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Alumni Profile: Science Gene Runs in the Family for Urban Ecologist Jeffrey Ackley '08

posted on 08/03/2010

by Mary Ellen Collins

Jeffrey Ackley '08 graduated from Eckerd with a B.S. in Biology and a double minor in East Asian Studies and Japanese. In 2009, he was awarded a $100,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate and Research Traineeship in Urban Ecology at Arizona State University.

An interest in science runs in very different directions in the Ackley family. John Ackley, an independent inventor in the fields of buildings energy and nanoparticle mortar, is father to Jeffrey Ackley '08, whose focus is urban ecology.

John traces his interest in technology to childhood, when he considered cooling off his vacuum tube record player because he thought it was overheating.

"The vacuum tubes made the unit get very warm to the touch, and I thought I should take it in the bathroom and pour cold water on it," he says laughing. Fortunately, his mother stepped in at the right time so that he didn't carry out his plan.

He envisioned an engineering career, and although he began doing theatrical sound work in school and in New York City afterward, he eventually realized that his calling lay in inventing socially useful things. Although he considers himself mostly retired, he's still working on taking a nanoscale concrete product and adapting it for use as a mortar.

John talks with pride about his son, who was a fixture at the local nature center when he was a kid.

"A naturalist at the local nature center used to say 'If Jeffrey couldn't spot a hiding frog, it wasn't there.'"

When Jeffrey was considering where to go to college, his high school dean's wife suggested Eckerd, her alma mater. The Ackley family's admissions tour ended up at the waterfront, with its fleet of Lasers, windsurfers and other crafts.

"They said we could take anything out any time we wanted, and that was the deciding factor," says Jeffrey, who had been sailing since the age of four. Although the waterfront attracted him to Eckerd, he couldn't have imagined that water elsewhere on campus would become the harbinger of his eventual focus on urban ecology, a field of study that has come into being during the last decade.

A few years before Jeffrey arrived in Florida, Eckerd built retention ponds to collect rainwater runoff from parking lots and reduce flooding.

"In what we call a happy accident, plants grew and birds, fish, crabs and other invertebrates came in, so the ponds served an ecological purpose in addition to a human purpose," he explains. The new inhabitants included a large population of North American Watersnakes. Jeffrey and other herpetology club members began going out at night to capture, tag and release the snakes, and conduct a number of different pilot projects. Jeffrey focused on a mathematical analysis to determine a population size estimate.

"There was a monstrously large, dense population," he says. "The usual is less than one snake per hectare (100mX100m), and we found 200 per hectare. It was cool that this happened in an artificial habitat - practically in downtown St. Pete, in polluted water next to a parking lot. It was by no means a natural habitat."

Right before Jeffrey's senior year, Peter Meylan, the Richard R. Hallin Professor in Natural Sciences, asked him to teach the opening herpetology class and lab.

"I thought, 'I've got this great project and 30 research assistants. We'll go out and catch snakes." To his surprise, he found that much of the vegetation around the ponds was dead. Although he didn't find large numbers of dead snakes, 50%-75% of the snakes had vanished. A little investigation revealed that maintenance subcontractors had applied herbicides to eliminate the invasive plants, unaware that the ponds had served any purpose other than water retention.

Jeffrey changed the focus of the paper he was writing from population ecology to urban ecology, and talked with members of the faculty environmental affairs committee along with staff who were responsible for the physical upkeep of the campus. They organized a planting of native vegetation to replace the dead plants, and today the retention ponds are managed in a more ecologically friendly way.

"I would have expected Jeffrey to get the bums rush from the buildings and grounds people, but he didn't," says John Ackley. "It became a learning experience, and the cooperation and enthusiasm that were shown were heartwarming."

During his time at Eckerd, Jeffrey expanded his exploration of the natural world through National Science Foundation summer research programs at Sam Houston State University and in Dominica. Thirty of the underwater photos he took during the Dominica project have appeared in two issues of Iguana magazine.

Jeffrey is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Arizona State University, having been awarded a $100,000 NSF Graduate and Research Traineeship in Urban Ecology. He envisions a future that includes studying and conserving natural habitats within metropolitan areas, with an eye towards sustainability.

"My guess is that I'll do some combination of environmental consulting and working for a government agency. Even if American and European countries become sustainable, it's possible that they could send me to a less developed country to give the people there an idea about how to destroy fewer habitats when building their cities."

This feature is the twelfth in a series of profiles of Eckerd alumni and friends who embody the emphasis of the Sciences at Eckerd College. Learn more about the Many Experiences, One Spirit: The Campaign for Eckerd College and the Center for Molecular and Life Sciences, a Campaign priority.

Read Previous Science Profiles:
Marion Marshall White '74
Jane A. Petro '68
Olester Benson '74
Rebecca Helm '07
Michael Depledge
Quinton Zondervan '92 and Vincent Coljee '90
Carlos Barbas '85
Paul Cheney '69
Harry Johns '90
Patrick Griffin
Jeffrey Dodge '84

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