Eric Baack

Eric Baack portrait
Professor of Biology

Office: Sampson Hoffland Lab 190G

Phone: 563-387-1087



Eric Baack has been a professor in the Biology Department since 2007, and was the director of the Environmental Studies program.  Some of his course topics include Evolutionary Biology, Biostatistics, Ecology of the Southwest, and Principles of Biology: Ecology, Evolution, and Biodiversity.

During January Term of 2017, Professor Baack was the co-instructor for a Paidea II course, English Theatre: Mirror of Society and the Human Condition, during which students travel abroad to visit London, Stratford-upon-Avon, and York. The course used theatre productions to present ethical questions.  Highlights included a new play asking what the old owe to the young in a time of human-caused disaster (The Children), and a play exploring the ethical demands of friendship at a time of political conflict (This House).

During January term of 2016, Prof. Baack led a course to the Southwest, where students explored the Grand Canyon, Organ Pipe National Monument, and the Santa Rita experimental range while coming to understand the challenges and successes of protecting wildlife in the face of dams, illegal border activity, grazing, and mining.

Ongoing research projects include examining the fate of crop genes in a wild environment in sunflowers, genome size evolution in sunflowers, and examining drug resistance in bacteria found in the springs and streams of NE Iowa.

BIO 151: Principles of Biology: Ecology, Evolution, and Biodiversity (Fall)

An exploration of the diversity of life, its origins, and interactions among organisms and their environment. We introduce key concepts in evolution and ecology, provide an overview of the features of major taxonomic groups and their evolutionary relationships, and explore some of the practical and ethical implications of biodiversity. Through laboratory and field investigations, students develop their ability to make observations, analyze data, read primary literature, and communicate results.

BIO 140/240: Ecology of the Southwest (J-Term)

Field study of the ecology of the arid Southwest, with a focus on adaptations of organisms to arid conditions and understanding the challenges of setting environmental policy. Course activities include hiking in the deserts, mountains, and riparian areas of Arizona; daily readings and discussions; a paper exploring the ethical dimensions of environmental policy; and a research project which may be qualitative. (Study Away)

BIO 256: Biostatistics (Fall)

This course considers the application of statistical inference to the life sciences; numerous examples will be taken from the health sciences and environmental sciences. Emphasis will be on hypothesis testing and the importance of experimental design.  (Students regularly report that this was one of the most useful courses that they took while at Luther.  At heart, this is an exploration of how we know what we know in science.)

BIO 354: Evolutionary Biology (Spring)

An exploration of current questions in evolutionary biology through lecture, lab, and discussion of the primary literature. Topics include the role of natural selection and drift in human evolution; inferring the origins of new diseases; the effects of genomic conflict on speciation; and the challenges that hybridization poses to understanding the tree of life. (I can’t imagine a biology course that I’d rather teach!  Evolutionary theory is so elegant and so comprehensive.)

PAID 450: English Theatre: Society and the Human Condition (J-Term 2017)

This course is a study of London and Stratford theatre in its contexts – the history, culture, and values of England and the modern world. The theatre, the richest in the world in its variety and depth (from highbrow to farce, Shakespeare to Stoppard), serves as focus for exploration of the cities London and Stratford, and of the intellectual, aesthetic, and moral territory of drama.

  • Ph.D., Population Biology, UC Davis
    Dissertation: “Ecological factors affecting tetraploid speciation in snow buttercups (Ranunculus adoneus: Ranunculaceae).”
    Advisor: Dr. Maureen L. Stanton
  • M.A., Secondary Science Education, Lewis and Clark College, Portland, OR
  • B.A., summa cum laude, Philosophy, Carleton College, Northfield, MN

My research examines how ecological factors influence evolutionary processes in plants, particularly the origin of new plant species. I examine adaptation and speciation in plants using a range of approaches and tools, including field experiments, molecular techniques, and computer simulations.

Dissertation: Ecological factors affecting tetraploid speciation in snow buttercups (Ranunculus adoneus: Ranunculaceae)

My doctoral dissertation examined barriers to tetraploid (= 4 sets of chromosomes) speciation in snow buttercups (Ranunculus adoneus) in the Colorado Rockies. I found strong spatial segregation of the diploid (=2 sets) and tetraploid snow buttercups (see figure 1), but no evidence for ecological differentiation. Strong reproductive exclusion operates to maintain spatial isolation. Stochastic models suggest that limited seed and pollen dispersal can lead to local tetraploid majorities which greatly reduce the barriers to their persistence and establishment.

Postdoctoral Work: Sunflower domestication, crop-wild gene flow, and genome evolution

My postdoctoral work with Dr. Loren Rieseberg at Indiana University and the University of British Columbia focused on barriers to gene flow between crop and wild sunflowers (Helianthus annuus). Populations of wild sunflowers adjacent to the crop retain their distinct morphology despite ongoing hybridization, which suggests that strong selection removes crop alleles. Field experiments in Indiana and Nebraska found that although the traits under selection differed, the loci under selection were the same in the two environments. One allele from the crop was favored at one locus, while an allele from the wild was favored at a second locus.

Research at Luther College

My research at Luther College continues to explore plant adaptation and speciation. I have begun selecting on large seed size in wild sunflowers in an effort to re-domesticate the sunflower from its wild relatives. Early selection likely favored larger seeds, yet the crop differs in many traits besides seed size. Will re-domestication result in the same suite of traits? Work on crop-wild hybrids continues, with the most recent grant focusing on patterns of introgression in long-term hybrid zones.

In addition, I am working with students to examine patterns of drug resistance in E. coli and Staph found in the springs and streams of NE Iowa.

Students work with me as assistants on sunflower research, as part of the team examining drug resistant bacteria, or on their own projects, which have included incidence of Lyme disease in ticks, the effects of endophytic fungi on plant growth, and ploidy variation in Iowa prairie grasses.

Recent Student Research Collaborators

Students Projects
Isabel Ayala, Abby Mark Genome size estimates for perennial sunflowers. Independent project.
Kayla Ingvalson, Luke VonEschen, Joel Denny, Max Eness Multi-drug resistant bacteria in springs and streams in NE Iowa.  HHMI funded research.
Sheri Schwert Connections between sinkholes and springs in NE Iowa.  Funded by  the McElroy Foundation and the Iowa Ground Water Association.
Ellen Behrens Co-infection of deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis) by three pathogenic parasites: Borrelia burgdorferi, Anaplasma phagocytophyllum, and Babesia microtii. HHMI funded research.
Kimberly Howell Diversity of fungal endophytes in Indian Grass Sorghastrum nutans) and effects on growth. Dean’s office collaborative research.
Anna Gudjonsdottir, Matthew Rosene, Rebekah Schulz Frequency of multi-drug resistant bacteria in NE Iowa streams. Independent project.
Molly Tulkki Research assistant on ‚ÄėA multigenerational assessment of the fate and impact of crop gene introgression into wild sunflower‚Äô (Grant from USDA)
Chelsea Weiss Multi-drug resistant bacteria and efflux pumps. Independent project.
Katrina Freund Isolation and Characterization of Endophytic Fungi from Prairie Plants. Honors project.
Rachel Albert Effect of ovulation on female behavior and male perceptions. Honors project.
Paul Atkins Effect of chloroplast genotype on hybridization. Dean’s office collaborative research.
Maria Carr Evolutionary response of native plants to allelopathic invaders. Honors project.
Kristin Manges Epidemiological analysis of medical outcomes related to the historic 2008 flood in Winneshiek County, Iowa. Honors project.
John Delaney Chromosome number variation in Iowa grasses. Dean’s office/Grow Iowa Values Fund.
Adam Ragheb Evolutionary response of native plants to allelopathic invaders. Iowa Science Foundation.