JON SEGER portrait
  • Professor, Biology

Education

  • BA, English, University of California, Santa Barbara
  • EdM, Education, Harvard University
  • PhD, Biology, Harvard University

Biography

My parents were avid swimmers, surfers, sailors and campers, but not naturalists.  So I learned from earliest childhood how to love the outdoors, but not how to understand its inhabitants.  The biology I met in school seemed boringly descriptive and failed to ignite any deep interest.  Then after college, six months before the first Earth Day in 1970, I got a job at the National Museum of Natural History where my assignment was to figure out how the museum could start doing public environmental education.  There I dimly began to grasp how today's living world can be explained by evolution.  The power and beauty of this framework came more fully into focus while I worked as a curriculum developer, and led me to enter graduate school in biology as a student of the theorist Robert Trivers.  I was incredibly lucky to become an evolutionary biologist during a time of fierce debate about many big issues including methods, logic, and the questions worth asking.  And I was influenced by many great teachers in addition to Trivers, including some who were expert naturalists.  One was a fellow student with whom I studied a population of solitary wasps that hunt bees to feed their offspring.  When I woke one morning from a dream in which I had completely identified with one of our female wasps, I knew that my understanding of the world had changed -- to put it mildly.

 

            Over four decades since then I have worked on a range of problems in the evolution of social and other life-history phenotypes (i.e., strategies for growing, cooperating, reproducing and migrating).  And like many evolutionists, I've become increasingly interested in how such processes leave decipherable "signatures" in DNA sequences.  About 20 years ago, my colleague and wife Vicky Rowntree encouraged me to study the harmless amphipod crustaceans called cyamids or "whale lice" that live in large numbers on right whales.  Working with a talented undergraduate (Ada Kaliszewska, now a postdoc), we discovered that the right-whale cyamids have conducted a uniquely well-defined and replicated natural evolutionary "experiment" with which we can detect mutations that have extremely small effects on performance.  We can see these tiny effects because they are magnified through the lens of evolution over thousands upon thousands of generations.  This experience has cemented my belief that natural history and undergraduate research are both critical to progress in biology.  I now teach a research course for first-semester freshmen, in hopes that it will help them catch the wave much earlier in their own careers than I did in mine.