"I don't understand why people don't like rats," says Mark Hafner. He smiles, knowing the image the word "rat" evokes.
But he's referring to pocket gophers - rodents he has studied for more than thirty years, primarily in Mexico and Central America. Hafner is an evolutionary biologist whose research focuses on mammals and parasites, specifically, gophers and their chewing lice, using molecular evidence to investigate their coevolutionary relationships.
The DeSoto Parish Chapter Alumni Professor is curator of the 37,000-specimen mammal collection in the LSU Museum of Natural Science, a component of the Louisiana Museum of Natural History on campus. It was during Hafner's fourteen-year directorship of the natural science facility that the Louisiana Museum of Natural History was created, something he says he's "quite proud of accomplishing." He also holds an appointment as professor of biological sciences in the College of Basic Sciences.
LSU via Forest and Sea
Hafner attributes his lifelong interest in natural history to his rearing in northern California near Mt. Diablo State Park wildlife preserve. "My parents encouraged my two brother and me to explore the huge tracts of forest, and we all went on to earn PH.D.s in biology in later life," he says, explaining that his own career path took a slightly different twist.
After high school, he enrolled in the California Maritime Academy, earning a bachelor's degree in nautical science and a commission in the U.S. Navy. He served as an officer in the M.S. Merchant Marine from 1970 to 1972, visiting an amazing array of exotic ports. "The job was exciting, and the pay was great, but the intellectual stimulation was nil," Hafner recalls. "Not wanting to float like a cork at sea, I looked at other options."
He resigned his commission and enrolled in a master's degree program at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He received a master's degree in biology in 1975 and began work on his doctorate in zoology at the University of California, Berkeley that fall. While at Occidental, Hafner met and married fellow Californian Darcey Ramey, and when he walked across the stage for his Ph.D. sheepskin in 1979, two young daughters, Emily and Julia, joined in the celebration. Today the family includes five grandchildren, ages 10 years to 8 months. "I was offered assistant professorships at the University of Michigan and LSU," says Hafner. "I accepted an appointment here as assistant professor of zoology and curator of mammals and have been happily employed here ever since. I really love this job."
That Hafner enjoys and exels in his work is obvious.
A highly regarded and sought-after teacher, his tributes include the Phi Delta Kappa Distinction-in-Research, LSU Student Government Faculty Teaching, LSU Alumni Association Distinguished faculty, and Tiger Athletic Foundation Undergraduate Teaching awards and, of course, the Alumni Professor designation, which recognizes excellence in instruction.
Hist favorite course is BIOL4141, a mammalogy course for upperclass students. "The students choose to take the course and are motivated," he says. "Many are enrolled in renewable natural resources or biology curricula, and many go on to pursue advanced degrees or medical or veterinary medicine degrees."
His research has earned him numberous National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health awards, Louisiana Board of Regents grants, and awards for excellence in research, most recently the Donald W. Tinkle Research Excellence Award ffrom the SouthwesternAssociation of Naturalists. In December 2009 hafner was named to the rank of Fellow by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, the world's largest scientific organization.
And, to top it off, he even has a bird louse (Myrsidea markhafneri) and a gopher louse (Thomomydoecus markhafneri) named for him!