A Life in SciencePosted on: March 27, 2013 in Research & Discovery in Environment & Sustainability
“I took some biology courses, particularly ecology, and got outside and studied organisms in their natural habitat, and that was what got me really very excited,” recalls Judith Bronstein, distinguished UA professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, housed in the College of Science. “And so I wanted to keep doing that kind of work. The idea that there was a job where I could learn new stuff and get fired up about it, and then go off and teach people about what I’m learning, I mean, to me, I couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything else with my life.”
A passionate researcher and educator, she is a world renowned expert on mutualism, the cooperative interaction among organisms and species.
“Some insects have the option of going into a flower the way you’ve always been taught they do, and getting the nectar that way. Or chewing a hole through the side, getting the nectar that way, in which case they don’t pick up pollen.And that’s called robbing, and so in my research, that’s largely the question I’m asking. Are cheaters being punished, and if not, why doesn’t cheating just overrun cooperation?”
“She has been one of the pioneers in analyzing the ecology and evolution of these mutually beneficial kinds of interactions,” says Robert H. Robichaux, also a UA distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “It also turns out now that we realize that they pervade much of nature, and that they’re central to the organization and structure of much of what we see in the natural world.”
Ecology is a relatively young science; researchers are asking many questions for the very first time. Bronstein keeps this in mind as she mentors the graduate students who come from all over the world to work with her.
“I work with each of them individually to figure out, ‘What is it you’re interested in? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What kind of knowledge do you want to build up? What are the big yawning gaps in our field that excite you to go out and fill them?’”
Her passion for teaching extends to undergraduates as well.
“I’ve taught introductory biology at the UA for well over 20 years. And one of the things I enjoy the most is finding students who would love to have an experience of doing research, doing hands-on research, and who haven’t previously been given the opportunity, or even necessarily been aware that there is an opportunity.”
Bronstein strives to create awareness through all things science. She is editor of the prestigious American Naturalist, one of the world’s premier peer-reviewed journals of ecology and evolution.
Champion of Outreach and Education
One of Bronstein’s favorite activities is working with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a world-renowned zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden just outside the city of Tucson.
“It’s been a wonderful opportunity to learn how to convey the material to the public in a way that they’ll easily understand, but also that will fire them up with the passion to understand our environment and to conserve it.”
That passion is certainly changing lives, like that of Bryan Helm, graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology.
“One thing that I’ve definitely learned from Judy is that being a scientists is not just about being in a lab or coming up with interesting questions, interesting science questions,” he says. “It’s also about being part of a community… All of the students that she’s had in the lab have been very passionate about becoming involved in the education component of science and also the outreach component of science.”
A True University Family
“He is a junior docent at the desert museum, far better at identifying the moths that come to our black light than I am. But he is a humanities kid. “
Bronstein expects her son will someday become a professor like his parents. It’s a way of life she and Davidowitz have found to be richly rewarding.
“We have a wonderful life, not only because we love each other very much, because we’re both biologists. And we study different things, but we find ways of working together. So we’ve traveled internationally, often connected in one way or another with our work, which has just been a lot of fun, and it really makes the University as much of a home as home is a home. I love the University. I don’t want anyone to ever have to make me leave.”