hill to climb for undergrads who were juggling so much. So there have been changes in the past to make that more accessible, but we can do even more.

NM: Along with those things, we want to increase the visibility of the center, get more community people involved. So far we’ve just been kind of bookkeeping and getting things back in line. But it would be great to focus next also on other grant sources. There are all sorts of foundations, which probably would be thrilled to help support the Harris Center. We just haven’t had the time to really dedicate.

AD: It’s challenging doing this on top of a full faculty load. That’s the benefit of having a full-time director for sure. All those things support our students more, right? The more time that they’re on fellowships, the less they’re having to balance their research with teaching. That’s really important for a lot of our students that do fieldwork outside of St. Louis.

Now we have more students doing fieldwork in St. Louis. At times in the past, there were sometimes these little field outings that we invited the public to. For instance, catching bats to survey at Bellefontaine Cemetery. That’s something that a number of people have mentioned to us, they want us to have more of that.

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik