New UF Soil and Water Sciences Chair Sees Opportunity in Florida’s Water Challenges
Above: Matt Whiles conducting research in the field.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Growing up in the Midwest, Matt Whiles learned quickly that the best place to find his favorite critters—insects, reptiles and amphibians—was around streams and wetlands. Water meant life.
Later on as a freshwater ecologist, he would study how plants, animals and people depend on that most critical substance. So it’s no surprise that Whiles feels right at home in the land of water — and water challenges — Florida.
As the new chair of the University of Florida’s soil and water sciences department, part of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Whiles is excited to dive into those challenges, which he sees as opportunities in disguise.
“The glass-half-full view of these issues and challenges is that they represent opportunities for people working in the soil and water sciences,” Whiles said. “Sustainability is one of the grand challenges facing society — balancing food and energy production with the maintenance of healthy landscapes and clean water. The soil and water sciences department and UF/IFAS have all the talent and skills necessary to lead the way in development of sustainable systems.”
Jack Payne, UF senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of UF/IFAS, announced While’s appointment last month.
“We are fortunate to have Matt Whiles join UF/IFAS at a crucial moment,” Payne said. “Water quality has risen to the top of the state’s policy agenda, and Matt’s leadership and expertise can play a key role in providing the science that informs how we address the state’s water quality issues.”
Whiles says he has inherited a strong soil and water sciences department and looks forward to building on those strengths. “I’m also excited about working with all the young faculty members in the department,” he said. “Junior faculty members currently make up a large proportion of the department, and I look forward to helping them develop their careers, receive tenure and promotion, and guide the future of the program.”
Whiles credits his own mentors with helping him succeed early in his career.
“When I started college at Kansas State University, I saw a job ad for a graduate position to assist a faculty member with a research project on prairie stream ecology,” he said. “It took a few visits to his office, but I finally convinced the professor to hire me, even though I was just a freshman. That was the start of my career.”
Back then, Whiles couldn’t imagine becoming a leader in the field, which made winning the 2019 Environmental Stewardship Award from the Society for Freshwater Science all the more surprising, he said. “It’s quite humbling. I became a member of the Society in 1985. Since then, I’ve watched leaders in the field of freshwater ecology win this award, never thinking that I would someday win it myself.”
Whiles earned his Ph.D. in ecology and master’s in entomology at the University of Georgia, and his bachelor’s in biology at Kansas State University. He spent most of his career as a research and teaching faculty member at Southern Illinois University, where he directed the SIU Center for Ecology and led numerous research projects focused on the rivers and wetlands of the region, which includes the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
Whiles follows longtime soil and water sciences Chair Ramesh Reddy, who has returned to research and teaching duties in the department.
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.