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The Interview: Brett Riddle

Location, environment — and one superb teacher — inspired Riddle to get into the field of biogeography.

People  |  Oct 8, 2018  |  By Shane Bevell
Brett Riddle holding a bike.

School of Life Sciences professor Brett Riddle, an enthusiastic cyclist, says he enjoys having a career that allows him to have fun doing science and get paid for it. (Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Creative Services)

 

A professor in the School of Life Sciences, Brett Riddle remembers well his recruiting trip to UNLV nearly three decades ago. He was smack-dab in the middle of writing his dissertation when he received an invitation to interview.

It was early 1990 and the biology faculty had worked in a viewing of the Runnin’ Rebels Final Four tournament game into the interview process. The team went on to win the NCAA championship and Riddle landed the job. “I guess I got a bit of ‘being in the right place at the right time’ luck – first and only interview for a tenure track position."

Why have you stayed?

My research group became quite productive over the years, and I always seemed to be able to attract good graduate students to UNLV. I, therefore, did not see a reason to “shop around” for another university. While I have wondered over the years if I would have been more productive having access to certain resources not available at UNLV (for instance, institutionally supported biodiversity research collections), the growth of the internet has allowed for global collaborations that have added to my productivity and growth.

I believe that the School of Life Sciences has now matured to the point that it will continue to foster the emergence of a strong program in evolutionary biology and ecology with excellent new faculty arriving each year. I will be happy to see it continue to grow even after I retire.

Career inspiration... 

While I consider myself a biogeographer now, I began in the discipline of mammalogy. (Biogeography is the science that attempts to document spatial patterns of biological diversity, and how those patterns change through time.) I spent the summer of 1979 taking a mammalogy course from Dave Armstrong of the University of Colorado, a very motivational professor at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in the beautiful mountains of western Colorado. I decided before that summer ended that I wanted to study mammal diversity. The more holistic biogeographer in me grew as I gradually became more interested in broader questions about “the geography of life,” within which mammals became just one of many groups of organisms of focal interest for my research group. 

Research interests?

I am interested in understanding how a dynamic Earth history has played a role in such things as the generation of biological diversity, the assembly of communities of species, and the rearrangement of species and community distributions across time and space. My focal “research system” has been mostly the deserts, grasslands, and mountains of western North America for several reasons. First, this part of the continent has a very rich biological diversity. Second, much of this diversity is organized across landscapes that themselves are amazingly diverse and complex. Third, much of this landscape complexity is, in a geological context, relatively young, forming over the past 17 million years or so. As such, there remains some scope for associating episodes of biological diversification with specific events in Earth history that can be reconstructed with a certain degree of robustness.

A lesson from a student

One day I was discussing habitat conservation and sort of going off on destruction of habitat by cattle ranchers in the Intermountain West. A student came up after class and wanted me to know that they grew up on a ranch in northern Nevada, and that I might not be seeing the whole picture. I was a bit humbled and decided that the student was correct; I was coming off as an arrogant, narrow-minded academic. Henceforth, I have realized that many such controversial issues indeed are more complex and need to be placed within a broader and more historically inclusive context to develop realistic solutions.

What do you find most interesting about your field?

I have long been intrigued by the relationship between Earth history and the generation of biological diversity across a landscape. To address some of the big questions, we need to have some understanding of a broad range of disciplines including evolution, ecology, geology, climatology, paleontology, and molecular biology. Asking what processes control patterns of diversification across a landscape might include postulating episodes of mountain building that create barriers to dispersal and generate new climatic regimes. Historical opportunities for geographic range shifting that might prevent extinction would require some grasp of habitats during former climatic regimes.

I happened to come along in graduate school when new tools in molecular biology were being developed that allowed us to address these questions in refreshing new ways. These sorts of questions naturally underpin many issues in conservation biology such as understanding why species of concern are particularly vulnerable to anthropogenic disturbances including habitat destruction and elimination of dispersal corridors.

A time you were daring

I decided to write a paper with a close colleague criticizing the assumptions of a couple of well-respected ecologists that were assessing patterns of diversity across landscapes. These were colleagues and friends. One was a famous scientist, a member of the National Academy of Sciences (and a member of my graduate research committee). Well, they took the critique rather personally, and wrote a harsh rebuttal paper. I think we got the point across, but probably could have done so in a less confrontational fashion. The NAS scientist still invited me to become a coauthor on a book so I guess all worked out fine.

What research of yours do you think deserved more attention?

I wrote a paper once with a colleague that made what I thought to be a compelling argument that ecologists, conservation biologists, etc., were missing the mark somewhat in their studies by not using the most accurate metric of biodiversity available. That paper subsequently has been cited more all the time.

Something surprising about you

Well, I just turned 62 and am told I really don’t look a day over 60, or something similar. And even though I am old, I decided this year to get my first tattoo, probably. It's a 45-million-year-old bat fossil. I’ll be happy to display it upon request.

Advice you would give to your younger self

I would tell him that I have no problem recommending this career — productive, fun, invigorating. However, I would mention that certain activities will have overwhelming influence over your life, which would be nice to know about prior to choosing this career. You will be spending most of your life prior to tenure in your lab, at your computer, writing grant proposals that likely won’t get funded the first or second time submitted, etc. Consequently, you might let other high-quality activities like exercise, pleasure reading, and relationships slide.  But eventually you will find ways to reincorporate all of those things into a well-rounded life that also includes the rewards of having fun doing science, and getting paid to do it, so the journey will be worth it.

Outside of work

As might be guessed from the accompanying photo, I very much enjoy my bicycles and cycling. I normally try to get in at least 5,000 miles a year (will be even more after I retire), mostly road but also mountain biking.