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Studying fish in desert sets stage for ASU grad as ecologist

Eric Moody

Eric Moody, PhD in biology, filters water from a spring in Cuatro Ciénegas, Mexico, to prepare for fish excretion measurements. Photo by Jessica Corman

April 29, 2017

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2017 commencement. See more graduates here.

As an aspiring ecologist, Eric Moody decided the most interesting place to study freshwater fish was in the desert, where water is particularly scarce. That scenario, along with faculty members who are experts in the field of desert ecology, drew him to Arizona State University, where he is graduating with his PhD in biology from the School of Life Sciences.

“Although most people think I’m joking when I say that I study desert fish, it provides the perfect opportunity to share how important and threatened these animals and ecosystems are,” said Moody, who is from Hinsdale, Illinois. “The excellent faculty in the School of Life Sciences made ASU the best choice for me to work in desert aquatic environments.”

During his years as a graduate student, Moody learned how complex water issues could be when human water needs and ecosystem water needs come into conflict. He said he was impressed with the dedication that many scientists and land managers have to conserving the unique species that inhabit desert aquatic ecosystems.

He answered questions about his time at the university.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

Answer: When you hear stories about people literally carrying buckets of fish across the desert because the sole habitat of that species was drying up, it's hard not to recognize the value of these organisms. I am indebted to those who worked tirelessly to save these species and ecosystems, many whom have worked at ASU.

Q: What is one really special memory during your time at ASU that you will always remember?

A: One particular moment that resonated with me was when I first visited my field sites in Cuatro Ciénegas and found a sign devoted to the late ASU ichthyologist W.L. Minckley. Dr. Minckley was pivotal in bringing the conservation concerns in this area to a broader audience, including my current collaborators there. On top of that, he was the one who discovered that the species of Gambusia I studied was distinct and described it as a new species. Although I never met him, it was really special to feel that connection to him through ASU and through my work.

Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A: I was always interested in studying animals since I was a kid, but I realized that I could make it into a career after taking a general ecology course as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. It was the great experiences and introductions to different types of ecological career paths I had in that course that pushed me to become an ecologist.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I always enjoyed going to Engrained for meetings or just to eat and work by myself. Good food and free coffee refills fueled a large amount of the work I accomplished at ASU!

Q: Was there a particular person, course or experience at ASU that inspired you in some way?

A: Many people at ASU inspired the way I think, but the most influential experience was taking the Evolutionary Ecology course taught by Professor James Collins. His course opened my eyes to thinking about how evolution relates to my main field of interest, ecosystem ecology, which is something that I have taken with me and hope to build upon in my future research career. This is something my co-adviser James Elser has also thought a lot about, so I was really in the right place to start working on those questions at ASU.

Eric Moody

Eric Moody, recent PhD biology graduate, collects mayflies and algae-covered tiles for an experiment in the Rio Frijolito in Panama. Photo by James Elser/ASU


Q: What obstacles did you face during your time here at ASU, and how did you overcome them?

A: When doing field-based biological research, there's no way to avoid having things go wrong. When I first started my PhD, I planned to study a completely different group of fishes known as plecos, or armored catfish, in Panama. The literature from the 1980s suggested they would be abundant and easy to study, but upon my arrival in 2013, I found them difficult to find and even harder to catch.

Fortunately, I had some data from a side project studying Gambusia marshi, which I had started with my friends Jessica Corman and Jorge Ramos. Together, we used those data to write some grant proposals and continue that work. Fortunately, some of them were funded and that became the major part of my dissertation.

Q: What are you looking forward to most after graduation?

A: I'm excited to take what I learned from my PhD and apply it to totally different problems in my new position.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am now a post-doctoral researcher at Iowa State University where I'm studying the impacts of excess phosphorus in Iowa lakes, with a particular focus on understanding interactions between zooplankton communities and harmful algal blooms.

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