Director’s Letter – February 2019

People sitting by a lake and mountains

Our Community: The Heart of RMBL

Family and community are at the heart of what makes RMBL special.  It is tempting to think of scientists as lonely figures in white lab coats working late at night amongst test tubes and beakers.  But there are as many ways of being a scientist as there are scientists. Many RMBL scientists bring their families to Gothic year after year, and the importance of family and community at RMBL has a big impact on our science.

RMBL fosters long-term research that allows us to be perhaps the best place in the world to see important changes in plants and animals, changes that are only apparent over long periods of time.  The long-term research that happens at RMBL bears the fingerprint of the families in this community.   Dr. Ken Armitage (Univ. of Kansas) started studying the marmots of Gothic in 1962 and Dr. Ward Watt (Univ. of South Carolina) has studied butterfly evolution since 1963.  In 1971  Dr. David Inouye (Univ. of Maryland) started tracking the flowering times of plants.  billy barr (RMBL) followed in 1974 and began observing snow and avalanches.  Dr. Bob Willey and Dr. Scottie Willey (Univ. of Illinois-Chicago) began monitoring stream insects that year, eventually handing the study over to Dr. Bobbi Peckarsky (Cornell).  A flood of long-term studies started in the 1980’s, including everything from ground squirrels, to scarlet gilia, to burying beetles, to salamanders.  By my count there are at least 17 studies that are a decade or older at RMBL.

These long-term studies only happen because RMBL is family-friendly.  For scientists to commit to spending much of their summers for decades in Gothic, RMBL has to be a place that works for them at all stages of their career, including when they have kids.  We are even seeing multi-generational research.  Dr. Watt and Dr. Inouye have both had children who have grown up to do academic research at RMBL.

Community and collaboration deepen that science.  My favorite example is how Dr. Inouye (Univ. of Maryland), who started studying flowering times at RMBL in 1971 and Dr. Carol Boggs (Univ. of South Carolina) shared notes over dinner about their long-term studies of wildflowers and butterflies.  They realized that the number of Mormon fritillaries, a type of butterfly, tracked the number of flowering aspen fleabane.  A freeze would mean fewer flowers, which would mean less food for the butterflies.  As a result, they would lay fewer eggs, meaning there would be fewer adult Mormon fritillary butterflies the next year.

We don’t have the luxury of sending generations of great scientists to study all the ecosystems of the world.  But at least we have one place that attracts long-term commitment – RMBL. By assembling the work of thousands of scientists over many years, RMBL ensures that the valleys around Gothic can serve as a model for understanding our world.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL