Macmillan Learning Author Spotlight: Dr. Doug Emlen

DerekWiebke
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Dr. Doug Emlen, Regents Professor of Evolutionary Biology at University of Montana and co-author of Evolution: Making Sense of Life, was recently inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. “It’s surreal and difficult to process,” he said, “but it’s an opportunity to be an ambassador for science on a much grander stage.” 

A fierce believer in the importance of vibrant science and a population of citizenry that understands, embraces, and appreciates it, Dr. Emlen has spent his career fostering a passion in his students for the sciences. Macmillan Learning recently sat down with Dr. Emlen to learn more about his background, to find out what inspired him to become a biologist, and to learn more about his research and teaching interests. Get to know Dr. Doug Emlen in this month’s author spotlight. 

 

Science is in Dr. Emlen’s blood

Dr. Doug Emlen, Regents Professor of Biology at University of MontanaDr. Doug Emlen, Regents Professor of Biology at University of MontanaDr. Emlen is a third generation biologist and a fourth generation scientist. His dad was a biologist who studied animal behavior, his grandfather was a biologist who studied animal behavior, and his great grandfather was a physicist. As Dr. Emlen puts it, science is in his blood. “I guess you could say that my background is a little unusual,” he said. “As a kid, I was dragged along with my dad to do field work in some spectacular places around the world.” 

Those travels during his childhood and teenage years were formative for Dr. Emlen. He spent six months attending middle school in Nakuru, Kenya, while his father conducted research on White-fronted Bee-eaters in Lake Nakuru National Park, and he spent a month in Panama during high school. “I learned early what it was like to live and work in the field,” he said, “and I grew up with a great appreciation for the natural world and this intense, infectious desire to understand it.” 

Dr. Emlen is grateful for those experiences. “I was raised in the life of a field biologist,” he said. “We rarely traveled as tourists, but actually lived in the places we visited, getting to know and understand the people and culture, and studying animals in the context of their natural environments.” As he put it, that’s just what the Emlen family did. Dr. Emlen was hooked early; he was also going to become a scientist. 

Though when he started his undergraduate career at Cornell University, he decided to pursue a degree in archeology–not biology. “I wanted to break out of the mold,” he said. “I’ve always had a closet passion for history, so I considered becoming an archaeologist or maybe a paleontologist.” The reason he switched majors is a reason that many students change their majors: how much they like or dislike their professors. While a really good professor may persuade a student to change their major to that professor’s discipline, a poor professor may convince students to leave their major for another. For Dr. Emlen, it was the latter. “I didn’t like my professors in my archeology courses,” he said, “and the coursework just didn’t light my fire.” 

When Dr. Emlen changed his major to biology, he needed to take all of his father’s classes, as he was on the faculty at Cornell. “Oops,” Dr. Emlen said with a smile. “Maybe I should have gone to a different university.” Even with his father as one of his professors, Dr. Emlen’s love of biology continued to grow. At the conclusion of his undergraduate degree, he decided to continue his education, pursuing a PhD in biology at Princeton University. 

 

The uncharted frontier: beetles 

Dr. Emlen may not have broken away from the field of biology in undergraduate, but during his time at Princeton, he was determined to carve out his own path. “My dad’s main area of research was birds,” he said, “and my grandfather also worked on birds.” Dr. Emlen wanted to focus on something new, something about which far less was known, an uncharted frontier. For him that meant beetles. 

More specifically, that meant rhinoceros beetles. “I like extremes,” said Dr. Emlen, “and I wanted to explore things that seem like they shouldn’t be possible.” When looking at different species, from extinct triceratops, to deer and elk, Dr. Emlen became fascinated by extreme structures. “But, unlike many other animals, there were literally thousands of beetle species that nobody knew anything about,” he said. 

Dr. Emlen’s interest in beetles also resulted in the fulfillment of another one of his dreams: a trip to the rainforest. “I had always wanted to visit the rainforest, and now I had a reason to go,” he said. When doing his PhD research, Dr. Emlen got to spend more than two years living in the rainforest studying beetles in their natural habitat. Although that was nearly thirty years ago, he continues to be fascinated with beetles to this day. “My questions are always changing; technology is always changing,” he said, “and I like the intellectual challenge. It’s exciting!” 

For Dr. Emlen, it’s the sheer size of male weaponry in species like rhinoceros beetles, elk, and deer that first grabs his attention. “They’re huge!” he explained. “Say you line up one hundred of the same species in a row. If you compare the smallest to the largest in body size, the difference will only be about twofold. But, if you look at their horns or antlers, there can be a thirtyfold difference in size.” Dr. Emlen and his students seek to understand how this happens, exploring the genes and developmental pathways regulating weapon growth, as well as why it happens – what advantages (besides when fighting for territory or a mate) this exaggerated male weaponry serves. 

“For years, I’ve sent graduate students to Japan to conduct field work to study these fascinating beetles,” Dr. Emlen said. “We’ve sequenced their genome and looked at the genes involved with the expression of their horns, but all from a lab.” Last summer, Dr. Emlen finally got to accompany his graduate students on their trip to Japan. “I was back in the forest again studying them in the wild,” he said enthusiastically. “I felt like a kid again, when I was just starting out my career in the field.” 

 

An old-fashioned teacher and storyteller 

In addition to his graduate student advisees, Dr. Emlen also teaches two large undergraduate courses each year: Genetics & Evolution and Behavior & Evolution. “The way I teach now for my large format classes is a combination of lecturing and discussion sections,” Dr. Emlen said. “I know that lectures may seem a little old-fashioned for many, but I believe that done right, a lecture can be a tremendously impactful way to teach.” 

Dr. Emlen sees himself as an outlier in that regard. “I’m a storyteller,” he said. Dr. Emlen takes time to carefully craft his lectures so that they are interesting and engaging. “I try to pull the students in by grounding what the students are learning in time and place, so that the students can relate to the content,” he said. Many of Dr. Emlen’s students grew up in rural Montana, surrounded by the agriculture industry, so he uses what the students already know to improve their understanding of difficult topics. “What they don’t know before coming to my class is how much agriculture has to do with evolution,” he said. “It has everything to do with evolution!” 

Dr. Emlen also builds his classes around contemporary issues that are on the minds of his students. “I love teaching most when I can awe my students a little,” he said. “When I can leave them sort of spinning and reeling and thinking about their world in ways they never thought they would.” Dr. Emlen also recognizes that many of the topics discussed are not easy, and that his students can become quite overwhelmed. “The pandemic and climate change are big topics for the students,” he said, “which is why I want to start including a segment on hope in my classes.” He wants his students to walk away from his class feeling energized and optimistic. “Science can do that. Especially with new technology, biology can provide the solutions they’re looking for,” Dr. Emlen said. 

 

A biologist and a writer

Dr. Emlen never intended to write a textbook, even though his teaching and storytelling experience would have positioned him well to do so. Instead, he was approached by a publisher to review a non-majors biology textbook written by Carl Zimmer. “I didn’t know Carl at the time,” said Dr. Emlen, “but I was a huge fan of his writing. There are a few science writers out there that really get it. Carl is one of them.” 

As a journalist by training, Carl Zimmer was an excellent writer who also really understood science and knew how to articulate difficult topics without making them too simple. “They asked me to go through the chapters because of my teaching experience,” Dr. Emlen said, “and to bring a trained research biologist on board.” Based on his contributions to Zimmer’s non-majors textbook, Doug was asked to continue working together with him on a majors-level textbook. “I viewed it as a good opportunity to learn from Carl and improve my writing,” Dr. Emlen said. “After working on the non-majors book, I thought I was ready. How wrong I was! I’ve probably spent 10,000 hours of my life working on this book.” 

A majors-level textbook has different criteria then a non-majors book. On top of that, Dr. Emlen and Zimmer wanted to achieve something new with their textbook. “Flashback a generation,” said Dr. Emlen, “textbooks were more like an encyclopedia, used as a desk reference to look something up. Today, students can do that on their own, so we wanted to create a book that students would actually want to read.” Dr. Emlen and Zimmer saw this as an opportunity to build a textbook that didn’t feel like a usual textbook. 

“While I’m proud of what we created today, we made the mistake at first of sharing our book with instructors without clearly explaining the goals of our book,” Dr. Emlen said. When finished with their first edition, they asked biology instructors to try their new book. What they didn’t expect was the sharp criticism. “‘It’s not technical enough,’ ‘You don’t have this equation,’ ‘And what about this? That’s not how that study actually works,’” he said. “The pushback was massive.” 

The next time they shared their book with instructors, they included a cover letter explaining why they departed from a traditional textbook format. “They eventually came around,” Dr. Emlen said. Soon, Dr. Emlen and Zimmer were receiving praise for what they achieved. Students were reading the textbook and understanding topics and concepts they hadn’t before. “Our approach with this book was to introduce students to material through stories and to build on what they learn in each successive chapter,” he said. “By the third edition, as far as I’m concerned, we nailed it.”