Biology professor receives high honors

Nicole Koster

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Herpetology: the study of amphibians and reptiles. For some, the thought of snakes, frogs and lizards can be repelling, but to Dr. David M. Sever, herpetologist, biology professor and snake lover, it is intriguing.
Just step inside his office, and you’ll notice the large king cobra replica on the corner of his desk, decorated with Mardi Gras beads. This passion and expert knowledge of all things herpetology has paid off, as he has been recognized by the Herpetologist League as the 2013 Distinguished Herpetologist of the Year.
“As a child, I was interested in dinosaurs and you couldn’t find dinosaurs, but you could find these lizards and turtles, things that looked like dinosaurs,” said Sever. “A lot of my acquaintance with [reptiles and amphibians] actually came through Boy Scouts. I’m an eagle scout now, and I worked at a scout camp for five years or so, so I was out there collecting things all the time.”
Sever, a Canton, Ohio native, received his undergraduate and graduate degree from the University of Ohio, then moved on to Tulane University to receive his Ph.D in 1974. Sever taught in the biology department at St. Mary’s College from 1987-2004, and he then moved back down to Louisiana, applied and secured the position as biology Department Head at Southeastern in 2004. This year marks Sever’s 10th year at Southeastern. Currently, he holds the Kenneth Dyson Endowed Professorship. Sever was honored to accept the award.
“It’s a pretty impressive list,” Sever said. “It’s sort of a who’s who of herpetology. They’re recognizing that you’ve had a long and very productive career.”
Dr. Stan Trauth, president of the Herpetologist League and biology professor at Arkansas State University, says Sever’s past research projects were the reason he was chosen.
“Early in his studies, Dave’s histological research focused primarily on salamander cloacal anatomy and, specifically, the spermatheca or sperm storage structure in these animals,” said Trauth. “His numerous papers on these structures have dominated the international literature on this subject for decades.”
The former department head has been published in over 100 different scholarly journals.  Sever has also been elected to the editorial review board of the Journal of Herpetology and the Journal of Morphology, and in 2011 co-edited “The Reproductive Biology and Phylogeny of Snakes.”
According to Trauth, Sever’s articles have helped herpetologists immensely, mainly because of the amount of detail he puts into his work. Overall, he has published almost 1,000 figures and over 3,000 micrographs in his papers.
“By combining ultra-structural studies along with his histo-chemical and light microscopic analyzes, he has reached countless numbers of researchers through his 140 or so publications,” Trauth said. “What are truly remarkable to me are his 32 papers published in the “Journal of Morphology.” Most of these he first authored, but as a co-author his influence on the writing style, overall figure design and number, and micrograph selection in those articles is unmistakable. A typical Sever paper will have about 2 tables with 8 to10 figures and each figure normally has 3 to 4 light and/or electron micrographs.”
Sever’s most recent research study, titled “Observations on Variation in the Ultrastructure of the Proximal Testicular Ducts of the Ground Skink, Scincella Lateralis,” was published in the Journal of Morphology. The conclusion was “that the ducts are absolutely homologous,” Sever said.
The writing on top of teaching can be hard to manage, but what makes everything worthwhile are Sever’s enthusiastic students, especially the graduate students, says Sever. With them anything is possible.
“A lot are from Louisiana, but we also get them from all over the country, and they’re a pretty carefree group of individuals,” Sever said. “They love to go to Mardi Gras and all the social life we have around here, but they’re also very serious, good students.”
In the future, Sever hopes to continue his teaching and research at Southeastern after his retirement. The main message of the speech he gave after receiving his award was professors can break remarkable ground in herpetology research even without Ph.D level students. A small, intimate school such as Southeastern does not mean one must limit their potential to do substantial, meaningful research.
“One could have a productive career teaching and doing research at an institution that’s primarily an undergraduate facility,” Sever said. “You can involve undergraduate students in your work. Even though you’re at an undergraduate school, you can still get grants. And I tried to encourage graduate students and professors to make the best of the situation.”
“I consider Dave to be today’s world leading authority on vertebrate reproductive histology,” Trauth said. “He is without question the foremost histo-herpetologist that has ever lived.”

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