The professor and curator at the University of Michigan and its museum of zoology was hand-picked to become the California Academy of Sciences’ dean of sciences and research collections. Mindell, who received his Ph.D. from Brigham Young University in 1986, starts his new job July 1.
What personal experiences put you on the path to your current work? I was a falconer for a while when I was an undergraduate student. When you’re out hunting with the birds, you see things you wouldn’t see otherwise, such as the behavior of prey, and a respect for the capabilities of different species, what they’re good at — and not so good at. At the Academy, you’ll be looking at evolution and the sustainability of life on Earth.
Isthere anything specific within those arenas that you’re hoping to explore? One thing we would like to know more about is the potential role of infectious microbes in animal species with declining genetic diversity. We know a bit about which viruses are circulating among humans and domestic animals, but we know little about ones found in deep-sea fishes, condors or arctic lichens.
What’s your favorite thing about evolutionary research? I like the time-travel aspect. Being able to discover genealogies for species and for their genes, and using fossil calibrations to date the divergence events, is like peering back in time at some ancient family records.
What’s the best evolutionary mutation you’ve learned about? There are series of mutations allowing uptake of algae that various animals and fungi have evolved over time; those are great. I’d like to have those … so I could produce my own food from sunlight.
What’s the worst? Let’s not go there.