Renowned marine ecologist Jay Stachowicz wins Teaching Prize

By Kate Washington | December 5, 2023

When Professor Jay Stachowicz heard that UC Davis’ chancellor needed to speak to him urgently, he worried he had done something wrong.

In fact, it was quite the opposite: Chancellor Gary S. May informed Stachowicz, of the Department of Evolution and Ecology, that he was the winner of the 2023-24 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement, an award honoring faculty for exceptional teaching and scholarship. The donor-funded $60,000 prize, established in 1986 and supported by the UC Davis Foundation, is among the largest of its kind in the country.

“Jay is the consummate biologist,” said Mark Winey, dean of the College of Biological Sciences. “Whether he’s in waders and mucking it on the coast to examine eelgrass beds, in a classroom with hundreds of undergraduates, or mentoring graduate students one-on-one, his dedication to research, teaching and service embodies the very best of UC Davis.”

A faculty member since 2000 and a renowned researcher in marine ecology, Stachowicz said winning was, “flattering and surprising and really humbling. There are so many people who do great teaching across the university.”

On Friday (Dec. 1), May surprised hundreds of students with a celebration of the news, complete with ocean-themed cookies for all. The announcement came in BIS 2B, “Introduction to Biology: Principles of Ecology and Evolution” — a course Stachowicz helped develop in 2007 and has since taught to more than 10,000 undergraduates.

A passion for the ocean

Raised in Massachusetts, Stachowicz became enthralled with the ocean early during summers in Cape Cod. His ongoing fascination with marine life is evident in his prolific research program, his teaching and the decor in his office, where he has a stuffed narwhal, drawings of sea life from his own kids and from other young students who have visited his lab, and lots of shells. Stachowicz’s mom still gives him crab knickknacks every year for Christmas, he said.

Stachowicz’s current research program investigates biodiversity in seagrass meadows and its consequences for the adaptability and resilience of coastal California ecosystems — a focus that informs his teaching on multiple levels.

“What’s fun about my research is that it takes me from evolutionary biology to genetics, to microbiology to ecology, to biogeography,” he said. “Having that breadth in a research program helps me appreciate more areas of biology and how the pieces all fit together for students.”

In a letter nominating Stachowicz for the prize, Peter Wainwright, chair of the Department of Evolution and Ecology, noted this broad view “inspires students from all walks of life to be discoverers, lifelong learners and leaders” and called Stachowicz a “phenomenal” teacher.

As a kid poking around the seashore, Stachowicz said he never imagined the passion he now conveys to thousands of students could become a profession.

“I thought no one gets paid to walk on the beach and do fun stuff and play in the ocean,” he said.

But he was wrong, as he learned when he discovered the field of ecology as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College.

“I found out you could actually make a career out of spending time learning about how the natural world works and why that was valuable to both science and society,” he said.

Stachowicz earned his doctorate in marine ecology from the University of North Carolina in 1998 and joined the UC Davis faculty in 2000.

“My son was 4 months old, and it sounded like a great idea to buy a house, have a kid and start a new job all in a few months,” he said, laughing.

An ‘amazing’ teacher

Since joining UC Davis, Stachowicz has published more than 100 papers and engaged in significant university and professional service. He served as chair of the Department of Evolution and Ecology from 2016 to 2022, leading the department through the tumultuous years of the pandemic — which he said caused an evolution in his own teaching style.

“In a way the pandemic was like a free pass. We could try anything,” said Stachowicz, who changed his exam methods. “Over my career I’ve moved from just telling a story and conveying information to actually developing students’ skills, their critical thinking and analytical abilities.”

Stachowicz is passionate about making course material relevant and engaging to his students at all levels.

“In large undergraduate classes like we have here, you have to be part showman, part coach, part cheerleader,” he said. “If you’re bored, they’re bored, so you have to make it fun, make it relevant, make it exciting.”

His subject matter lends itself to that approach.

“Whether it’s about projecting human population growth, disease evolution, or climate change, it’s really easy to find ways that biology is relevant to our students,” he said.

His teaching evaluations, with strikingly high ratings given the size of his classes, show how successful he has been. Student comments from his evaluations include: “makes examples relevant to daily life,” “lectures are amazing!” and “Jay does a GREAT job at keeping us engaged. He really cares, and it shows.”

More than 30 current and former students, many of whom have gone on to Ph.D. programs and careers in marine ecology, wrote glowing letters supporting Stachowicz’s nomination, commenting on his mentorship and “how deeply Jay cares about students as whole individuals,” as former student Emily Meyers wrote.

Manuel Delgado, who was a first-generation university student and is now a junior specialist at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, wrote that, “meeting Jay not only opened the door to deeply exploring marine ecology through coursework and literature, but his honesty and integrity held the door open.”

Although Stachowicz loves teaching a broad range of undergrads (“They go on to all these different cool things, and that’s the fun part!”), he is also a dedicated mentor to graduate students as well as undergraduates who hope to specialize in his field. For the latter, he has founded a program of which he’s “very proud” called EVE Scholars, which sponsors participation of undergraduate students in collaborative research with faculty in the Department of Evolution and Ecology and teaches them how to tell a story with their data.

Said Stachowicz, “If you can marry passion, excitement and enthusiasm with an understanding of where your students are and what it will take to get them to their next step, that’s what we’re all shooting for.”

Stachowicz, the 37th winner of the UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement, will be honored at a gala at the Mondavi Center on Thursday, Feb. 1. Previous winners are listed on the UC Davis Academic Affairs website.