Evolutionary Biologist Is New Director Of Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology

Issue Date: 
August 24, 2015

As a budding young scientist, Corinne Richards-Zawacki was struggling to find motivation for a high school biology project on wastewater treatment. Flipping through the pages of Scientific American, she happened upon an article about amphibian decline. With newfound inspiration, she changed her project topic, received a good grade—and found an interest that would ultimately become her life’s work: amphibians and their conservation.

Corinne Richards-ZawackiWhile Richards-Zawacki began as a chemical engineering major at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, her volunteer work and a trip to Costa Rica spurred her to add biology as a second major. During her five years of undergraduate study, she volunteered to monitor amphibian populations in her home state. On one fortuitous day, she heard the call of rare Northern cricket frogs (Acris crepitans) along her route. Once common in the region, the species had declined to the point of endangerment in Michigan. The state’s Department of Natural Resources, which ran the amphibian-call survey program, listened to her recording and verified her rare find. 

“I was really excited about that,” she recalls. 

Richards-Zawacki has been named the new director of Pitt’s Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology (PLE), the University’s ecological field site in Northwestern Pennsylvania. She will also serve as an associate professor in Pitt’s Department of Biological Sciences.  

Previously, Richards-Zawacki was a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Tulane University in New Orleans. Her work focuses on species conservation, using amphibians as model systems. (Ironically, the Northern cricket frog is one of the most common frog species in Louisiana.) 

“I was in no real hurry to leave New Orleans,” Richards-Zawacki says, “but when the position was advertised at Pitt, I jumped at the opportunity to apply. I had heard such great things about the University and PLE, and I thought it would be exciting to oversee the operations of a field station. I know from years of working at field stations what a great resource they are for science learning and research. I’m excited to be a part of that experience for others at PLE.” 

Her enthusiasm for the ecology lab’s dynamic learning environment is evident in her plans to further develop its research program. “I think there are a lot of untapped resources in terms of different aspects of the environment and the flora and fauna up there. I’m excited to provide incentives and think of new ways to attract people to start projects at PLE.”

As for her own projects, Richards-Zawacki will be keeping busy at Pitt. In addition to maintaining a strong research presence with her lab at PLE, she will begin teaching classes in 2016. 

“Corinne Richards-Zawacki’s work blends field research across the world with field studies that will be accommodated excellently by the facilities at the Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology. She will be a superb fit as PLE’s leader,” says N. John Cooper, the Bettye J. and Ralph E. Bailey Dean of Pitt’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. “PLE is an important asset in our missions of research, undergraduate education, and regional service. With Dr. Richards-Zawacki in place as director, we are poised to continue the excellence in leadership exhibited by the previous director.” 

Richards-Zawacki succeeds Rick Relyea, who left Pitt in 2014 to take a faculty position at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is looking forward to “being a part of the biology department, and also being a part of keeping PLE an exciting and vibrant place.”