Dr. Howard Whidden: Interdisciplinary Biologist

By Chris Powers
SC Staff Writer

Dr. Howard Whidden, a professor of biology at East Stroudsburg University, is the school’s resident mammalogist.

Although he is primarily a mammalogist, Dr. Whidden has a diverse background.

For his undergraduate degree, Dr. Whidden attended Hobart College in upstate New York.

Following graduation, Dr. Whidden did not immediately go to graduate school. Instead, he pursued other options for several years.

After completing his undergraduate degree, Dr. Whidden taught a middle school science class for three years.

“At that time I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was interested in all of it and I knew I wanted to do something in organismal biology, field biology, and conservation biology,” explained Dr. Whidden.

He then attended the University of Vermont for graduate school and completed a Master’s degree in botany with “an emphasis on natural history and field natural history.”

This degree was intensive in fieldwork, and gave Dr. Whidden countless experiences that he now incorporates into his classes.

“We did a number of field trips. We got to go do biological inventory work in Haiti for five weeks, we went to Glacier Bay to look at succession in Alaska, [and] we went down to the Andes of Venezuela to do inventory work of a high mountain area,” he said.

After earning his first Master’s degree, Dr. Whidden decided to go back to school to earn his PhD.

“I went to the University of Florida, intending to get a PhD there, but for a variety of reasons, I got a Master’s in Herpetology.”

After completing degrees in both botany and herpetology, Dr. Whidden completed his PhD in mammalogy at the University of Massachusetts.

For his PhD, Dr. Whidden “used comparative morphology, particularly comparative myology — which is looking at muscles — to look at the evolution of moles and burrowing in moles.”

For this research, Dr. Whidden examined species from every genus worldwide.

From this data he was able to develop a phylogenetic analysis of these genera. He then used them to make inferences about the geographic history and evolutionary history of these animals.

“I consider myself a general mammalogist, without great specialization,” he said, “I’ve worked with shrews, I’ve worked with moles, [and] I’ve worked with flying squirrels.”

Dr. Whidden came to ESU in 2002 after the completion of his doctoral work.

At this time, Dr. Whidden began taking charge of the Biocolloquium series at ESU, which involves bringing biologists to ESU to present on their research three times a semester.

“Terry Master had been doing that when I first came here and I think he was looking for a break, so I offered to take it over probably eight or ten years ago,” he said.

Dr. Whidden claims that these types of events help maintain the educational atmosphere at ESU.

He said, “It is important for the students and it is important for the faculty…to have biologists from other places come in.”

He continued, “It is a way to generate interaction between biologists at other institutions and other agencies.”

The guest biologists that lecture in the Biocolloquia largely come from other educational institutions, research institutions, and government agencies.

Dr. Whidden believes that having these types of speakers is important.

He said, “In a teaching-oriented institution like ESU, it is important to maintain those connections with the outside world and outside researchers… It gives our students some exposure to other scientists, biologists, and other areas of research that may not be going on in this department here.”

These programs are just a small part of what Dr. Whidden does to offer the best possible experience for ESU students.

Dr. Whidden, Dr. Thomas LaDuke, and Dr. Terry Master co-teach a class called Biology of Tropical Ecosystems every spring. During spring break, the class takes a trip through the jungles of Costa Rica.

Classes such as this allow students a unique opportunity to interact with the outside world and explore an array of species that they would not otherwise encounter here in Pennsylvania.

“I think we offer a really strong program in biology and students need to really take the initiative and take advantage of what we offer and get the most out of it. They can really get involved in their classes, attend Biocolloquia, do internships, or do research with a faculty member,” he said.

Most of his recent work, according to Dr. Whidden, “has probably been with bats, and that’s just because there have been two major conservation threats that have come up in the last ten years or so.”

The two major threats include “the bat mortality at wind farms and then also this new invasive fungal pathogen that causes white nose syndrome.”

These reasons, Dr. Whidden said, “have just made it particularly urgent to work on bats.”

As a message to his students, Dr. Whidden said, “If you are willing to take the initiative and do all of those things, then you can leave here with a fantastic education and go on to do great things.”

Susan Ambrose, a freshman biology student in Dr. Whidden’s introductory biology class, enjoys having him as a professor.

Ambrose said, “He is really friendly, and he actually seems really excited about what he is teaching, which engages the class and is really beneficial for us.”

Email Chris at:
cpowers@live.esu.edu

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