Ecology and Evolution

Howard T. Lasker, Department of Biological Sciences
SUNY at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York

What themes unify ecology and evolution?

Understanding the interactions of organisms with each other and the environment both now and over time.

How diverse is the field of ecology and evolution?

It ranges from people who are wildlife biologists to those who do DNA analysis to compare relationships and evolutionary history of organisms.

How did you and other colleagues become
interested in ecology and evolution?

Many start off interested in the outdoors and animal and plants. They are excited by the diversity of life - bugs, shells, birds, etc.

Why is your field exciting?

People who get involved want to solve a set of mysteries. For example, why does one animal have bright spots and another does not? Why are some groups common at one place and time and uncommon at another time (or place)?

Evolutionary biologists and ecologists are people who like seeing all of the different parts of the puzzle fit together; on a large scale, sometimes planetary way.

How does the study of ecology and evolution help society? Why should the public care?

It is important to understand how the earth works, how to minimize environmental impact and how to wisely use resources. Some people do basic research; some do more applied work as in conservation biology. Often the two approaches overlap. For example, biologists may study species harvested for cosmetics to determine how much can be harvested without damaging the population and depleting the resource. A type of coral, Pseudopterogorgia sp., produces an anti-inflammatory compound that has both clinical and cosmetic uses. Cosmetic companies that use the compound in anti-wrinkle agents do not want to synthesize it, so they can list it as containing all natural ingredients and also don't need FDA approval.

What is a typical day like?

There are several kinds of typical days. On a summer field day in Panama, San Blas Islands, the group wakes at 6:30 a.m. to organize gear and by 8:00 a.m. are on the boat out to the study sites. The morning is spent in and out of the water, setting up experiments, which include transplanting soft corals from one place to another, measuring growth and sampling tissue. In the afternoon the group either returns to the field or moves into the lab to process samples. Night is devoted to bookkeeping chores such as making journal entries and sorting samples.

A typical day at the university might be to review lecture notes, give a lecture, answer student questions, and meet with individual graduate students. Biologists also spend time writing papers and grant proposals. Communication skills are very important, because as scientists we have an obligation to communicate our findings.

What other jobs are there in ecology and evolution besides those in academia or research labs?

Some include working for consulting firms conducting impact studies or conducting assessments for government agencies involved in resource management. For example, a student may combine a law degree with a Ph.D. in biology. Some students obtain a biology degree to gain the content base for science teaching, as more science - including social sciences and some hard sciences - are being added to environmental studies curricula.