David Houghton inside the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska. Courtesy | David Houghton

What is one sci­en­tific concept that baffles you? Elec­tricity. The wind turbine spins and next thing you know, you can plug in a hairdryer? That baffles me. Would you rather live in the tundra or in a rain­forest? Oh boy, I like them both. A rain­forest has more bio­logical diversity, but way more tropical dis­eases. The tundra is gor­geous in the summer but cold and dark in the winter. I’d probably go with the rain­forest. What is the weirdest animal you’ve ever seen in person? I really like horned lizards. They look like little toads. They have frills around their neck and if you harass them, they squirt blood out of their eyes at you. I saw those in Southern Col­orado, which was pretty neat. I also do a lot of scuba diving and, even though they are common, there is some­thing inher­ently unnerving about an octopus. What is one thing most people don’t know about you? I raced com­pet­itive triathlons for years. If you could be the one to make a big break­through in science, what would you want it to be? Some strange organism living in some strange envi­ronment that has some really unique prop­erties like curing cancer or some­thing. What is one thing on your bucket list? Vis­iting the most remote wilderness of every con­tinent, at least once. Do you believe in or follow any con­spiracy the­ories? Actually, no. I don’t really buy into con­spiracy the­ories. Except Epstein didn’t kill himself. That one is true. If you could film a doc­u­mentary, what would it be about? The journey of humpback whales from their breeding grounds in Hawaii up to their feeding grounds in Alaska. I don’t think anyone’s ever filmed one giving birth before or all of those basic behaviors we know very little about. I used to lead whale-watching tours in Alaska and loved watching them jump out of the water or feed as a group. And just being in the ocean for a year filming them would be really cool. Do you think sci­en­tists will ever be able to study aliens? Alien life? Yeah. If there’s water on other planets there’s probably life. But it’s probably archaeans or really prim­itive bac­teria. Studying little green men? Eh, that’s a little harder to swallow. What is the most inter­esting random fact that you know? The critter with the largest brain rel­ative to its body size isn’t people or dol­phins. It’s ants. And there are probably more indi­vidual ants than any other type of land animal, so they may be taking over soon. Who was your role model growing up? Def­i­nitely my father. What is some­thing you believed for a long time that turned out to be false? I was a senior in college before I realized there was no such thing as elbow grease. I remember I spilled some­thing on the floor and my girl­friend said, “rub some elbow grease on it,” and I said, “I can’t find that product in the store any­where!” Yeah, that was pretty bad. She gave me this look like: ‘I can’t believe you’re going to graduate school.’ What is one of the most common ques­tions you get asked in class? Some­thing along the lines of: “What good are mos­quitoes?” Most people ask it as a philo­sophical question, not real­izing that mos­quitoes are actually extremely important pol­li­nators of blue­berries and other deli­cious wild foods. If you could be on any game show, which one would you pick? Jeopardy. As long as there weren’t too many ques­tions about art and theater. If you could pick any his­torical or con­tem­porary figure to give a lecture at Hillsdale, who would you choose? Meri­wether Lewis, the guy who actually went into the untouched wilderness and saw things that nobody, not even the natives, had ever seen before, and he came back to talk about it. That would be awesome. A con­tem­porary figure would be J. Michael Fay. He’s a biol­ogist who walked 3,000 miles through the Ndoki Rain­forest in Africa wearing sandals and doc­u­mented all kinds of species that no one’s ever seen before. He’s just a real modern-day kind of Lewis. How would you spend $1,000,000? If I could con­vince my wife to move, probably buy a boat and open up a dive shop in some remote part of the coral tri­angle. If you could only eat one type of cuisine for the rest of your life, which would you choose? I’m a pretty simple eater. I could very happily live on eggs and avo­cados. What is some­thing a lot of people assume about you? Where do I begin? That’s a very serious question because I’m a biology pro­fessor and stu­dents make a lot of false assump­tions. People see the Bible on my book­shelf and ask some pretty dis­cour­teous ques­tions like, “What’s that doing there?” and “Is that just so that you can know the enemy?” So, I think in general biology pro­fessors are assumed to be atheists or non-believers, and that’s not the case at all. They don’t assume that I go to church, that’s for sure. Then they see me at church and kind of freak out. What is one trend from your childhood that you wish you could bring back? Good music. 1980s pop and hair metal, with actual instru­ments. None of this auto­tuned mumble-rapping with video game noises that you hear today. 

David Houghton is a pro­fessor of biology. This interview was con­ducted and com­piled by Tracy Wilson and has been edited for length and clarity.