Interview by Katherine Duke '05
Ethan Clotfelter earned his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1998 and came to Amherst as an assistant professor of biology and neuroscience in 2003. He teaches courses on adaptation, animal behavior and conservation biology, but he is also well-known around campus for his bird research in the wildlife sanctuary and for conducting an annual study on the dogs of faculty members and staff. (The project on dogs is designed to give students practice in studying animal cognition.) Clotfelter spoke with Amherst about researching aggressive fish, working to help the earth and balancing career and family.
On an easy decision
I knew from my time as a graduate student that I wanted to teach at a place like Amherst, where the focus was on excellent undergraduate education. I’d already enjoyed my previous job at Providence College in Rhode Island: the smallness and the intimacy, the equal emphasis on excellent scholarship and excellent teaching. I saw moving to Amherst as an opportunity to teach even better students and have even greater opportunities for research, so it was a pretty easy decision. I’m interested in so much about animal behavior, ecology and physiology—I’ve got all sorts of projects going on—and I love that I’m at a liberal arts college where this sort of intellectual freedom is encouraged. To some extent, it’s expected, because we have relatively few faculty members to cover all of the diverse sub-disciplines of biology.
On Amherst students
I had this image in my head that Amherst students would be somehow superhuman. I was actually quite happy that I was wrong. After the first few weeks, I realized that Amherst students, like college students anywhere in the world, sometimes oversleep and procrastinate. They’re still bright and wonderful people, but they’re not machines. I was also pleasantly surprised to find the student body to be much more intellectually diverse than I’d anticipated. It’s an exciting challenge to find that perfect place at which to aim my courses to ensure that everyone is challenged but not struggling.
On pet tricks
Casual conversations about animal behavior can go into these great tangential asides. I ask my students to submit obscure questions about animal behavior, and I provide them with the best answers I can as the semester progresses. We’ve talked about how to hypnotize lizards (rub their abdomens), how cockroaches know that you’re coming (they have special bristles that can sense air movement) and whether orca whales cooperate with human fishermen (there was one documented case). We also had a very lively debate about whether or not cow-tipping is a “rural myth.” Research suggests that tipping a cow is physically impossible for fewer than four adults, so the empiricist in me is still looking for first-hand evidence that it can really happen.
On environmental contaminants
Phytoestrogens are naturally occurring compounds in plants, but they accumulate in certain places—especially aquatic habitats—as a result of human activity, like in wood-pulp and paper mills and in agricultural fields. So far, my students and I have documented their behavioral, reproductive and neurological effects on fish: suppression of normal male-male aggressive behavior, decreased sperm motility, altered neurotransmitter metabolism. We are currently studying sex steroid hormone levels as well. The students are really enjoying doing research with potentially important environmental applications.
On environmental activism
As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was a founding member of the Student Environmental Action Coalition. I participated in protest marches and mild acts of civil disobedience. I’m currently very involved in the movement on campus to develop an environmental studies program. We hope it will become available to students as a major in the not-too-distant future. I certainly hope that my research has a direct environmental impact, and also an indirect impact in terms of inspiring students and producing future generations of environmental scientists. But I’ve tried very hard, and I think successfully, to separate my strong feelings and my activism from my science. When I find that certain chemicals have no damaging effect, I report that there was no effect, even though I wish I could say, “These chemicals are terrible!”
On typical male behavior (in fish)
Most of my recent research asks, What is the role of aggression in animal interactions? I started focusing on Siamese fighting fish because for centuries in Southeast Asia, they have been bred for fighting—selectively bred to get the biggest, meanest, toothiest fish. I was interested in how males might integrate aggressive behaviors or displays—which they normally use for fighting off intruders—into their courtship behavior toward females, how responsive females might be and how appropriation of these displays by females might be viewed. Then I also got interested in the physiology of aggression in the species. From there I became interested in the question: How are we interfering with fish behavior by releasing hormone-mimicking chemicals into the environment? In Thailand they breed these fish for competitive fighting, and then the fish that lose fights are often released into the wild. I’m curious about what effect this has on wild populations of fish. It’s analogous to releasing pit bulls into the wild.
On birds in the hand
A colleague from UMass and I set up about 150 bird boxes out in the wildlife sanctuary here at the college. We have about 80 pairs of tree swallows who nest there. With the help of several students, we’ve been studying their parental behavior for three years. They don’t mind too much when you open up their box, peek inside, count their eggs or hold their nestlings, and measure and weigh them. They’re so docile in the hand. It’s almost enough for me just to be able to spend a couple hours walking around in the early morning, hearing the birds and getting a chance to hold them.
On taking the kids to work
My three children, Avery (8), Erin (6) and Delia (3), are all aspiring biologists. They interrogate me every night to ask what interesting thing I learned that day. If I have to come in to feed fish over the weekend, I often bring my kids with me. My kids are so comfortable in my lab and office that I sometimes have to remind them that this is a place where people work and study. I appreciate my colleagues being so understanding of the constraints of having young kids and having to work at the same time.
On rock stardom
I had no musical talent to speak of, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to be a rock star, at least all through high school. As an undergraduate, I was a DJ at the college radio station, and so I was able to delve into all these forms of music that I couldn’t afford to buy. If I could’ve picked a career then, I would’ve been a music writer or music critic.
On mixing business with pleasure
I’ve always been a baseball fan, and now I’m doing a side project involving handedness in professional baseball. I have another interest with respect to fish that relates to handedness and eye dominance in humans: how certain brain functions are localized in one side of the brain or the other. I’m studying baseball handedness in sort of an evolutionary sense. Soon I hope to have the answer as to why the percentage of righties versus lefties in baseball tends to fluctuate, as opposed to being a flat line. I’m happy to have the opportunity occasionally to combine my personal and professional interests.
Duke is the Ives Washburn Fellow in the Office of Public Affairs.
Photo: Frank Ward