Robert Powell, Ph.D.
On Being a Herpetologist at a Small, Private, Undergraduate College
(This essay originally appeared in the Newsletter of the Herpetologists' League 5(1):56).
Endangered Cyclura cornuta from Parque Nacional Isla Cabritos, República Dominicana
The unpleasant truth is that herpetology does not exist at small colleges. Instead, the herpetologist is considered to be just another biologist and may be asked to teach courses ranging from introductory biology to comparative anatomy, embryology, ecology, and evolution. Not that such a teaching load is all that onerous, but once exposed to the charms of amphibians and reptiles, it may be hard to revert to generic biology. Also, one must accept the reality that teaching is the primary responsibility of faculty at small colleges. As a result, teaching loads are heavy, with 12 credit hours per semester being the norm (and for science faculty the contact hours may be much higher due to laboratories). This, along with ancillary responsibilities such as advising, committee work, and attending meetings, leaves little time to devote to research, herpetological or otherwise.
Now, having those unpleasantries out of the way, let me go on to say that doing herpetology at a small college is not impossible or even terribly difficult, assuming some diligence on the part of the faculty member, but constraints are real and must be acknowledged. Time is by far the most significant limitation, but minimal or nonexistent funding also presents problems. So, how does one do herpetology at a small school?
Because many small colleges are tuition-driven, anything that attracts, involves, and retains students will be viewed in a favorable light by the powers-that-be. The obvious solution, then, is to engage students in herpetological pursuits. One of the most powerful attractants is the opportunity to participate in field trips. These need not be to exotic climes (although that's nice); as a matter of fact, local and regional trips are low cost, take relatively little time, and can open eyes to things most students have never experienced. Once students are engaged, reaching a critical number necessary to offer a herpetology class becomes much more likely. Another way to attract students is to reach into the community. Especially urban schools will find a sizable number of folks interested in herps. If classes are scheduled to accommodate working adults, these might add up in a manner sufficient to allow traditional students to participate as well. A welcome bonus accrues when amateurs, whose primary interest may have been watching a snake in a cage, become adequately sophisticated to participate in regional or national societies, the focus of which focus extends well beyond herpetoculture.
Small colleges also appreciate good public relations. If space capable of housing some live amphibians and reptiles can be requisitioned or merely occupied, these animals can serve to attract prospective students in biology, but can also be used by faculty and/or students in educational programs at area schools and nature centers or for scouts and other outdoor groups. Our favorite animals do attract attention, and the publicity generated by such services reflects well on the college, the administration of which will, in turn, be more tolerant of herpetologically related activities.
Real research is more difficult, but certainly not impossible. Again, the trick is to involve students. Many colleges have curricular options or requirements involving student research. Mentor students interested in herpetogical projects; this will help them better understand science and keep your own interests alive. Always keep in mind, however, that all but the most advanced undergraduates lack the sophistication to do long-term projects until they have little or no time left before graduation. Therefore, you must direct them toward little projects, although these may over time result in the accumulation of considerable data. Natural history and some aspects of taxonomy lend themselves to low-cost, short-term projects, albeit not cutting-edge science. Keep in mind, however, that these kinds of data are unavailable for many species, including a surprising number of common North American forms. Many larger institutions, universities and museums, will loan specimens for this work, allowing species otherwise not readily available to be the subject of student projects. However, the data are only as good as the collector, so the faculty member must commit precious time to training and supervising these research projects. If care is taken, the results of student projects may even be publishable. Undergraduate-authored or co-authored papers are a tremendous plus for students applying to competitive graduate programs, and they can provide bragging rights for college administrators interested in what their students and faculty are doing.
Field research in exotic locales and more intensive research is also within the reach of faculty at small schools if they are willing to invest the time and energy to acquire extramural funding. This is often difficult because the investigator may be competing with research institutions and dealing with peer review panels who have never heard of either the person or the institution. Applying to local or regional agencies and diligent attention to detail, taking full advantage of every available opportunity, and perseverance in the face of initial frustration can often overcome these obstacles, especially if the faculty member is willing to work with undergraduates and/or teachers, for whom dedicated funding programs exist and who many research institutions cannot reach as effectively as the smaller, more flexible college.
So, being a herpetologist at a small college is tough, but it can be done and done well. However, hard work and accepting and dealing with obstacles is essential. Those lacking energy, imagination, commitment, and perseverance will soon become generic teachers of biology instead of active herpetologists.