Stanford biologist Rodolfo Dirzo to receive Roland Volunteer Service Prize

The Miriam Aaron Roland Volunteer Service Prize recognizes Stanford faculty who engage and involve students in integrating academic scholarship with significant and meaningful volunteer service to society.

Biology Professor Rodolfo Dirzo will receive the 2016 Miriam Aaron Roland Volunteer Service Prize for his commitment to community engagement as integral to teaching and research, and for inspiring students from underserved communities to pursue conservation projects and careers.

The Haas Center for Public Service awards the Roland Prize to members of the Stanford faculty “who engage and involve students in integrating academic scholarship with significant and meaningful volunteer service to society.” It was created by alumna Miriam Aaron Roland, ’51, and includes a $5,000 cash award.

Rodolfo Dirzo

Biology Professor Rodolfo Dirzo is the recipient of the 2016 Miriam Aaron Roland Volunteer Service Prize. His work with students from underserved communities engages them in conservation projects and exposes them to careers in science. (Image credit: Courtesy Rodolfo Dirzo)

Dirzo, the Bing Professor in Environmental Science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, has established a program in which Stanford graduate and undergraduate students mentor high school students. Through the Bing Overseas Studies Program, Dirzo also teaches a course on biocultural diversity in Oaxaca, Mexico, leading Stanford undergraduate and graduate students on research projects in which they immerse themselves in the language and culture of indigenous communities there.

Hands-on learning

On a typical Friday, Stanford biology students and students at Redwood High School crouch together at the edge of a creek on the high school’s campus in Redwood City. They are investigating the survival rates of native plants with natural predators nearby compared with invasive species without such predators. Understanding how exotic plants change and challenge an ecosystem is part of the team’s work to clean and restore the creek, and in the process, build practical ecology, leadership and life skills they wouldn’t get from a textbook.

The effort is a partnership between the Stanford chapter of the student group Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability (SEEDS) and the Redwood Environmental Academy of Leadership (REAL). Together SEEDS and REAL participants do field work at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, take field trips to places such as the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Half Moon Bay and attend lectures from ecology experts.

In addition to the SEEDS program, Dirzo runs a STEM program for Latina girls through a partnership of the Mexican Consulate and Stanford’s Center for Latin American Studies. The nine-week program brings 20 middle-school students from San Jose to Stanford each week to learn about science and visit a variety of labs, from the embryology lab to the Stanford Earthquake Engineering Center. He also teaches a two-quarter course at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve and invites undergraduates, graduate students and members of the community to participate, including high schoolers from the REAL program. Those who successfully complete the course are certified to serve as docents for the preserve.

“While teaching, he is enthusiastic and humorous, and always encourages students to get involved in ecology and conservation,” said Amy Zuckerwise, ’15, a former student of Dirzo’s. “To him, no student is a waste of time, and anyone who is interested, regardless of previous educational background, can learn practical scientific skills.”

A commitment to Latin America and beyond

Dirzo studied biology at the University of Morelos, Mexico, and completed his master’s and doctoral studies in ecology at the University of Wales, Great Britain. He is a recipient of the National University of Mexico Award in Science, and the Presidential Award for Merit in Ecology from the Office of the President of Mexico. He has published approximately 150 peer-reviewed papers and 60 book chapters, and has edited or written 15 books. In addition, he is the director of Stanford’s Center for Latin American Studies.

His scientific work centers on the study of the ecological and evolutionary relationships between plants and animals and on the impact of human activities on natural ecosystems. Most of his work is carried out in tropical ecosystems in Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, the Central Pacific and, most recently, Kenya.

Dirzo is documenting the global magnitude of animal depletion (defaunation) and its impact on ecosystems, including the regulation of disease risks in humans. For example, the loss of large, plant-eating animals such as elephants, zebras and bison may result in a dwindling food supply for carnivores such as lions and tigers and a surge in parasite- and disease-carrying rodents that can ultimately threaten human health. The greatest impact of defaunation is in tropical climates, he said.

“In the case of deforestation, you can see vividly through the satellite images what is happening. But you can’t produce satellite images of what’s happening with the animals so that people see the magnitude of the problem,” Dirzo noted. “By going to the field and taking photos of the footprints of animals, you have an idea of the magnitude of defaunation.”

Shaping the future of education

Dirzo is also helping shape the field of science education. He was among a team of scientists and education experts commissioned by the U.S. National Academies to craft a national framework for K-12 science education. The group, under the leadership of Helen Quinn, a Stanford professor emerita of particle physics and astrophysics, co-authored A Framework for K-12 Science Education, which was published in 2012.

In July, Dirzo will launch a summer institute on sustainability in Veracruz, Mexico, for 12 science teachers from the United States and two from Mexico. The program will include a visit to a rainforest biological research station. The goal is to facilitate a cross-cultural exchange while preparing science teachers to bring sustainability lessons back to their work.

Dirzo said that being chosen for the Roland Prize was surprising but very rewarding, and faculty and students alike noted that the award was a well-deserved and particularly fitting honor.

Hillary Young, a former doctoral student, wrote: “It is simply an expectation on entering Rodolfo’s lab that the research you do must deliver strong social benefits – be it through conservation or direct outreach to local populations – or ideally both.”

Larry Diamond, faculty director of the Haas Center, will present the Roland Prize at a private luncheon today. Also at that event, David Demarest, vice president for public affairs, will present the 2016 Community Partnerships Awards to Challenge Success, the Stanford Language Center & International Institute of the Bay Area and the Stanford/San Francisco Unified School District Partnership. The East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring program will receive the Stanford Community Partnership Legacy Award.