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Regents’ Professor: James Elser - Pioneer inspires integrated understanding of ecology, evolution and the weird

September 25, 2009

In another lifetime, Regents’ Professor James Elser might have pursued his childhood passion for a life devoted to faith, as a priest, taking confessions rather than conducting experiments. However, his early desire to discover answers to deep questions took him instead into a career in science. As a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, Elser has taken fields of study in new directions, both physically and experimentally. In the pursuit of the yet-to-be-known about the evolution, the flow of energy and materials in ecosystems and the impact of human activity in nature, Elser has traveled from the frozen stretches of Antarctica and alpine lakes of Norway and Colorado to the Mongolian grasslands of China and hot springs of Yellowstone National Park and Cuatro Cienegas, Mexico.

A scholar and adventurer, Elser examines the balance of the elements carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in organisms and ecosystems and tries to understand their potential role in ecological and evolutionary dynamics. This focus emerges from Elser’s pioneering world view, known as the theory of “biological stoichiometry.”

“We started our studies examining plankton, nutrient cycling and food quality, and element ratios in different zooplankton species. We came to the realization that some of the fundamental understanding about plankton could be applied to all living things, from fruit flies to tumors,” Elser says.

In addition to coauthoring a book considered a “milestone in ecology” (“Ecological Stoichiometry: the biology of elements from molecules to the biosphere”) with University of Minnesota colleague Robert W. Sterner, Elser has authored or co-authored more than 150 research publications on topics as wide ranging as ecosystem nutrient limitation, trophic dynamics, biogeochemical cycling, life history evolution, proteomics, cancer and infection. His work – often highly cited – has appeared in venues as diverse as Science, Nature, Nature Reviews Microbiology, Ecology, Limnology and Oceanography, American Naturalist, Genome, Ecology Letters, Ecosystems, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. 

Even more importantly, Elser has communicated his joy of discovery and creative approach to science to others.

As an ASU life sciences professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Science since 1990, Elser has taught more than 12,000 students and directly mentored 33 undergraduates, 10 graduate students, and 11 others in his laboratory. His Bio 100 course is legendary for “weird days.” Weird was the watchword for Fridays, when Elser would come to class armed with claims from pop culture and pseudo science, such as “Nostradamus predicted the attack on 911” or “Therapeutic touch can cure cancer.” He would deconstruct the claims, using the scientific method and look for real evidence behind the weird.

“Students will be encountering an onslaught of information from the media, Internet and other sources, so it’s important to provide tools so that they can separate the genuinely new, novel and valuable from the new, novel and bogus,” Elser says.

“Or even the old, tired and bogus,” Elser adds.

Elser melds an inquiry-based and question-driven approach that taps into students’ natural curiosity and desire to answer questions and his teaching style promotes life skills that extend beyond biology, challenging students to discover how scientific reasoning can apply in their daily lives and help them make sense of an increasingly complex world where science has major ramifications for political, cultural, and personal decision making. His devotion to teaching the next generation of citizen scientists was recognized by his selection as the 2009 Parents Association Professor of the Year.

ASU alumni Susan Bernard notes, his infectious enthusiasm and creativity made him “one of the best teacher’s I’ve ever had. Dr. Elser stands out as being that rare case of serendipitous magic that happens when education, preparation and passion all coalesce in an educator.”

Elser is also highly active in building integrative research collaborations within ASU and abroad. For example, one project’s study – in partnership with Valeria Souza, a professor with Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México – of a unique series of ancient hot springs and ecosystems in Cuatro Cienegas in Chihuahua, Mexico – has led to the discovery of new species of microbes and fundamental insights into how phosphorus limitation has shaped their evolution and that of the food webs that they support. His work with Souza has greatly increased the national and international profile of this unique landscape, including added support from the governor of Coahuila, the secretary of the environment, and Mexican President Phillipe Calderon.

Creative approaches and partners have also helped Elser garner millions of dollars in research funding from National Science Foundations, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and National Institutes of Health.

Elser’s commitment to learning and discovery also extends to the wider community in Arizona. As associate director of the Research and Training Initiative Program in the School of Life Sciences, he has led faculty and students to paint houses for the elderly during the Rock and Roll Paint-Thon, held fundraisers for Chrysalis Shelter for Women and Children, Pappas School for Homeless Children, and Camp Kesem (an ASU undergraduate organization that provides experience for children whose family members have cancer), among others projects. He has also spearheaded the creation of credible, institutional relationships with Arizona Science Center and area public schools, and encouraged his colleagues to reach out, communicate and contribute in ways that outlast a funding cycle. In addition, he created the annual SOLS Takes a Hike community outreach event that puts graduate students and faculty in touch with the public through a series of guided hikes conducted in local parks. This event is now part of ASU in the Community, and has touched the minds and hearts of more than 300 children, families, retirees and ASU alumni. 

Devotion to teaching, research and the community made the 2008-2009 academic year a banner time for Elser. In addition to be named a Regents’ Professor and Parents Association Professor of the Year, Elser was chosen as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, received the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor Award, and has taken on the role of acting director of the School of Life Sciences.

What lies ahead for Elser? “Astrobiology, pandas and more math-biology and tumor studies,” Elser says, “and maybe a new class on weird things.”

To hear more about Elser’s work, go to School of Life Sciences’ Science Studio podcasts: