May 25, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 18

current issue
archive / search

    Quantrell Teaching Award: Stephen Pruett-Jones

    Stephen Pruett-Jones has found a clever way to capture the hearts and minds of his undergraduate students: He takes the whole class to Florida for a two-week spring break.

    But a Florida trip with Pruett-Jones, Assistant Professor in Ecology & Evolution, is no stroll on the beach. In fact, it's hard work out in the field, learning to capture and band birds, small mammals and reptiles at the Archbold Biological Field Station.

    The 12 or fewer students enrolled in Field Ecology are all non-pre-med students concentrating in biology who are preparing for graduate-level research, and Pruett-Jones places heavy intellectual as well as physical demands on them. Each student must write a research proposal similar to a proposal for a master's thesis, and the final exam is oral.

    "I'm trying to provide the experience that will allow them to make the transition from student to professional. It's a huge leap, not easy to make in the classroom," Pruett-Jones said. "I treat these students as if they were master's students. I place the same expectations on them. Many students have told me that they thrive on that, and that it has made a great difference in their career plans and in their ability to move on and do graduate research." He paused, then added, "They've also told me they enjoy the field trip to Florida."

    Pruett-Jones is a behavioral ecologist who does a great deal of field research of his own. He studies the evolution of social behavior in natural populations of animals, particularly birds, and his investigations have taken him from the north slope of arctic Alaska to the Rocky Mountains and from Panama to Papua New Guinea.

    The current theme of his research concerns the causes and consequences of sexual selection. Most recently he has studied a group of Australian birds -- the fairy-wrens -- that live in closely knit nuclear families: monogamous, bonded couples live with some of their year-old offspring, which stay home and help care for the new chicks.

    But beneath the birds' Ozzie-and-Harriet family veneer lies a lifestyle right out of "Melrose Place." Although fairy-wrens are socially monogamous, up to three-quarters of the young in a nest are sired by outside males. Pruett-Jones has marked populations of three species of fairy-wrens and performed DNA fingerprinting to determine paternity. He hopes to find out how the level of reproductive promiscuity in a species is related to its ecology and population biology. "These birds are so reproductively promiscuous," he said, "it's difficult to understand why they behave so cooperatively."

    Pruett-Jones received his B.S. in 1976 from the University of California, Davis, his master's degree in 1981 from Brigham Young University and his Ph.D. in 1985 from Berkeley. He joined the Chicago faculty in 1988.

    Pruett-Jones, who also teaches another course for majors called Animal Behavior, says an effective teacher conveys excitement and enthusiasm as well as factual information. But his level of success did not come at once.

    "The first time I taught, I was terrified," he admitted. He also said it has taken him six years to achieve a balance of summary information and original material in course content.

    "It's fair to say I love to teach," Pruett-Jones said, "but I also benefit. It helps keep me current. And it has helped me become a good communicator, which is essential to success as a research scientist."

    -- Bill Burton