Monday, July 13, 2009

Professor utilizes ecology background for History Channel

By Courtney Westlake

When the History Channel decided to produce a series called “Life After People,” Dr. Matt Evans, assistant professor of biology at UIS, was one of the international experts they contacted for the show.

“They were hypothetically examining what the world would look like tomorrow, a year from now, a hundred years from now, a thousand years from now, without humans – if humans were to disappear tomorrow,” Evans said. “It is an interesting hypothetical concept. I prefer to look at what the world was like before people - before dinosaurs, the Ice Age, and the evolution of humans, but the History Channel wanted to take this apocalyptic kind of twist to the idea of what the world would look like and how long it would take to recover. They wanted to ask me what the wildlife would do since I'm wildlife specialist.”

Evans is originally from Canada and earned his Ph.D. from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver in 2003. His doctoral thesis was on wildlife ecology and the effects of forestry on wetland ecosystems in British Columbia. His background fit quite nicely with the questions the crew from the History Channel had for their show.

Evans traveled up to Chicago to meet with the crew in December for a three-and-a-half hour interview to discuss things like how long it would take the wildlife to recover if humans were wiped out, what kinds of behavioral consequences might occur and what kind of competition between animals might arise that humans currently suppress.

“They also asked a number of questions about the spread of naturally-occurring diseases in the animal population, such as rabies, which humans are trying to quarantine,” Evans said. “So they asked a lot of questions about how these diseases, which humans are trying to eradicate or quarantine, how they would spread and affect the natural population of animals without humans to stop the diseases from spreading.”

Evans said he wasn’t nervous because the History Channel crew was small and relaxed.

“It was a very fun and enjoyable experience,” he said. “It was an enjoyable conversation to ask these questions and to imagine what the world might be like and what animal populations might do without humans.”

The segment aired at least three times in April – “students came up to me saying they had seen the episode on three different dates,” Evans said – and Evans was also part of a promotional commercial for the series, which reportedly even played in movie trailers. Evans was pleased with both the show and with the exposure of UIS name, which was used in a caption during his interview, both during the show and the commercial.

Evans has been teaching at UIS since August 2007. Before arriving at UIS, he spent four years teaching at Mount Allison University, one of the “top undergraduate universities in Canada,” he said. He was looking for a position in a city about the size of Springfield when the opportunity opened up to come to UIS.

“I’m happy to be here. I enjoy the city and the size of university,” Evans said. “I like that we can build a rapport with students. We know our students by their first names and a little bit about their background and why they are enrolled in a certain program.”

Evans teaches courses on ecology, conservation biology of birds and mammals, human physiology and more at UIS. He has also been conducting research in the Arctic – northern Alaska and northern Canada, by the North Pole – since 2003, and has made several trips to the Arctic for research this summer.

While there, he has been studying general wildlife ecology and Arctic animal ecology projects on a variety of species and mammals, including caribou and grizzly bears. He has also been studying several bird species in great detail including golden eagles, swans, and a number of species of ducks.

Next year, Evans is anticipating taking students up to the Arctic with him and expanding his research projects and assisting students on projects as well.

“My goal is to continue this research indefinitely,” he said. “I’d like to conduct this Arctic research annually and continue to write about it and publish papers about it and, of course, get students involved with it.”

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