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Published June 29, 2020
Like the songbirds he studies, Jonathan Prather is singing a happy tune.
Prather, director of the University of Wyoming’s Life Sciences Program and an associate professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology, and the Program in Neuroscience, is this year’s winner of the George Duke Humphrey Distinguished Faculty Award.
“I’m more grateful than I can possibly express. The nomination for this award came from people I work with very closely,” Prather says. “I’m honored that they would compose such thoughtful letters on my behalf. They also went out of their way to collect letters from former mentors and students at universities across the country. The fact that this comes as a result of kindness and support from all of them means the world to me.”
Jeffrey Dunning, a UW Ph.D. graduate and now a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Medicine at Vanderbilt University, lauded Prather in his nomination letter. Prather served as a major adviser for Dunning’s dissertation work at UW.
“I worked very closely in the laboratory with Dr. Prather for five years,” Dunning says. “Whether we were brainstorming ideas on a whiteboard, making our own research tools, caring for a flock of birds or sitting in a darkroom capturing images on a microscope, Dr. Prather was present and enthusiastic, with his sleeves rolled up.”
Named for UW’s 13th president, who served from 1945-1964, the George Duke Humphrey Distinguished Faculty Award recognizes teaching effectiveness, distinction in scholarly work and distinguished service to the university and state.
Prather’s research focuses on the neurobiology of songbirds as it correlates to learning and biological selection of a mate. In female songbirds he has studied, male song is the most important factor that influences the female’s choice of mate.
“I’ve enjoyed studying how the brain enables us to perceive the world and use that information to make decisions,” Prather says. “I’ve been fortunate to have some great students join in this (songbird) project, and it has been really gratifying to help them grow into new stages of their careers.”
Prather’s research, teaching and leadership led to his being nominated and eventually winning one of UW’s top academic awards.
“While I always felt we were in good hands, the Life Sciences Program immediately made and has sustained a positive trajectory when Jon Prather took over as the program head,” says John Willford, a clinical assistant professor in the WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) Medical Education and Life Sciences programs, who nominated Prather. “In addition to his efforts in the flagship, foundational course -- “General Biology” (LIFE 1010) -- Jon really cared about the entirety of the program and, equally, how we interacted with our stakeholders on campus.”
Christopher North, a UW assistant lecturer of botany, gave kudos to Prather for teaching the demanding course while juggling his other obligations.
“This is something that many unit leaders would hesitate to commit to,” North wrote in his nomination letter.
Prather says the program’s introductory biology course has a special place in his heart.
“When I was an undergraduate, I loved learning about how the world around us works, and I love the fact that now I get to open the door of biology for a new generation of students,” Prather explains.
Prather came to UW in 2009 as an assistant professor of zoology and physiology. He has headed the Life Sciences Program since 2016.
He has published two books and has led or contributed to 34 scholarly papers published in research journals. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Virginia and his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Emory University in Atlanta, Ga.