Archive for March 6th, 2013

One of the many diverse results of being a geology major: the adventures of Will Driscoll (’05) in evolutionary ecology

March 6th, 2013

WillDriscoll05_030513WOOSTER, OHIO–Yesterday Greg Wiles and I attended a Biology Department Seminar given by our former student Will Driscoll (Geology ’05). Will was in all our standard departmental courses and did his Independent Study project with Dr. Wiles in dendrochronology. Yet here he was giving a presentation to the Biology Department. How did this happen? It is yet another example of the utility of a liberal arts major in science … and what persistence and great ideas can lead you.

I well remember the day during Will’s senior year that he brought me an essay he wanted me to read. For one thing, it was an essay unconnected with any course — Will just wanted to write down some ideas and get a response. The essay was about evolutionary ecology and morphogenesis. To say this came from left field would be an understatement. I had no idea Will had such concepts, and they were extremely well developed and expressed. Will applied to the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at The University of Arizona (the top program in the nation for this subject). He finished his PhD there last year and is now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Département de Biologie, École Normale Supérieure, Paris, France. That is a long way from Scovel Hall!

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A small swarm of toxic Prymnesium parvum (small golden cells) attacks a rotifer accustomed to grazing on unicellular algae. The toxic algae help themselves to a meal, and in the process help all of the algae that the rotifer might have otherwise eaten. (Image and caption from Will Driscoll.)

Will’s specialty, and the topic of his seminar yesterday, is in a broad sense on “the ecological drivers and consequences of multilevel selection”. He is pursuing this interest now with studies on what has been called “microbial sociobiology”. The title of his Wooster talk was “The ecological consequences of microbial sociality”. He is looking at the behavior of microbes as cooperative groups and all this means for evolution and ecology. His stories about toxic bloom-forming algae were amazing, opening up new dimensions on how to place single-celled organisms into our models of behavioral evolution. Will himself can tell you much more about his research and ideas on his website.

Will’s presentation was inspiring at (appropriately) multiple levels: the science was novel, fascinating and provocative, and Will’s enthusiasm and skills reminded us yet again why teaching at Wooster is simply the best job in the world.