It all began for Christopher Lepczyk out in the wilds of the upper Great Lake states.
Growing up in Michigan, he spent his fair share of time exploring the outdoors, budding a love of nature that to this day fuels his passion as an award-winning professor in Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.
“I grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s, during a time in which the world was facing tremendous environmental problems that needed attention,” he said. “In Michigan, where I grew up, these impacts included the problems of pollution and invasive species in the Great Lakes and watching the continued loss of land to urbanization. In college, I was pretty sure I wanted to work to help nature, but wasn’t clear on the exact pathway and, in fact, thought about becoming an environmental lawyer or majoring in political science.”
He then met two special professors.
“I had the fortune of meeting and working with two professors at Hope College (Dr. K. Greg Murray and Dr. Kathy Winnett-Murray) that were ecologists and encouraged me to work in their lab,” he said. “They soon became both mentors and advisors to me, and to this day—nearly 30 years later—they are still very close friends. It was through them that I really saw the importance of ecology. I subsequently sought to specialize as an ecologist when I went to grad school and really became moved to be an ecologist and conservation biologist when I did my MS degree in wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.”
Today, things have come full circle as Lepczyk is now the one guiding students along their path and teaching them a fond appreciation for nature. He said that his biggest hope is that his students work to make “better decisions in how they live and treat the environment.” Lepczyk teaches Wildlife Biology and Conservation and in October was one of two Auburn professors to receive the Gerald and Emily Leischuck Endowed Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching. The award is given annually to two faculty members who have demonstrated effective and innovative teaching methods, along with a continuing commitment to student success through advising and mentoring.
“Receiving the Gerald and Emily Leischuck Endowed Presidential Award really took my breath away and is something that I’ve been in a bit of shock over as it is such a high honor,” Lepczyk said. “But what it means to me is that I’ve been able to connect with students and hopefully affect their lives in a meaningful way.”
Lepczyk’s work inside and outside of the classroom speaks to his mission of advancing science for the purposes of conservation.
“Most of my research and that of my students focuses on collecting data to provide answers for conservation and management of nature, particularly wildlife,” he said. “At present, my lab has been working quite a bit on comparing wildlife across cities of the world, using birds as model species, developing a new citizen science project looking at biodiversity in people’s yards, working on reducing the impact of invasive species, looking at effects of pollution on wildlife and evaluating management options for endangered species.”
In May 2020, he was the lead editor of the newly released Handbook of Citizen Science in Ecology and Conservation, the nation’s first comprehensive guide for both professional scientists and citizen scientists—avid science enthusiasts within communities who carry out essential, hands-on work for research projects. And just recently, he co-authored a study that used nearly two decades of data on the birds that inhabit the parks of New York City to answer longstanding questions about how well urban green spaces function to protect biodiversity, particularly the varieties of bird species. The study, published in the international journal Landscape and Urban Planning, examined three major aspects of urban green spaces—isolation, shape and area—to determine which provided the strongest support for biodiversity. The research found that the size of an urban green space’s area—not its shape or isolation—most strongly corresponds with the richness of bird species in these spaces, both annually and seasonally.
“We are very proud of Dr. Lepczyk’s accomplishments,” said Janaki Alavalapati, dean of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. “He is adept at translating his research experiences in the fields of ecology and conservation biology to the classroom to provide his students with a greater understanding of the human dimensions of conservation. Through the exploration of real world management and conservation issues our students are gaining a greater appreciation of the interconnection between people and the environment.”
Lepczyk said his hope is that his students learn that they can make real change in the world.
“One of the main reasons I became a professor was to teach so as to educate students about the natural world and how we can use science to help restore and manage it,” he said.
As part of his nomination for the Gerald and Emily Leischuck Endowed Presidential Award, Lepczyk received several letters of support from colleagues and students.
“Dr. Lepczyk exemplifies all the qualities that make a great teacher: passion for the subject matter, organization, compassion for students and a class structure that facilitates learning,” stated Cullen Anderson, who attended Auburn as an undergraduate student from 2015-2019. “Dr. Lepczyk excels as a mentor beyond the classroom, encouraging students to pursue extra-curricular activities (e.g. field work, research) and guiding them through those processes.”
Lisa Wedding, also a former student of Lepczyk’s and now an associate professor in Physical Geography and a Tutorial Fellow of Worcester College at the University of Oxford, offered similar praise of Lepczyk in her support letter.
“I completed Dr. Lepczyk’s graduate level Landscape Ecology course in the fall of 2008. He thoughtfully organized the course to engage students on many different levels to ensure we not only learned the fundamentals of landscape ecology, but that we became critical thinkers,” she stated. “His lectures were engaging and he also organized weekly class discussions that highly motivated us to synthesize and critically review journal articles on a specific landscape ecology theme.”
She added that “there are so few professors who show Dr. Lepczyk’s dedication and commitment to student success and career development. This stretches far beyond his job description, but his professional support has helped me complete my dissertation successfully, secure a postdoctoral scholar position at Stanford University and ultimately an associate professor position at the University of Oxford.”
Lepczyk said it’s been his honor to serve in such a role and to pass along his love for conservation through the years.
“One of the things I most enjoy as a professor is getting students excited and caring about nature and the world around them and seeing that change,” he said.
(Written by Preston Sparks)