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Brian Solomon’s Guide To The Stars: Biology Professor Kathy Cottingham

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:

Kathryn Cottingham.jpgKathy Cottingham is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences as well as a Professor in the Ecology, Evolution, Ecosystems and Society graduate program. Her stellar work on the ecology of lakes has made her one of the top scientific researchers at Dartmouth.

Cottingham’s interest in the subject began as a child growing up Medford Lakes, NJ, a borough with 22 different small lakes. She attended Drew University in northern New Jersey, starting out as an English major, but after a couple of courses, she switched to Mathematics and Biology instead. She was better known at Drew for sports than academics, playing both lacrosse and field hockey. In lacrosse, Cottingham started every game for four years, led the team in scoring as a junior and senior, served as co-captain, and was the only Division III athlete to earn one of the ten inaugural National Association of Directors of Athletics/Disney Scholar-Athlete Awards. To top it off, in 2000 she was inducted into Drew’s Athletics Hall of Fame.

Next up was a Masters and Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison (where she also coached the university’s club lacrosse team). There Cottingham began to study the effects of lakes at the level of the entire ecosystem. Testing the theories around trophic feeding cascades, where a top predator can have a major impact down the food chain, she looked at how a lake changed when you removed its largemouth bass. Her research team expected that with the top predator gone, a four-level ripple effect on the ecosystem would result in a large increase in algae (at the bottom). What they found was more complicated, depending specifically on the composition of plankton in the lake.

After graduation in 1996, Cottingham joined the first inaugural group of postdocs at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, CA, where she examined the early warning indicators that would show that an ecosystem is in trouble. She came to Hanover in 1998, and she has continued to be a prolific researcher combining statistics with rigorous field work.

Cottingham’s research papers have been cited more than 5,500 times, and she has an h-index of 37 according to Google Scholar. Her most cited paper is The Relationship in Lake Communities Between Primary Productivity and Species Richness, which addresses biodiversity in lakes. Her work continues to focus on freshwater plankton, plus she is doing newer projects on algae blooms: green flecks that can be as large as a pencil dot, which come up from the lake mud and can become toxic surface scum. Blooms are a big problem in lake communities throughout the North and Midwest, and Cottingham has been cited as an expert on the phenomenon.

Over the last decade, Cottingham’s research lab has also expanded with projects related to epidemiology and public health. She got attention last year for a new study on babies exposed to increased levels of arsenic. There is some arsenic in baby formula, and families who use well water (like many in New Hampshire) are at risk to add more. “Because our study population uses water from private wells, which are not regulated, families can have high arsenic in their water and not know it,” Cottingham said.

Meanwhile, Cottingham’s main undergraduate course is Biology 22: Methods in Ecology, a summer course for majors. She takes her students to a different ecosystem every week — a meadow, a forest, a stream, and, of course, a lake — and has them collect data from each site and analyze it. She has also taught biostatistics and intro to ecology in recent years.

One more task: raising the next generation of lacrosse stars. Her fifth-grade son is already taking to the sport.

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