Passion for science evolves into helping next generation

When evolutionary biologist Justin Congdon arrived at Arizona State University in 1972, the timing could not have been better. As a graduate student with the Department of Zoology, his studies coincided with the temporary stay of professor Donald Tinkle — the university’s Maytag Professor and expert in evolutionary biology. Since Tinkle’s appointment was for only one year, if Congdon had waited to enroll, he never would have taken the class that changed his life.

Congdon took an evolutionary ecology class taught by Tinkle and to this day, says it was his favorite part of ASU. He describes the class as an “eye-opener.”

He enjoyed working with Tinkle so much that he volunteered to help with field studies. Eventually, he was hired. Studying under such a big name in the fields of herpetology, ecology and evolutionary biology pushed Congdon and his peers to work harder than ever before.

“We were lucky enough to have a good group of graduate students, and that was special,” Congdon said. “We encouraged each other; we stimulated each other.”

While researching methods to measure the reproductive efforts of lizards in the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona, Congdon co-published more than 10 papers in several renowned scientific journals. Because of that hard work, Congdon received an offer to join the University of Michigan as a post-doctoral researcher and work with Tinkle, despite not actually finishing his PhD program yet.

Congdon didn’t come back to Arizona for decades. It wasn’t until he began missing ASU and the Chiricahua Mountains that he found a reason to return.

He started a study on the Sonora mud turtle, which only had four papers written about them before Congdon’s 1990 project. After retiring from a research scientist position at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, Congdon came back to Arizona to stay.

After his return, Congdon felt a need to start giving back to ASU. He said he frequently contributed to scholarship funds at other universities, and he loved helping the next generation of students. To date, Congdon and his wife have provided more than $16,000 to fund vertebrae research at the School of Life Sciences.

“Other people helped us when we were students, we appreciated it and now we’re trying to help the next generation be successful,” Congdon said. “I don’t know about other people, but I’ve seen graduate students go on to do some really great things, and a couple have just startled me with how talented they were. It’s just really nice to help make that possible for students.”

Though he retired some time ago, Congdon still finds it important to stay involved with the ecological sciences. Whether by continuing his research or making sure others in the School of Life Sciences can afford their own projects, he said he doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.

After his mentor Donald Tinkle passed away in the late ‘70s, life sciences alumus Justin Congdon took over his turtle research project at the University of Michigan. The study continued for 33 years longer under Congdon.