Louie Yang: From Monarchs and Milkweed to Mentoring and More...

Professor Louie Yang's monarch and milkweed research at the University of California, Davis, is quite celebrated.

Yang, a community ecologist and professor in the Department of Entomology and Nematology, is involved in monarch conservation science and planning, in collaboration with the Western Monarch Conservation Science Group, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation, Monarch Joint Venture, Environment Defense Fund, and the National Monarch Summit in D.C. 

  • Science Friday, National Public Radio, interviewed him in February 2022 about his monarch-milkweed research. (Listen to the archived interview.)
  • He was one of 12 invited scientists nationwide who delivered a presentation during the two-day Monarch Butterfly Summit, held in June 2022 at the Capitol, Washington D.C. He has presented invited seminars at Purdue University and the University of Nevada.

Another feat: Yang launched the Monitoring Milkweed-Monarch Interactions for Learning and Conservation (MMMILC) project in 2013 for students in the environmental science program at Davis Senior High School or those associated with the Center for Land-Based Learning's Green Corps program. He taught more than 150 high school-aged participants. Their tasks: monitoring milkweed-monarch interactions in a project funded by the National Science Foundation. He organized and led a 135-member team, and supported them all as co-authors of the paper, “Different Factors Limit Early- and Late-Season Windows of Opportunity for Monarch Development,” published in July 2022 in the journal Ecology and Evolution. The 107 co-authors included high school students, undergraduate and graduate students, and community members. 

But did you know that Professor Yang excels at teaching and mentoring?

Described as  “a phenomenal  teacher, mentor and an incredibly strong advocate for students,” Yang is the newly announced recipient of the UC Davis Academic Senate's 2024 Distinguished Teaching Award, Undergraduate Student category.

And so well-deserved.

“I have watched him engage, inspire, and challenge his students, fostering creative and critical thinking like no one else I've ever seen,” Joanna Chiu, professor and chair of the department, wrote in her nomination letter. “We deeply appreciate and admire his innovative and inclusive teaching, his exemplary work ethic, his welcoming demeanor, his dedication to his students, and his nationally recognized ecology expertise. Louie has received many well-deserved teaching and mentoring awards for his teaching contributions on and off campus.”

Professor Yang is one of the three co-founders and co-directors (along with Professor Chiu and UC Davis distinguished professor Jay Rosenheim) of the campuswide, one-of-a-kind Research Scholars Program in Insect Biology (RSPIB), launched in 2011 to help students learn cutting-edge research through close mentoring relationships with faculty.

“Our celebrated program, now totaling 120 alumni, crosses numerous biological fields, including population biology; behavior and ecology; biodiversity and evolutionary ecology; agroecology; genetics and molecular biology; biochemistry and physiology; entomology; and cell biology,” Chiu wrote. “We provide academically strong and highly motivated undergraduates with a multi-year research experience that cultivates skills that will prepare them for a career in biological research. Many RSPIB alumni are now enrolled or graduated from premiere programs including Cornell, UC San Francisco, and Stanford.”

Yang, who holds a bachelor's degree in ecology and evolution (1999) from Cornell University, and a doctorate in population biology (2006) from UC Davis, joined the UC Davis faculty in 2009. UC Davis distinguished professor Walter Leal, then chair of the entomology department, remembers recruiting and hiring him, on the recommendation of community ecologist Richard "Rick" Karban

In 2012, as an assistant professor, Yang was selected a Hellman Fellow and then received a 2013-2018 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Award. In 2015, he won a Chancellor's Teaching Fellow Award and the Atwood Colloquium Rising Star Award in Ecology, University of Toronto. Currently he chairs the Entomology Graduate Program and also serves as interim vice chair while community ecologist and associate professor Rachel Vannette  is on sabbatical.

Since 2009, Yang has taught more than 600 undergraduates and more than 90 graduate students in his formal classes. His courses include Insect Ecology, Community Ecology, Experimental Ecology and Evolution in the Field, He has taught two National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) grant writing workshops, and the Population Biology Graduate Group core course for three years.

He has welcomed and mentored graduate students from around the country, including the UC Davis-Howard University Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and the Ecology and Evolution Graduate Admissions Pathways program. “Besides overseeing the entire Entomology Graduate Program as chair, Louie also personally serves as graduate advisor for a third of our graduate students (assigned alphabetically),” noted Chiu, who received the Academic Senate's Distinguished Teaching Award (Graduate Students/Professional) in 2022. “Louie is that calm, caring, and compassionate figure who listens, engages, and helps them resolve issues. He has helped many graduate students navigate challenges often encountered in graduate school."

Professor Rosenheim, recipient of the 2011 Academic Senate Distinguished Teaching Award, Undergraduate Level,  has observed Yang's innovative teaching. “His class sessions were impeccably organized, his presentations deeply insightful, and the discussions highly engaging," he wrote. "Louie alternated lectures with class sessions in which large blocks of time were devoted to structured debates. For the debates, Louie drew names at random and assembled two 3-person teams of students, one arguing the 'pro' side of the issue, the other arguing the 'con' side. After an initial period when positions were presented and rebuttals given, the whole class was invited to join in the discussion. What was truly remarkable was the high level of participation that Louie is able to elicit, both during the debates and during his lectures. Louie inspires the confidence of his students, and they reciprocate with their willingness to take risks during class by contributing, even when discussing topics that are new to them. This is not an easy thing to accomplish; Louie's ability to gain such strong student participation is perhaps the strongest evidence of Louie's talent in connecting with students. I was so impressed with the success of Louie's methods that I decided to incorporate structured debates into one of my own classes as well."

Yang lab doctoral alumna Meredith Cenzer, now an instructor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, remembers: “I will never forget the presentation he gave to my incoming cohort, just nine months after he himself started as a professor. He told us about imposter syndrome (the feeling of not deserving our success) and assured us right off the bat that we all deserved to be at UC Davis; that none of us had snuck in, and that we were chosen because they all believed in our ability to be successful in graduate school. I will never forget how much that meant to me as a young woman fresh out of my bachelor's with little experience in independent research. In the seven years I was in his lab, even when experiments failed or I made mistakes or felt like I was falling behind, Louie never stopped believing in my abilities. Building that trust was foundational in our professional relationship, and indispensable to my development in graduate school and afterwards.”

In unsolicited comments in Rate My Professors, his students wrote:

  • “One of the best instructors at UC Davis. Class on insects was very interesting…He is super cool, and lectures are never boring.”
  • “Louie honestly might be my favorite professor on campus. He is cool and smart and engaged with his students…”
  • “Really one of the most intelligent people I've met in college. It's apparent just talking to him, which I'd highly recommend.”
  • “I loved this seminar, Ecology Outdoors! I learned so much from Louie, and he's really good at encouraging creativity and experimentation. He's a very hard worker and plans the class well.”
  • “Really cool guy, made the class interesting. gave a lot of real-life example, so students can relate the subject to real world.”

A tip of the insect net to Professor Louie Yang!