Beverly J. Rathcke, Challenging Dogma, Training Students

Contributed by William Dritschilo

Beverly Jean Rathcke, July 12, 1945- January 6, 2011

Beverly Rathcke, 1945-2011

Beverly Rathcke, 1945-2011

“Bev” Rathcke was a member of what Jean Langenheim described as the “First Modern Wave” of women ecologists in her review article on women in the science. Rathcke was noted for “challenging current dogma.” In particular, her early work on stem borers played an important part in the battle over the influence of competition in animal community structure. And a battle it was, one that found its way into the news pages of Science. It pitted Robert May (later Sir Robert) and the ghost of Robert MacArthur against what was called the “Tallahassee Mafia.” At its essence, it was an argument over how ecologists should do science. At its pinnacle event, the now-famous conference at Wakulla Springs in 1981, Rathcke, looking neither like a revolutionary nor a mafiosa, presented a paper on the use of null models in testing for patterns of flowering phenologies. A minority approach then, the analysis and evaluation of experimental results is now an expectation rather than exception in the study of community patterns.
Like many in her cohort, Rathcke showed an early interest in nature. Cats, dogs, and flowers share pictures of her from her childhood.

“I grew up in Pequot Lakes, a small town of 500 people in northcentral Minnesota, and spent much of my time in the woods or by a nearby lake with my dog. My mother tolerated endless jars of caterpillars and collections of leaves and flowers, and my father encouraged my interest in science. When I went to college and discovered that I could study insects and plants for a living, my career was settled!”

1967 B.A., Biology, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota (magna cum laude)
1968 M.S, Applied Entomology, University of London, England
1973 Ph.D., Environmental Sciences (Ecology Program), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
After completing her doctoral training at Illinois, Dr. Rathcke returned to Cornell University, where she had first started, for postdoctoral work with Dr. Richard Root, who in her words “probably had the most significant influence on my research of anyone.” It was Root who introduced her to community ecology and the importance of empirical testing of theory with research. She then followed her husband, Robert W. Poole, to Brown University, where he was a faculty member and she served as an Investigator and Research Professor in the Section of Population Biology and Genetics. Unlike pioneering ecologists Edith Clements and Edith Shreve, Rathcke did not subsume her career to that of her husband. She moved to the University of Michigan in 1978, where she stayed until her retirement from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in 2010.

“At Illinois I had a woman role model for the first time: Dr. Mary Willson. She was on my PhD committee and we did a research project together on Asclepias pollination that turned out to be one of the first studies on sexual selection in plants. Although at the time, I did not think of her as a role model, I am sure it helped me remain in ecology knowing that it was possible, albeit difficult, for women.”

Career highlights
The focus of Dr. Rathcke’s research was community ecology, specifically fundamental interactions between plants and animals such as herbivory, competition, and pollination. In later years, she studied how hurricanes, introduced species, and habitat fragmentation affected ecological interactions. One of the goals of her career was to support other women in science.

“I became aware of myself being a role model at Brown University when women students told me that I was the first woman scientist they had teach a course. I also became more aware of the sexism that I and other women face. I organized a seminar for women in science at the University of Michigan and I try to ensure equal opportunities and support for women faculty and students.”

Rathcke launched her career with studies that threw her into a difficult situation, full of “intemperate arguments” and “a lot of bitterness” in the words of those involved. Her challenge of dogma by using null models may not have had a salubrious effect on her career. A number of researchers at Tallahassee had difficulty obtaining or renewing grants, and some young investigators with successful careers faced bumps and setbacks along their career paths. Although demonstrably difficult, it would be surprising if Rathcke’s career had survived the extreme antagonism of that debate unscathed.

“I consider my most important research contributions to be my study of a guild of stem-boring insects which contradicted the major predictions from competition theory at a time when this was not a popular thing to do and my use of random models in that study and in my later studies of flowering phenologies. The random models were important “because they allowed for the testing of specific hypotheses and resulted in the rejection of some current dogma generated from competition theory. These contradictory results promoted the reevaluation of earlier evidence, the design of more rigorous tests of competition, and the consideration of alternative hypothesis including facilitation or the positive interactions among species.”

Rathcke also conducted pioneering studies on pollination ecology of mangroves in the Bahamas, Mexico, and Florida, introduced plants in Michigan, and mountain laurel (Rhode Island). She spent much of her last decade working on the pollination ecology of a number of mostly endemic plant species in the Bahamas. The latter work led the Gerace Research Centre to add her name to a memorial plaque honoring researchers who greatly increased our scientific understanding of the islands. An excellent teacher and advocate for graduate students, she was the dissertation chair or co-chair for 29 doctoral students and sat on more than 50 other doctoral committees. She was a tireless supporter of graduate students, whether her own or those of others, giving encouragement to follow one’s passion, to be artists and explorers, not just scientists. Her graduate seminar on ecological interactions between plants and animals was one of the most popular in her department.

“Ultimately, my major contributions may lie in training new graduate students, women and men; this has been very satisfying and exciting for me.”

Selected awards

1968 Fulbright Scholar
1977 First Decade Award for Outstanding Achievement, Gustavus Adolphus College
2006-2008 Chair of the Science Advisory Board, NCEAS
2008 Rackham Distinguished Graduate Mentoring Award

Selected research contributions

Rathcke, B.J. 1976. Competition and coexistence within a guild of herbivorous insects. Ecology 57: 76-87.
Rathcke, B.J. l976. Insect-plant patterns and relationships in the stem-boring guild. American Midland Naturalist 96: 98-117.
Poole, R. W., Rathcke, B. J. 1979. Regularity, randomness, and aggregation in flowering phenologies. Science 203: 470-1.
Rathcke BJ. Competition and facilitation among plants for pollination. In: Real L, editor. Pollination biology. Orlando: Academic Press; 1983. pp. 305–329.
Rathcke, B. 1984. Patterns of flowering phenologies: testability and causal inference using a random model. Pages 383-393. IN: D.R. Strong, D. Simberloff, L.G. Abele and A.B. Thistle (eds.) Ecological Communities: Conceptual Issues and the Evidence. Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey.
Rathcke, B. l988. Interactions for pollination among coflowering shrubs. Ecology 69: 446-457.
Rathcke, B. l988. Flowering phenologies in a shrub community: competition and constraints. Journal of Ecology 76: 975-994.
Rathcke, B. and L. Real. 1993. Autogamy and inbreeding depression in Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia (Ericaceae). American Journal of Botany 80: 143-146.
Rathcke, B. and E. Jules. 1993. Habitat fragmentation and plant-pollinator interactions. Current Science 65: 273-277.
Rathcke, B.J. 2000. Hurricane causes resource and pollination limitation of fruit set in a bird-pollinated shrub. Ecology 81(7): 92-99.

References and links

Langenheim, Jean H. 1996. EARLY HISTORY AND PROGRESS OF WOMEN ECOLOGISTS: Emphasis Upon Research Contributions. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 27: 1–53.
Announcements. Obituary. Beverly Rathcke. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America October 2011: 313-9.
Obituaries. Beverly Rathcke. The University Record Online
Beverly Jean Rathcke. WOMEN IN ECOLOGY: My Life. Personal communication to Jean H. Langenheim.
Lewin, Roger. 1983. Santa Rosalia was a Goat. Science 221: 636-9.
Dritschilo, William. 2004. Earth Days: Ecology Comes of Age as a Science. iUniverse, New York.
Memoir, Faculty History Project, University of Michigan.