Professor of Ecology and
Evolutionary Biology and Mathematics and
Director of the Institute for Environmental Modeling
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Mathematics, Drexel University
Applied Mathematics, Cornell University
educates students about quantitative methods useful in many
areas of the
life sciences and applies mathematical and computational methods
to address problems in
ecology, natural resource management, and epidemiology.
be bashful about critiquing your teachers and what you read in textbooks
and on the web. Just because it is written down doesn't mean that it is
fields of biology do you work in?
When did you know you wanted to become a Biologist?
Though I long had an interest in natural history,
and particularly plants, it was not until graduate school that I made
the transition to biology.
What was your college experience like?
It was a dream come true, because of the
cooperative education program I was in, as well as the opportunities
provided to learn about the diversity of mathematical applications. My
first experience with research-level biology came from a math course
dealing with methods to evaluate alternative birth control methods using
demographic models. Upon entering graduate school, I had the good
fortune to be mentored by outstanding mathematicians and ecologists,
providing an opportunity to mesh the two fields. Though unusual at the
time, this combination is now becoming more commonly available and
offers tremendous opportunities to advance biology through a
Did you incorporate work experiences while you were an undergrad?
I had the opportunity, through a cooperative
education program, to work with some of the world's leading radio
astronomers using the best equipment available anywhere, and this paid
for my undergraduate education. The research experience and skills I
obtained were immediately applicable in other areas of science,
How did you get your first job?
Upon finishing graduate school, the University of
Tennessee was just building a program in mathematical ecology and
offered me a joint appointment in both fields – something that was very
unusual at the time.
What's the most rewarding thing about being a Biologist?
The ability to apply new quantitative approaches
that can be applicable across very different levels of biological
systems is very enticing and particularly rewarding when the results
provided are used in practice.
Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you've
worked on has positively impacted the world?
Over the past two decades I have led an effort to
develop mathematical and computer models that have been used extensively
to evaluate the biological impacts of alternative restoration plans for
the Everglades of South Florida. These models provided one of the only
means to account for impacts on endangered species such as the Florida
Panther and the Everglades Snail Kite, in addition to many species which
are critical components of the ecosystem, used in the planning for this
large and complex project. They were applied to evaluate different
options for the long-term management of the water resources in this very
Do you spend a fair amount of time traveling?
Yes, but I attempt to limit this so as not to
interfere with my teaching responsibilities. I have had the opportunity
to collaborate on research and teach courses and workshops in many
Do you have a mentor? Or did you in your college years?
I had many outstanding mentors both in my
undergraduate and graduate years, in mathematics, biology and astronomy.
Most have remained friends and colleagues throughout my own career.
Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
I regularly lead interdisciplinary teams of
researchers due to the scale and scope of many of the problems I am
involved with. No one person's expertise is sufficient. As an example, I
currently lead a National Science Foundation funded project that
involves faculty and graduate students from mathematics, ecology,
computer science, geography and wildlife.
Do you find you are able to balance work with social/family life while
working in your current job?
As do many professionals, there are definitely
sacrifices I have made in order to devote the time and effort needed to
develop one of the world's leading programs in mathematical biology.
However throughout my life I have always set aside significant time for
volunteer work that is unrelated to my profession (as a scout leader,
dancer and a concert sound engineer) and always encourage students to
find something they are passionate about outside of their profession and
pursue it avidly.
If you had to do it all over again, would you still become a Biologist?
Most definitely – biology offers tremendously
challenging problems with the potential to benefit humanity in many
Did you think that school prepared you for the way the work gets done in
the real world?
Yes, mainly through the cooperative education
program I was involved with, and the outstanding graduate education that
Where do you see jobs for Biologists in the future? What should students
be doing to prepare themselves to take on those roles?
I encourage students to be diverse in their formal
training as well as in their outside efforts. This means taking as many
quantitative courses as you can stomach -- math, statistics, computing
-- while also obtaining a firm grounding in physical sciences.
Biologists of the present draw upon many areas of science to be at the
forefront of current biology and there is good reason to expect that the
biology of the future will require even more connections to other areas
of science. It is important to get the basic grounding so that you are
aware of what you don't know that is needed to address a problem, and be
to discuss this effectively with others who have the expertise you lack.
What other advice do you have for precollege students?
Don't be bashful about critiquing your teachers
and what you read in textbooks and on the web. Just because it is
written down doesn't mean that it is correct. Develop your own abilities
to decide what is correct by reading widely, experiencing the diversity
of our planet directly (e.g. spent lots of time outdoors), and
interacting with people who have more experience than you and perhaps
quite different perspectives.