Dr. Travis E. Wilcoxen, Chair and Associate Professor of Biology at Millikin University, recently spent two weeks at Archbold Biological Station. This visit was 13.5 years since he first turned onto Main Drive leading down to the Station and settled into a cottage for a field season of research. His purpose for visiting this year was to teach a course called “Ecological Journeys: South Florida” to eight students majoring in Biology at Millikin University.
Dr. Wilcoxen explained, “One of the things I love to share with my students is how my own academic path has influenced how I teach and what research questions I pursue. I do not do this because I am one of those people locked in the “glory days;” instead, I use it in hopes that I might inspire them to look around and appreciate the journey on which they are traveling.
“Sometimes implied, and sometimes explicitly stated, I also try to convey to my students that it is important to maintain strong connections with people, places, and things that were an important part of one’s past. The people and resources at Archbold Biological Station played a critical part of my professional success in the past, and are still very important to me.”
He continued. “I was privileged to work with Florida Scrub-Jays while working on my doctorate research. Specifically, I studied how reproduction, responses to stress, and disease resistance changed as scrub jays aged. I joined Dr. Stephen Schoech’s lab at the University of Memphis in August 2005 and completed my first field season at Archbold Biological Station in 2006. Dr. Schoech worked with Florida Scrub-Jays during his graduate studies and continued this jay research after he became a professor at the University of Memphis in 2001 until he retired in 2015. I returned every spring from 2007 through 2010, the year I completed my PhD. My experience in graduate school and research with the Florida Scrub-Jays was so successful that I landed a faculty position at Millikin University — in my home state of Illinois — the same year that I finished my PhD.”
When he was interviewed at Millikin, he was told about the Ecological Journeys courses that were an integral part of the biology curriculum. One professor led a course to the Galapagos Islands and one professor led three such courses — each to Costa Rica, South Africa and Alaska.
While Highlands County, Florida may not seem as exotic as those places, Wilcoxen explained, “I knew I could bring students here and they would have an amazing learning experience. Combining my years of work at Archbold with the handful of day trips to surrounding natural areas during the five years of my PhD work, I put this course together. The course spans 14 days, with 1.5 travel days on each end of the trip, leaving 11 full days in South Florida.
Half of that time is spent in the oak scrub of Archbold and the other half of that time is spent traveling to other local gems such as Buck Island Ranch, Highlands Hammock State Park, Myakka River State Park, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and Mote Marine Laboratory. We also mix in nighttime trips to Rainey Slough and Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest to search for reptiles and amphibians warming themselves on the road. Taken together, the students are able to truly immerse themselves in the ecology of South Florida.”
Dr. Wilcoxen brought his first class of Millikin students to Archbold in August 2012, and that group of eight was among the first classes to stay in the newly opened Adrian Archbold Lodge. In 2014, a graduate of Millikin’s Biology program completed a research internship in Archbold’s Avian Ecology program, and Wilcoxen was able to bring a class of five students to Archbold, just in time to see her give her final internship presentation. He returned again in July 2017 with eleven students and for this most recent trip in 2019, he brought eight students. That brings the total number of Millikin students who have directly benefitted from the educational opportunities at Archbold to 33.
Student comments on the travel experience often include phrases such as “unique” and “unexpected.” Many of them are familiar with coastal Florida before the trip to Archbold. Many of them know of The Everglades and associate Florida with swamps (although they have almost never visited one).
Wilcoxen noted, “When they take this trip, things they learn about for the first time include the work that goes into balancing ranching and conservation of native species. They learn about the citrus industry. They learn about the sugar industry. They learn about lightning and wildfire. They walk on ancient islands of white sand that are currently over an hour from saltwater. They learn to identify approximately 150 species of animals and plants.
“When they return to Decatur, Illinois and Millikin University and compare notes with students who have traveled to some of those other places mentioned above, they fully realize that their experience was just as rewarding and fulfilling as the other Ecological Journeys. That does not happen without Archbold Biological Station, Highlands County, and the many natural areas of South Florida, and for those things, I am very thankful.”