Saving the rainforest no cliche for ASU biologist


David Pearson gives an impromptu master class on Tropical Ecology 101.

ASU research professor and Amazon Rainforest Workshops instructor David Pearson gives an impromptu master class on Tropical Ecology 101 at ExplorNapo Lodge in Peru.
Photo by: Kelly Keena/Amazon Rainforest Workshops

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The Amazon rainforest — it conjures up images of broad expanses of leafy canopies and tropical species of every shape and color. But it’s also something that we literally touch every day, says David Pearson:

“From the eggs we eat, to chicken, to vanilla … Thirty percent of the world’s medicine and hundreds of products we use from the rainforest that we take for granted, we use every day.”

Christa Dillabaugh calls the Amazon the “mother lode” for a biologist. As the director of Amazon Rainforest Workshops, she works directly with Pearson — a research professor in Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences and the workshops’ lead instructor — spending their summers in the Peruvian Amazon helping to spread knowledge and appreciation for one of the world’s most abundant, yet swiftly depleting natural resources to fellow educators, students and locals.

“Dave not only brings a wealth of tropical ecology expertise to our program, he is also a fabulous educator,” Dillabaugh said. “His expertise is both wide and deep, and he is so generous with his time and talent. He has the ability to make science and the process of scientific inquiry fun.”

Pearson’s passion for living things and the environment began at age 10 when he developed a fascination with birds, which he said “just came out of nowhere.”

Later, he began traveling the world extensively after a trip to the Marshall Islands while studying as an undergraduate at Pacific Lutheran University. There he met a group of researchers who invited him to spend three months on a bird-watching cruise. He met more researchers on the cruise who had done work in Peru and, “one thing led to another.”

Besides Peru, Pearson has also traveled and researched in Ecuador, Bolivia, India and Madagascar.

“Tropical rainforests around the world always attracted me. They’re very different from Minnesota where I grew up, and they’re also where half the world’s biodiversity is, so thought I could do some good there,” Pearson said.

According to Dillabaugh, he has done a lot of good.

“Dave covers a wide range of topics with our participants — from basic tropical ecology, bird diversity in the rainforest, scientific inquiry and field studies, biomimicry and sustainability/conservation issues in the tropics, and more,” she said. “He is always available to participants for small group discussions, and by the end of the program, they all love ‘Dr. Dave.’”

“The rainforest is wonderful place to demystify science,” Pearson said. “We teach pedagogy, but we also teach storytelling abilities and to care, to be passionate about the rainforest; it’s a very mysterious place, a wonderful place.”

Bridget Molloy, who teaches high school science at La Academia in Denver, participated in the workshops as a “student,” learning from instructors like Pearson and taking that knowledge back to her classroom.

“He was amazing, to put it lightly,” Molloy said of Pearson. “We had a lot of great conversations concerning the conservation of the rainforest.”

When he travels with Amazon Rainforest Workshops to Peru again next summer, it will be Pearson’s third year with the program — and his 86th trip to the country.

“Dave is a rare breed of scientist, and we are so lucky to have him as an instructor,” said Dillabaugh.

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