Last Lectures

Fire in the Belly

By Randall S. Barton

To the locals in South Korea he is known as kaeguri paksa, “frog doctor.” But to his students, he will always be Bob. After 32 years, Prof. Robert Kaplan [bio 1983–2015] is retiring.

“Given that so many in the world miss out on good fortune, one might worry that to educate a few so brilliantly is unfair,” he says. “And yet, many are so goodhearted and will take what they learned here and do a lot of good in the world. They are out making the world a much better place because of their exposure to Reed’s attitudes toward things like poverty, diversity, and injustice. They don’t take their education for granted.”

As a boy growing up in Brooklyn, Kaplan loved small animals and made excursions to Woolworth’s for pet turtles. After his parents purchased a cabin in the woods, his summers were filled with studying critters, fueling his determination to become a field biologist.

At Brooklyn College, he honed his vision for studying the natural world and graduated in 1970, a time when zero population growth (ZPG) was seen as the panacea for many of the world’s ills. But ZPG lost primacy as the United States ceased being a role model for cultural change in the rest of the world.

As a graduate student at the City University of New York and postdoctoral fellow at the Miller Institute for Basic Research in Science, UC Berkeley, Kaplan longed to study animals in the wilderness. But he came to realize that a pristine wilderness was a romantic notion that no longer existed.

“With the world becoming so crowded, we have to redefine what wilderness is, because there really isn’t anything unaffected by humans on the planet anymore,” he says. “The atmosphere, the air that we breathe, and our water are all interconnected globally. No matter where you are on the planet, there are human impacts on what we might have ideally thought of as wilderness.”

Kaplan began teaching at Reed in 1983, earning a reputation for his imaginative and enthusiastic style. He worked side by side with undergraduates investigating population biology, ecology, and evolution, involving students in rigorous research.

His own research has focused on the ecology, genetics, and development of the Asian fire-bellied toad, Bombina orientalis, a model organism for studies in embryology and ecology because it can be bred in the laboratory every 10 weeks, is long lived, and is accessible in the field.

Kaplan began traveling to South Korea to freshen his stock of toads and study them in their natural habitat. Dave Parichy ’91 was one of the students that accompanied him in the summer of ’89.

“It was an unbelievable experience that shaped everything from then on,” Dave remembers. “I began to understand how much can be learned by just looking carefully at a situation, being rigorous, and taking down all the observations you possibly can.”

“Bob was very gracious to me,” says Dave, who now runs his own lab at the University of Washington. “He taught me a certain kind of humanity about the way I think about science and the way I interact with my students.”

After finishing up projects in his lab at Reed, Kaplan is expanding his interests to the amphibians of the deserts in Southern California and the influence of climate change on vertebrate distributions in the Mojave desert. He will also continue to collaborate with Korean colleagues  and cochair the Amphibian Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission