Biologist combines a passion for ecology, evolution


“You learn more from an instructor when you feel like they’re developing a relationship with you,” says Joel Brown. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services

Since 1966, the Silver Circle Award has been presented to some of UIC’s best teachers. Winners, who are honored at their college commencements, receive $500 and their names join a long list of distinguished colleagues. But what makes the award especially meaningful is its selection committee: the graduating seniors.

Squirrel fanatic, world traveler, award-winning researcher and teacher.

That’s urban ecologist Joel Brown, professor of biological sciences.

“I’ve been privileged to win a number of teaching awards, but without a doubt having the Silver Circle by and from the undergraduates means a lot more than simply us faculty congratulating ourselves,” says Brown, who receives his second Silver Circle this year.

Brown’s other UIC honors include Researcher of the Year and the Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Finding the balance between teaching, training graduate students and maintaining research is something he finds challenging and rewarding.

“For me, the common passion is ecology and evolution,” says Brown, professor of biological sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “The goal, in a Research 1 institution, is that you’re being taught by the people generating and creating the ideas. So let’s make that happen — that’s my job.”

Brown says he tries to make his teaching one-third information, one-third thought-provoking and one-third entertainment. “You learn more from an instructor when you feel like they’re developing a relationship with you,” he says.

Brown has written more than 150 publications, including two books. Using game theory and evolution, he developed a model called the “ecology of fear,” which studies the interactions between prey, predator and their environment through the fear responses of prey species.

Brown grew up in California, enrolling at Pomona College as an economics major. A summer job collecting zoology samples in the San Gabriel Mountains pointed him to his true passion. While pursuing his Ph.D. at University of Arizona, Brown began to apply his economics background to animal ecology and evolution.

He has studied rhinoceroses in Kenya and snow leopards in Nepal. This summer, he’ll study Arctic ground squirrels in Alaska. Brown says deserts are his favorite habitat, with UIC a close second.

“Each time I walk into the classroom, and I see a room full of students, it’s a huge privilege, a huge responsibility and a huge opportunity.”

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