Photograph courtesy of Kyle Summers
Birthplace: New York, New York
Current City: Greenville, North Carolina
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
For as long as I can remember, I loved exploring the natural world and I wanted to work in the wilderness. I was fortunate to have the chance to go to the Central American tropics with my parents, which opened up a whole new world of biological diversity to me. I did not decide to become a biologist until relatively late in my education, however.
How did you get started in your field of work?
As an undergraduate I became intrigued with the subject of sexual selection and research on how and why male and female mating and parental strategies were so different in many species. Growing up I was always fascinated by amphibians and reptiles. They presented many excellent opportunities for fieldwork in biology, allowing scientists to test hypotheses of general interest. Hence, in graduate school I combined these two interests in research on sexual selection and parental care in Neotropical poison-dart frogs. I have been studying these frogs ever since.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to your work?
I am inspired by both the theory and fact of evolution. Evolutionary biology is complicated yet endlessly intriguing, and the diversity of life that has evolved is an unmatched source of inspiration and beauty.
What's a normal day like for you?
These days I spend most of my time reading; writing lectures, papers, and grants; lecturing; and doing committee work. I also continue to do some work in the field and in the laboratory, but unfortunately my time for that is more limited now.
Do you have a hero?
I have several heroes—people who have inspired me to pursue research by the brilliance of their vision of the evolution of life in general and animal behavior in particular. The most inspirational people in my work life have been William Hamilton, Robert Trivers, and Richard Alexander. Each of these scientists has, in their own way, transformed our understanding of the natural world.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
I can't point to one experience as my favorite—I have enjoyed fieldwork in many places in many countries, and for many different reasons. I am continually fascinated by nature in general and animals in particular, especially frogs. Working on the ecology and behavior of poison frogs is like having living, breathing jewels as your study subject, so I feel I have been very fortunate to work on these beautiful frogs. I have also been lucky to see other gorgeous animals in the wild, including rarely glimpsed animals such as jaguars and Rufous-vented ground cuckoos. The most challenging part of doing fieldwork these days is negotiating the rather complex process of getting permits.
What are your other passions?
I enjoy spending time with my wife and two daughters, and we are particularly fond of traveling and sharing new experiences. In terms of research, I am also very interested in the relationship between evolutionary biology and medicine, and I do some research in this area. I am involved in local and national politics, and try to contribute to causes that I think are important.
What do you do in your free time?
I enjoy exercising, including cycling, swimming, kayaking, and roller skiing. I am interested in history and cultural diversity, and read books in these areas when I can. I am also interested in diet and try to keep up with recent research on the relationship between diet and health. I am a big fan of Southeast Asian cuisine, and frequently try my hand at cooking typical dishes of Thailand.
Latest Explorer News
- Wolverine Research Isn’t Pretty
- No Ice in Sight: Polar Bears Scrabble Onshore to Find Food
- When Civil War Made Humans Prey for Carnivores
- You Win or You Die: Real-life Threats to the Animal Icons on ‘Game of Thrones’
- Exploring Civilization Beyond the Walls
- Survivors Discuss What It Takes to Walk ‘Through the Prides’
- The Genographic Project Turns Ten
- 3 Surprising Discoveries From the Archaeology of Food
- Whales Surprise Baja Paddlers
- 3 Things to Know About the Origins of Chinese Civilization
in Their Words
Evolutionary biology is complicated yet endlessly intriguing, and the diversity of life that has evolved is an unmatched source of inspiration and beauty.
Meet Our Biologist Explorers
Datta explores the conservation challenges facing one of India's last vast tracts of wilderness.
Our Explorers in Action
Meet female explorers who have pushed the limits in adventure, science, and more.
Support National Geographic
Our critical work in research, conservation, exploration, and education is possible thanks to the generosity of people like you. Your gift of any size is greatly appreciated.