Dr. Robert DoyleAssociate Professor, Biology
Dr. Robert D. Doyle's wife Eva calls him a "mud mucker." Of himself, Doyle says, "I have professional A.D.D."
But, then, standard job descriptions don't work well in the case of a Baylor University shallow-water ecologist who talks about stewardship and Hydrilla with equivalent levels of passion.
"Science that matters" is Doyle's thing. He amplifies the definition: "Science that makes a difference in life."
How a scientist makes a bigger difference than through the intensive study of water questions is hard for Doyle to fathom. "Water," he says, "is going to be the defining issue for quality of life in Texas if it isn't already."
That's where Hydrilla -- as well as a long list of other things, with mostly unfamiliar names -- come into play. Doyle, a onetime Army Corps of Engineers ecologist who came to Baylor in 2001 from the University of North Texas, mud-mucks among the outsider species now thriving in "wetlands" areas where Nature never contrived for them to live. Doyle and fellow aquatic ecologists see many such species as invaders harming and disrupting the ecology -- and, potentially, all who depend on it.
Take Hydrilla, a kind of "aquatic kudzu" from Asia, brought here for aquariums, rooted now -- on account of aquarium disposal methods -- in wetlands and constituting, says Doyle, "a major nuisance."
"I'm always hesitant," Doyle says, "to sound like a plant-hater. Plants are critically important; they provide habitat for fish and insects, food for migrating water fowls. They also serve as sort of natural filters for aquatic systems."
Generally, nevertheless, non-native plants "come and basically disturb the natural habitat; it sort of shifts the balance. That's not the only thing that shifts the balance...but invasive species are a big part of that, and those that do, tend to have a really gigantic impact."
Gigantic enough to have helped inspire the novel partnership into which Baylor and the City of Waco (along with ENSR International) entered in June, 2003. Twenty-one Baylor scientists and half a dozen water specialists from the city make up the team in charge of the Center for Reservoir and Aquatic Systems Research. Robert Doyle is director.
Academic disciplines represented by participants include biology, chemistry, environmental studies, geology, and computer science. The center, a non-degree-granting enterprise, is committed to appraising and addressing a wide-ranging spectrum of water questions, international as well as local, and bearing directly on water's cleanliness and availability.
Among purely local questions: assuring that Lake Waco's new wetlands thrive and do their job. With dairies fouling the broad Brazos River watershed, Doyle was chosen to lead in the planting of native species intended to multiply and spread. In due course a functioning, self-sustaining ecological system is expected to be in place, able to take care of natural problems like dairy waste. "The city," Doyle says, "is critically interested in applied outcomes [relating to its water utilities]. "Baylor University is interested in factors that regulate the aquatic system. There's broad overlap between those two interests."
A veteran of water research efforts involving Denton and the University of North Texas, Doyle sees university-municipal-regional water partnerships as the wave of the future, given the urgency of various water challenges and the resources of the potential partners.
That Baylor is doing it now is among the factors making the university, for him, "an extraordinarily exciting place to be. I think really good things are ahead for Baylor," says Doyle, who obtained bachelor's and master's degrees there before taking a University of Maryland Ph.D. "We came to Baylor because we were called to Baylor. We had [at North Texas] things pretty well lined up and life was rocking along...What's different here is the struggle of building something. It's pretty exciting." Wife Eva, also a Baylor M.S. and Maryland Ph.D., is associate professor of health education at Baylor.
To Doyle, born in Manaus, Brazil, to Baptist missionaries, and partly home-schooled there, stewardship of natural resources comes naturally. There is the religious aspect, naturally. Then there is the call of Brazil's enormous Amazon basin, the largest river system in the world, with its floodplain lakes, semi-aquatic forests, and expanses of floating grasses. He did Ph.D. research in Brazil and hopes in due course to return for more intense study.
The aquatic research center's work brings out both the ecological steward and the biodiversity apostle in Doyle. Biodiversity is for Doyle just good stewardship."Christian values, including stewardship," he says, "to me that's just a natural area" -- just another way of responding to the conviction that creation, as the handiwork of God, merits supreme respect.
It's enough to make "professional A.D.D." -- the tendency, as Doyle explains it, to jump from research subject to research subject -- a source of exhilaration instead of stigma and regret.
The wild rice, for instance, that grows uniquely in the San Marcos River -- who needs it? We do. Who would care if it disappeared forever? Robert Doyle would. Back to Hydrilla, which, along with several other invasive species, is crowding out good old Zizania texana, a rare rice perennial with potential for enhancing world food supplies.
Robert Doyle's vision grows expansive. "If we keep on losing the Texas wild rice, the endangered birds of prey, and the endangered whooping cranes, and on and on and on, at some point ecologists believe we begin to destabilize the whole foundation of the ecological system."
Not if the mud-mucker more generally known as Robert Doyle has anything to say about it.