The greenhouse sits 10 steps from Ray Callaway’s office, a fitting location for a professor of biological sciences. Cacti and tropical foliage thrive despite the subzero weather pressing in beyond the glass.
But Callaway spends more time in the field these days than he does in this University of Montana lab. His travels have taken him to the Georgia Caucasus, the Andes and New Zealand – far-flung outings for a researcher who was named by Reuters as one of “The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds.”
“Most of my time is now spent exploring how exotic plant invaders dominate habitats despite limited opportunities for local adaptation,” Callaway said Friday. “Evolution is not just important for speciation, it’s also important for how communities work. It’s a crazy idea.”
Callaway doesn’t shy away from traveling the globe to chase down crazy scientific theories, and his work has turned heads. He’s been nominated to become the 10th Regents Professor at UM, joining an elite group of people who have earned the title.
It’s the top ranking the Montana University System can bestow, and it comes with high honors.
But Callaway takes the humble route, attributing much of his success to the support of his peers and the work of his students. He sees himself as a mere collaborator who has helped grow the university’s ecology program into the most productive program in the country.
“Our ecology program has been getting a lot of news,” he said. “Calibrated by faculty, we’re No. 1 in the country regarding productivity.”
Callaway says it’s hard to top someone who enjoys their job, and he’s been tough to beat when it comes to productivity. His citation by Reuters came in part for publishing the greatest number of highly cited research papers over a 10-year span dating back to 2002.
Callaway was born in Alaska but moved to California at a young age. He earned his undergraduate degree at Westmont College, where he found inspiration through Frank Percival, his professor at the time.
Back then, Callaway wasn’t so much interested in plants as he was in ecology, and he enjoyed working outside. His future studies took him to the University of Tennessee for his master’s degree and the University of California-Santa Barbara for his PhD.
He was offered a job at UM in 1993.
“No ecologist would turn down a job in Montana,” said Callaway. “It’s the best place to be an ecologist – we sit in a perfect place.”
Seated in the warmth of his office with a picture of his son - a young U.S. Marine - sitting above his computer, Callaway talks ecology and how the program is often misunderstood by outsiders.
Ecology has nothing to do with environmentalism, activism or policy, he said. Rather, it looks to the environment as a whole – the study of populations, communities, wildlife and wetlands.
“The popular perception of the word 'ecology' is usually wrong,” Callaway said. “It has nothing to do with politics whatsoever. I study exotic invasive weeds, mostly, and how natural systems work.”
Some of his more recent studies have examined how plants function together in communities and ecosystems, something of high interest to ranchers and range scientists who are combating invaders such as Dalmatian toadflax and spotted knapweed.
Knapweed became a go-to source in many of Callaway’s research projects, one of which proved groundbreaking. Comparing the weed in its native European range to its invasive range in Montana led him to a surprising conclusion.
It was, he said, hidden in the soil, and the results have been “surprisingly consistent” regardless of the plant.
“Exotic invasive plants growing in soil from their new range generally show very weak inhibition,” Callaway said. “In their native range, they typically show strong inhibition. That comparison was first done in my lab. Invaders get away with their dirty deed by getting away from the soil organisms that suppress them – bacteria and viruses.”
Plants aside, Callaway is looking forward to later this week when the Board of Regents votes on his nomination to become a Regents Professor. UM President Royce Engstrom asked Callaway to meet him for breakfast recently and informed him of his nomination.
“Rare are those faculty members who establish internationally renowned research programs and, at the same time, care deeply about the students at all levels,” Engstrom said of Callaway’s nomination. “(Callaway) is such a person.”
Callaway appreciates the support the university has given his program and his research. He also enjoys the tight relationship he has with his students and peers.
He calls himself a “pointy-headed” researcher, but he hasn’t lost momentum, despite 21 years at the university.
“The people that preceded me had amazing insight on how to focus on specialties,” said Callaway. “The people here are a delight to interact with. And there are lots of people to talk ecology.”