Faculty Spotlight: David Berg

photo of David Berg

  • professor of Biology
  • teaches courses on conservation biology, ecology, and biodiversity
  • conducts biodiversity research that helps government agencies determine the status of endangered species
  • received a 2017 Miami University Distinguished Scholar Award


"When I was a teenager, I was inspired by a book called A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. It was about how humans relate to the Earth. I became very interested in conservation and found that when I went to the University of Notre Dame the best way to do conservation was to major in biology.

"In college, at first I thought I would work on grizzly bear conservation or something like that, but in my junior year I took an aquatic ecology course and became interested in conservation of freshwater organisms and ecosystems. That's where my conservation interests have been ever since.

"I went on to get an MS in Zoology from Northwestern State University in Louisiana and my PhD in Zoology from Ohio State. After that, I did a post-doctoral fellowship at Ohio State in Entomology and then came to Miami in the fall of 1992 as a postdoctoral fellow, starting my faculty position one year later.

"My primary field is evolution and conservation biology, specifically conservation genetics. I study how genetic diversity changes in organisms that are threatened with extinction. My overall interests in biodiversity really take two forms: how biodiversity arises — that's evolutionary biology — and how biodiversity is lost through extinction — that's conservation biology.

"I focus my work on freshwater systems and the invertebrate organisms found in them. While ecology looks at changes across space, evolution looks at changes across time. Folks working in my lab examine species that are at risk of extinction, in order to provide guidance to governmental agencies that are tasked with conserving and recovering these species."


"In any semester I teach some combination of biology courses such as Conservation Biology for seniors and graduate students, a biodiversity course for juniors called Invertebrate Zoology, a sophomore ecology course, and a Miami Plan Foundation non-majors course called Environmental Biology.

"I like being able to reach out to different audiences and students at different places in their academic and personal development. The first day of class in my non-majors course, I tell my students that no matter what their major is, we will touch on something that is associated with their studies. If you're a business major, we talk about economic aspects of the environment. If you're a journalism or communication major, we talk about how to communicate science to people. If you're interested in mathematics, we do activities that require understanding quantitative data. And if you're a fine arts or humanities major, we talk about how people's various worldviews are based not just on science but on one's experiences and culture. We talk about how humans depict nature and even the idea of how the beauty of the wilderness inspires people and brings some of them closer to their understanding of a supreme being. All of these factors contribute to understanding the human role in the environment.

"For my non-science-majors course, the goal is to create an educated populace that understands how humans relate to the environment and the role the environment plays in their lives. We talk about climate change, the theory of evolution by natural selection, and how human population growth has driven the loss of biodiversity. We even talk about how the status of women determines the way in which human populations grow — the lower the status of women, the higher the population growth rate. This leads to discussions about how imbalances in the status of men and women have real environmental consequences.

"For biology majors, I focus on setting a foundation in ecology and understanding how organisms are distributed on the Earth and then learning about some of those organisms. We also think about what happens as organisms begin to be threatened by human activity, and then talk about solving these problems.

"Bringing passion and enthusiasm into these courses is important to making students into active thinkers. We do a lot of inquiry-based and hands-on activities: laboratories, field trips, and even a bit of simulation modeling. Everything is designed to encourage the students to actively manage their own learning and to rely on their interest in what we are doing to help stimulate them.

"I like when my students catch the flame and feel the passion the same way I do. I feel I've had a good day in the classroom when we all have a good discussion. I like showing how the knowledge that we gain can be applied by students to both their everyday lives and in their professional disciplines."


"In addition to the classroom, I do a lot of teaching through my research lab. I really enjoy mentoring students in research, whether it's an undergraduate doing a Summers Scholars fellowship or it's a graduate student who's working on their dissertation. Our goal is to create new knowledge together, so it's a really fulfilling and enjoyable part of my career.

"Our Aquatic Biodiversity & Conservation Lab is focused on understanding biodiversity. Every sample that my lab takes has a geographic tag, because we're very interested in the distribution of biodiversity and putting the data on maps. I set the general parameters for the research we are pursuing, and then students have a degree of independence to decide what they do next.

"An undergraduate coming to the lab for the first time might start with washing dishes before moving on to learning how to extract DNA from samples and how to identify different types of organisms. Eventually, after they've been around the lab enough, maybe we'll start talking about designing their own project.

"The graduate students have greater freedom, of course, in designing projects which are partially determined by the funding we have from external agencies which have their own missions and are seeking information needed to meet these missions. My role is to make sure that the lab has sufficient funds to do research, to publish papers that are high quality, and to help students think about the importance and greater context of what they're doing. We're a collaborative team working on a variety of projects focused on the evolution and conservation of biodiversity.

"Every summer my students and I go out to New Mexico and Texas to conduct field work in streams and springs in the northern Chihuahuan Desert. We live in a time that some call the 6th mass extinction, in which the loss of biodiversity is happening very rapidly. Freshwater systems in deserts are habitats that are especially threatened as human demand for water increases. Our research helps to provide scientific information to agencies that are tasked with protecting species that are at risk of extinction in these ecosystems. Much of our research is paid for by agencies that need science to help them make good policy decisions.

"The Distinguished Scholar Award that I won earlier this year was based on the research that goes on in my lab. I've enjoyed collaborating with my students, department colleagues, and colleagues in governmental agencies. In particular, the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish and the US Fish & Wildlife Service have provided us with funds and with the opportunity to work with outstanding government scientists and wildlife managers.

"The US Fish & Wildlife Service is the federal agency tasked with enforcing the Endangered Species Act, while the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish is responsible for conservation of endangered species within the state. Both agencies determine if a species is at heightened risk of extinction. This includes species that are already listed as endangered, or ones that must be assessed to determine if they should be listed. We don't make the policy determinations, but we provide the science to help the agencies make those decisions. If a species is placed on the endangered species list, conservation agencies are then required to develop a recovery plan. We provide scientific information to help the agencies develop such plans.

"There's a real sense of satisfaction in seeing our work used to begin the process of protecting species that exist nowhere else in the world."

Outside the Classroom

"I like to travel, and because travel is a part of my work I feel pretty lucky. I have two sons who play sports, so I enjoy watching them. My wife, who recently retired from Miami's Hefner Museum of Natural History, also likes traveling and outdoorsy things like hiking and visiting national parks. However I mostly do a lot of work, because I love my job!"

[July 2017]