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STEM+ Guest Spotlight - Dr. Gareth Russell


As a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Dr. Gareth Russell frequently encounters students interested in pursuing careers in medicine. However, rather than simply focusing on the aspects of evolution most salient to medicine – such as antibiotic resistance or tumor selection – the course he teaches (BIOL 468 @ NJIT) centers more on the value of appreciating the complexity of biology.


Unraveling the mosaic of human evolution aims to explain why pelvic anatomy makes giving birth difficult, why medications do not work equally well for everyone, and why multifaceted diseases such as cancer or obesity are so challenging to pin down to a few genetic or environmental causes. By teaching his students to examine the intersection of ecology, evolution, disease, and medicine with a discerning eye, he hopes that his students will learn to acknowledge the value of an evolutionary perspective, which is typically broader than that of a patient.


Historically, teaching the evolutionary underpinnings of disease and physiology has not been a priority in medical school curricula. In focusing on the mechanics of normal and abnormal functioning, medical schools aim to prepare students to diagnose and manage patients over a lifetime. But learning about the origin of the human body’s current limitations may provide students with a new perspective on illness which could better help them speak to parents or express empathy for stigmatized patients. For example, rather than placing the entire burden of responsibility on a patient with obesity and focusing only on their dietary choices, it may be helpful to consider the evolutionary legacies found in their genes.


Dr. Russell and members of the Urban Ecology Lab

The bulk of Dr. Russell’s work, however, centers around ecology, particularly within urban areas. The Urban Ecology Lab at NJIT studies how nature can coexist in heavily urbanized landscapes (and the extent to which people want it to). The co-localization of wildlife and humans expectedly creates conflict, not only between humans and wildlife but also between humans with different stakes in their local environment. Some – like farmers in rural areas – are intimately affected by wildlife that consumes crops or livestock, while others welcome existing or reintroduced species. By investigating and increasing awareness of how deeply humans are involved in their surrounding and distant ecosystems, Dr. Russell invites people of all backgrounds to consider how invested they would like to be in these matters.


Reflecting on the extent to which scientific knowledge, public awareness, and study methods in conservation and climate change science have progressed since his days as a graduate student, and he sees the present as an opportunity ripe for change and involvement on a broad public level. Indeed, he is quick to point out that a background in ecology, conservation biology, or even more broadly natural science, is not required for engagement with the type of work that he does. As a result of a greater general emphasis on sustainability, there are now organizations dedicated to environmental conservation or sustainability at every level, ranging from the local or township level up to the level of institutions, cities, and states.


This creates an unprecedented opportunity for students who have an interest (irrespective of their background or circumstances) to be involved through volunteering, activism, or smaller changes that they can make in their personal and professional lives. Dr. Russell pointed out that doctors, statisticians, computer scientists, and financial analysts are all humans intimately involved in the environment, creating opportunities and incentives to implement change in their own unique ways. Conservation does not have to come in the form of hiking into the wilderness to preserve or document endangered species, or to participate in climate-related strikes or demonstrations. All it takes is the desire to find the intersection of your path with the environment and apply yourself to it. Dr. Russell suggests that such an intersection might come from computational ecology or ecological modeling which – alongside computational medicine and epidemiological modeling – are growing fields with ripe job markets spanning both conventional and unconventional forms of conservation.


But for students who are unsure of how to be involved, Dr. Russell emphasized the importance of staying informed and registering to vote. A major issue he cited with students today is their withdrawal from the world around them, a choice that reduces their desire to act. Feeling stressed about the current state of the world or realizing that there is a problem affecting your local community is not unhealthy; in fact, he sees it as the primary impetus for action! But action can come in many forms. Personal changes such as reducing your energy consumption or recycling are good and necessary but will not suffice on their own. Now is the time to vote, use your voice, and to advocate for policies that incentivize change and tackle larger issues of conservation and human-wildlife conflict.


If you are interested in being part of the cumulative effort for environmental change, we recommend visiting https://www.usa.gov/register-to-vote for more information or confirming that you are registered to vote at https://www.usa.gov/confirm-voter-registration.


We would like to extend our deepest gratitude to Dr. Gareth Russell for giving us the privilege of interviewing him about his ongoing research and thoughts on urban evolution. Also, thank you to Neelaza Dahal for designing the social media graphics. Make sure to tune in every month for a guest spotlight interview post!


Want to see someone you know who is involved in a STEM+ field as part of our guest spotlight series? Contact us using the form at the bottom of this page or email lyrastem@gmail.com with the subject line “STEM+ Guest Spotlight”!


To learn more about Lyra, keep exploring our website and follow our Instagram (@lyra_stem) for the latest on our exciting non-profit STEM+ education startup!


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