Don Orth, the Thomas H. Jones Professor in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, is retiring this summer after 43 years of teaching fish population dynamics and habitat management to generations of students.

“Don Orth represents the soul of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation,” said Professor Joel Snodgrass, head of the department. “From day one, he has set an example as a steadfast and unwavering learner, a temperate but effective mentor, an insightful scientist, and a friend and colleague, and we will all miss his presence in the halls, classrooms, and conference rooms of Cheatham Hall.”

Orth spoke about how the field of fisheries science – and the footprint of Virginia Tech – has expanded over his career, how he has used new modes of communication to stay connected with students, and where he’s found meaning through a distinguished career.

What made you choose the field of fisheries science?

I think it really chose me. From an early age, I was curious about what’s going on in the water, in particular the fish and how they survived and where they came from. Simple questions about what’s going on really drove me to learn more, and that’s what I did.

It may be an unusual calling because I wasn’t raised in a family that fishes. My dad didn’t take me fishing, and it wasn’t part of our day-to-day routine. I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago, and there weren’t any local fishing lakes and fishing in Lake Michigan was not accessible growing up. Instead, a friend and I would ride our bikes 2 miles to Marquette Park, which had an artificial lagoon around the golf course. There we both began just trying to catch fish with a cane pole.

From there, it turned into an academic pursuit when I decided to enroll in college and pursue a degree in environmental biology with a focus on fish.

What have been your central areas of research?

I’ve primarily studied areas of fish population dynamics, which is the why and how of population variations, and how that relates to how intensely we can fish or disturb fish habitats.

Later, I evaluated novel approaches to study habitat for fish and the need to maintain appropriate flow in stream channels, a legal term known as “instream flow.” Every attempt people make to produce water or food or energy will disturb fish populations and fish habitats. All of those subtle impacts that we take for granted are critical to understand if we’re going to preserve and protect the resources we want to keep around for a long time.

How has the field of fisheries science changed in the 42 years you’ve been a researcher and educator?

The field has really has matured greatly. Early on, the whole field of fisheries science emerged around the need to deal with populations that were fished by different groups, trying to not overfish them and to not modify the habitats too much. Since I started teaching, many new specialties have arisen as people have come into the field and developed new ways of studying populations. It really has expanded tremendously to include social science as well as natural science reasoning.

What has stayed constant over those four decades?

I think what continues to endure is people can’t get enough seafood. So there remains a tremendous pressure to harvest more and different kinds of marine fishes. Even where recreation has been favored as the dominant use of fish, the threat of overfishing is real. We tend to not think it’s even possible because you go out to a big lake or a big river and there’s not a lot of people on it when you’re fishing, but there’s always someone there and it’s easy to overfish a population. That’s why we have people who can keep track of how much use there is and how much harvest is going on and whether or not we can have different kinds of regulation and improve the fishing.

You arrived to Virginia Tech in 1980. What were the campus and university like back then?

Cheatham Hall was the edge of campus, we weren’t surrounded by other buildings, and we pretty much had no competition for parking spaces. We had an open field nearby that’s now filled with buildings. Many of our faculty would study the fish and wildlife that were existing right on campus. The size of the university was much smaller. We had a grand vision for what we could be, but there was a lot of uncertainty, too. For example, we were still confused and inconsistent about the proper name of the institution, whether it was Virginia Tech or VPI. [The name changed from Virginia Polytechnic Institute to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, or Virginia Tech, in 1970.]  

A row of people pull a long white net through a shallow stream. One person, at the center, holds a small fish cupped in his hand.
Students in an Ichthyology lab use a net to collect samples at a stream near Kentland Farms. Photo by Sam Dean for Virginia Tech.

One thing that you’ve stressed in your teaching is the correlation between the work of fisheries science and being of service to the public. Why is it critical for students to understand that their work researching fish has a public component?

We often forget about who owns the fish. The fish in the wild, according to most predominant legal systems, are owned by the public, and they’re managed by trustees, which are the governments that are responsible. So the sovereignty of a nation really includes the portion of the marine environment they control. Those are public waters, and decisions about how we fish and when and where are public decisions which require deliberative public dialogue. How do we value these resources and how do we want them to be protected into the future?

The other side is the university is a public institution supported by public funds. So it is a part of our student’s education to instill in them the notion that the reason we study and do what we do is to be in service to others. I hope our graduates exemplify uniquely Virginia Tech aspirations: a commitment to unwavering curiosity, pursuing self-understanding and integrity, practicing civility, preparing for a life of courageous leadership, and embracing Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) as a way of life.

You’ve jumped with both feet into new avenues of communicating with audiences, first with blogging and also with social media. How was this critical to being an effective professor?

It’s a never-ending challenge. Even in the classroom, students are not always thinking about your class. So there’s a need to grab their attention and get their mind away from all of the other distractions so they can focus on the lessons for the day.

When I began to see that my students were chatting about something that I wasn’t aware of, that’s when I realized it was important to think about these online spaces. Right now, if there’s no serious conversations happening on these platforms about the topics that are important to our field, we’re missing the opportunity to engage with that wider audience.

You said that the role of a teacher is to help students find meaning in their work. Can you unpack that a little?

I think this is an important part of our education, of our work with students. From the very first time that I meet a student, I try to ask them questions to find out what’s important to them, what gives their life meaning. What is value, as they interpret it.

When a student shows up here with a vague idea of what they want to do, I think the only way to help them grow is to have them discuss that idea so it translates into meaning. I tell them: “You see that you’re consistently gravitating to this or that value that’s important to you, that’s one thing.” And when they realize that, I can say, “OK, let’s find a way that someone will pay you to do this work which is meaningful to you.” And that process is different for every student.

Flipping that question around, what meaning have you found in your career at Virginia Tech?

Really, it’s changed over time. Early on, it was really about the fish, and the need to work and be an advocate for scientific reasoning as applied to conservation of fish.

But through the years, when I realized that everything I do was work with students, whether undergraduates or graduate students, I’ve found that there’s a lot of meaning in mentoring a student, to making sure that they get a good education and actually enter a career track that works for them. Watching those careers progress and then hearing from students means a great deal to me.

What advice would you offer to younger faculty members who are just entering their careers?

I think it is critical to carve out time, not just for your own research, but also for your own continuing education. We are fortunate as academics that we’re eligible for a research leave every seventh year, and when that time comes around, it can be hard to drop things and say, “I’m going to focus on something else right now.” But if you’re going to continue to grow in your thinking, then you have to dedicate substantial time for learning something new.

What’s next for you?

I’ve been active and busy to the very end on an open education textbook, called “Fish, Fishing, and Conservation," that has just come out. It’s good timing, celebrating a retirement and a new book release.

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