Peter Houlihan flipped to the last page of his passport.
The past four years have given it a workout. After expeditions to Borneo, Madagascar, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cuba, French Guiana and beyond, its edges are frayed, the eagle embossed on the cover barely visible. In his last semester as a biology doctoral candidate at the University of Florida, he’s about to fill up the final page with a month-long trip to Panama, where he’ll finish his dissertation, open a photography exhibition and help a fellow National Geographic Explorer track jaguars and ocelots.
Although he’s logged the usual long hours on his research, you’re more likely to find Houlihan hanging from a tree than hanging out in the library.
Houlihan spends about ten months a year in the field, either studying ghost orchids for his dissertation, working with a conservation organization he started as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University, or leading expeditions for scientists and photographers.
It’s not the usual path, which is why Houlihan chose UF. He credits Tom Emmel, the founding director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History and president of the International Biodiversity Foundation, for encouraging him to continue his other pursuits along with his degree.
“I’ve always had an issue with these linear paths, the path that would have said, ‘Stop doing all the side projects you’re doing. You need to get your undergrad, do your masters, get your Ph.D., do a post doc and get an assistant professorship,’” Houlihan said. “There’s great value in people who encourage you to say no to that, and to take on experiences that ultimately make you a better scientist and person.”
Increasingly, those experiences focus on communicating science to non-scientists. Houlihan served as an advisor for the second season of the Gator-made Nat Geo WILD series “Untamed with Filipe DeAndrade.” He’s also part of a team documenting the remarkable biodiversity of the Panamanian island of Coíba, a former penal colony transformed into a national park.
“Part of the challenge is helping people to be concerned about the planet in a way that’s relevant to them,” he said. “There’s no time that’s ever been more important than now.”
What’s it like to be alone at night in a flooded forest? Listen to Peter Houlihan describe spotting panthers and avoiding alligators while studying ghost orchids in the Fakahatchee Strand.