Greta Binford, Professor of Biology



One of things that characterizes frequent travelers is a patience with the process, an acceptance, and an embracing of letting go of some of the control. You need the flexibility and the attitude that if the infrastructure fails, and you’re stuck somewhere, that provides a really beautiful opportunity. Embrace the opportunities that come from the unexpected. – Greta Binford

When you listen to Greta Binford talk about biodiversity, the tree of life, biogeography, Gondwana, migratory pathways for monarch butterflies or many other topics, it is easy to understand why she was Oregon’s Teacher of the Year in 2011. She takes scientific facts and principles, and tells them like stories, in a way that anyone would find fascinating.

A self-described “free-range kid” and “natural explorer,” she grew up on a farm in Indiana, which is still her favorite place on Earth. “I spent a lot of time by myself out in the forest, rolling things over and looking underneath. It’s just been what I’ve done my whole life with curiosity, not fear. I was completely and thoroughly entertained, and still am, just sitting on the forest floor. That’s been a part of my personal development as a biologist that started with my earliest memories.”

This propensity to examine the underside of rocks didn’t appear to provide her a logical career path. “I always recognized my love of biology but waffled around with how to apply it professionally. Being a scientist just wasn’t part of the menu of options for a farm girl in the 80s. I didn’t have any professional role models really. I had dropped out of college and not known what I wanted to do. I went back to maybe pursue a career in teaching high school biology.”

A professor recognized a kindred spirit in Greta and invited her to a summer internship in Peru where, handily enough, her job was to sit and watch spiders for eight hours a day. “Spiders are just super interesting. They make venom, they make silk, they make these incredible ornate webs, some of them are social, most of them are not, they’re just a breadth of coolness. They’re beautiful, brightly colored, they’re tiny and huge. I was just riveted by the potential for discovery including discovery of things that I was hopeful would convince folks that biodiversity is worth noticing and protecting.”

What really blew my mind was realizing how little we know about biodiversity. These forests, which are in the far southeastern corner of Peru, are among the most biodiverse in the world. I had the privilege of being there with experts who could say, ‘oh yeah, that’s an unknown species, and that’s an unknown species.’ Unknown meant undescribed, unnamed, nobody had ever really looked at them before. I really had no idea how little we know about biodiversity and it’s still true. The amount of biodiversity out there relative to those who are studying it is really high, and we’re losing it incredibly fast. That is what really ignited my passion for biodiversity.”

Since that first foray into travel and research, which were new experiences for her on both accounts, Professor Binford has traveled the globe finding fascinating flora and fauna and of course, her favorite- spiders. She has been to Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Cuba the British Virgin Islands, Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Argentina, Namibia, South Africa, Kenya, England, Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Belgium, China, Papua New Guinea, Sulawesi, Bali, Tahiti, Australia, and New Zealand.

“Some of the highlights of opportunities I’ve had have been leading study abroad programs for Lewis & Clark. I’ve had the privilege of leading the overseas program in New Zealand for Lewis & Clark biology majors, and that was amazing. Then most recently led the study abroad program for biology majors to Australia.”

When she is not on a faraway continent or even in a nearby basement looking for brown recluse spiders, you might find her playing music with friends, riding her bike, cooking, reading, hiking, snowshoeing or rock collecting. You might even find her sitting quietly on the forest floor, looking at the underside of a rock.

I find that the companionship of people that are united around Lewis & Clark is always fun. I find this community to be like-minded and I think there will be some great synergies of people’s interests. I am sure I’ll learn a lot from this group and I’m excited to go to places that resonate so clearly with my own passions and interests and just be able to magnify that with this group. I hope that it resonates with them as well and I’m optimistic that it will. I just think it’s going to be really fun.