Eric Schauber, a wildlife ecologist currently at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, will begin his role as director of the Illinois Natural History Survey on July 1. He recently answered a few questions about his new role and his vision for INHS.
What makes you excited to come to the Illinois Natural History Survey?
A. I am thrilled to take the reins of an organization that has been providing reliable scientific information for 160 years, always with a thought to how that information can be used in the future. In particular, I am excited to work with such a diverse suite of biologists, whose expertise continually expands our knowledge of the whole suite of plant and animal species in Illinois (and beyond), using a wide range of analytical technologies. Finally, I am most excited because this is the Illinois Natural History Survey. Natural history is a discipline focused on documenting how and where organisms live, which has fallen somewhat out of fashion in the scientific realm. However, we can only gain general insight and understanding by confronting our ideas with comprehensive datasets collected over time and space. The INHS represents a bastion of taxonomic expertise and a place where natural history is still a priority. I am honored to advocate for the priceless heritage of biological data and collected specimens curated by the Survey.
What opportunities do you see for the Illinois Natural History Survey?
A. The INHS has operated with more or less the same mission for over 100 years, yet it constantly identifies and utilizes emerging technologies in service of that mission. From digital archiving that allows scientists around the world much greater access to collected materials, to detecting species by the DNA they leave in their environment, INHS scientists put new technologies to work. Given how many people have a camera and internet portal in their pocket, I see citizen science as both a current strength and an emerging opportunity for the INHS. Scientists and technicians can only be so many places at once, so engaging the public to contribute observations of the natural world greatly expands opportunities to document where and how different organisms live in Illinois.
What do you think the biggest challenges are for the Illinois Natural History Survey?
A. I see three major challenges: 1) communicating the importance of independent research and higher education in our changing world, 2) promoting the benefits of natural history and taxonomic expertise in the scientific community, and 3) engaging a public that is increasingly disconnected from the natural environment.
How do you envision the Illinois Natural History Survey evolving over the next decade?
A. One direction that I see the INHS moving over the next decade is greater integration within the university. I aim to identify opportunities to encourage and expand joint appointments and collaborative opportunities with academic programs and other research centers on campus.
At Southern Illinois University you do a lot of work with undergraduates. Do you plan to continue that teaching and mentoring at U of I?
A. Although my duties and emphasis will shift, I will hold a research faculty appointment with the U of I Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Studies. My own research program probably will be smaller than it has been at SIUC, but I will continue to mentor graduate students and postdoctoral researchers and will involve undergraduates in my projects. Unfortunately, I suspect this position won't leave me much time for teaching!
What do you think people in Illinois should know about their state’s animal and plant life that they don’t know now?
A. Applying for a faculty position at Southern Illinois University 17 years ago, I was thrilled to find out that Illinois is home to about 40 species of snakes. Since living here, I've learned that Illinois is an ecological crossroad where northern hardwoods meet tupelo and armadillos; dry bluffs with prickly pear cacti overlook river bottoms that are home to wood ducks and swamp rabbits. And of course, Illinois farmers benefit from thousands of years of prairie growth—the product of glaciers and bison and fire. Illinois' southern tip ends with the confluence of two of the greatest rivers in North America, whose watersheds encompass nearly a third the area of the lower 48 states. In fact, the Chicago Sanitary & Shipping Canal represents the only direct link between the largest (Mississippi) and third-largest (St. Lawrence) river drainage basins in North America. No wonder there is so much concern over what plants and animals pass through that canal!
What drew you to wildlife science and ecology?
A. My parents always fostered my interests in animals and I literally learned to read on animal books and field guides. As a kid, I constantly captured snakes and frogs and turned over rocks and logs to see what lived underneath. I idolized my uncle Ed, a game warden in Maryland, who first let me know that wildlife biologist was an attainable career and prompted me to read Aldo Leopold. The more I read and learned, my interests shifted from simply catching animals to appreciating the way that they interact with each other and the environment. In college, I happened to be present on a night when biologists identified a key (and counterintuitive) way to improve tunnels for migrating salamanders. Being present at that moment when a new observation turned preexisting ideas on their heads hooked me on the process of science.
What else would you like people to know about you?
A. Much of who I am I owe to Marisa Winegar, my wife. She's a classically trained operatic singer as well as a jazz singer, voice teacher, stage actor, and director, but I think she would also make a great scientist and I lean on her critical thinking. Our backgrounds in arts & sciences are really complementary, and we both learn constantly from each other.
When not wrangling the kids (11 & 12 years old), I play some guitar, hunt and fish, make and paint decoys, and oddly enjoy the frustration of fixing old outboard motors.