Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
This is the first of five chapters focusing on my favorite places and the creatures that
inhabit them. It's also about studying and teaching natural history, as well as finding
one's path more generally. Academics often look back fondly on graduate school, but
I'll wager most of us had little inkling of how intellectually and emotionally transform-
ative it would be when we sat down in that first seminar. Watching frogs and snakes,
conducting experiments and analyzing data, arguing about the conceptual foundations
of biology and writing papers—these activities pervaded our waking hours, even our
dreams, but with luck we also learned that happiness is about more than science. Only
much later would I reflect on the ways in which mentors and friends influenced so many
aspects of those years.
William Pyburn, my master's thesis advisor, bridged a penchant for observation with the
emphasis on hypothesis testing that permeates modern science. Bill exhibited remark-
able artistic abilities as a child and by the age of eight was taking art classes at a Hou-
ston museum. As an inquisitive East Texas teenager he watched broad-headed skinks
and copperheads among the loblolly pines and willow oaks; he prowled cypress-lined
stream banks in search of snappers, stinkpots, and other turtles, sitting spellbound as a
swamp rabbit hopped by and then swam away. Once Bill surprised a basking alligator,
and decades later he remembered how the reptile obscured its escape by lashing up a
muddy cloud with its tail. A born collector, he even assembled an entire horse skeleton
on the family lawn from bones found in his wanderings. 1
Bill went on to college and a Ph.D. after serving as a navy medic in World War II. He
was married to Wanda, his high school sweetheart, for fifty-seven years. Frank Blair, his
University of Texas professor, had trained at Michigan, inventoried the faunas of several
West Texas mountain ranges after moving to Austin, and then investigated population
dynamics and speciation in toads. Under Blair's tutelage Bill studied mate choice by
spiny lizards for his thesis, then staked out a dissertation on evolutionary genetics of
color pattern in cricket frogs. 2 He'd always been thin and wiry; when another graduate
student drew up an identification “key” for members of their group, Bill was described
as “disappears when turned sidewise, runs around in the shower to get wet.” Intellec-
tually rigorous and surprisingly iron-willed, he could talk with equal facility about Ber-
trand Russell's philosophy, the history of jazz, and amphibian evolution.
Bill was always an artist at heart. His drawings and paintings were marked by at-
tention to details, a propensity also evident in his scientific endeavors. He wrote in
neat longhand, preparing an outline and then formulating sentences, even entire para-
graphs, before putting pen to paper. His drafts required little or no revision. He was a
dedicated rationalist and problem solver, such that in his waning years, when Parkin-
son's disease prevented making the exact lines needed for bird portraits, he switched to
abstracts. Bill suffered from chronic depression, accentuated by the confines of campus
and city, but he reverted to a more carefree demeanor in the field. Attentive to small
flowers and other nuances of a desert canyon, he laughed easily and his eyes twinkled;
preoccupied with frogs and birds in an East Texas pine woods, he walked like a man on
good terms with the whole neighborhood.
At Southwestern I'd read Bill's publications about Mexican treefrog behavior, 3 then
noticed his Arlington State Teachers College address and made an appointment to meet
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