Alumni Profile • Philip Willink '90
Ichthyologist in the public eye

Phil WillinkWhen he was in graduate school, Philip Willink '90 thought his career as an ichthyologist would mostly involve writing research papers that a handful of other ichthyologists would read.

Now assistant manager for the fishes collection at Chicago 's Field Museum, Willink finds his old notion amusing. "I never thought I'd be doing all these things," he said, and lists some of them:

Making expeditions to Central and South America. As a member of multidisciplinary, multinational teams, Willink helps identify fishes in a part of the world that has more freshwater species than any other. In fact, 10 to 20 percent of the species his teams collect in the Amazon are new to science. The expedition teams, working closely with local groups, assemble field guides that describe an area's species and habitats, even as human development is changing them. Then they make research and conservation recommendations to politicians, scientists and landowners who are trying both to raise their standard of living and to manage their resources. "We're always balancing the demands of protecting species and environments with the demands for food and shelter," Willink said.

Planning future expeditions. Besides returning to Peru and Suriname , Willink is excited about a new expedition to Madagascar . He and a colleague will crawl through caves looking for underground lakes and rivers, where a rare group of fishes lives in darkness.

Studying Wolf Lake. Using historical records, Willink has reconstructed the fish communities that have been present in this lake southeast of Chicago over the past 100 years. He correlates the changes in species and habitat with the history of human development there. This gives him a picture of what's likely to happen if changes are made to similar lakes-changes either to develop or to restore the environment-a picture he provides to government officials, builders and environmentalists.

Phil WillinkCompiling a field guide to Chicago-region fishes. Willink describes this as a "tackle box book," a book that feeds anglers' interests. Heightened interest, he knows, usually becomes heightened efforts for conservation.

Organizing another field guide on Chicago-area mussels and clams.

Advising scientific and political committees on invasive species in the Great Lakes. By virtue of his position at the Field Museum, Willink has been asked to help make recommendations on what to do about the sea lamprey, bighead carp and silver carp, and other species that are "throwing the lakes' balance out of whack."

Appearing on TV. Occasionally, a big fish story draws reporters to the fish expert, Willink. Such was the case in October 2004 when a northern snakehead-also known as a "Frankenfish"-was pulled from Chicago's Burnham Harbor. Willink uses these opportunities to build public awareness about invasive species.

Leading tours through the Field's fishes collection. "It's fun to show kindergartners fishes they've seen in Finding Nemo."

Writing research papers. Willink does do some of what he once thought he would do, just not as much of it. A recent collaborative paper described how the ancient Mayans used stingray spines in bloodletting rituals.

That's a representative, but not exhaustive, sampling of what Willink does. And new opportunities pop up every week. It's a juggling act, Willink admits, and sometimes it feels like all the pins are landing on his head. But mostly he finds his work's range and variety invigorating. "I've learned a lot by working in so many areas and comparing them," he said.

The downside? "I don't have time to go fishing anymore."