From the age of four, Jim Schulte has been fascinated with dinosaurs and their living relatives. His work today, tracking the evolution of reptiles, follows in the footsteps of another scientific giant—Charles Darwin.
"The ultimate goal is to reconstruct the tree of life," the Clarkson University associate professor of biology said. "My favorite group is lizards and snakes, and I use DNA to trace their branches."
Dr. Schulte's work as an evolutionary biologist requires a broad skill set to dabble in subfields throughout the wide range of biological inquiry, from molecular biology to ecology. It also requires encyclopedic knowledge of the reptiles he’s most interested in, and, apparently, some good hiking boots.
Dr. Schulte has conducted field research in diverse environments, sometimes in sparse desert, dense woods and craggy mountains—all in one trip. He hiked his way around Arizona, Australia, Argentina and Chile in search of new species during his graduate studies.
"There's one place in Chile where you reach the end of this logging road and you just enter this pristine forest of monkey puzzle trees. It looks like something out of 'Jurassic Park,' or walking with dinosaurs. But then elsewhere in Chile I've been in desert where you walk for miles and the only things you see are these little plants dotted every once in a while. The amazing thing is, you've got three different species of lizards somehow living and evolving there, too," Dr. Schulte said.
Thanks to his work in the field and in the lab, the biologist has been able to help identify seven new species of lizard, and coauthored their descriptions.
"One thing that fascinates me is the basic natural history of every creature," he said.
So while he adds a few more twigs to one branch of the tree of life, Dr. Schulte also works to find out more about its growth by researching the evolution of certain features over time.
"Reptiles and snakes have evolved live birth 114 times independently. This has occurred multiple times throughout the world, on every continent," he said. "Using the latest DNA sequencing techniques, we're trying to get at the fundamental genetics of live birth and why it evolved. We know a lot about how mammals do it, but we know surprisingly little about how it evolved."
One of the things Schulte loves about Clarkson, where he's worked since 2005, is the collaborative environment that allows him to work closely with colleagues in math and other fields.
He decided to bring that integrated research environment even closer to students, so Dr. Schulte became the principal investigator for the University's National Science Foundation Undergraduate Training Grant in Mathematics and Biology. The program brings together two students and two faculty members, one each from a biology or natural science background and the other from a math or computer science background, who all work closely together on a summer research project.
"The idea is to expose students to working in a collaborative interdisciplinary field. The number one most important thing they are taught is the importance of communication—knowing how to understand each other’s languages," he said. "That's one thing we do really well at Clarkson. It makes you feel really comfortable almost immediately."
When he's not teaching or in the lab, Dr. Schulte, who came to Clarkson from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, makes time for sports, shooting hoops with students and other professors at the IRC during his lunch breaks.
His other big hobby right now is watching the evolution of another creature—his son, Alexander. He likes dinosaurs, too.