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At Tumamoc Hill lab, Tucson native explores past, future of the Sonoran Desert

Benjamin Wilder, Ph.D.

Benjamin Wilder, Ph.D., 36, is director of the University of Arizona Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill, a job that connects him deeply with his Tucson roots.

Wilder was born and raised in Tucson. His father, Janos Wilder, is an award-winning chef and owner of the local DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails, and his mother, Rebecca, is a graphic designer and artist. Wilder worked with his father on caterings starting at age 7 and worked in the kitchen at the restaurant through high school, though he decided to go in a different direction when he realized cooking was not his passion.

A trip to Panama in 2000 solidified Wilder’s fascination with biology and biodiversity. “That was the [most fun] two weeks of my life,” Wilder says. “Just being out in nature and learning and field studies, everything blew my mind.”

Wilder began his studies in conservation biology at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and realized his true passion lay back home, studying Sonoran Desert ecology, conservation, and biogeography.

He finished his undergraduate degree in at the University of Arizona in 2006 at which time he began research on islands in the Gulf of California with Richard Felger, a Sonoran Desert botanist, and Humberto Romero-Morales, a member of the Comcaac (Seri People) indigenous community of coastal Sonora, Mexico. Wilder continued this line of research at University of California, Riverside, for his doctoral studies that further explored the plant diversity of the islands and the biogeography of the region, especially how the plants and animals arrived at the islands.

After meeting his wife, Erin Riordan, in California, they moved to Berkeley, where she had a post-doctoral research position. Wilder finished his doctorate remotely and did postdoctoral work at both UC, Berkeley and Stanford. Around this time, Wilder was in conversation with Joaquin Ruiz, then dean of the UArizona College of Science. “I was telling him about my desire and interest to come back to Tucson and focus on desert ecology,” says Wilder. “I had an interest in the Desert Laboratory and just trying to be part of it and he gave me a chance and helped create a position for me at the university.”

Family footsteps

Wilder’s Jewish upbringing contributed to his strong sense of community and family. His father, whose family is something of a Jewish melting pot, has raised funds for local organizations, including the Tucson Jewish Community Center and Temple Emanu-El, and recently prepared meals for 1,400 Tucson Medical Center employees on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. Wilder’s mother, Rebecca, is a Bracker, a member of a large Jewish family from Nogales with a history of more than 100 years of living and conducting business in the borderlands at Bracker’s Department Store.

For Wilder, coming back to Tucson seemed the natural thing to do. “I find myself following in the footsteps of my grandfather Harvey Bracker, working on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, being enriched by this multicultural landscape, and finding ways to contribute to the region I love,” he says.

“He’s Tucson-born, he did research at the Hill on saguaros when he was here getting his undergraduate degree, and it obviously made a great impact,” Ruiz says. “Then I also suspect that because of his family he already had it in his DNA to be a part of the community.”

In 2015, Wilder became the coordinator for the Consortium for Arizona-Mexico Arid Environments at UArizona. Soon after, the director of the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill stepped down and Wilder was asked to become the interim director, and after two years, director.

“It’s my dream job,” he says. “There’s just so many things that converge at Tumamoc Hill, especially from a cultural perspective. The science, community, and long history of use of the Hill, is a remarkable continuum of human connection in the desert.”

“I can’t imagine anybody better than Ben, because of his upbringing and his interest, in running the Hill, and bringing the Tumamoc Hill back to its glory days,” Ruiz says.

The lab was established in 1903 and has gone through ups and downs in productivity. “We’re just bringing the research into the next era, trying to incorporate multiple disciplines,” Wilder says. While continuing to study the desert’s change over time, he seeks to lead research that addresses the future of life in the desert. “We have the opportunity to unite different perspectives of how the desert functions and changes over time, using the space of Tumamoc Hill and the entire Sonoran Desert as our laboratory, and then directly connecting the knowledge we gain to the public,” Wilder explains. Through this approach, Wilder and the Desert Lab hope to change the paradigm of conservation vs. development toward science guiding future change.

“Many of the principles I was raised with, in terms of support for community, are about generosity and working across differences and across borders,” Wilder says.

Sofia Moraga is a student at the University of Arizona School of Journalism.