College of Science

Campbell stepping down as chair of biology department

Jonathan Campbell says he’s a workaholic by nature, but starting this month he’s looking forward to having less on his plate and being able to get back to what he loves doing most - studying reptiles and amphibians and teaching students about them.

Campbell, one of the world’s pre-eminent herpetologists and chair of the Department of Biology since 2001, is stepping down from his administrative position as the 2014-15 academic year begins. Laura Gough, a professor of biology who has been at UT Arlington since 2002, is taking over as chair on an interim basis while a committee conducts a national search for Campbell’s replacement.

“It’s been a long time,” Campbell says of his tenure as chair. “When I agreed to do it in 2001, I thought it would be a one-year thing, but then they asked me to stay on and now here we are 14 years later. I’m looking forward to going back to focusing on research and getting it back to the level it was before I became chair.”

Campbell, who joined the UT Arlington faculty in January 1983, says he is proud to have one of the longest tenures as chair in the department’s history. But he said the job requires a great deal of planning and tending to administrative tasks, and the time the job requires was a lot more than he originally anticipated.

“I had the misperception that I’d be able to do it and also maintain my research at the same level it was at before,” he said. “I quickly found out that wouldn’t be possible. The planning process is time-consuming, and you have to be very thoughtful about it. We have a very good faculty, but a good faculty is demanding - I’d be worried if they weren’t. I’ve always felt that he job of a chair is to be a reasonable advocate for their department. That’s what I’ve tried to do.

“One thing I learned as chair is that I shouldn’t be so critical of administrators, because they’re dealing with all kinds of regulations and trying to keep everyone happy, which is just about impossible.”

As chair, Campbell has advocated for the biology department while also continuing a scaled-down version of his research. Over the course of his career, he has “contributed more to the discovery, description and study of the herpetofauna of Mexico and Central America than anyone else in his generation,” according to Wolfgang Wüster, a senior lecturer at Bangor University in Wales.

His work has described more than 100 new species, some of which were on the brink of becoming extinct without ever being known. A number of new species of amphibians and reptiles have been named in Campbell’s honor, including several pitvipers such as the Campbell’s Toad-headed Viper (Bothrocophias campbelli) of Colombia and Ecuador.

Campbell has been recognized with numerous awards for his groundbreaking work. In 2012 he received the Henry S. Fitch Award for Excellence in Herpetology, a national honor. In June he received a special award “for outstanding contributions in herpetology and excellence in pitviper biology” at the Biology of Pitvipers 2 conference in Tulsa. He has been credited with turning UT Arlington into one of the top centers for herpetology in the world.

Jonathan Campbell
“Jonathan Campbell is and has been for years the leading expert in Central and South American herpetology and his stellar reputation is known to everyone in the herpetology field,” said Christopher Parkinson, a biology professor at the University of Central Florida who has collaborated with Campbell. “His depth of knowledge is incredible and he is always willing to help students and researchers move science forward.”

Another of Campbell’s passions is art. He and his wife, Tanya Dowdey, have built an extensive collection, comprised largely of pieces from Central America and Africa. In 2011, the couple donated half of their extensive collection to UT Arlington. The Jonathan A. Campbell and Tanya G. Dowdey African Art Collection, housed in the Visual Resource Commons & Gallery on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building, is a tremendous resource which includes a variety of art and artifacts from various regions of Africa, ranging from the 11th to 20th centuries, in all manner of styles, sizes, and media. Many of the works were created and decorated with native materials such as wood, shells and stone, beadwork, pigments, vegetable fibers, and even human hair.

The collection features a wide array of works and contains both utilitarian and ritual art and artifacts, as well as several pieces which were created as part of the lineage of the artistic style of indigenous peoples of Africa and which are now considered to be Contemporary African art. The collection is open to the public at no cost, and is also utilized by classes from various disciplines across campus, including anthropology, art history, and African studies. Campbell says he and his wife eventually will donate the other half of their personal collection to the University.

Campbell plans on continuing to work as long as he can maintain the rigorous work pace to which he has always adhered. When he feels the time is right, he says he will “take up fishing full-time.” He will also continue in his role as curator of the Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center at UT Arlington, which has an internationally recognized collection of more than 130,000 specimens from 90 countries. For now, he’s looking forward to moving full-time into his small office and lab on the fourth floor of the Life Sciences Building.

“I’m excited about it,” he said. “It’s almost like the feeling I had when I first came to UT Arlington years ago. I got into this profession because I really love biology, and I still love it.”

Posted August 22, 2014