Meet a Local Scientist: October 2017

Dr. Russell Burke

Dr. Russell Burke

Where do you work and what is your position?

I am a Professor of Biology at Hofstra University.

Describe your work.

I am mostly responsible for teaching courses like ecology, conservation biology, statistics, science writing, and disease ecology to undergraduate and graduate students. I also have a very active research program involving undergraduates and graduate students in local field projects on local turtles and mammals. For the last 20 years I've run a large citizen science project at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in which we investigate the ecology and conservation of diamondback terrapins.

Where did you go to school? Describe your path to your current position.

I went to a series of large state schools—Ohio State University (B.S), University of Florida (M.S.), University of Michigan (Ph.D.). I came straight to Hofstra from U.M. I didn't start thinking about a future in academia until sometime during my M.S., until then I wanted a wildlife job.

What is the best part of your job?

Either in the classroom or the field the best part of my job is when students suddenly understand something they didn't get before—I hope every teacher knows the look when the light comes on. It's a real endorphin rush for me.

Describe a typical day at work for you.

During the school year I spend most of my day at my desk in my office, answering emails, planning classes, grading papers, reviewing student projects, meeting with my students and colleagues. I teach at least one class almost every day, and I spend a lot of my time talking with students. I visit my lab where my research students are working most days, and there I check on their progress, maybe do some trouble shooting. Even when it is not my main field season it is not unusual for me to need to make a quick trip out to a field site to collect specimens or data.

Why do you love science?

I like solving puzzles, coming up with answers that matter, and I am ok if the answers are a long time coming. I have been working for nearly 30 years on some of the research questions I find most interesting; of course, there have been lots of successes and failures along the way! And I find science to be the best way to answer the questions I find most interesting.

What advice would you give to people interested in a career in science?

This is the best time in human history be a scientist, and it will only get better. There are so many important questions that we need to answer, and science is the way to do it. Finally, the best characteristic of a good scientist is willingness to abandon a cherished idea when faced with better data, and every good scientist should be able to give you an example of when he/she has done this.

What is your favorite scientific fact?

I have two favorite scientific figures, instead. The first is the Darwin's Tree of Life sketch in one of his notebooks (1837), drawn really for his own use, which is the first true depiction of the ancestor-descendent relationship of all life. The drawing is so incredibly profound, representing a mind-blowing intellectual breakthrough, and next to it he wrote a shy, modest comment: "I think". It probably took him 5 minutes to draw, but represented decades of deep heretical thinking, and a total break from nearly all scientific thought before him. Doesn't hurt that he was right!

My second favorite figure is the classic atmospheric CO2 trend plot from Mauna Loa (Hawaii) Observatory starting in 1957. It shows the standard increase over time that we all know, but it also shows an annual pattern of increase each year, starting in January and peaking in May-June, and then bottoming out in September-October before starting to climb again. This annual pattern is essentially the plants of the earth going through their annual cycles. I like to think of it as the global biosphere breathing, one inhalation in the summer and one exhalation in the winter. I wonder if the people who started that data collection 60 years ago thought that they might detect something as huge as that.

Tell us a bit about yourself that is not related to science.

I like to fly kites, although I don't get to do it as much as I would really like to. As a kid I used to build kites of many different kinds, and I also build and flew model rockets. Now I have quite a few kites made of more modern materials than I had available back then, and I carry them around more than I get to fly them—always hopeful.

What is your favorite thing about Long Island?

One great thing about Long Island is we have lots of good kite flying weather, complete with steady incoming winds. But my favorite thing is the amazing diversity of interesting natural areas here, large parks and other green spaces, and the ocean.