Serfass’ Otter Research Earns Third-Straight Elkins Professorship
For an unprecedented third year in a row, Dr. Thomas Serfass, associate professor in the Frostburg State University Department of Biology, was awarded the prestigious Wilson H. Elkins Professorship from the University System of Maryland, an award that supports professors who demonstrate exemplary ability to inspire students and whose professional work and scholarly endeavors make a positive impact beyond USM.
Serfass is the first in the history of the USM to receive the award for three straight years, USM officials said. The $80,000 award will allow him to continue his work with otters, in particular his project in Tanzania’s Rubondo Island National Park, which he hopes will benefit not only the otters, but the community there as well.
“This is one of the most beautiful places almost everyone has never seen,” Serfass said, noting that the park on Lake Victoria provides refuge for crocodiles, hippos, monkeys, elephants and all kinds of birds. “It’s a bird-watcher’s paradise.”
It’s also home to otters, which is where Serfass becomes involved. “This is one of the few places it’s relatively easy to see and monitor otters,” he said. Otters, with their cute faces and engaging ways, are being used as a “flagship species,” because their appeal can benefit other endangered species that share their habitat.
Similarly, conservationists see eco-tourism, with its benefit to a local economy, as a way to help habitats, and popular species such as otters attract tourists. In Tanzania, many citizens see eco-tourism’s potential, but Lake Victoria is heavily used, and it’s plagued by invasive species and poachers, so conservationists have a huge task.
Serfass and graduate students from Frostburg and other universities that the Elkins grants help to support are working on several diverse projects, and the flexibility of the Elkins professorship allows Serfass to develop or advise all in some fashion.
For example, FSU master’s graduate Sadie Stevens’ proposed doctoral thesis would merge education and conservation, teaching the next generation of Tanzanians about the sustainable use of natural resources so that their children will have the same support from the land, Serfass said.
A project in Tanzania studies the fish population by looking at the bones found in otter scat. Another is a model that will tell the Rubando park service how best to search for the spotted neck otter native to that area. A third that is continuing in North Dakota is studying otters and other mammals that are naturally repopulating the area.
With this latest grant, Serfass is also hoping to create courses that will take Frostburg students to study in Kenya.
“Elkins provides opportunities for a lot of different students in a lot of different ways,” Serfass said.