Feb. 27, 2014
Bookmark and Share

Distinguished Agriculture Alumni Award 2014

Donald J. Leopold, PhD '84 

"Don't be so consumed by the idea that a specific graduate research project will define your career for life."

Donald J. Leopold

Photo provided
Don Leopold has been a faculty member at the State University of New York in Syracuse since 1985.

This article is the sixth in a series highlighting the 2014 recipients of the Purdue University College of Agriculture’s Distinguished Agriculture Alumni Award. The award honors mid-career alumni who have a record of outstanding accomplishments, have made significant contributions to their profession or society, and have exhibited high potential for professional growth.

The 11 honorees are John Becherer, Lynda M. Ciuffetti, Johann (Joe) R. Garwood, Anetra L. Harbor, Carl C. Kincaid, Donald J. Leopold, Maurício Antônio Lopes, Nicholas L. Rozzi, S. Richard Tolman, Geoffrey C. Waldbieser and Carla N. Yerkes. They will receive their awards Friday, March 7, during a public reception and convocation in the Purdue Memorial Union North Ballroom.

Don Leopold, PhD ’84, is a distinguished teaching professor and chair of the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology in the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse.

“He is recognized as a distinguished teacher through his dedication to teaching both undergraduate and graduate students while advancing our scientific understanding of ecological processes within forests and wetlands of the northeastern United States,” said his nominator, Rob Swihart, head of the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue.

Leopold has produced six books, more than 60 publications in refereed journals, and 12 publications in proceedings describing numerous factors that influence ecological processes within northeastern forests.

Under his direction, more than 60 graduate students have completed their theses or dissertations, and he has served as principal or co-principal investigator on grants amounting to more than $30 million to support his research program.

Which Purdue faculty member had the most profound impact on your professional career? George Parker, a forestry professor and my major professor, had a significant impact on my career track. He always treated me like a colleague and never suggested that anything wasn’t possible — even if he might have thought otherwise.

What part of your visit back to campus in March are you most looking forward to? I’ve not been to campus since I left in March of 1985, so I’m looking forward to seeing the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources in its new location. And I always enjoy looking at the trees on any campus I visit.

Why did you select Purdue as the place to continue your education? Purdue provided me an opportunity to assist with instruction in dendrology, which I had experience with from the University of Kentucky. Additionally, I was aware of the very strong academic reputation of Purdue, which I thought was so important for a doctoral degree.

Where was your favorite place on campus to study? I spent most days and nights in my office at the department, often talking about science, politics, etc., with other grad students in my office and adjacent offices.

What do you miss most about your college days at Purdue? I most miss the friendships of fellow graduate students.

Were you a good student when you were at Purdue? Not in the sense of having an outstanding grade point average, but I was intensely interested in my subject material and spent most waking moments thinking about forest ecology, trees and related topics.

What was the most difficult course you took at Purdue? What made it so difficult for you? I avoided calculus until I had to take it in my PhD program. I was so proud when I earned an 87% on the first exam, until I found out that this grade was curved to a C-. During my very first semester, I understood just how tough courses would be at Purdue.

What is the best advice you got while you were at Purdue? Who gave you the advice? It wasn’t necessarily advice, but I’ll never forget Dr. Parker telling me after he gave a talk to a large audience at a national professional society meeting that he still got very nervous before each talk. I often think of his admission before some of my dozens of talks each year.

What is the best advice you have ever given? To whom did you give the advice? I often tell many of my advisees who are contemplating graduate programs that they shouldn’t be so consumed by the idea that a specific graduate research project will define their careers for life. Purdue prepared me for pursuing so many different interesting projects. I couldn’t be any happier with the foundation I earned at Purdue.

Coming next: Maurício Antônio Lopes, MS ’89

Read about other 2014 Distinguished Agriculture Alumni Award winners.

ConnectionsNOW! provides the latest news for students, alumni, faculty, staff and friends of Purdue Agriculture. Find out more -->