Evolving — and Solving — the Mystery of Nature’s Relationships

by University Communications,

This article first appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of The Scene magazine, which is published three times a year as a service to Willamette alumni and friends.

Assistant professor of biology Chris Smith is a teacher, a scholar and a 2013 recipient of the prestigious National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant.

Like his colleague, Emma Coddington, also a CAREER grant winner, Smith integrates teaching and scholarship in a way that brings science to life. He’s also a fine storyteller. Listen to his description of evolutionary ecology:

“I think about how interactions between species shape their evolutions and vice versa. Take cheetahs and gazelles, for example. Only the fastest gazelles avoid being eaten by cheetahs. And only the fastest cheetahs get lunch. They’re both getting faster.”

Smith’s work focuses on interactions between plants and insects, and in particular what Charles Darwin called “the abominable mystery.” Why is it that the youngest plants — those with flowers — have proliferated so richly?

Today, there are about 250,000 species of angiosperms, or flowering plants, but they’re younger than pine trees or mosses. One suspicion is that pollinators make new species of plants, and Smith’s work is testing that theory by studying Joshua trees and their pollinators, yucca moths.

Earlier this year, Smith took five Willamette students with him on a field research trip with two agendas — preparing them to work in his lab during the summer and giving his students a first-hand taste of field work.

The setting in Nevada and southeastern California — including Joshua Tree National Park — was appetizing for young scientists, and education and discovery were on the menu.

With his students’ assistance, Smith taught field ecology through the Desert Institute’s adult education program in partnership with the United States Geological Survey.

“All of the students are biology majors who understand that the scientific method is built on developing a hypothesis, designing an experiment and collecting data. This isn’t about a textbook, it’s about hands-on work.”

Students relish the opportunity, says Smith, and so does he.

“Being with students in the field is why I do what I do. What’s most exciting about my job is being able to see in other people the same kind of excitement and enthusiasm and intellectual zeal that I experienced when I first started studying science.

"In the field, you’re much closer to the organisms. That’s where our passion comes from — real plants, real animals — you’re immersed in your subject. And it’s beautiful. The desert has almost a spiritual component that you can’t capture in classroom exercises.”

What students glean from the experience, says Smith, is meaningful even for those who don’t go into academic science.

“They come away with a more profound understanding of the scientific process. They’re more confident, they can follow through on a long process and weather the inevitable setbacks and failures. They have a greater sense of ownership of their work.”