Integrative biology professor selected to join distinguished academic society


Andrea Kurth

Eric Pianka, an integrated biology professor, holds a model of a lizard on Wednesday afternoon. Pianka was selected to join the American Academy of Arts and Sciences after decades of field work and 46 years at UT.

Kate Dannenmaier

In honor of his decades of fieldwork and teaching, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences selected integrative biology professor Eric Pianka to join its organization Wednesday.

The 75-year-old Pianka — whose nickname for Earth is “our one and only spaceship” — said he feels honored to be recognized by an academy with past members including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

“I’ve been at UT for 46 years,” Pianka said. “I’ve taught thousands of undergrads in ecology and evolution, and I’ve had about 20-plus grad students, most of which, or half of them at least, have tenure track jobs at major universities. So, I’ve been around the block.”

Caitlin Friesen, an ecology, evolution, and behavior graduate student, has worked with Pianka for the past four months as a teaching assistant for his course Ecology, Evolution, and Society. According to Friesen, Pianka has an illustrative teaching style.

“He draws on a number of examples from his vast research experience to keep students engaged,” Friesen said. “He places a great deal of emphasis on the critical need for individuals to think critically about basic principles of ecology and evolution to become better-informed citizens of the planet Earth.”

Jim Bull, integrative biology professor and academy member, said Pianka’s reputation spans several continents. Bull described Pianka as one of the most celebrated members of integrative biology.

“Eric was one of the pioneers of a field known as evolutionary ecology, and his text by that title has been in existence for four full decades, ultimately translated into several languages,” Bull said.

Pianka said because he was always apologizing to his students for the poor quality of the textbooks they used when he started teaching at UT in 1968, he decided to write a better one. 

“[The textbook] went through six editions as a book and has been translated into five languages: Greek, Japanese, Spanish, Polish and Russian,” Pianka said. “One time I was sitting next to a Russian at a conference, and he leaned over and shook my hand and said, ‘In my country, you are famous.’”

Bull said Pianka’s favorite organisms are lizards, about which he has written several books.

“Until a few years ago, he commonly traveled to Western Australia every few years to spend months isolated in the desert while measuring changes in lizard diversity,” Bull said.