Will Selman, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of biology at Millsaps College in Jackson. A 2003 Millsaps graduate, he began his career as a biology teacher at Northwest Junior High School in Meridian. He earned his doctorate from the University of Southern Mississippi in May 2010 and worked as a research wildlife biologist and research coordinator for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries at the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in Grand Chenier, Louisiana before he joined the faculty at Millsaps.
Selman has had more than 50 articles published in peer-reviewed journals and written chapters for four books, to name just some of his accomplishments as a researcher and an author.
He is on the board of directors for the American Turtle Observatory and a subject area expert for the Species Status Assessment Team for the Pascagoula Map Turtle (Graptemys gibbonsi) and the Pearl Map Turtle (Graptemys pearlensis) with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Selman also received the Millsaps College Richard A. Smith Award for Excellence in Scholarship or Creative Work in 2018 and 2021.
What is your vision for the work Millsaps students will conduct at Panther Creek, which is located west of Canton in Madison County?
“The vision is for it to be a place to take students for hands-on field trips and for applied research. I went out there last fall with my Vertebrate Zoology class to sample for fish, and my wetland ecology course will go out there this fall. Wetlands are regulated by the Clean Water Act. Defining where wetlands begin and end is important. Our students will go through the same process as an Army Corps of Engineers specialist would. They will learn the tools of the trade and ask: Has there been water here? Are these wetland-adapted plants? Do the soils indicate a wetland? We’ll do that out there as a class.”
Does Millsaps have a formal agreement about Panther Creek Wetland?
“Millsaps College entered into an agreement last summer with the landowner, Scott Gideon, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to serve as the conservation easement holder of just over 250 acres called Panther Creek Wetland Mitigation Bank.
“The wetlands on Panther Creek have been highly altered over the past century. The prior owners changed the creek’s hydrology by straightening a naturally curvy creek, and they cut the surrounding bottomland hardwood forest, all for agricultural uses.
“Scott Gideon, with approval of the Army Corps of Engineers, will be actively restoring the natural flow of Panther Creek on the property and will also be replanting bottomland hardwood trees in areas that were previously row agriculture and pastureland.”
How did Millsaps College get involved in the Panther Creek Mitigation Bank?
“Through my wetland ecology class, I got in touch with the Army Corps of Engineers and Tony Lobred, a Millsaps College graduate. One day out of the blue Tony called and said, ‘I have this opportunity for a new wetland mitigation bank that is getting started. Do you think Millsaps College would be interested?’ I immediately thought, ‘Absolutely, we are interested!’
“Our role is as a third party for oversight to ensure it stays a wetland. I thought it would be great to have a nearby spot where we could go to for both class and to do research. The end goal is for it to be an outdoor laboratory for our students to understand what the plants and animals are like now and what the plants and animals will look like through time.
“I’m interested in reptiles, amphibians and birds that are dependent on wetland and aquatic habitats. We can set up experiments and monitor those animals five, 10, 15 years from now and see how species come in and become established. We can see how plant and animal communities shift through time.
“At this time, it has unrealized potential, but I think it’s coming. It’s a neat opportunity for a small college to have property and work with a landowner and have an outdoor classroom.”
What experience do you have with wetlands?
“I was a research biologist before I came to Millsaps College as a faculty member. I worked for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. I spent a lot of time in airboats in marshes and swamps and got a greater appreciation of wetlands.
“I first taught wetland ecology in the fall of 2016, and I teach the course every two to three years. This coming fall will be my third iteration of teaching it. Every lab period we’re going somewhere to see a wetland or to go kayaking in a wetland. It’s a good way to reinforce concepts taught in the classroom.”
What kind of research have you and your students done at LeFleur’s Bluff?
“LeFleur’s Bluff is just five minutes away from campus. This is my fifth summer of having students conduct research there. We’ve had two big projects. One is studying the life history of box turtles. The other is surveying the aquatic turtle community.”
How do you study box turtles?
“We have nine turtles that have a radio telemetry unit, a tracking device, attached to them. We have been tracking them once a week for three and half years. We get an idea about what sort of habitats they use, where their home range is — the area they know as home —and we look at their movements.
“We’re in the process of accumulating that data for the last three and half years. Three students are leading it and I’m serving as their mentor on a scientific research paper about what they’ve found.”
Are box turtles common?
“They used to be very common. However, they have been collected for the pet trade, and they don’t do well with roads and development. If a road is built through their home range, they cross the road to get to the other side of their home range; many end up getting smashed on the road. They can be found locally in some areas, but there usually has to be a good forest canopy for box turtles to thrive.”
Why study the aquatic turtle population?
“Gracie Bellnap, a Millsaps graduate who was an Honors Program student and now teaches high school science at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Ridgeland, did two years of research in the bottomland swamps of LeFleur’s Bluff. She worked with several other Millsaps students and did aquatic turtle trapping to document the aquatic turtle community. She caught nine different turtle species in those ponds.
“The neat thing is that Mississippi is in the center of a global turtle bio-diversity hotspot. There are three in the world: one is in the Southeast United States, one is in India, and one is in the Amazon. Based on our research, if you start at the Mississippi Natural Science Museum, go to the flood plain and then to the Pearl River, you could potentially encounter 13 species of turtles. So in a mile of hiking, you could see more species in Jackson than the entire state of Michigan, as state that only has 10 species.
“Mississippi is also within biodiversity hotspots for fish, freshwater mussels, and crayfish. Our aquatic diversity is pretty amazing.”
Is there a common thread in the research Millsaps students do?
“The work they’re doing is graduate school level work. They have responsibilities. They take the initiative. I set them up, give them equipment and instructions and then it’s their project. That’s pretty unique for an undergraduate to get that type of experience, and they also have the opportunity to publish their research as an undergraduate. That’s a big advantage for Millsaps. We have small class sizes, a small number of students and get a lot done.
“These students are learning while doing. It’s equally about the teaching component as well as the research component. They’re troubleshooting and problem solving while they’re out in the field, using all of the tools and equipment that wildlife biologists may use in the field. When they apply for jobs or graduate schools, they can say, “I know how to do this technique or how to use this piece of equipment’ and that makes them more competitive than their peers.”
Do Millsaps students interact with the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science?
“I have had several students who have interned at the Natural Science Museum. I had one who was a summer research intern, and he worked with the ichthyologist there. He got to catch and survey rare and threatened fish species, and he is now a Ph.D. student at USM. I have another student who will be working with the botanist in the plant collection this fall.
“The museum provides a neat opportunity for students and is a resource near campus filled with experts. Students have the opportunity to work with someone with expertise that may be helpful with their post graduate plans.”
What made you want to teach?
“I’m a Millsaps graduate and like many of my students, I interned at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. After graduating from Millsaps in 2003 with a degree in biology, I went back to my hometown of Meridian and taught junior high science for a year. I realized I like teaching. I also knew if I wanted to go back and work at the Natural Science Museum, I needed to do graduate work. I did graduate work at the University of Southern Mississippi and graduated in 2010 with my doctorate.
“After I received my doctorate, the job market was not good. I found what ended up being a fantastic job at the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge with Louisiana Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks. I thought I was ready to teach at the college level after graduate school but the amount of applied knowledge I learned working at Rockefeller for six and half years was amazing. I wouldn’t be teaching wetland ecology or ornithology today without that knowledge. That stop was important in my career path.
“I was doing a lot of research and I was beginning to wonder how many people were going to read the research and the impact it would have. The job came open at Millsaps. I had a taught a course at McNeese State, and I had worked with several graduate students, had enjoyed doing that and serving as their mentor. I realized the impact I could have could be more by being a professor at the college level.”
What do you like about teaching?
“I like the opportunity to open a window for my students that they didn’t realize was there. I taught ornithology last spring and by the end of the class, one of my students said, ‘I’m never going to walk around campus the same again without hearing and seeing the birds that are around me. I’ve never thought about all their different sounds before.’
“Once I can get my students to be aware of something new and they can appreciate animals, and when they appreciate the animals, they are more willing to conserve them. I believe they can be a force for conservation.
“I also enjoy seeing my students go on to do great things – get accepted to medical school, graduate school or vet school – and see them fulfill their dreams.”
What is it like to be a professor at the college where you were an undergraduate?
“I’m teaching in the same classrooms where I was a student. The students are sitting in the same places where I sat and listened to my professors. I held my professors in high regard, and I thought they were a gateway to knowledge, and now I’m supposed to be that person. I am standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s a neat feeling to be on the other side.”