Rare breed: ESF president brings knack for entomology, personable nature

Spencer Bodian | Staff Photographer

ESF President quentin wheeler has spent much of his career specializing in entomology by discovering and naming new species. Some of the beetles he has discovered were named for well-known figures, including Stephen Colbert, Darth Vader and Theodore Roosevelt.

In April 2005, Quentin Wheeler received a phone call while visiting London. Then-President George W. Bush was on the line, calling to personally thank him for naming the slime-mold beetle after him.

“I’ve got to say it’s a lot of fun to get a call from the White House,” Wheeler said, who has discovered more than 100 species, including one named after comedian Stephen Colbert.

Wheeler became the fourth president of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry Jan. 2, moving into ESF’s president’s office Jan. 6. He has led efforts promoting the importance and urgency of discovering new species throughout his career, including heading Cornell University’s entomology department, serving as the entomology head at the Natural History Museum in London and founding the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University.

Wheeler brings vigor and an enthusiasm for natural life to his new position.

“I am just in a life-long love affair with biodiversity and nature,” Wheeler said.

ESF’s remarkable influence on public science education and appreciating the wilderness, particularly in the Adirondacks, made it an appealing place to work, Wheeler said.

Even as a child, Wheeler was interested in bacteria and protozoa. When he enrolled at Ohio State University, Wheeler was convinced he wanted to be a microbiologist, until a professor taught him to see insects as complex animals. He realized studying insects involved more field work.

So he changed his major to entomology at Ohio State, where he completed his bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees.

Wheeler, who’s written more than 150 scientific journals and six books, is working on another book that will argue why identifying new species is necessary.

Humans know less than two million of an estimated 12 million species on Earth, Wheeler said, and, in 300 years, more than 75 percent of these species could be extinct.

“Few species leave behind a fossil record, so it is now or never that we explore and gather evidence of our origins,” Wheeler said.

Nico Franz has worked with Wheeler at ASU’s IISE since 2011 and co-led two National Science Foundation projects with him involving insect taxonomic and ecological research.

Franz described Wheeler as kind and humorous, known for his zealous and principled advocacy for discovering new species and protecting Earth’s biodiversity.

“In working with Dr. Wheeler, it is impossible not to become infected with this passion for nature and drive to discuss and promote new ideas,” he said.

One of these ideas involved creating an annual Top 10 New Species list that has been featured in TIME Magazine. Wheeler also discussed working on the list in a weekly column he writes for The Observer.

Wheeler said he will start issuing the Top 10 New Species list from ESF this May. An international committee will make choices, but nominations from the ESF community and the public will also be considered, he said.

“With about 18,000 new species named last year, we need all the help we can get,” he said.

The success of the list after it was launched at ASU allowed Wheeler to expand it into a book titled “What on Earth? 100 of Our Planet’s Most Amazing New Species.”

Franz said that as a talented and creative public speaker, Wheeler is one of the most well-known scientists in his field and is recognized globally.

“There are not many beetle taxonomists who have been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal,” he said.

Vita DeMarchi, the head of the ESF presidential search committee, found Wheeler’s recognized accomplishments in promoting biodiversity a prime fit for SUNY-ESF.

She said everybody in the committee felt that Wheeler had an exciting combination of academic and leadership qualities.

She added she liked that Wheeler is already familiar with the upstate New York area after teaching at Cornell for 24 years.

“Wheeler’s inquisitive wonder for the world seemed to resonate with ESF culture,” DeMarchi said.

While teaching at Cornell, Wheeler also served as the director of the Cornell Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium from 1988 to 1989.

Dr. William Crepet, the current Hortorium director, knew Wheeler as a personable leader and a supportive student mentor.

“He is a very lively, smart and nice guy,” Crepet said, “that translated well into his interactions with students.”

Wheeler finds SUNY-ESF’s size particularly attractive for getting out of his office and interacting with students.

He said The Gateway Center, which powers several buildings on the school’s campus, is a “fantastic crossroads,” for catching up with students and faculty informally while buying lunch or coffee.

But Wheeler said he is also interested in hearing feedback from students about ways to create specific venues for meeting and starting conversations.

“It benefits me enormously to hear about students’ dreams and aspirations,” he said. “I hope to create a number of situations where we can have those discussions.”

Aislinn Brackman, a 2013 SUNY-ESF alumna who represented student opinions for the presidential search committee, thought Wheeler’s inherent concern for students and background in academia were particularly valuable assets he discussed during his interviews.

The search committee didn’t specifically seek a background in academia when its members interviewed 11 potential new presidents, Brackman said, but Wheeler’s background assured the committee that he would have experience helping faculty and students.

She was particularly impressed by how Wheeler helped ASU deal with budget cuts while he was vice president and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Brackman also took into consideration Wheeler’s gregarious personality.

“He is very personable and is somebody you just want to be around,” she said.

Brackman believes Wheeler’s people skills will help him not only interact well with students, but also impress potential donors.

“I think it will be exciting to see the college change and grow under his leadership,” she said. “I’m actually a little disappointed that I’m not a student anymore.”

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