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Week of September 12, 2011


Field work inspires 
LSA ecology and 
evolutionary biology chair

Growing up on Long Island, N.Y., Deborah Goldberg never thought of becoming a scientist. As a freshman at Barnard College, she took a biology class just to fulfill a science requirement and later a course on the natural history of New York.

But in those classes in the early-1970s she encountered “amazing women scientists,” just as ecology was becoming a hot topic.

Deborah Goldberg shows off a chair presented to her by the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology upon completion of her first year as (then interim) chair. Photo by Scott Soderberg.

When she became chair of EEB in 2001, she started working to increase diversity on the faculty and in the classroom. In 10 years she has nearly doubled the number of women to 28 percent of the faculty and created programs to encourage young scientists.

As a member of STRIDE — a campuswide effort to increase faculty diversity — Goldberg works with committee members to identify strategies to increase the recruitment and retention of diverse candidates.

She helped to create the Frontiers Masters Program, to encourage biology students from nontraditional backgrounds to pursue graduate study. The program won a Distinguished Diversity Leaders Award in 2008.

“I stumbled across something I could become passionate about both intellectually and for the sheer fun of playing in the mud to do field work,” says Goldberg, who for the past 10 years has been chair of LSA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She also is the Elzada U. Clover Collegiate Professor.

After graduating from Barnard in 1975, she earned a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Arizona in 1980 and arrived at U-M in 1983, as an assistant biology professor.

She found a welcoming environment, but also felt the lack of many women colleagues in the department. As a first-generation college graduate she also understood barriers these students face, especially in pursuing science careers.

She serves as faculty director of M-Bio, a new two-year program for incoming freshmen interested in biology, which targets low-income, first-generation college students.

Goldberg’s primary field research in Michigan centers on invasive species and whether they can be used in beneficial ways, such as capturing agricultural run off along coast lines. She also works on the effects of climate change on alpine vegetation in Norway and with various theoreticians on developing general models of plant dynamics. She is working on interdisciplinary research with the School of Public Health and the Medical School, studying how the diversity of microbes in the human body affect health.

As a child she discovered the joy of dancing in a ballet class. As a grad student in Arizona she learned country swing. Today she’ll dance to most anything. “I’m the first one on the dance floor,” she says.

A new empty-nester, she has just sent her son Benjamin to the University of Texas, Austin, for his freshman year.

Her travels alternate between sojourns to the desert, “where there is no one around” and junkets to New York, where she visits family, takes in some theater, dines on dim sum and drops by the Algonquin Hotel. “I pretend I’m Dorothy Parker,” she says.

The weekly Spotlight features faculty and staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, please contact the Record staff at



Mon Monarch performs roots music and more, 6 p.m. Sept. 18, Nichols Arboretum.

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