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Raymond D. Semlitsch, respected biological sciences faculty member, passed away

June 18, 2015

Ray SemlitschIt is with great sadness that the Division of Biological Sciences announces the death of Curators’ Professor Raymond D. Semlitsch, who died on Wednesday, June 10, 2015.

Raymond D. Semlitsch received his bachelor’s degree from SUNY College at Buffalo, his master’s degree from the University of Maryland, and his Ph.D. degree from the University of Georgia. He held faculty positions at the Memphis State University and the University of Zurich, Switzerland, before joining the faculty as an associate professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri in 1993. He was promoted to full professor in 1999 and appointed a Curators’ Professor in 2004. His teaching and research activities were in the area of amphibian ecology, especially on the ecological connection between aquatic and terrestrial environments of salamanders. By focusing attention on the functional value of the aquatic-terrestrial interface, he raised the awareness of state and federal agencies of the critical need to protect small wetlands and surrounding terrestrial habitat.

Prof. Semlitsch authored/coauthored over 220+ scientific articles in the nation’s top scientific journals, including Science and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, in addition to 14 book chapters, two whitepapers, and a number of public interest articles. His influential and informative book Amphibian Conservation, published by the Smithsonian Institution Press, takes on the myths and facts behind media accounts of disappearing and declining populations of amphibians and provides effective strategies for conservation. He also provided important service to his professional field, most recently as a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Wildlife Management and as a science resource member of the USGS Flatwoods Salamander Working Group. He was a member of the AAAS, the Ecological Society of America, the Society for Conservation Biology, the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, and The Wildlife Society.

Professor Semlitsch’s research accomplishments were continuously recognized and honored. He was recipient of the University of Missouri’s 1999 Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Research and Creative Activity, the 2008 National Wetlands Award for Science Research from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and the 2011 Fitch Award for Excellence in Herpetology from the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. In 2009, he was a elected a Fellow to the American Association for the Advancement of Science for “distinguished contributions to the field of ecology, particularly the role of habitat modification on the ecology of amphibians.”

During his 22-year career at Mizzou, Professor Semlitsch was a valuable contributor to the Division of Biological Sciences and the University. He served as the Co-Director of Graduate Studies for the Division from 2001-2015 and was awarded an Outstanding Contribution Award from the MU Graduate School in 2010. He founded and led MU’s Conservation Biology Program and Complexity Modeling Group and established the curriculum for the graduate certificate in Conservation Biology. He served as administrative director of two U.S. Department of Education training grants.

Prof. Semlitsch was a beloved student mentor and an exceptional teacher. He trained 29 Ph.D. students, 18 master’s students, and over 60 undergraduate students in his lab. Many of his former Ph.D. students are now in major academic and agency positions throughout the United States. As one of his colleagues recently shared in a letter, “Ray [led] by example and [set] high personal goals for excellence as a scientist and integrity as a person. The quality of his students reflects this influence.” He taught courses on herpetology, design of ecological experiments, amphibian behavior, and conservation biology. As a teacher, he was well known for his dynamic and thoughtful lectures as well as for his use of real-life problems to introduce concepts, summarize current knowledge, and design research to solve the problems.

Prof. Semlitsch wrote the following personal statement for an award the Division nominated him for recently. It speaks best to what motivated him scientifically.

I owe a great deal to the freedom I was given as a child to explore every stream, bog, and beaver pond from my home in western New York State to the Adirondack Mountains. Those early field experiences and first-hand lessons in nature have followed me during my entire career as an ecologist. It has defined me in many ways. It is something I frequently relate to my graduate students as they search for their passion. It has clearly driven my strong desire to protect wetland habitats, amphibian biodiversity, and to find conservation solutions. I have also been fortunate to have a series of academic mentors that have given me life-long tools used to excel in research as well as instill in me a love for my study organisms. These assets have been cultivated even further by the stimulating academic environment I found at the University of Missouri 21 years ago. I could not have achieved a fraction of what I have without the encouragement and support of the administrators, staff, and faculty in the Division of Biological Sciences and on the MU campus.

I have also been afforded great opportunities to explore the biological diversity of numerous places in the world. My time exploring the Carolina bay wetlands in the southern U.S. Coastal Plain or the Southern Appalachian Mountains reinforced the need to protect the last remaining natural habitats for so many amphibians. My tenure in Switzerland and Europe also reinforced the urgency in protecting our remaining biodiversity in the face of ever increasing human sprawl. However, my years in Missouri have also taught me to step outside my comfort zone as a research ecologist and explore my role as an advocate for amphibian conservation. That role has placed me at the intersection of policy, natural resource management, and science. And, because I was willing to meet the challenge of writing numerous papers and chapters in this applied arena, including a book on amphibian conservation, I have been rewarded with tremendous feedback from state and federal agencies that are in great need of applied research solutions. This feedback drives me to do more and to achieve all I can in my role as a Curators’ Professor at MU. I have tried to instill this urgency and need to solve ecological problems in my graduate students, and given them the tools they need to become leaders in academia and agency positions.

I have been very fortunate to spend the majority of my life working in great academic environments, on the little amphibian critters I truly love, and to have found my life’s passion in those streams and ponds at a very early age.

Dr. Semlitsch is survived by his wife Malissa Peacock, his daughter Sarah Margaret, and his son John.

A funeral will be held on June 19 at The Crossing, 3615 Southland Drive in Columbia. Visitation will be at 10:30 a.m. with the service at 11 a.m.

An obituary is available from the Columbia Tribune.

Below are some departmental pictures of Ray over the years along with some of the “little amphibian critters” he loved.

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Written by: Melody Kroll