Award-winning Auburn University evolutionary biologist finds a world of wonder in the world around him

Published: December 01, 2014
Updated: December 05, 2014
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At an early age, Stephen Dobson developed an intense curiosity about nature and the world around him. Using the tools of scientific inquiry, and with the encouragement of his professors, Dobson began what would be a lifelong career studying evolutionary biology.

"When I was a child, my parents told me that I should look for a job where I'd pay somebody else to let me do it, and that's exactly the kind of job I have here," said Dobson, who has been an evolutionary biologist at Auburn University since 1988.

Dobson, a professor of biological sciences in Auburn's College of Sciences and Mathematics, works in the fields of behavioral and population ecology. His main focus is empirical fieldwork, using small mammals as a model system to study the evolution of behaviors and life cycles of organisms. He has worked extensively with pikas in the Tibetan Plateau, King penguins in the French sub-Antarctic and ground squirrels in Canada.

"My career at Auburn has allowed me to take nature into my hands in obscure corners of the earth, both high and low," said Dobson. "Working internationally really allows me to form collaborations with people in other cultures and develop new ideas."

Dobson is a recipient of the university's 2014 Creative Research and Scholarship Award, which honors the research achievements and contributions of faculty who have distinguished themselves through research, scholarly works and creative contributions to their fields. The award was presented to Dobson at the ninth annual Auburn University Faculty Awards ceremony in October.

"Dr. Dobson is the personification of what the Creative Research and Scholarship Award signifies," said Jack Feminella, professor and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences. "He is a valuable member of our department who is eminently deserving of this award."

After completing his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 1984, Dobson held a NATO post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Alberta in Canada, followed by a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Lethbridge. He returned to the University of Michigan as a visiting assistant curator in the Museum of Zoology before his arrival at Auburn.

In 2002, he was named a Chevalier of France, in the Order of Academic Palms, which Dobson calls one of the most thrilling moments of his career. He then spent six summers as an invited professor at the University of Paris, was given two "Poste Rouge" scholarships, and was later appointed director of research in the French National Center for Scientific Research. A prolific writer, Dobson has authored more than 100 publications in his career.

After 26 years at Auburn, Dobson says he is most fond of the personal touch that the university possesses.

"At many other institutions, you're just a face in a sea, but at Auburn, we pay attention to the students," said Dobson. "The personal attention shown to students is something we really pride ourselves on and specialize in."

Dobson's fascination with nature and motivation to conduct fieldwork continues to grow as he shares that passion with his students.

"Understanding the evolution of organisms is important because our world is always changing, climates are changing, nature is changing, and our understanding of how nature is making these changes is very primitive," said Dobson. "Expanding our knowledge in these areas is vital."

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