Meet a Scientist: Kirk WinemillerBy Sara Carney
Dr. Kirk Winemiller became fascinated by natural science at an early age. “As a child, I liked the outdoors, and I liked animals,” he said. “I grew up in a rural area playing outside in the woods and meadows, especially streams.”
Today, Winemiller is an ecologist and Regents Professor in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences at Texas A&M University. “It’s a privilege to get to do science and explore nature as a profession,” he said. He received a masters in zoology from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, then a doctorate in zoology from the University of Texas at Austin, studying aquatic ecology at both.
Winemiller has been widely recognized for his research and has received several awards, including the George Bush Award for Excellence in International Teaching and most recently the Dean’s Outstanding Achievement Award for Interdisciplinary Research.
Winemiller and members of his Aquatic Ecology Lab study how flow variation affects the ecology of rivers and streams in Texas and other regions of the world. A current project is examining population dynamics of minnow species in the Trinity and Brazos rivers. Because minnows are sensitive to environmental flows, they can serve as bioindicators, meaning that they provide insight into the environmental health of the system. Some minnow species in the upper Brazos River are now federally listed as endangered due to lack of stream flows and connectivity between populations, Winemiller said.
Winemiller has also been involved in research in Southeast Asia, South America and Africa where freshwater ecosystems and the fisheries they support are crucial for the food security and economic well-being of millions of rural inhabitants. Unfortunately, many of these countries lack the science infrastructure to obtain information that would improve management strategies, Winemiller said. “The scientific community hopes that we can gain enough general knowledge that it becomes feasible to extrapolate certain concepts and general principles to regions where there are virtually no data.”
Winemiller is currently involved with an international team of researchers investigating the ecology of Brazil’s Xingu River, which is soon to be the site of a major hydroelectric complex. Although the field research effort will end before the dam is built, he said this study will provide a snapshot of the current biodiversity and ecological functions before a modified flow regime is created by operation of the new dam.
Through his research, Winemiller has witnessed the Earth’s rich biodiversity firsthand. His work has even lead to the discovery of some new fish species, including a large cichlid from the Zambezi River in Africa, and a tiny, worm-like catfish from South America.
While discovering new species may be exciting, it can be a reminder of a bitter paradox. “The sad thing is, we may be describing species just before their extinction, which is pretty depressing, but at least we will know they were there,” Winemiller said.
Although there are challenges associated with international research, such as obtaining permits as well as cultural and language barriers, Winemiller enjoys it. “It’s my favorite thing to do,” he said. “We enjoy the rivers and the biota in Texas, and we feel blessed to work in a place like Texas, but the tropical work is just fascinating.”
In addition to his research, Winemiller also teaches a few classes, including an undergraduate introductory ecology class and a graduate community ecology class. “I like teaching the large undergraduate class,” he said, “because it sends the message to the masses of why ecology, as a science, is important for all of us.” The graduate course gives Winemiller the chance to discuss cutting-edge science. “Sometimes I learn as much from them as they learn from me in that graduate course.”