Tuesday, June 18th, 2024
Who Makes Millersville Special

Brent Horton

Why do animals do the things they do?

Dr. Brent Horton (rt) in the field

Q: Where are you originally from?
I am originally from Clayton, a small town in the Appalachians of northeast Georgia.

Q: How did you become interested in studying biology?
My first interests in biology stemmed from my childhood interests in wildlife, which I developed through hunting, fishing, camping and family trips to the great national parks of the west, including Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Wildlife Biology and working in Conservation Biology for a couple of years, I realized that I wanted to know more about the behavior of wild animals. More specifically, I wanted to know how and why they do the things they do to survive and reproduce in the wild.

Q: From what school(s) have you earned your degree(s)?
I earned my bachelor of science in Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University, and my Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Maine. I completed two postdoctoral fellowships, one in physiological ecology with at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and another in neuroscience and animal behavior at Emory University.

Q: What area(s) of biology interest you the most?
I am most interested in the physiological and behavioral ecology of vertebrate animals. More specifically, I study the endocrine, neuroendocrine and genetic bases of behavior in wild birds.

Q: What did you enjoy most about your first year teaching at Millersville?
Foremost, I enjoyed the daily interaction with Millersville’s students, both inside and outside the classroom. I find it rewarding and worthwhile to play an important role in their education and their development as they work toward and decide on their own career paths. I enjoy the great diversity of their own interests in biology and learning more about them and what they want to do and become. In addition, I have enjoyed my new home here at Millersville. I have received great support and guidance from the biology faculty and I enjoy working and growing with them.

Q: Did you have a favorite class you taught this past year?
My favorite course was Behavioral Ecology, which I taught at the Chincoteague Bay Field Station this past summer. During this intense three-week course, I get to spend most of the day with my students teaching them about the evolution of animal behavior, and we get to know each other really well. We spent 50% of our class time outdoors, learning to observe and document the behavior of wild animals. This course provides an ideal opportunity to teach and learn Behavioral Ecology.

Q: Are you involved in any current research in biology?
Yes. I continue to work on understanding the neuroendocrine and genetic bases of social behavior in two unique species of birds. First, I continue to work with the white-throated sparrow, a North American songbird in which two color morphs exhibit alternative reproductive strategies characterized by differences in aggression, parenting, and mating behavior.  This work is a continuation of my Ph.D and postdoctoral work, and I work in collaboration with Dr. Donna Maney and others at Emory University. Specifically, we study the neurogenetic bases of social behaviors such as aggression and parenting.

My newest research is on the wire-tailed manakin, a bird that lives in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I do this work with Dr. Brandt Ryder at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and Dr. Ignacio Moore at Virginia Tech. This bird exhibits a rare form of cooperation. Males work together to perform an elaborate courtship display to impress females, and these display partnerships form the basis of a complex social network. In turn, a male’s status in the social network predicts his fitness (reproductive success). So, not unlike in our society, it is ‘who you know’ as much as ‘what you know’ that determines success in life for wire-tailed manakins. We are study the neuroendocrine and genetic bases of those male behaviors that influence their role and position in the social network. Last year we received a large grant from the National Science Foundation to support four years of research on this project in the Amazon.

Q: You’re teaching two special topics courses in biology this school year. Did you design them and what are they about?
As previously noted, I taught Behavioral Ecology at Chincoteague Bay Field Station (CBFS) this past summer. This course has not been taught at CBFS for nine years, so in a way, I am actually reviving an old course. I designed this course to teach Behavioral Ecology as it should be learned, with a strong field component. This course investigates “why” animals do the things they do; that is, we study how behavior evolves in response to natural selection and sexual selection.

The second ‘topics’ course will be Mechanisms of Animal Behavior, which is slated for the spring 2016 semester. This will be a new course for Millersville University, and I am designing it. This course will focus on “how” animals do the things they do; that is, we will study the physiological bases of animal behavior. Topics will include the endocrinology, neuroscience and genetics of behavior.

This fall, I am teaching Endocrinology. This is a long-standing course here at Millersville, but it will be my first time teaching it.

Q: How do you want students to remember you?
I would like students to leave my courses knowing that I sincerely care about their education, not only while they are in my class, but also afterwards. I truly want them to learn during my courses, and I want them to enjoy learning while working with me. My hope is they will remember me as someone who invested in them and their education, and as someone who went above and beyond their job description to help their students become better prepared for their future.

Q: Who or what has been the greatest influence in your life?
Tough question. The obvious answer would be my parents, who have always supported me in my various endeavors. But, I would not be here today if it were not for my many mentors along the way. These include my first field instructors, Dr. Dean Biggins and Jerry Godbey with the USGS in Fort Collins, CO, who showed me how to become a field biologist. It also includes my Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Rebecca Holberton, who showed me how to transition from wildlife biology to physiological and behavioral ecology, and my first postdoc advisor, Dr. Scott Sillett, who helped me expand my ideas about physiological and behavioral ecology to the broader fields of life history theory and evolutionary biology.My most recent mentor was my last postdoctoral advisor, Dr. Donna Maney at Emory University. Under her guidance, I grew into the full-fledged academic that I am today. This development, however, was possible due to the excellent mentoring I received along the way.

Q: Do you have a favorite quote?
“To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal and the facts from the fiction.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Q: What are you hobbies outside of work?
My primary “hobbies” outside of work are my two boys, Asher and Beckett. They consume my non-academic time. When I have an extra moment, I enjoy golf and being an outdoorsman.

Q: What is your greatest accomplishment?
In 2013, I was awarded a Young Investigator Award by the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology. It was truly an honor for my research and potential to be recognized by this group of experts in the field.

Q: If you could do any job in the world, what would it be?
Honestly, I am doing my dream job. I am a teacher and a researcher, and this is where I am meant to be. Add tenure and promotion to the title, and all is perfect.

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