This story was originally published in UGA Today and was written by Beth Gavrilles.
Trailblazing ecologist Rebecca R. Sharitz spent almost her entire career at the University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. A world-renowned expert on wetlands with more than 160 peer-reviewed publications to her credit, she was also revered as a teacher and mentor to graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and volunteers.
Sharitz’s husband Carl Byrne Hatfield was a computer systems analyst at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site, within which the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory is located. Over the course of their 42-year marriage, he was an enthusiastic supporter of his wife’s work.
Now, a generous gift from their family has established a fellowship in their memory to ensure that their legacy continues. The Dr. Rebecca Reyburn Sharitz and Carl Byrne Hatfield Fellowship Fund will provide support for doctoral candidates in ecology or plant biology at the University of Georgia, particularly those affiliated with the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.
“Becky Sharitz was not only a brilliant researcher, but a gifted teacher and a role model for many young scientists,” said John L. Gittleman, UGA Foundation Professor and dean of the Odum School of Ecology. “This fellowship is a truly meaningful tribute.”
Sharitz was born and raised in Wytheville, Va. She came to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory as a research associate in 1972, two years after receiving her doctorate in botany from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She spent the next 38 years conducting groundbreaking research on southeastern wetlands and educating dozens of students. At the time of her death in 2018, she was Professor Emerita in the department of plant biology, adjunct professor in the Odum School of Ecology, and senior research ecologist at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at UGA.
Much of Sharitz’s research focused on the ecosystems of swamp and bottomland forests, as well as their conservation and restoration. She was especially known for her work on isolated wetlands and southeastern U.S. floodplains, and was considered one of the world’s leading experts on Carolina bays, oval-shaped depressions that are found throughout the coastal plain.
Among her many honors, Sharitz was recognized by the Environmental Law Institute, which presented her with its National Wetlands Award in Science Research in 2010. She was a Fellow of the Society of Wetland Scientists and the Ecological Society of America, for which she served as national vice-president. She also served as president of the Association of Southeastern Biologists and vice-president and member of the executive board of the International Association for Ecology.
The inaugural Sharitz-Hatfield Fellow will be Emily Bertucci, a doctoral student in ecology who conducts research at SREL on the effects of environmental stressors on biological aging.
“Emily is a gifted researcher who is already publishing and receiving recognition for her work on ecological physiology and how the environment influences it,” said Gittleman. “It is especially gratifying that Emily, like Becky Sharitz, is committed to educating the next generation and has served as a teaching assistant in ecology and a volunteer educator at SREL. We are enormously grateful to the Sharitz-Hatfield family for creating this fellowship to support outstanding students like Emily, now and into the future.”