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Peter Ducey

Peter Ducey

  November 2006 

Pete Ducey and students Dr. Peter Ducey, a full professor since 1998, is currently involved in a broad range of research projects investigating questions in the fascinating fields of evolutionary ecology and conservation biology. Each project involves collaborations; Ducey works with other faculty at SUNY Cortland, faculty at other universities, scientists in government agencies, and, most importantly, with undergraduate students. "Student participation, early and often, in the process of doing real scientific research, is central to the success of so many students. We make it available for all interested students within our department," states Ducey. And he adds that "research opportunities and learning from research mentors played a crucial role in my own education. I owe so much to the folks that taught me; now I try to give similar experiences to my students."

Ducey credits two mentors in his career; one, Dr. E. D. Brodie, who introduced the undergraduate Ducey to scientific investigation, while the other, Dr. Ronald A. Nussbaum, changed the course of Ducey's graduate career at the University of Michigan. "Dr. Brodie is a world-class mentor and scientist. I learned about the study of evolution and behavior, received experience in field and lab research, and got to investigate the behavior of amphibians from around North and Central America. For me, the influence of Butch Brodie's intense curiosity, integrity, and focus on both the science and his students, just can't be measured. Not only did I get lucky in having his mentorship as an undergraduate, we have continued to work together throughout my career." As for world-renowned Dr. Nussbaum: "he is a genuine scholar. He has a deep knowledge of the scientific literature and really understands the historical perspective. He showed me the importance of digging into and building off of the work of the researchers that came before us."

Current research projects by Ducey and his students can be grouped in two categories: conservation biology and ecology of amphibians and reptiles (a.k.a. herps), and the evolutionary ecology of invasive worms. He has been interested in the ways that human activities affect the interactions of herps and their environment. This has involved lots of time spent in forests and wetlands throughout the New York, in addition to laboratory studies. Sometimes the field sites are beautiful undisturbed areas off the beaten path, but for other projects Ducey and his students work within highly disturbed, even urban wetlands. For example, they have studied the herps within the greatly-altered Onondaga Lake ecosystem in Syracuse for more than a decade. "We can learn so much about how ecosystems in general function, by looking at the workings, and sometimes the recovery, of systems badly disturbed by human activity." Most of Ducey's work with NY Herps has benefited from collaboration with Alvin Breisch of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. "Al is really the State's lead herpetologist", says Ducey, "and he has supported us in so many ways. I am also very grateful for all of the knowledge he's shared with me."

Other important collaborations in herpetological conservation for Ducey have been with Dr. James Gibbs and his students at SUNY ESF. The Gibbs research teams have been at the forefront of research on the effects of roads on herps. "James has invited me to work with him and his excellent graduate students on several projects; each has been a stimulating and rewarding experience."

Ducey, his students, and colleagues have also been investigating invasive worms. "I realize that worms don't seem all that exciting at first", comments Ducey. "However, they're great organisms for examining fundamental questions about the evolution and ecology of biological invasions. Invasions are perhaps the greatest threats faced by our native and agricultural systems." Favorite study organisms for the team have been the terrestrial broadhead planarians (genus Bipalium) that have invaded North America from Asia and are predators on earthworms. "These are amazing predatorsˆëfor their size, they are more ferocious than lions, attacking and killing prey more than twenty times their own mass. We're studying everything about their biology, from their behavioral ecology to (with Dr. Patricia Conklin at Cortland) their molecular evolution."

Ducey has used grants from several state and federal agencies to support his students in these projects. He has published dozens of scientific papers spread across many journals and is coauthor on a book about NY amphibians and Reptiles coming out at the end of 2006. He has received recognition for his research work over the years, including most recently the SUNY Research Foundation Award for Exemplary Contributions to Research and Scholarship (2006) and the SUNY Cortland Outstanding Achievement in Research Award (2006). All of these research projects provide training opportunities for SUNY Cortland undergraduate students and yield information that is tied into Dr. Ducey's classes. "Our priority here is to provide all of our students with the very best educational experiences. Whether they go on to become doctors, lawyers, physical therapists, research biologists, or anything else, they will benefit from the empowerment of being better at reasoning, problem solving, and just thinking scientifically."

samples from the world of herps

For his efforts in teaching inside and outside the traditional classroom, Ducey received the SUNY Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2004. He regularly teaches a variety of classes about evolution, vertebrate biology, conservation biology, and herpetology, as well as introductory biology.