"I didn't come here with an agenda of turtles, but this was where my work led me once I got here. It's always important that I supplement my work with rigorous and solid scientific study."

"I was always the kid with the snakes and the lizards and the dinosaurs," says Tristan Stayton. "I wanted to be a herpetologist before I ever heard the word."

The assistant professor of biology prefers to conduct research on reptiles local to where he's living, so when he arrived in Pennsylvania, he chose turtle and the biomechanics of their shells as his focus.

Stayton says until now, not much scholarship has focused on turtle shell biomechanics — in part because tools to study them have not been available until recently. He says that engineering breakthroughs in imaging and analysis allow him to study the shell, an extended and external ribcage protecting the turtle's vital organs.

He's looking in particular at the interaction between evolution and function, explaining that the turtle population often indicates the relative health of their environment because turtles are easily affected by factors affecting their habitat, including pollution, climate change, water flow, machinery and fishing nets.

"Turtles have been relatively unchanged for nearly 200 million years and don't occupy a prominent place in the ecosystem. They're not top predators," says Stayton. "They're not a primary food source. Something like a turtle isn't inevitable in the evolutionary sweepstakes and yet, with the exception of very cold climates, they are all over the world. I want to understand why."

In Bucknell's liberal arts environment, Stayton says he enjoys a tremendous amount of freedom in his academic pursuits. "I didn't come here with an agenda of turtles, but this was where my work led me once I got here. It's always important that I supplement my work with rigorous and solid scientific study. That's important to me, and it's something I stress to my students at all times."

Stayton encourages his students to approach their projects creatively, even with a sense of whimsy. He finds that playful enthusiasm makes the students more eager to learn, makes the problems relevant, and makes problem solving memorable. The inspiration for his humorous approach goes to one of his graduate school professors, who tackled a question regarding the skeletal stability of invertebrates by relating it to the B-movie The Thing from Beneath the Sea. Its unconventionality imparts a more practical message to his students that has impact far beyond the classroom.

"This approach requires an inherent flexibility of thought. Often students aren't encouraged to think in a non-circumscribed way until they get to college. However, the ability to think quantitatively should be part of everyone's intellectual tool kit. If you can apply rigorous thought to the questions in your life, it makes you a better student, parent, co-worker and citizen."

Posted October 2012

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