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New Faces: Donald Price

This biologist advises students to become involved in research to enhance their academic experience.

People  |  Oct 17, 2016  |  By Shane Bevell
Donald Price

Donald Price, director and professor in the School of Life Sciences (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Photo Services) 

The new director of the School of Life Sciences says he was eager to join a school he believes is poised for great things and a university headed to the Top Tier.

Why UNLV?

It is a fantastic time to come to UNLV. I was drawn to this university because of the exceptional quality of the faculty and students in the School of Life Sciences. I am excited about working with faculty and students to develop and enhance programs in the sciences and work toward the Top Tier initiative. I think that the School of Life Sciences at UNLV is poised for great things.

Before UNLV

I was a faculty member in biology and the director of the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science Graduate Program at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. I was also the co-project director of the Hawaii National Science Foundation (NSF) Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program for seven years. Through the NSF EPSCoR Program and other grant-supported initiatives we greatly enhanced the research opportunities for faculty and the training of students in the sciences.

Growing up

I grew up in Minneapolis and St. Paul with many natural areas nearby and my uncle’s farm in northern Minnesota — and of course, Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes! I fondly remember playing hockey in the very cold winters and baseball in the summers.

What drew you to your profession?

I like the combination of the creative thinking and technical skills of scientific research that is necessary to discover new phenomena in nature. I am fascinated by all of biology and what generates and maintains the wonderful biodiversity we see on Earth. I also enjoy collaborating with other scientists and students to conduct research and follow a lifetime of learning. The “eureka” you feel when discovering something new is best shared with others who helped you find it.

Your research

My research is multi-disciplinary with a focus on the evolution of species and the genetic basis of behavioral and physiological mechanisms that promote diversification and local adaptation.

My laboratory is studying the genomics of species differences, host plant-microbe-insect associations, and the genetic basis of behaviors and related morphological traits in Hawaiian picture-wing flies (Drosophila). The Hawaiian Drosophila are a group of 800-1,000 species that represent more than one-fourth of the Drosophila species found on Earth. These species are close relatives to the model organism, the common fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), and some of these species are at risk of extinction. We also are studying the population genetics and ecology of the invasive Drosophila suzukii that originated in Asia. D. suzuikii is a pest of small fruits that has been spreading rapidly in North America, South America, and Europe.

My group also is investigating the population genomics of several endangered species in Hawaii: The Hawaiian Goose (Nene), a Hawaiian Honey Creeper (Amakihi), and the Hawaiian Hoary Bat. Meanwhile, I am actively searching for projects to develop here in Nevada, where the tremendous diversity of environments from deserts to mountains is fascinating.

What do you find most interesting about your field?

I find the emerging technologies in the biological sciences fascinating, especially the application of genomic and molecular techniques to organismal and population biology, and how these technologies are transforming how we do science. This transformation in technology is leading to a grand synthesis of the different fields of the biological sciences that is occurring in the 21st century.

Advice for biology students

The biological sciences are becoming more integrated and, thus, it is important to understand the many fields of biology. If you are interested in cell and molecular biology, then also study organismal and population biology to put what you learn in a broader context. If you are interested in ecology and environmental biology, then also study microbial, cellular, and developmental biology to better understand the inner workings of the organisms you are studying. If you are interested in biomedical sciences, then also study ecology and evolutionary biology, because the study of human biology is intimately intertwined with the world around us.

It also is important to engage in active and authentic research to complement your classroom studies. To help discover something new about nature is one of the most exciting things you could do in life.

Outside of work

I enjoy hiking in nature, and here I am fascinated by the approximately 300 mountain ranges in Nevada. I have hiked two mountains so far with many more to go. When I was in Hawaii, I joined an outrigger canoe club where we competed in long-distance races, including the 42-mile race from Molokai to Oahu. The news of a professional hockey team coming to Las Vegas makes me want to take up hockey again.

Anything else?

I want to thank everyone here for the great welcome. Mahalo nui loa and Aloha!