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  December 10, 2001

Colwell to Continue Distinguished
Career on Sabbatical Down Under

Image: Robert Colwell

Professor Robert Colwell listens to points made by his students during a graduate seminar.

Photos by Peter Morenus

Wildland settings are natural surroundings to Robert K. Colwell. Raised on a cattle ranch in Colorado, he inherited his parents' respect for the environment.

Colwell, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and an expert on biodiversity, is now poised for a sabbatical adventure to the Australian tropics.

In January, Colwell, accompanied by his wife, Robin Chazdon, also a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UConn, along with their daughter, Rachel, 13, and son, Charlie, 10, will head down under to Cairns, Queensland, in the northeastern part of Australia.

Inventory of Insects
Colwell and Chazdon will be visiting scholars at James Cook University - named for Captain Cook, the British explorer who led three major voyages of discovery, charting and naming many islands of the Pacific Ocean.

Colwell, who earlier this year was named a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor, will be doing some discovering and charting of his own - only with insects.

For six months, he'll be collaborating with Nigel Stork, head of the Rain Forest Cooperative Research Centre, on an insect inventory within the rain forest. The Centre is affiliated with James Cook University.

"We suspect that the insect fauna of the Queensland Rain Forest may be equal to that of the Amazon's," says Colwell. "At this point, no one knows."

Colwell was first runner-up for a Fulbright Scholarship in Australia, but he wasn't too disappointed by the outcome. The Fulbright award went to his wife Robin.

"Only eight Fulbrights in all fields of endeavor are awarded annually in Australia," he says. "They're difficult to obtain."

Colwell, who has served as president of the American Society of Naturalists and vice president of the Ecological Society of America, is widely known for his empirical and theoretical studies on evolution and co-evolution, ecomorphology, systematics, and the measurement of biodiversity.

A recent recipient of the Alumni Association's Award for Faculty Excellence in Research, he also won a Chancellor's Information Technology Award in 1998 for developing a database that keeps track of thousands of rain forest species.

The database will soon be put to good use.

Career Path
Although his childhood experiences were the main catalyst for a career in ecology, two college experiences also served to keep Colwell on a path with nature.

"My family was motivated by concerns for conservation of the wilderness and enlivened by a lifelong study of the natural history of the plants and animals around us in the Rocky Mountains," Colwell recalls.

His mother taught him how to capture butterflies and other insects. His father, one of the founders of the Outward Bound movement in Colorado, was a public school teacher and, later, a high school principal.

"My father was always finding ways for his students to experience what they were learning," says Colwell.

He was similarly enriched at the hands of teachers at Harvard and the University of Michigan.

"When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, Professor E.O. Wilson's course in evolutionary biology got me involved in conceptual issues in evolution and ecology," says Colwell.

Another important educational experience, he recalls, occurred during his first year in graduate school at the University of Michigan, when he took an eight-week field course in Costa Rica.

The course was taught entirely in the field, at sites throughout Costa Rica, where he learned about contrasting habitats.

Colwell's current areas of research include the interactions and co-evolution of species, especially between plants and animals, such as nectar-feeding mites that live in tropical flowers and are transported in the bills of hummingbirds.

Best of Both Worlds
On a year-long sabbatical, Colwell says he's enjoying the best of two worlds: research and teaching.

"In research, the most rewarding things are new ideas and discoveries, whether the focus is something concrete, such as some bizarre interaction between different species in a tropical rain forest, or something abstract, such as a new geometric theory of biodiversity patterns," he says.

"In teaching, my best rewards come from seeing growth and change in my students that I can attribute to my efforts," he adds.

During the spring semester, Colwell will focus his attention on the research side of his impressive career. Over the next six months, he will likely find his rewards thousands of miles from Storrs, in a rain forest near the Great Barrier Reef.

Claudia G. Chamberlain