Ecologist draws students, city kids to nature’s wonders

Students cherish them. Their colleagues admire them. Former students remember them as being a major influence in their lives. And now the UCLA Academic Senate is honoring them with UCLA’s highest teaching prize. Among the 2011 winners: Phil Rundel, Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Director of the UCLA Natural Reserves.

Phil Rundel sitting in a meadow.
Ecologist Phil Rundel has been awarded a 2011 UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award.

Former students who are now professors and teachers in the life sciences describe ecologist Phil Rundel as that once-in-a-lifetime teacher who changed their career aspirations with his contagious love of plants.

Whether sitting in a mega-classroom or small graduate seminar, they felt his zeal pulling them into science. But it was the experience of going on one of his fabled field trips that was nothing short of magical, they maintained. There, they fell under the spell of an extraordinary teacher and dedicated ecologist whose boundless enthusiasm for exploration and discovery set them on fire to learn.

“As good as Phil’s teaching was in the classroom, it was his out-of-classroom mentorship that had the greatest and longest-lasting impression on me,” said Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering Richard Ambrose, who took his first class with Rundel nearly 40 years ago (after which Ambrose tried to take every Rundel class available). Etched in Ambrose’s memory was a trip to Baja, California, one that Rundel led annually for undergraduate and graduate students at UC Irvine, where he first taught.

“These were amazing trips!” Ambrose wrote in a letter submitted to the Academic Senate’s teaching awards committee. “Phil’s enthusiasm for desert ecology and plant physiological ecology as well as [his] spirit of adventure made these a career-defining moment for everyone involved. In fact, most of the participants in these informal field trips have gone on to become professor biologists or teachers.”

Ecologist draws students, city kids to nature's wonders 1
Rundel and his students eat lunch and rest during a field trip to Mount Pinos north of Los Angeles. It was on Rundel’s fabled field trips, former students said, that they got hooked on science and nature.

Searching the desert or Asian rain forest for birds and plants under Rundel’s lead, students marveled at his vast knowledge as a consummate field biologist “ever teaching, … patiently guiding them to explore, discover and share his love of the flora of any particular area,” said Peter Narins, Distinguished Professor, who co-taught the popular Field Biology Quarter program at UCLA with Rundel for three years when they took students to La Selva, Costa Rica; Mae-Sa Valley, Thailand; and Khao Yai National Park, Thailand.

While Rundel said he’s gratified by the success of many of his former students-turned-scientists —Life Sciences Dean Victoria Sork among them — he said he is also happy to have influenced students who have not gone on to scientific careers to think differently about the environment.

And that group includes more than 3,000 schoolchildren from all over Los Angeles who annually visit the UCLA Stunt Ranch Santa Monica Mountains Reserve, part of the UC Natural Reserve System, where Rundel is faculty director. For thousands of kids from South and East Los Angeles, as well as other parts of the city, it is their very first up-close encounter with nature.

“From the beginning, my philosophy has been to stimulate students to develop their own creative thinking by conveying to them the excitement of science and the significance, as well as personal satisfaction, that comes with knowledge and new understandings,” said Rundel, summing up his long teaching career.

“I felt and continue to feel very strongly that a scientifically literate public is of critical importance in our modern society. This goal has permeated my entire career, not just in the formal courses … but in my active interest in public outreach at local, national and international levels.”

By Cynthia Lee, UCLA Today