Brian Layton Cardall came to my laboratory as a trained scientist

Speech delivered June 15, 2009 by Professor Steven M. Shuster, Northern Arizona University at the Valley View Stake Center (SLC, Utah)

He had a bachelor’s degree from Utah State University. There he became interested in newts and garter snakes, and had the chance to work with one of the great professors of herpetology, Dr. Edmund Brodie Jr.

Brian went on to publish this work as an undergraduate student. The fraction of all undergraduate students who ever finish college is less than 50%. The fraction of such students that ever engage in scientific research is less than a tenth of this number. And the fraction of that number of students who actually complete their research and publish it in a scientific journal is less than a tenth of that number.

At a very early age and stage in his career, Brian Layton Cardall showed he had the ability to make important contributions to science. But as an undergraduate, Brian hadn’t tired of discovery yet.

Brian went on to complete a Masters’ degree at Utah State University in Dr. Karen Mock’s laboratory. There Brian showed, using skills he was developing in molecular genetics, that certain native fish in Lake Bonneville, Utah, were actually two distinct species. Okay, two different species instead of one. Why should this be so important?

In fact, this is one of the most fundamental contributions any biologist can make. It is a biologist’s job to give humanity a better understanding of how the natural world works. Brian showed us all something we had never known before; that is until Brian decided to consider this aspect of Nature himself.

Brian gave the scientific world a way to see things differently than they had seen it before. He was excited about using his skills as a biologist and a scientist. He had shown he could make important discoveries, and again, he had published his work. But as a Master’s student, Brian hadn’t tired of discovery yet.

Brian contacted me about becoming a graduate student in my laboratory. I was familiar with some of Brian’s work and the chance to have a seasoned scientist join my lab as a doctoral student seemed almost too good to be true.

Brian and I discussed several options for graduate support and decided he should apply for a Science Foundation Arizona fellowship, a recently established organization designed to invest early in individuals who have the highest potential to drive innovation and scientific research in Arizona. Brian seemed a sure bet to receive this funding and indeed he was awarded a fellowship. But as a Science Foundation Arizona Fellow, Brian hadn’t tired of discovery quite yet.

Brian decided to shift his interests yet again to investigate what is now known, as “community genetics,” the study of how genetic variation within one species may influence the distribution, abundance and reproduction of other species. This new discipline links molecular and evolutionary genetics to population, community, and ecosystem processes. Community genetics has fundamental implications for conservation biology. And this was a connection that I believe Brian, who was passionate about conservation, could simply not resist.

Brian had also grasped statistical methods I was exploring to understand how animals such as beavers can change ecological communities by preferring some cottonwood trees and not others. Brian had grasped this approach so thoroughly that he was already correcting my work and gently and patiently showing me places where my calculations were in error. But, you guessed it, as a theoretician, Brian hadn’t tired of discovery yet.

Brian immersed himself in each of these fields, and by the spring of 2009, he had comfortably assumed his place among the intellectual cream of young Arizona scientists. At Northern Arizona University, he had become the standard against which all Science Foundation Arizona Fellows were judged. He was a leader among the graduate students in our department and he had the respect, admiration and affection of all of the members of my laboratory.

Brian loved his work. It never seemed to represent work to him. He seemed charmed by the beauty and complexity of nature and Brian was wearing the largest of his infectiously large smiles when in the field with his daughter Ava, she riding on his shoulders or strapped to his chest, facing outward so she could see the world through her father’s inquisitive and perceptive eyes.

Brian Cardall was one of the most outstanding people I have ever known. He was a consistently friendly, hard working, intelligent, witty and even-tempered guy. He was a kind and gentle human being. He was a devoted father and a caring husband. And Brian had all of the intellectual, creative and scientific tools he needed to become one of the most outstanding scientists of his generation.

His work spanned questions and applications from molecules to ecosystems. But Brian, although he is no longer with us, does not seem to be tired of discovery quite yet.

Brian’s work and love of nature lives on in his publications, those that have already explained so much about the natural world, as well as those on cottonwoods and tamarisk, on tamarisk and beetles, and on marine isopod crustaceans, all of which are very close to completion and eventual publication. 

It is a tragic understatement to say that Brian Layton Cardall will be missed. But I believe, Brian’s discoveries and insights have a long and bright future ahead. Brian’s publications will do much to keep us all from growing tired of discovery.

I have been and continue to be inspired by Brian Cardall; my student, my colleague, and my friend.

Contact Professor Steven M. Shuster for more information