Geography has been a strong force in shaping my life. I grew up on the shores of Pensacola Bay on land that the Duncans homesteaded in the 1880s when they came down from Kentucky. The land that remained in the family – where my parents now live – happens to be one of the best spots for birdwatching along the northern Gulf Coast. Undoubtedly as a result, my parents became enchanted with birds and birdwatching just before I was born. As a child, my younger brother and I were treated to expeditions all over the Florida Panhandle, coastal Alabama, and epic summer journeys “Out West” in the family station wagon. These trips were designed to find particular species of birds, and we saw an enormous range of ecosystems. In retrospect, it’s no surprise that both my brother and I are now biologists. I became a dedicated birder and began listing at the age of nine, though functionally I’d been birding since I was in utero. At home I spent much of my time on or in the water, snorkeling, fishing, canoeing, sailing, and beach combing. Surprisingly, I didn’t become a marine biologist!
I attended Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL. After my freshman year, I applied for and accepted an invitation to represent the Boy Scouts of America in the 1988-1989 US scientific expedition to Antarctica. When this program was running, the BSA and National Science Foundation would sponsor an eagle scout every third year to work as an assistant to scientists at McMurdo Station and nearby field camps. Living on “the ice” for three months was like visiting another planet – survival training and gear, flying in helicopters, endless ice, and a sun that never set. Quite overwhelming for a Florida-boy who had never seen snow before! Most importantly, I worked alongside scientists for the first time, and was inspired by their enthusiasm and accomplishments to pursue a degree in Biology when I returned.
The next three years at Eckerd I fell in with other biology students who loved field biology, and worked closely with several of my professors. I was privileged to work as an assistant for Dr. Peter Meylan and his wife Dr. Annie Meylan (Florida DNR) on their sea turtle tagging project in Panama for two summers. But it was work with Dr. Bill Szelistowski in the Costa Rican mangrove swamps on my senior research project (we studied pufferfish predation on tree snails) that exposed me to the full process of scientific inquiry. It was also at Eckerd where I met fellow biology major and future wife, Ginger.
After graduating, my wife and I worked on our Masters of Science degrees at the University of Florida under the guidance of Dr. Colin Chapman in the Zoology Department. Colin and his wife, Dr. Lauren Chapman, had a thriving research program in the Kibale Forest of Uganda. Ginger and I spent a year at Kibale gathering data for our degrees and managing their project. My interests were in the realm of restoration ecology, which was a relatively new discipline. Colin and I focused on the role that fruit-eating birds and bats play in the dispersal of seeds from the forest into nearby abandoned croplands.
After earning our masters degrees, Ginger entered medical school at UF, while I started on my PhD, working again with Colin Chapman. Again the focus was on tropical forest restoration, but this time examining how the creation of exotic pine plantations could be a bridge for restoring natural forests on abandoned lands where aggressive grasses prevent the establishment of native trees.
In 2002 we moved to Birmingham, AL where I took a position as an assistant professor at Birmingham-Southern College. BSC is primarily a teaching-college, but working with my students I’ve studied several rare and endangered ecosystems and species. I have also taken on several science-outreach projects including Trek Birmingham and writing Southern Wonder: Alabama’s Surprising Biodiversity.
BS Biology, Eckerd College, 1993
MS Zoology, University of Florida, 1997
PhD Zoology, University of Florida, 2001