Brent Smith, Ph.D.

Professor emeritus of biology

Email:[email protected]

Department: Biology

Program: Art, Nature and Conservation applied minor
Athletics, Wellness and Physical Education

Location: Stanley Hall Room 138
801 National Road
Richmond, Indiana 47374

About me

I teach a variety of ecological, evolutionary and conservation-based courses and regularly involve students in my research. With my wife, Professor of Art Nancy Taylor, I have led Earlham’s off-campus program in East Africa several times.

I knew that I wanted to teach ecology at a small college when I was in 9th grade. Why? Well, I grew up being a nature boy, and I had a wonderful high school biology teacher, Mr. Gilkey, who told me that it is the best job on the planet. At a small school, you can teach really good students in small classes, and you can DO biology at the same time, he told me. Mr. Gilkey’s pronouncement was only reinforced when I went to another great liberal arts college, Colorado College, where I began my major in Biology on the first day of class in Introductory Zoology with the formidable Dr. Mary Alice Hamilton. The College adopted its block plan (one course at a time, lasting 3.5 weeks) when I was a sophomore in 1974. It was great being a field biologist and able to go on three week ornithology trips with Dr. James Enderson!

Frankly, I had never heard of Earlham College until I went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. There I met Ed Beals EC ’56, a very influential professor and well known plant and animal ecologist, and fellow graduate student and friend, Tom Mitchell-Olds EC ’78, now at Duke and a world-renown plant population geneticist. Both told me great things about the school, and both were thrilled when I was offered an interview.

Anyway, the question is not why I chose Earlham. Earlham chose me. The better question is why have I stayed at Earlham for 33 years! I LOVE almost everything about this College. I love its smallness, which really helps build community among students, faculty and staff. There is a real sense of oneness of purpose here. I love its consensus form of governance in the tradition of the Society of Friends. This way of decision-making is admittedly slow and frustrating at times, but when done well, it truly builds community. I love the deep commitment EC has to the liberal arts, and the dynamism of its curriculum. I love the steadily increasing commitment the College is making to sustainability in all its forms, reducing its footprint on this planet. I love the students that Earlham is able to attract. They are bright, eager young people with a real sense of integrity — people of real substance who are committed to making a real difference in the world. And I love working with my colleagues across the campus, within the Science Division, and especially my colleagues in the Biology Department. We have a young vibrant group of faculty who are second to none in their commitment to teaching, researching with, traveling with, and advising students. I think the Biology Department is now in the best shape it has been in the 33 years I’ve been at Earlham, a school that I truly feel privileged to be associated with.


  • Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Madison
  • M.S., University of Wisconsin, Madison
  • B.A., Colorado College

Professional memberships

Research projects

Collaborative student research experiences

As mentioned before, I have students do extensive hands-on research projects in my Population and Community Ecology and Field Botany course. The story here began in the spring of 2007 when three eager women initiated a research project in my spring semester Field Botany class, investigating the impacts of forest edges on the vegetation and microclimate of the forest inside. As humans have fragmented the forests, these “edge effects” are of significant conservation concern. So Haley Wicklein, Dorothy Christopher and Megan Carter set out on a very cold snowy February day to hike about a mile to our now famous Itsy Bitsy Woods on our back-backcampus (roads were not passable due to the snow). Itsy Bitsy (I named it myself) is a tiny square forest 150m on each side that has remained in its exact position for well over a century, so its edge is quite mature. Anyway, I said goodbye and hoped that I did not send them to their deaths by hypothermia!

By the end of their data collection period, the three had amassed a significant data set on the tree saplings that grew near the south facing (more sunny, hotter, drier edge) to the interior of the woods, to the north edge. They found some REALLY interesting and predictable patterns. They decided to continue their work the next fall semester as an independent study, at my invitation, this time collecting temperature, humidity, and soil moisture and nutrient data along the gradient described above, and found yet again some REALLY interesting and predictable patterns. They wrote up their results into a manuscript, which they presented at a research conference in April, 2008. They did an outstanding job with their presentation, and got a huge ovation when they were done!  We then polished the manuscript and submitted it to the Natural Areas Journal. Well, things did not go so well with NAJ, not because the paper was flawed, but because NAJ kept changing editors, and each one either lost the manuscript or did not follow through on delinquent reviewers! Eventually, it got reviewed very favorably with minimal changes, and it was published in the January, 2012 issue of that Journal (see the citation in my publication list)! After graduating, all three either have attended or are presently in graduate school: systems ecology at New Hampshire (Haley), pollination ecology at UC Irvine (Dorothy) and entomology at Michigan (Megan). I call these three outstanding women my “Edgy Girls”!

Off-campus study experiences

My wife, Nancy Taylor who teaches in the Art Department at Earlham, and I have led 8 semester-long programs to East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania), beginning in 1988 and totaling over 150 students. There we teach three courses. I teach a course in Animal Ecology and Behavior, Nancy teaches a course called Comparative Cultures and we team-teach a course we call Human Demography and Environmental Sustainability, plus students take intensive Kiswahili, definitely not a course WE teach!

In the behavior/ecology course we start early in the semester with students learning how to identify (e.g., birds and antelopes) and study the behavior of reptiles, birds and mammals in four Tanzanian National Parks, all world famous: Tarangire, Lake Manyara, and the magnificent Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. Students become “experts” on one or two mammals, by reading ahead in our behavior text, then when an elephant, baboon, zebra, lion, impala, warthog, etc. are seen they tell other students in their Land Rovers what they know. It is a nice way to start our study of the amazing fauna of the African savanna! Later in the program we initiate our first research project, our so-called mini-project, this time in the intertidal zone of the Indian Ocean in Kenya. Working in small teams of 3 or 4 students, the group finds something interesting to investigate and spends 3 days designing and implementing their research, writing up their results in a short scientific paper. Near the end, we camp at a private game ranch for 2.5 weeks at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro and do our big research project. Small groups pick an animal, and, in the accompaniment of an armed askari (guard), collect data in the field, ultimately writing a larger scientific paper. Students have chosen to study elephants, dung beetles, zebra, baboons, acacia ants, green woodhoopoes (a bird), and green vervet monkeys. Many of these research projects have been presented at scientific meetings once back home. These projects will be long remembered by the student researchers.

Nancy’s class in Comparative Cultures consistently has the most impact on students because of the closeness with which our students interact with Tanzanians and Kenyans by means of 5 homestays in very different circumstances: 2 long (3 week) homestays with middle class families, one week-long stay in a Muslim home in Lamu, a very traditional Swahili fishing and trade center on the Kenyan coast. All three of these families have at least one member who speaks English well. The other two are shorter and more challenging, one 5-day stay with subsistence farmers (the Waluguru) in the Uluguru Mountains of central Tanzania, and the other a 3-day stay with the Maasai, the famous pastoralists and picture postcard group in East Africa where students are dressed as Maasai (the Maasai prefer this) and live in very dark, smoky dung huts. These experiences are not for the faint hearted! With some of these families, plus in many other parts of these two countries, our students see societies with very different values than their own, and see a level of poverty that simply does not exist in America. A highlight of Nancy’s course is her 3-week long “practicum” where students study some aspect of the culture of people living in a small western city in Tanzania called Iringa. Students have volunteered as teachers of science in high schools, worked in orphanages (mostly AIDS orphans), or as teachers of new weaving techniques in a cooperative for the handicapped.

The Human Demography and Environmental Sustainability course is designed to be an effective window that views a struggling developing country, one of the poorest economically (but NOT culturally!) in the world. Sub Saharan Africa, and more specifically, Kenyan and Tanzanian ethnic groups, have both high fertility and a high incidence of HIV/AIDS. In this course we explore their cultural causes of both, impacts both calamities have on families and the society at large, and the assessing the solutions governments and NGOs are implementing to curb those impacts. We talk to family planning associations, and we visit a grass roots HIV/AIDS counseling clinic, led by its founder, the famous Theresa Kaijage, who has visited Earlham at our invitation and given a college-wide convocation. We participate in a community day at the clinic, then visit the families of AIDS victims in their homes, a very powerful experience. When visiting the Waluguru people we see how rapidly growing populations (the average woman has 5.8 children) have led to rapid deforestation and degradation of the landscape. When visiting the Maasai, we learn from the people themselves how their own rapid growth has led to land-use change from grazing pastoralists to farming so they can grow enough food to escape famine, only to massively increase human-wildlife conflict. Why? Because during the wet season wildlife migrate out of Tarangire to the short grass arid areas where the grass is more nutritious only to eat and trample maize fields and vegetable gardens. At the same time there is just a trickle of compensation from the $ millions earned by the government from foreign tourists visiting the park. These are enormously complex problems that are a challenge for students to study both emotionally and intellectually.

Our goal in this program is to orchestrate experiences that are meant to challenge our student’s own values to their core, changing their worldview. It works beautifully for virtually every student who has gone with us. It is these profound teaching and learning experiences that keep Nancy and I coming back to East Africa time and time again.

Scholarly interest

I am a plant ecologist with interests in the evolutionary, population and community ecology of plants. Specifically, I investigate problems in pollination and seed dispersal ecology, invasive plant ecology, plant competition, forest stand development (a 25 year-old investigation of the development of a young forest as it thins, and as new species invade), and old growth forest ecology (comparing forests that existed prior to European settlement to relatively undisturbed old growth forests today in east-central Indiana).

I also work closely with students as they implement various research projects of their own choosing in the courses I teach. Several of my publications are coauthored with students and have emanated from these projects.

Finally, I have scholarly interests in the wildlife of East Africa, and the human demography and environmental sustainability of the people living there. The latter focuses on the high fertility and HIV/AIDS rates of the people there (causes, impacts and solutions), and the impact high fertility has on land-use and human-wildlife conflict.

Published works

Selected publications, all of which are coauthored with Earlham students:  

Wicklein, H.F., D. Christopher, M.E. Carter and B.H. Smith.  2012.  Edge effects on sapling characteristics and microclimate in a small temperate deciduous forest fragment.  Natural Areas Journal 32: 110-116.   

Cramer, J.M., M.L. Cloud, N.C. Muchhala, A.E. Ware, and B.H. Smith.  2003.  A test of the bicolored fruit display hypothesis.  Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society 130:30-33.   

Smith, B.H., C.E. deRivera, C.L. Bridgman and J.J. Woida.  1989.  Frequency dependent seed dispersal by ants of two deciduous forest herbs.  Ecology 70:1645-1648.   

Smith, B.H., P.D. Forman and A.E. Boyd.  1989.  Spatial patterns of seed dispersal and predation of two myrmecochorous forest herbs.  Ecology 70:1649-1656.   

Smith, B.H., M.L. Ronsheim and K.R. Swartz.  1986.  The reproductive ecology of Jeffersonia diphylla (Berberidaceae).  American Journal of Botany 73:1416-1426.

We continue to monitor the effects of an industrial fire 1.1 miles from campus.
We continue to monitor the effects of an industrial fire 1.1 miles from campus.