Love of Snakes Sends UM Student to Ethiopia

Tim Colston named Fulbright Scholar

Tim Colston - UM Fulbright Scholar

Tim Colston has collected animals, including butterflies, frogs and snakes, since he was a child.

OXFORD, Miss. – Animals have always fascinated Tim Colston, a doctoral student in biology at the University of Mississippi. As a child, he set up a large screened tent and filled it with butterflies and potted flowers to see which plants they would visit most often.

Later, while watching and waiting for toad eggs to hatch, he discovered a garter snake with a full belly, instead of the eggs. With Jake the garter snake as a childhood roommate, Colston, of Oklahoma City, was paving a path to study herpetology.

His lifelong efforts have paid off with a 2012-13 Fulbright Scholarship, and his Fulbright project will take him to Ethiopia for the next eight months, where he will be affiliated with Abebe Getahun of Addis Ababa University. Using DNA and other new technologies, he intends to promote conservation awareness of Ethiopia’s unique, diverse and highly endemic reptile fauna by investigating how geology, geography, changing climate and other factors have influenced the structure of those reptile communities.

He hopes to fill a critical gap by contributing significant knowledge about reptile diversity and by providing novel or more efficient analytical approaches to the field.

Colston found out about the Fulbright program through Stu Nielson, a fellow UM biology student who had recently been awarded a Fulbright of his own, and Andrus Ashoo, at UM’s Office of National Scholarship Advisement.

“The endemic snake community in the highlands versus the other snake community in the lowlands is an aspect that I would not have had in my Ph.D. studies,” Colston said. “So that’s really going to add a lot to our understanding of community evolution and assembly in snakes, and reptiles in general. Beyond that, I am going to be spending eight months doing fieldwork and establishing contacts with park rangers and locals in the area that I will use throughout my career.

“The Fulbright is the first step in what I see is a long-term collaboration with Ethiopian academics. I plan on doing research there the rest of my life, so this is a big first step.”

Because efforts to go abroad for research can be limited by available funds, the Fulbright will improve Colston’s chances to succeed, said Brice Noonan, UM assistant professor of biology and Colston’s dissertation adviser.

“My hope is that he is able to obtain adequate sampling to conduct a thorough investigation of the biological communities in the area,” Noonan said. “This region is so poorly known that any information gleaned from Tim’s work will provide our first insight into the way in which these biological communities have been assembled over time and what factors contribute to the generation and maintenance of biodiversity.”

Tim Colston - UM Fulbright Scholar

Tim Colston (right), a doctoral student in biology at the University of Mississippi, has studied snakes in Brazil, Mexico and various locations in the United States. As a Fulbright Scholar in Ethiopia, he plans to study different reptile communities. Photo by David Lawson.

Noonan is also excited for the recognition the biology department has received.

“This is a very exciting time for the biology department,” Noonan said. “We have recently added a number of new faculty and are setting new benchmarks for external funding. Our graduate program is growing accordingly and through these types of awards we are demonstrating that Ole Miss is a destination for top graduate students.”

Colston said he has been fascinated with Africa for many years, and that he will immerse himself in Ethiopian culture to establish international collaborations, and make a substantial contribution to the herpetological research and conservation.

“The Fulbright program will allow me the time necessary to thoroughly study the diverse Ethiopian snake communities,” Colston said.

Addis Ababa University does not have a herpetologist on staff, so Colston wants his enthusiasm for reptiles to be contagious.

“While I am there, I am going to be working closely with people in the department and hopefully we’ll involve other students who want to get their hands dirty and go catch some snakes,” he said. “This type of thing should always help foster other people’s interests. Hopefully, I will inspire someone who wants to fill the role of herpetologist one day.”

Colston attended Rose State College in Oklahoma before completing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Oklahoma.

He is among more than 1,500 U.S. students who are traveling abroad through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program in 2012-2013. The Fulbright, established in 1946, is the flagship international exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and has given about 300,000 students, scholars, teachers, artists and sciences the opportunity to conduct research and exchange ideas in more than 155 countries worldwide.

For more information, visit the Department of Biology .

Students interested in applying for the Fulbright U.S. Student Award are encouraged to contact Andrus Ashoo, the Fulbright program adviser in the Office of National Scholarship Advisement, at