As a first-generation college student, Carmen Salsbury’s career path was shaped by mentors who nurtured her passions, stoked her curiosity, and encouraged her growth. Now, as a Professor of Biological Sciences at Butler University, she has been providing the same kind of mentorship for Butler students for more than 20 years. Last year, Salsbury was recognized as a 2021-22 Distinguished Faculty Award recipient for her significant contributions and service to Butler as a teacher, mentor, and leader.
Salsbury calls the route that led her to become the first female full professor in Butler’s Department of Biological Sciences and a notable expert on tree squirrels, groundhogs, and marmots “circuitous and serendipitous.” Armed with a love of the outdoors and a natural curiosity about the world around her, Salsbury enrolled at Trinity University as an undergraduate to study biology.
While serving as a teaching assistant for a lab class, she discovered a passion for teaching and asked a trusted academic advisor what steps she would need to take to become a professor. He helped her chart a path to pursuing a Ph.D., which included spending her summers at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado. There, she had the opportunity to work alongside ecologists and researchers who provided further mentorship and guidance in her studies.
These days, Salsbury is the expert leading students to the waters of Belize to study marine biology, and the woods of Central Indiana to track the movements of urban wildlife. After earning a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and beginning her career at Albright College, Salsbury arrived at Butler in 2001. She became a full professor in 2013 and has spent years engaging undergraduate students in her research while encouraging them to follow their own curiosities. Students note her interest and enthusiasm not only in the course material, but in their lives and professional aspirations, too.
One such student is Jennifer Cockrill ‘04, one of Salsbury’s earliest mentees at Butler. Now an epidemiologist and regional administrator with the US Department of Health and Human Services, Cockrill says Salsbury has provided personal and professional mentorship throughout her education and career. As a sophomore, Cockrill approached Salsbury looking for a thesis advisor.
“Dr. Salsbury did more than advise me on the subject matter of my thesis,” Cockrill said. “She showed me how to think more holistically about the world around me. This was a trajectory-altering experience. Throughout my graduate education and fellowships, I built upon that initial ability to think more holistically about the world. Ultimately I found myself in an interdisciplinary professional field that demands holistic thinking: public health. I credit much of my professional trajectory to my experiences at Butler University, and particularly the mentorship I received from Dr. Salsbury.”
Salsbury’s influence on Butler students has been broad as well as deep. She has served in numerous leadership roles throughout her time at Butler through which she has shaped the curriculum and been involved in the development of new interdisciplinary programs and majors. She served for nine years as the program director of the Science, Technology, and Society program, which was later renamed Science, Technology, and Environmental Studies. During her time as program director she worked with faculty colleagues to help develop the Environmental Studies major and a new minor, Applied Food Systems.
“The Science, Technology, and Environmental Studies program flourished under Dr. Salsbury’s leadership,” said Jay Howard, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “It’s now the most popular interdisciplinary program in the College and attracts students from around the country. Dr. Salsbury’s ability to work collaboratively with students and colleagues across departments and Colleges allowed for the development of the program in ways that have greatly enhanced our ability to prepare Butler students for a broad range of science and environment-related careers.”
Her leadership was also instrumental in helping to establish a partnership with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama. With the help of generous funding from Frank Levinson ʼ75, nearly 100 Butler students have now had the opportunity to travel to Panama to participate in a field course led by Butler faculty through the partnership. Salsbury also oversees a three-month long, fully funded immersive research internship program at STRI, which has benefitted more than 20 Butler students.
“So much of the valuable learning in education happens outside of the classroom, and for a field biologist it’s critical that they have field experience,” Salsbury said. “We can’t overstate the importance of that to students. Not only is it exposure, but when students go to some of the top field stations in the world, they meet and work alongside some of the top researchers in the world, and those connections are critical. That was certainly true for me when I went to Colorado, and it’s true for our students when they go to Panama.”
Salsbury, along with a fellow Biology professor at Butler, also oversees a Tropical Field Biology course that is one of the longest-running study abroad programs at Butler. The upper-level biology elective involves classroom and lab work through the first half of the spring semester and concludes with a spring break trip to study tropical marine life in the waters of Belize. Salsbury has taken about 14 students on the trip every other year since arriving at Butler in 2001.
Though she enjoys leading students to study in remote locations, Salsbury says it’s no surprise her research interests turned to urban ecology after arriving at Butler, a school located in the heart of a city. In 2005, she worked with faculty colleagues to create the Center for Urban Ecology at Butler, now the Center for Urban Ecology and Sustainability (CUES). What started as a fledgling idea has grown to become a robust Center with two full-time staff, dozens of interns and volunteers, and community partners throughout central Indiana. Faculty colleagues say the CUES would never have become what it is today without Salsbury’s foundational leadership.
She and the CUES team are currently collaborating with scientists around the country through the Urban Wildlife Information Network on a project to understand the impact of urbanization on local wildlife. The local research, called the Indy Wildlife Watch, is being conducted in partnership with the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. Like everything Salsbury does at Butler, students are nearby learning alongside her, and faculty colleagues are invited to collaborate. Distinguished Faculty Award recipients are nominated by their peers, and Salsbury’s colleagues were eager to point out her vast qualifications for the recognition.
“Dr. Salsbury’s impact is woven into curricula she helped develop, international programs she leads and has helped design, organizations like CUES that continue to grow and expand in their scope, on the students she teaches and mentors, and the colleagues she partners with to bring positive institutional change to Butler University,” said Travis Ryan, Associate Provost and Professor of Biological Sciences. “I can think of few at the University more deserving of this honor.”
Salsbury says she feels fortunate to be at a place where she can pursue her interests, use her passion for teaching, and work alongside colleagues she enjoys and respects.
“I have only grown to love Butler more the longer I’ve been here,” Salsbury said. “I never cease to be amazed and impressed by the talent of our students and the people who teach here and work here, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with some really wonderful administrators as well. So, across the board, Butler has been a really great place to be.”
This article is part of a series honoring the 2021-22 recipients of the Butler University Distinguished Faculty Award. The Butler University Distinguished Faculty Award celebrates the professional accomplishments of the University’s faculty, recognizing excellence in the combined areas of teaching, research, scholarship and creative work, and service/leadership. This award recognizes exemplary achievement, accomplishments and contributions across the length and breadth of the award winner’s career at Butler University.