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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Rigor and respect

July 30, 2009

Donald N. Alstad is a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior.

Donald N. Alstad is a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior within the College of Biological Sciences.

Photo: Patrick O'Leary

Don Alstad makes mathematically difficult concepts digestible

By Deane Morrison

Walking into the first day of a big ecology class, students hardly expect the professor to greet them by name. But Don Alstad does. He makes a point of studying student ID pictures and memorizing all 100-plus names before the first day of class. "We immediately respected Don because he had shown how much he respected us," says one student of the experience.

Known for his studies of how insects evolve resistance to pesticides, Alstad has mastered the art of making mathematically difficult concepts digestible. For example, through his computer program Populus, students can watch how populations of people or other organisms change in response to various factors. More than 600 universities on six continents use the program to teach ecology.

"We can no longer pretend that the Earth is infinite; our activities now drive the planet's metabolism.... It is my privilege to teach many superb students a science that is complex, fascinating, and readily perceived to be important."

Don Alstad is a 2009 recipient of the Horace T. Morse-University of Minnesota Alumni Association Award for outstanding contributions to undergraduate education.

And when he made Biology 3408 "writing-intensive," students got a taste of the research life by designing experiments, learning to analyze data statistically, and writing reports suitable for publication. Enrollment blossomed so far that Alstad had to add another section of the course.

Alstad holds weekly coffee chats for students, ending them only when every question is answered. Students flock to him for advice on careers or graduate schools, and he's built a reputation for being tough but fair. For instance, a student recalls other students telling a lab TA how difficult a course seemed. The TA replied that compared to many other professors, "Don's rigorous approach would reward us with the most thorough understanding of the subject matter," the student says.