SEAS Professor of Practice Paul Seelbach retires
Six years after joining the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) as a professor of practice—a role he described as the “wrapping” on a long and wonderful career—Paul Seelbach (PhD ’86) has retired.
He plans to focus on what he calls the “four Hs”: health, home, hobbies and helping others.
As a professor of practice at SEAS, Seelbach brought real-world experience in aquatic ecosystems and water resource management into the classroom, which included teaching classes on fluvial ecosystems and the Great Lakes, as well as theme-based master’s project courses focused on water resources and communities.
“What a special opportunity that came late in my career,” Seelbach said about his professorship. “It’s one I treasure and tried to make the most of.”
Though Seelbach joined SEAS full-time in 2017, his affiliation with the school began decades before. A 1986 doctoral graduate of what was then the School of Natural Resources, Seelbach studied fisheries science with SEAS Professor Emeritus Jim Diana, then became an adjunct professor at the school in 1988. He taught in that capacity for 30 years while simultaneously working at various government organizations, including the U.S. Geological Society’s Great Lakes Science Center and the Great Lakes Commission.
The bulk of Seelbach’s career, however, was spent with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in its Fisheries Division, where he served as a research scientist and statewide research director.
“Having been at one end of the bridge for most of my career, where I worked in government research, I always thought it would be great at the end of my career to be on the other side of the bridge and teach full-time at the university,” Seelbach said. “Being a professor of practice allowed me to cross that bridge.”
Seelbach embraced full-time teaching with joy and enthusiasm for the subject matter and for his students’ development, according to former student Eliza Lugten (BS ’18, MS ’20), who met Seelbach in his first year of teaching Fluvial Ecosystems at SEAS.
“We learned a lot in class about how rivers work, but the most important lesson I learned was the importance of relationships,” said Lugten, who works as a biological science technician for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan.
“Paul’s emphasis on understanding people, being gracious, and working as a team continued as he advised my master’s project group and helped me start my career in the field. I expected to learn a lot of technical skills at SEAS, but I didn't anticipate a study in relationships and personal growth. Thanks to Paul, I am a more well-rounded early professional with a better understanding of myself, working with others, and rivers and wetlands.”
Another SEAS alumna on whom Seelbach left a “big impact” is Kate Vogel (BA ’18, MS ’20), a coastal resilience planner for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources who first met Seelbach when applying to SEAS. Seelbach quickly became a mentor and advisor to Vogel.
“Paul has a way of getting his students to think big,” she said. “It's not just about what you are studying, but how and why and what the impact of that will be.
“Paul welcomes tough questions and uses his own career path and life to provide advice to students who are trying to figure out what’s next,” Vogel added. “He never thought any problem was too big to brainstorm with students—Paul’s open door was an invite to anyone struggling with their master’s project, classes, the job search or life itself.”
Helping to launch students like Lugten and Vogel into their professional lives is what Seelbach said he is most proud of at SEAS, along with co-developing and teaching the theme-based master’s project courses, which began two years after he became a professor of practice.
Taught as a structured series over three semesters, each course consists of four teams working collaboratively on projects with a related thematic focus, such as water resources and communities, climate and energy, conservation and restoration, circular economy and waste, and food systems.
In addition to giving students a solid foundation in ecosystem science, Seelbach, through the theme-based courses he taught about water, was able to help students cultivate professional skills needed in the workplace, such as how to be a leader, manage and deliver a project on time, and navigate difficult situations and people.
“With his practical professional experience and networks, and his admirable personal ethics, Paul significantly elevated the actual practice of translational ecology by SEAS students and colleagues,” said SEAS Lecturer Sheila Schueller (MS ’98, PhD ’02), one of Seelbach’s teaching partners in the theme-based courses. “I admire the way he bravely encouraged his students’ personal development in ways that will most definitely increase their impact as sustainability agents.”
Seelbach, who noted that the theme-based courses are a complement to other SEAS offerings, said he’s “thrilled” they’re going to continue to be taught by the next cohort of professors of practice, which include Mike Shriberg (MS ’00, PhD ’02) and Andy White. Seelbach hopes they derive as much value from teaching the courses as he did.
“What an opportunity late in life to be given something so meaningful and challenging,” Seelbach said. “It was like the heavens opened up and made space for my skills and experience. Being able to pioneer the theme-based courses was an exciting and perfect end to my career.”
Celebrating Paul Seelbach: Notes of appreciation from the SEAS community
Paul Seelbach had a positive influence on those he taught and worked with at SEAS. Here, we share some of the many accolades offered to Seelbach upon his retirement.
“We were so fortunate to have Paul Seelbach, an incredible professor of practice, in SEAS. He, along with another faculty member, pioneered the themes course model and helped to ensure its success through mentoring and supporting faculty who also decided to take on this innovative but challenging form of instruction. Countless students have benefited from his expertise and experience, the funding he obtained for them, and the internships and job opportunities he connected them to. I have also personally benefited from his kindness and wisdom and will miss him greatly.” —Michaela Zint, SEAS associate dean for academic affairs
“I treasure the time I’ve been able to spend with Paul as I’ve started my career at SEAS, at U-M, in Ann Arbor, in Michigan and in the Great Lakes region. Paul has been an integral part of the freshwater research community in each place. He has shared with me, and with his students and colleagues, so much knowledge about the way freshwater systems work. Paul is a model teacher, scholar and practitioner, and he has left an enormous and lasting impact.” —Karen Alofs, SEAS assistant professor
“I had the opportunity to have Paul Seelbach as both an academic and master’s project advisor during my time at SEAS. He was a consistent and kind leader who was always there to help guide and support my master’s project team, offer career advice, and share his aquatic knowledge. One of my favorite experiences of grad school was spending a day touring the rivers and lakes of northern Michigan with Paul, my master’s project team and Dave Brenner [from the Communications Office]. There we learned from Paul all about how these unique fluvial ecosystems shape the landscapes we all know and love. Thank you, Paul, for all of your support, and wishing you a river-filled retirement!” —Mikela Dean (MS ’23)
“Paul guided our master’s project team to success over our 16 months with him. Not only did he teach us detail-oriented project management skills and provide line-by-line feedback on our many report drafts, but Paul encouraged us to be better team members and people via empathy, vulnerability and understanding.” —Kat Cameron (MS/MURP ’23)
“I had the great privilege of working with Paul as we tested and developed the master’s project theme course innovation. Paul is a true role model of how to span the critical boundary between natural science and the real-world processes and relationships that affect decision-making. With his practical professional experience and networks, and his admirable personal ethics, he significantly elevated the actual practice of translational ecology by SEAS students and colleagues. I admire the way he bravely encouraged his students' personal development in ways that will most definitely increase their impact as sustainability agents. As a colleague, he is a generous, inspiring and innovative collaborator. I equally enjoyed our time in the field practicing a landscape ecosystem perspective, and in the office, hashing out everything from the detailed logistics to the big-picture, long-term view of what we do here at SEAS.” —Sheila Schueller (MS ’98, PhD ’02), SEAS Lecturer
“Paul Seelbach is the best of the best at SEAS—he is as professional and knowledgeable as he is empathetic, kind and supportive as an advisor of multiple master’s projects. Looking back at my time at SEAS, he has transformed the way I interact with others and the way I understand the growing field of conservation, water and communities. He gave me confidence in my professional pursuits and support when I needed it most. Paul even traveled with my master’s project group for a short time in the summer, providing beneficial knowledge of northern Michigan hydrology and immeasurable support while we were in the middle of conducting site visits and interviews with local conservation organizations. Our theme class congratulated his retirement with a photo book, including pictures from this visit and of the master’s project teams he advised this past year. Paul always knows exactly what to say and who to reach out to, accomplishing more than just advising on our master’s project work: helping develop the type of professional we want to be and see in the world. He is an amazing advisor that I hope to one day emulate.” —Ysabelle Yrad (MS ’23)
“Paul broke new ground on what it means to be a professor of practice, and students, faculty and the Great Lakes are reaping the benefits. He is not only completely dedicated to his work but has demonstrated a unique commitment to sharing, collegiality and collaboration. His leadership, compassion and thoughtfulness will be greatly missed, but his legacy will carry on because of the strong foundation that he built.” —Mike Shriberg (MS ’00, PhD ’02), SEAS Visiting Professor of Practice and Engagement; Interim Director, Michigan Sea Grant; Director for Engagement, Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research
“I have enjoyed learning so much about collaboration from Paul as we worked together on Water@Michigan. Paul’s openness, creativity and generous mentoring benefited everyone in our collaboration and ensured that our activities were thoughtful and responsive to the needs of our campus and community partners. Paul’s generosity with his knowledge and insights greatly benefited all the activities of Water@Michigan. We will miss him dearly!” —Jen Read, Director, University of Michigan Water Center, Graham Sustainability Institute
“It’s rare to find a professor who has the combination of decades of experience in the field and a dedication to student pedagogy. Paul truly combined these for a real impact on his students. As an advisor for my master’s project, Paul made sure to provide a rich background in water management but also prepare us for a career in this field. I have used many of the skills but also the career advice in my position since graduation and have enjoyed keeping up with Paul via email. I hope Paul remembers his visit on the tall ship schooner during my project as fondly as I do!” —Connor Roessler (MS ’22)
“I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Paul for over 20 years as he worked with the Michigan DNR, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the University. Paul has demonstrated over and over again that he values people, good science, and leadership. His positive outlook was contagious and inspired countless students and colleagues to do their best work. I enjoyed discussing principles of leadership with Paul and sharing some of what I know with his students at SEAS. I appreciate the positive impact that Paul has had on my life and career and can see that his impact on SEAS students was significant. We all wish Paul the best as he retires from SEAS and focuses his energy on other great things.”
—Kurt Kowalski (BS ’94, PhD ’10)
“SEAS was very lucky to have Dr. Paul Seelbach as a professor, mentor and practitioner. I first met Paul when I was applying to SEAS; I was one of the first students he met as he sat at his new desk in the aquatics hall (a.k.a., the basement). We talked about our shared respect for science and our desire to connect people with science in an engaging and tangible way—one that would lead to increased understanding and policy changes. After meeting with Paul I knew I wanted him to be my advisor, and I only hoped that he would want to work with me as well. He did, and Paul became not only my academic advisor, but my master’s project advisor, the teacher of three of my classes, my seatmate on the bus to school, and one of the most influential mentors I would ever have. The first person I told when I received my Coastal Management Fellowship with NOAA in Maryland was Paul. We celebrated virtually together, and Paul told me stories about his first job in Maryland and recommended books for me to read. Paul challenges and celebrates his students, and I am lucky to have learned from his leadership. To this day we stay in touch via email, and I have hopes to get together in person when I visit Michigan. I’ve learned from Paul that life’s journey is not about what you do, it’s about who you are and how you do it. It’s about the team, the team, the team, and if you asked anyone in Fluvial Ecosystems, they’d probably also tell you it’s all about the flow regime.” —Kate Vogel (BA ’18, MS ’20)