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Brian Solomon’s Guide To the Stars: Biology Professor Mark McPeek

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

Thumbnail image for Mark McPeek1.jpgMark McPeek is the David T. McLaughlin Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at Dartmouth. He’s an evolutionary biologist and ecologist, studying how organisms adapt and become extinct over time, leading to the creation and specialization of new species today. He’s also the College’s foremost expert on the scourge of grade inflation.

McPeek grew up in Kentucky, where he expressed an early interest in biology via hunting and fishing. But most of his family and community didn’t go to college, and instead got jobs at the local steel mill. When evolution was left out of his high school curriculum, McPeek ordered additional textbooks through the mail.

In 1982, McPeek graduated from the University of Kentucky with a biology degree. He stayed at UK to get his Masters, then earned his Ph.D. from Michigan State University. After a two-year post-doc in south Florida and a temporary faculty position at Bowling Green, McPeek joined the Dartmouth faculty in 1992.

Throughout that time and to this day, McPeek’s biological research has closely examined certain species and their genetic path to the present, as he puts it: “replaying the tape of life.” McPeek has a great h-index of 55 and about 35 articles with more than 100 citations.

The processes that separate species, like the damselfly insects McPeek studies in lakes and ponds, are multifaceted. Ecological conditions play a large role: for example, the type of lake, and whether there are predator fish or dragonflies in it, affects which insects can survive in a particular area. But that’s not all. Something as small as a change in the sexual organs or pheromones of an insect can create a whole new species — even if that doesn’t affect what food they eat, how they deal with predators or diseases. While we were all taught in high school biology that species evolve into their own unique niche, that assertion isn’t quite true. Many of McPeek’s insect subjects are ecologically identical to other insect species — in other words they share the same niche. In a lecture at Harvard in 2009, McPeek discusses, Climate Change and How We Got the Fauna We Have Today:

In April, McPeek was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in recognition of his innovative work. His lab includes undergraduates, graduate students, and post-docs. He is also a busy teacher, having taught 26 different courses since coming to Dartmouth. Most recently, McPeek taught biology courses on statistics, ecology, and game theory as applied to metabolism and genetics. This spring, he’s also co-teaching a course, Biology 10, with Classics Professor Hakan Tell that explores “how Aristotle (the father of science) and Darwin (the father of modern biology) developed their ideas about the organization of nature and human society.”

Professor McPeek doesn’t stop in the classroom and the lab. He blogs frequently about politics, science, society, and much more. And he has led the charge to combat the College’s rampant grade inflation, presenting a report to the faculty last year about the challenge it poses and possible solutions. He has also written substantially more on the subject.

McPeek tells Dartblog that while his findings on grade inflation are supposedly being discussed by administrators and in committees, since his presentation a year ago there have been no updates on an official school response.

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