Ray Callaway - Biological Sciences
I am an ecologist, interested in the processes that shape the natural distributions and abundance of life on Earth. My expertise is on plant life, but this does not set strong boundaries on my ecological interests or exploration. My research interests are driven by curiosity, and curiosity, of course, is stimulated by information. As an undergraduate and graduate student, the more I learned about the natural world, the more questions I had. As I developed the research for my PhD, I stumbled into the blue oak savanna system in California. Through a series of serendipitous events, I discovered wonderful examples of how these oaks actually facilitated the growth and survival of other species. I also found evidence that these positive interactions were conditional, dependent on the long- term development of the root architecture of the maturing oak trees. Not only were these positive interactions quite contrary to the dominant ideas of the day – plants were supposed to compete with each other – the complexity of these interactions led me to develop a powerful interest in exploring how organisms interact with each other in general, the importance of these interactions for shaping natural systems, and how our human perspectives on these interactions shape our view of nature.
Despite these general interests, I cannot claim to have developed a clear, linear list of research goals and plans for my career. Instead, my approach – even today – more resembles that of someone who kicks the tires on a car just to see what happens. I react to interesting patterns and questions rather than think them up and create five-year plans. This approach has important consequences for how I direct undergraduate and graduate research. Over the years, students in my lab have brought far more ideas to me than I have provided to them. I may help them tackle problems, but I have not mentored a single Ph.D. student that has not owned their ideas and the fundamental conceptual directions they take. In fact, several of the most productive intellectual arenas in which my lab works have been carved out first by grad students. A good example is my current but long term interest in exotic invasive plants such as spotted knapweed and leafy spurge. My first students really wanted to study invasives. I wisely recommended that they focus on “natural” ecosystems because invasives were so unnatural. They even more wisely ignored my advice and went on to develop, implement, and publish research that forms a basic framework for most of even my current work. Kicking the tires.
I arrived at UM on January 2, 1993 because the scientist first offered my current position turned it down. For an ecologist, western Montana and UM are dreams come true. Missoula is in the heart of fantastic research country, but more importantly, UM has a collection of ecologists and evolutionary biologists that is second to none. Not only that, we like each other. My career has been immeasurably enhanced by the collegiality and mutual support of my colleagues, and the fascination we share in each other’s accomplishments.