Professor of Biology Vince Formica on Evolutionary Biology, Swatties, and the Circus

Professor Vince Formica is an associate professor and the current department chair of biology. He specializes in studying evolution and animal social behaviors as well as the intersection between the two. He explores such themes in his research and in the courses he teaches, which include “BIOL 002: Organismal and Population Biology,” “BIOL 034: Evolution,” and “BIOL 134: Evolution of Animal Societies.” The Phoenix spoke with Formica about his experience teaching at Swarthmore, his personal life, and ongoing research.

Suhyun Kim: Why did you choose to specialize in field biology? 

Vince Formica: I grew up watching a lot of documentaries, like wildlife documentaries, and I always was hiking a lot, [I] always wanted to work outside, and I always loved animals growing up and so that directed me towards biology. I had two really great high school biology teachers, so when I applied to college, I applied to the ones that had good biology programs. And then I tried out field biology, and it just clicked for me. I tried out lab biology, and it just wasn’t as exciting to me. I just was drawn to being outside and hiking and watching animals and thinking about their behavior. So I’d say like childhood interest combined with some really great teachers and professors.

SK: What were the defining experiences of your career?

VF: When I was an undergraduate student, we studied a river [for conservation biology]. I was on this project that was studying the river and they wanted to build a Target shopping complex at the head of the river. We collected all this data and showed that it would be really bad to build it and we presented it to the town and the county. They built the shopping center anyway. I didn’t think I could spend my career showing that it would be good to do one thing and then [have] people make a different kind of decision. Then I went and did a field experience with animal behavior, where I watched birds out in the Adirondacks. And it was just so much fun, I fell in love with the evolutionary questions and the animal behavior questions. I was trying out a bunch of different experiences. I did an internship where I worked for an environmental consulting company. I didn’t really like it. I tried out a bunch of things, and then one of them just clicked — that was doing field research and animal behavior. 

SK: Could you give me a brief overview of your study interests and research?

VF: I’m interested in the evolution of complex social behaviors, like the evolution of animal societies, and I’m really interested in social behavior. What I mean by that is behavior between members of the same species. What I am studying right now is this very charismatic animal called the forked fungus beetle. I’ve got a long-term study site where I’ve been studying their behavior for like, almost seventeen years now. Every summer I go to this field station, Mountain Lake Biological Station, and I bring students with me and we study all sorts of different aspects of this species’ behavior.

SK: How’d you end up at Swarthmore?

VF: There was a job and I applied [jokingly]. No, I went to a small liberal arts college called St. Mary’s College of Maryland and I really liked the liberal arts atmosphere. When I was a student I was really excited about studying biology, while also learning about sociology and anthropology or history at the same time. I was just very excited and wanted to be at a small liberal arts school. Swarthmore is a famous liberal arts school and I grew up in Pennsylvania, so it was my dream job. Everything aligned: it was near my family, it was a good school, they had a great biology program, and so on. The job opened up and I was like, this is what I want. So I applied and got it. 

SK: What is your favorite part of teaching at Swarthmore?

VF: I really like getting students excited about biology. When I can get a student to just be like, ‘this is so cool,’ it makes me feel really good about what I’m doing, and Swarthmore students get excited very easily. So it’s kind of like a win-win. Sometimes, in BIOL 002 when we’re doing fruit fly mating, some students are like, ‘well, what a cool thing,’ that’s fun. It’s about being out in the woods and showing students slime molds for the first time, and they’re just like, ‘whoa,’ and it blows their minds. That makes me happy.

SK: What do you not like about teaching?

VF: I hate grading. I like to get students excited. I like students to be enthusiastic and work hard. I really just hate evaluating work for points. It just doesn’t feel good. I hate trying to take someone’s knowledge and put a number on it. It’s just tough, and I don’t like it. 

SK: What’s your favorite class to teach?

VF: I like all of them for different reasons. I like BIOL 002 because it’s [full of] first-year students that are super excited to just be here and learn all sorts of stuff and I get to mold young minds [by] teaching evolution. I love my evolution class, because it’s a small group of 24 students that [are] deep into the stuff. And I love my seminar because it’s like nine students that were reading really high-level stuff. And that’s fun. So I like all of it. 

SK: Any memorable happenings or incidents?

VF: All sorts of them. My first seminar in 2014 was a really small group of students [where] we really had a lot of fun in that class. You know, just a group of students that were really really excited to be there, and it was my first time teaching a seminar. It was their first time taking a seminar. I have a lot of good memories taking students to [Mountain Lake Biological Station]. And sometimes students have never been in the woods before. It is just fun to introduce students to what we can learn out in the woods. It’s lots of great memories — students running into bears for the first time, students having [to deal] with spiders for the first time, and then they have to hike through the woods and crawl in the dirt and mud — that’s just a lot of fun to me. I love being outside introducing students to the wild world.

SK: What do you do in your free time or for fun?

VF: I have a toddler now. So all of my free time is taking care of him and playing with him and helping him learn about the world. Before I had a kid, I really liked rock climbing in the gym. That was my hobby. And running. I do a little bit of running now.

SK: How old is your toddler?

VF: Almost two years old. He’s just learning how to talk and so and he’s just starting to really start to explore and name things in the world. And for some reason, I have no idea why, he really loves animals. We go to the zoo a lot. We go to the aquarium a lot, and he just loves seeing animals. So that’s fun.

SK: What is a fun or surprising fact about yourself?

VF: I once had a job as a ringmaster on a mule barge, a barge that people used to, in the late 1800s, pull barges along the Erie Canal. I had a job in high school where somebody was going to have a circus ride on a mule barge and [it] never actually happened. I did have a job for a little while practicing to be a ringmaster. It was a month and then the government canceled the project because it wasn’t historic enough for the state park we were going to do it on.

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