Traversing Biology at Amherst with Kindness: An Interview with Professor Clotfelter

Ethan Clotfelter has been a professor of biology at Amherst College for eighteen years. Some of his courses Form and Function, Animal Behavior, Adaptation, and the Organism, and Tropical Biology.

What is your degree in and what was your educational path to achieving it?

I graduated from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill with a degree in Biology.  I worked in a lab that studied risk-sensitive foraging decisions in bumblebees, which was my first exposure to research as an undergraduate.  After college, I began a Ph.D. program in Zoology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  UW-Madison was one of the few schools then that still had an “old school” Zoology Department.  My dissertation was on the ecology and behavior of brood parasitic brown-headed cowbirds.  After getting my Ph.D., I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and then Indiana University in Bloomington, where I continued my research on birds.  Fun fact: I took a year off in the middle of my dissertation and lived in Venezuela, where I taught English and helped out on natural history expeditions in Serran√≠a de Perij√° mountains along the Colombian border.

How did you first become interested in the field of biology?

As a child, I always loved biology and science in general.  I didn’t think I wanted to attend medical school, but I wasn’t clear on what the other career options were.  For my first 3-4 semesters of college, I bounced around a lot from major to major, including political science (my father is a political scientist), history, and English.  Then I started taking biology classes as a sophomore and rediscovered my love for it. I took a course in animal behavior in my senior year and decided then that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in the subject. Fun fact: I married my lab partner in that class, and we have been married almost 30 years.

When did you begin teaching at Amherst and how did you arrive here?

After my postdoctoral fellowships, I took a faculty job at Providence College in Rhode Island.  We were really happy there, with a house we loved and jobs we were both happy with, but when the job at Amherst was advertised, I couldn’t help but apply for it.  It was tough to leave our house and friends in Providence, but we’ve been really happy in western Massachusetts!

How have you influenced your students to deepen their interest in biology?

Anyone who knows me knows that I am super enthusiastic about everything.  I love working with students in the classroom, laboratory, and the field.  I hope that this enthusiasm has rubbed off on my students, even on those who I only see in a single course! 

You have been at Amherst for a very long time. How has this experience been? What aspects of the college have you witnessed change or evolve?

I really love my job at Amherst and consider myself very fortunate to be here.  In the time I have been here, the college has made strides in diversifying its student body and, more recently, its faculty.  I am particularly happy with the broader representation among our STEM faculty, compared to ~20 years ago.  We have much work left to do, but I am encouraged by the progress.

Could you briefly describe your research?

My research lies at the intersection of animal behavior, ecology, and physiology.  I have spent most of my career studying birds, though in recent years I have added additional projects on fish and crayfish.  A theme that connects these projects is that I am interested in how animals respond to environmental challenges, whether they be climate change, parasites, or aquatic pollution.  

What are the impacts and applications of your research?

I think the shortest way to summarize it is that we have a better understanding of how environmental conditions early in life can have delayed impacts on adult behavior, physiology, and survival.  We have shown this in studies of trace quantities of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in fish, and in the delayed impacts of temperature on growth and survival of birds.

How have you seen the field of biology change, if at all, since you have been part of it?

Biology, along with many other disciplines, is so much more collaborative than it used to be.  The increasing complexity of scientific research requires that we work across departments and institutions to take advantage of expertise and equipment not available to us here.  In my own work, I’ve collaborated with engineers, statisticians, physiologists, anatomists, and environmental toxicologists. I find these collaborations to be really exciting because I learn so much from them.

What influence do you hope to have on Amherst?

It sounds a bit silly to say this, but I really try to go out of my way to be nice to everyone.  I served as a class dean for three years, and that gave me really helpful insights into some of the personal and academic challenges that students face, and that experience has made me much more empathetic and, I hope, supportive.  I think everyone at Amherst works and studies so hard that we could all use a bit more niceness.  

On another note, my colleague Rachel Levin and I teach a course in Costa Rica. We were the first faculty (I think) to offer a course with an integrated, international travel component, and now there are courses that travel to Austria, Colombia, Turkey, Spain, and other destinations.  I’m happy to have helped start this trend, and I hope the College continues to support such courses.

What advice do you have for biology students and students in general at this college now and in their future?

The best scientists I know are broadly integrative, drawing on expertise in multiple disciplines.  I would encourage students to develop a diverse set of quantitative, laboratory, and even field-based skills.  Also, communicating science with the public (and with policymakers) is increasingly essential, so I would encourage students to develop scientific writing and speaking skills.  Getting people to better understand and trust science is really important!

Would you like to share anything else about yourself?

I share this with all of my classes, but I have a stutter that sometimes affects my ability to communicate effectively, and nearly caused me to choose another career path.  I’m totally comfortable with it now, so I don’t want anyone to be embarrassed on my behalf!