Academic & Nonacademic Ancestry

Academics have a penchant for, and a mission to, understand precedents in their field. We enjoy tracing the development ideas. Ancestry is a major determinant of evolution history and in academic history as well. We are all influenced by our teachers. Most Ph.D.’s trace their lineage through their major professor, but there are often other influences that have shaped a professional life. So here is a brief history of my lineage and influences, if nothing else so my students will know their own history. Beware all those who pass through these portals!

I received my Ph.D. from Professor Bobbi Low at the University of Michigan, where she teaches courses in behavioral and wildlife ecology. Her research focuses on the roles of behavioral ecology and life history theory, using hypothesis-driven work to understand how they were shaped by evolution, and how they constrain environmental management. Bobbi sparked my interest in behavioral ecology and was a strong proponent of hypothesis testing that has influenced my research to this day. She has become interested in the application of evolutionary biology to fertility behavior in human populations, and in evolutionary psychology, and is a world-recognized leader in this field.

Prof. Low received her Ph.D. from W. Frank Blair at the University of Texas . Blair was a world-class evolutionary biologist, ecologist and herpetologist who was widely known for his genetic studies of the evolution of the genus Bufo. He was a professor for decades at the University of Texas, and was a leader in international science efforts to describe ecosystems worldwide. An award that bears his name is given annually to eminent naturalists by the Southwester Association of Naturalists.

Prof. Blair studied under Professor Lee Dice at the University of Michigan. Dice was an ecologist and evolutionary biologist whose work was at the forefront of using genetic techniques and studies of heredity to understand the evolution of mammals and humans. He was also known for his field studies and conservation efforts. A distinguished professorship was established at the University of Michigan after he retired. Dice was also one of the last graduate students of Joseph Grinnell.

Joseph Grinnell was the founding director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley, where I now hold an appointment. Among his many accomplishments, Grinnell was well known for his work on the niche concept and his tireless efforts to catalogue the fauna of California and the west. He not only was instrumental in building the MVZ collections, but perfected a system of taking ecological information in field notebooks to complement specimens. Those notes now comprise the heart of the Grinnell Resurvey Project

I would never have attempted a Ph.D. without the influence of two other ornithologists. As a kid I was always interested in natural history, but I became entranced by birds when I took ornithology during my last quarter as an undergraduate at Miami University from Professor David Osborne. Doc Osborne’s incredible course inspired many undergraduate students to pursue birds as a profession or a life-long hobby. He guided me through a Masters degree and also took me on my first trip to the tropics to Guyana in 1977. It was all over after that.

Dr. Noel Snyder gave me a chance to work with him in the Everglades in 1979, and he has mentored me in field studies and conservation biology ever since. Noel was one of the pioneering Endangered Species biologists for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Among other things, his work was instrumental in saving the Puerto Rican Parrot, Everglade Snail Kite, and California Condor from extinction. Now a free-lance biologist, he is as productive as ever in examining the causes of endangerment and extinction. Noel has been recognized with many awards including the Brewster Medal of the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Conservation Biology.

I was fortunate to obtain an NSF postdoctoral fellowship to work under the direction of Eugene S. Morton at the National Zoo. Gene sponsored my work and got me started in Venezuela, where I still am involved in research 25 years later. Gene encouraged creativity and his creative research on the behavior and communication of birds was recognized by the Brewster Medal of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

One never knows where things will lead in life. I took the scenic route through academia, taking time off between my B.S. and M.S. to teach at an outdoor education center and between M.S. and Ph.D. to work in the field. Those experiences were pivotal, introducing me to tropical ecosystems and a “side project” on an endangered hawk (the Snail Kite in the Everglades) that would become my dissertation and last a decade. I was looking for a way to combine my interests in conservation with ecology, and was fortunate to be completing my dissertation as the field of conservation biology was being born.