A colleague of mine has the idea that most field-oriented biologists have always been biologists whereas lab-oriented folks have largely come to their interests later in life. I am definitely of the former sort, having planted seeds and studied animals for as long as I can remember. My interests, however, took a detour in college when I was a premed (at least briefly). I think this happens to many naive students who are good at science and math but are not from professional families (and have found no other sources of good advice). As a college student, I had no idea what graduate school was, what one had to do to get a Ph.D., what one could do with a Ph.D., etc., etc.
In any event, having escaped the premed route, I went on to graduate school at Duke. While there, I contracted a rather severe--and on-going--case of tropical attraction, and the vast majority of my work has focused on tropical plants (and the animals that pollinate their flowers). I worked mostly in Mexico and Central America during my graduate days. During my graduate school days, in the category of 'most interesting things I've ever done:'
After finishing graduate school, I was lucky enough to be chosen for a postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. I lived in Gamboa and worked in Parque Nacional Soberanía (the former Canal Zone) mostly on plant-hummingbird projects. It was a great experience!
- I took a field course in Costa Rica offered by the Organization for Tropical Studies.
- Along with other grad students from Duke, I drove to Panama twice from North Carolina.
- I worked as station manager of the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica for the better part of a year... truly one of the most horizon-expanding things I've ever done!
Back at Duke for personal reasons, I taught a big (by Duke standards) course in environmental science for non-majors. One of the most challenging things I've ever done, this was also one of the most interesting. I learned an incredible amount about teaching, about various key environmental issues, about how undergrads learn, about making up exams, etc. etc.
Three years later, I went to work for the Organization for Tropical Studies as the staff member in charge of all of OTS' field courses. I was responsible for working with others to secure funding (as in many, many proposals to many, many foundations), and for supervising all aspects of course implementation and evaluation. I was based at the Durham, North Carolina office of OTS, but traveled to Costa Rica a great deal. During my OTS days, in the category of 'most interesting things I've ever done:'
I loved my work at OTS, but missed teaching, research, and working directly with students. Thus in 1992, I moved to the University of Arizona as an assistant professor and curator of the herbarium, in the Departments of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, and Plant Sciences. Southern Arizona was a fascinating place to live: with habitats close at hand ranging from Sonoran desert to spruce- fir forest, there is always something to do /learn about outdoors. There, I got involved in a number of local research projects, including work on genetic and morphological differentiation among Sky Island plant populations. I was also able to launch what has developed into an exciting research endeavor: bringing molecular sequence data to bear on problems of phylogenetic relationships in my favorite group of plants, Acanthaceae. I was extremely proud to be associated with the herbarium http://eebweb.arizona.edu/herb/ at the U. of A. It is a great institution with an extremely active user community and a very important collection of vascular plants. During my Arizona days, in the category of 'most interesting things I've ever done:'
- I went with OTS Executive Director Don Stone to the corporate giving office of RJ Reynolds where we were offered a complementary selection of tobacco products (all sorts) and shown the board of directors table (burly walnut with HUGE ash trays and furniture-sized lighters at each chair).
- I launched the OTS decision makers program: modeled after the courses for biologists, this program takes a number of policy makers (e.g., congressional staffers, members of the ministries of natural resources of Central American countries) into the field, gets them wet, dirty and uncomfortable (part of the OTS bonding experience), and brings them face to face with the real world effects of various policies. Again: I learned a great deal.
- I got involved in the 'La Selva book' project, which reached fruition in 1994 with publication of: La Selva: Ecology and Natural History of a Neotropical Rainforest (published by Univ. of Chicago Press).
Again, I loved living in Arizona and also loved almost all aspects of my job at the University of Arizona. However, once again, change beckoned and I have landed at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The plant collection here is large, of incredible historical significance, and in need of a lot of attention. Stay tuned for progress here! Research on Acanthaceae actively continue. Continued participation in graduate education is very important to me: I will have an adjunct appointment at the University of Pennsylvania and already have a Ph.D. student. I have only been here since January of 2001, but there is already one item that clearly belongs in the category of 'most interesting things I've ever done:'
- I taught systematic botany to a couple hundred wonderful students. In so-doing, I learned a great deal about the flora of southern Arizona, kept current on our rapidly developing knowledge of phylogenetic relationships among plants, and developed a very profound respect for students at the University of Arizona.
- I spent a lot of time on mountain tops with a number of great students studying the plants that occur there. Among the most notable was our trip to the Sierra de los Ajos in 1999
.. hint: the "road" was a stream bed and it was the wettest monsoon in years.
- Together with assistant curators at the herbarium, I landed two grants from the National Science Foundation that permitted us to make substantial improvements in the herbarium. We caught up on the back-log and installed compacters.
- I acquired more than a passing knowledge of the various methods of de-skunking dogs.
- My research on phylogenetics of Acanthaceae developed into a collaborative, international, and productive enterprise (see publications list!). Especially exciting is that I began working on Old World Acanthaceae, via two great trips to South Africa, including a sabbatical stay of more than two months in early 2000.
- On my second day on the job, I traveled to Washington DC with colleagues from the Department of Botany to participate in a ceremony at the White House at which a number of newly conserved national monuments was declared. Ironically, this included sites that link my old job (a giant chunk of Sonoran Desert west of Tucson) and my old job (sites along the route that Lewis and Clark followed [the plant specimens collected during that amazing expedition are at this herbarium]). Nice of Clinton and Babbitt to ease the transition for me!