It’s always a big day in the lab when a grad student finishes their project, particularly when the student is a Ph.D. candidate because the oral defense of the thesis provides a very obvious punctuation mark on the entire program. Today, Chris Borkent joined the ranks of the Lyman Diptera Doctors.
I first met Chris at the International Congress of Dipterology in Brisbane, Australia in 2002 when he was still a M.Sc. student working on pollination ecology. Shortly after that meeting Chris started corresponding with me about eventually coming to the lab to pursue a Ph.D. project. I distinctly remember the title of the first email he sent me: The beauty of Mycetophilidae. How could I refuse?
Chris joined the lab in 2006 and dove into the systematics of Mycetophilidae, then a brand new subject for him. While he was learning both phylogenetic systematics and these wonderful little flies, Chris continued to publish papers on pollination biology, acrocerid fly behavior and development and morphology of nematocerous flies (the lab seems to attract generalists . . . ). He also quickly became a leader in the lab, often mentoring new students and taking the time to discuss a diversity of subjects including insect collecting, systematics, morphology, the politics of science, natural history, preparation of international cuisine and the proper way to display a Hawaiian shirt.
Chris’s Ph.D. project involved two large components: a worldwide revision of the fungus gnat genus Leptomorphus (45 species when all was said and done); and a phylogenetic analysis of the tribe Sciophilini, the higher group to which Leptomorphus belongs. Some people might view such work as arcane or esoteric. But they’d be wrong. Two of the fundamental questions in understanding biodiversity, ecology and evolution are “what is this thing?” and “where does this thing fit in?”. Generic revisions, species descriptions and identification keys allow people to answer the first question; phylogenetic trees allow us to answer the second. So, work such as Chris’s helps to build a vital foundation for understanding life on earth.
Chris has already embarked on the next chapter in his career, as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, one of the other big and active concentrations of Diptera specialists in North America. It should be great fun and a great experience. And I’m sure we’ll be seeing him (well . . . hearing him first) at conferences soon.
Congratulations, Dr. Borkent!