Leading by Example - Gail Patricelli Receives Faculty Teaching Award

Professor Gail Patricelli has worked for UC Davis since 2004. Credit: Gail Patricelli/UC Davis
Professor Gail Patricelli has worked for UC Davis since 2004. Credit: Gail Patricelli/UC Davis

Professor Gail Patricelli, Department of Evolution and Ecology, was honored with the 2016 College of Biological Sciences Faculty Teaching Award. This distinction recognizes excellence in teaching through enthusiasm and effectiveness of instruction, application of technology and innovation in the classroom, and mentorship and motivation of students.  

Patricelli teaches Introduction to Biology (BIS 2B) and Animal Communication (EVE 107), a course she developed, which has quickly become one of the most popular electives within the College of Biological Sciences. Patricelli consistently receives outstanding reviews and positive feedback from her students.

“I looked forward to that class even when I was utterly exhausted,” said Sarah Heimbach, a wildlife, fish and conservation biology major. “I dreaded the final mostly due to the fact that it meant the class was over, and I knew I would miss being able to include it in my week. I know many others felt the same way.” 

The intersection of research and instruction

Much of Patricelli’s research focuses on mating behaviors of sage-grouse and other birds, as well as environmental noise pollution and its impact on wildlife reproduction and communication. She made the connection early on that noise pollution was a major factor interfering with sage-grouse interaction with potential mates during breeding season.

Sage-grouse communication and selection process is disturbed when external sounds and vibrations are introduced by human activity. Sound from passing airplanes engines and vibrations from drilling are part of the broad scale of noise pollution that affect wildlife.

Recently considered for listing as federally endangered species, sage-grouse are a keystone species in the sagebrush ecosystem. Unsurprisingly, noise pollution is not just a problem for sage-grouse—researchers have found strong impacts of noise on other wildlife as well. Patricelli is now one of few authorities on the topic, and frequently writes noise management policy recommendations for public and private organizations. 

Patricelli’s classroom lectures are peppered with first-hand experiences, and her research brings a sense of real-world applicability to her students. “What makes being a student at a research university exciting is that students get to hear about cutting-edge research in the classroom, and then many of them will do research in my lab or another lab on campus,” she said. “So for example, they learn about sage-grouse behavior and conservation in class, then they can get hands-on experience in data collection, analysis, and scientific writing in my lab.”

Since beginning her faculty position in 2004, Patricelli has mentored more than 275 UC Davis undergraduates in her lab, across many majors, with more than half of them women and many from underrepresented groups recruited through the McNair Scholars, Biological Undergraduate Scholars and UC Davis Young Scholars programs.

To date, 15 UC Davis undergraduates have been co-authors on peer reviewed publications from the Patricelli Lab.  Through authorship opportunities and professional recognition, Patricelli emphasizes the importance of fostering collaboration between graduate and undergraduate students. 

Experiential learning

Students are captivated by Patricelli’s behavioral observation methods, which use advanced technologies such as directional microphones and remote controlled robotics. She has female decoys, affectionately nicknamed ‘fembots’, which are used to study communication between males and females during the breeding season at her field site in Wyoming. Many of the graduate students in Patricelli’s lab work on independent projects with her guidance and support.

“My former graduate student, Jessica Yorzinski, did some really cool research a few years ago, where she came up with an eye tracking system that works on peahens to actually see what the hens are looking at when they're assessing a male,” Patricelli said. Yorzinski is beginning a faculty position at Texas A&M University this fall.

Patricelli’s approach to learning in the classroom is multidisciplined, focusing on integrating physics, chemistry, physiology, cognitive psychology, evolution, ecology and economics to understand complex phenomena.  She facilitates discussions and interaction, and challenges students to come to conclusions on their own.

Her courses are structured with a focus on pragmatism and real-world learning, and assignments encourage professional development. For instance, students write a research grant proposal for submission to the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program.  Patricelli, a former NSF Postdoctoral Fellow herself, has seen multiple students from her classes and lab awarded NSF fellowships.

Facilitating student success

A 'fembot' decoy invites the opportunity to evaluate male sage-grouse courting responses. Credit: Gail Patricelli/UC Davis
A 'fembot' decoy invites the opportunity to evaluate male sage-grouse courting responses. Credit: Gail Patricelli/UC Davis

“The assignments that we were given were always constructive and meaningful—I never felt like I was just doing busy work in this class,” said Sina Amini, an evolution, ecology and biodiversity undergraduate. “The grant proposal project was especially enlightening. It forced us to think critically, ask the right questions, synthesize primary literature and gave us a taste of what it is like to formulate and obtain funding for a research project.”

Outside of the lecture hall, Patricelli enjoys meeting one-on-one with students during her office hours. She welcomes the opportunity to talk about their understanding of course material, research ideas and future plans. “One need only attend Gail’s office hours to understand how students feel about her—she always has a full house, often addressing our concerns and engaging our interests well past scheduled hours,” Amini said.

“It takes a lot of time to be a good teacher—and that's rewarding in and of itself,” said Patricelli. “There are times when that effort takes away from submitting grants and writing and other things that we need to do, so it's a struggle to make the time to invest in teaching. It's nice to have that effort acknowledged by the college.”

This fall, Patricelli will introduce a new course geared toward non-majors called Sex in the Natural World (EVE 13), which covers the diversity of mating behaviors across flora and fauna. She hopes to inspire those fascinated by the beauty of the natural world—bird songs, vivid plumages, and flowers—all of which evolved to attract mates and pollinators for reproduction.

Patricelli is proud to call UC Davis home. “I love the fact that here, students are learning about science right in the middle of where science happens,” she said. “Research here at Davis involves big grants and active research by faculty, and a lot of it ends up published. Students get to really be a part of cutting-edge research at one of the best universities in the nation, and arguably the world, for evolutionary biology and ecology. That’s pretty cool.”

Patricelli was awarded the UC Davis Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Mentorship of Undergraduate Research in 2012, an ADVANCE Scholar Award for outstanding research activity and mentorship in 2015 and she is currently a Chancellor’s Fellow