2010 Texas Tech Integrated Scholar
Professor and Chair in the Department of Biological Sciences;
Director for the TTU Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Science Education Program;
College of Arts & Sciences
“There is nothing like learning first-hand—touching, grabbing, getting a handle on something that you’ve only seen on TV or maybe never seen on TV. I think it changes kids’ lives, because I think they get an appreciation for life, for the diversity on this planet, and they get an appreciation for the fact that people can be interested in these animals and end up being at a university but still keep that interest that drove them from the time they were 5 or 6 themselves.”
What is your research objective/interest(s)?
I study the genetics of vertebrate populations, primarily in the crocodilians (alligators, caimans, crocodiles, gharials), emphasizing their conservation and ecology. I also use molecular markers to study the evolutionary history of the crocodilians and their relatives. Our recent efforts have concentrated on Central America and the Caribbean, although we are about to get some very interesting samples in from Africa.
How do you feel your research impacts the globe?
In many places where crocodilians and humans come into contact, there is invariably a serious problem. Habitat loss and human encroachment often leads to attacks on humans, their pets, and/or their farm animals; this can ultimately result in the extirpation of local crocodilian populations. We are interested in making crocodilians a sustainable resource in places such as Central America to help decrease the negative impacts on both the animals and people.
As an example, for American crocodiles in Mexico or Panama, by allowing crocodile farms or controlled hunting of crocodiles, we can decrease poaching, increase the amount and market value of meat, and raise the value of legally collected hides. Many of the areas that these animals inhabit are very poor, and such efforts could contribute significantly to local economies.
Where do you get your inspiration?
My initial inspiration to do research actually came from a tremendous instructor that I had at the Victoria College, Dr. Wayne McAllister. Even though he was at a junior college, he not only did research, but also published. My PhD advisor (Dr. Herb Dessauer) and my post-doctoral advisor (Dr. Wes Brown) both taught me about being careful in the lab, to have a 'real' story to tell before I published on a topic, and to critically think 'outside the box'. Today my inspiration in both research and teaching comes primarily from my own students, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. I never cease to be amazed by their enthusiasm and dedication, and they force me to continue to think about science.
What type(s) of service projects do you enjoy doing?
We take some of the animals that we keep in our animal facility here at TTU to local schools. To see the excitement that 3rd or 4th graders will feel when they see and handle an animal like a chuckwalla lizard or our 14-ft. Burmese Python ("Elvis"), makes the trip worthwhile. I have also given many talks at the state park in Junction and to master naturalist classes; when I teach herpetology during intersession if there is time, I drive to Austin and go to an elementary school in one of the lower-income sections of the city. Not all of these kids have cable or satellite television, and when they get a chance to see and touch lizards or snakes, they are absolutely mesmerized. Their teachers have told us that the kids talk about these experiences for weeks.
I also enjoy taking the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) scholars to places such as the Mason Mountain Wildlife Management Area, where they can have totally different and unique types of experiences from what they get in their research labs or as science education scholars.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on several things. First and foremost, I am attempting to learn how to be a good chairman. Biological Sciences is one of the critical departments in the university from the perspective of teaching and research, and I need to insure that the efforts started by Dr. John Zak are continued. Part of that involves doing my part in the effort to attract strategic hires to Texas Tech. Biological Sciences has already made two such hires during the spring of 2010 in our department and are looking forward to trying to hire a third person. These individuals will be critical in TTU's efforts to reach Tier One status.
What advice do you have for new faculty members on balancing the components of an integrated scholar into their careers (academics, research, and service)?
Probably the most important thing is to rely on peers that you respect. Talk to folks in your discipline and get a sense of what it takes to succeed. Ask your chair or faculty mentor. Especially look at those faculty who seem to be doing well and try and emulate what they are doing (or at least think about it and see if it fits your situation and personality).
Another piece of advice regarding graduate students and post-docs: remember they will probably have slightly different goals and aspirations than you do. Do not try to make them into exactly what you are; help them be successful at what they want to be. I think that this is one of the hardest lessons that a young faculty member can learn; I know it was like that for me.
I would venture to the say the majority of great college instructors are not born as great teachers. It can take years for you to really become adept at doing it. Like many other endeavors, practice makes perfect. Critically, try and carry enthusiasm for the topic into the classroom; students can always tell someone that is truly enjoying what they are doing, as opposed to someone who is simply 'there'. One way to accomplish this is to bring your research into the classroom. If you are excited about what you are doing and can convey that to your students, you are well over half way home. It also lets them understand how research relates to knowledge and even how what is a 'fact' can change with added discoveries.
As a 'service brat' I was born at Samson Air Force Base in Geneva, New York. I traveled with my folks across the U.S. and to Japan and Germany, before settling in Texas. I went to high school at Port Lavaca Calhoun ( I'm a "Fighting Sandcrab"), and after one year at Victoria College matriculated to the University of Houston where I earned both the B.S. and M.S.mMy Ph.D. is from the LSU Medical Center in Biochemistry. My post-doc was in molecular biology at the University of Michigan, and TTU has been my first and only academic job. I started here in 1985. I have two grown sons from a previous marriage that live in Austin. My wife Erika (OD) and I live with our two dogs, two horses, and four snakes. My hobbies are cooking and fishing. I am a diehard Red Raider and Lady Raider fan and also root for the Washington Redskins.