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.