Dr. Jerry Choate, professor of biological sciences and director of Fort Hays State University's Sternberg Museum of Natural History, discoursed on "Bats, Rats, and Graduate Students" Wednesday as partial payment for his President's Distinguished Scholar Award.
The award was announced at the Fall General Meeting in August, just before the semester started.
The other part of the payment for the award is the 35 years of teaching and research Choate has put into his study of mammalogy at FHSU.
"My focus has been the systematics and biogeography of mammals," he said, by which, he explained, he meant the distributions of mammals -- "where they live and how and why they change where they live."
He explained the importance of his studies with one word: "biodiversity."
The least weasel and its meeting with the hispid cotton rat in northern Kansas and southern Nebraska illustrated his exposition on biodiversity and biogeography. He explained how, over the last 40 years, the hispid rat's range has expanded far to the north, through Oklahoma and into Kansas and southern Nebraska. The least weasel, in roughly the same period, has expanded southward, from north of Nebraska.
In the hispid cotton rat, the aggressively predatory least weasel found an abundant, easily obtained food source and expanded into it. Other species affected include rattlesnakes, which suffered in the least weasel range by a reduced food supply.
The President's Distinguished Scholar Award, the highest faculty honor at FHSU, was created in 1988 by President Edward H. Hammond at the urging of the FHSU Faculty Senate. The award recognizes research and creative activities and service performance of faculty. An evaluation committee chaired by the provost selects the honoree. Other members include past award recipients. The committee accepts nominations until March of each year. The award recipient is introduced at the fall faculty orientation meeting.
The honoree is required to present a scholarly lecture during the Honors Convocation in the fall. The honoree also receives a check for $1,500, an award certificate, a lapel pin and a medallion especially designed for the occasion by Jim Hinkhouse, former FHSU professor of art. The honoree is also recognized by a plaque that is placed in the Memorial Union.
Choate spoke about the beginning of his career, working at large research institutions on the East Coast. He wanted out of the big institutions but did not want to work anywhere without a museum. Then, in 1970, a colleague told him of a position at FHSU. He came here in 1971, taking a position that required teaching four courses a semester.
But, he said, "I found that I could do almost as much research here as I could at the large research universities."
He emphasized his statement by repeating it and pointing out that this was despite the four-course load. But it did necessitate, he said, using graduate students.
That had its own difficulties.
"We had to compete with large research institutions to get them, mostly, until recently, burdened with ridiculously low graduate stipends." But, he said, it is a testament to the quality of the biology program at FHSU that so many graduate students did choose to come here over the years and went on to great careers.
"I just tried to interest them in the things I was interested in studying, and I tried to guide them, find money to pay them."
And once he got them, he said, "I just kept them pointed in the right direction."
Choate received his Ph.D in zoology from the University of Kansas and a bachelor of arts degree from Pittsburg State University.
He is a member of, and a leader within, a large number of professional societies that promote field or museum-based collections research. In 1999, Southwestern Association of Naturalists recognized Jerry’s years of service by awarding him its first Meritorious Service Award. In the last 35 years, he has been sought out as a consultant by 31 organizations or agencies for a total of 49 different projects. He has guided 49 graduate students to a successful completion of their studies at FHSU and sent them into the world of mammalogy.
One other remarkable accomplishment was cited by Dr. Eugene Fleharty, FHSU professor emeritus of biological studies, in his introduction. He said that among Choate's numerous publications was 124 in refereed journals. That is especially significant, Fleharty said, because such journals typically reject anywhere between 20 percent and 50 percent of all submissions, and it is testament to the quantity and quality of Choate's work.