Professor applies passion in biology career

As a child growing up in Arkansas, Ray Drenner had a pet raccoon named Rebel. Drenner and Rebel spent most of their time together, fording streams, catching crayfish and learning about the ecosystems of the creeks and streams of Arkansas.

Rebel, Drenner explained, had imprinted on him; the animal thought the boy was his parent. It appears, however, that the animal may have imprinted something even more enduring on the man.

Drenner, who is now a professor and chair of the department of biology, has devoted a lifetime to studying, researching and teaching about freshwater ecosystems and biology.

“I learned a lot about streams from that raccoon,” Drenner said.

Drenner has conducted vast amounts of research since coming to the university in 1977. He has directed 22 graduate theses, garnered 16 research grants, published 59 scholarly articles and presented more than 100 papers at scholarly meetings.

In 2009, the Texas Chapter of the American Fisheries Society honored Drenner with the Outstanding Fisheries Worker Award for his contributions to the field. With an ocean’s worth of work in freshwater systems behind him, Drenner is now focusing his efforts on studying the levels of mercury contamination in large bass fish in Texas.

Along with his colleague and former student Matthew Chumchal, who is also a biology professor at the university, Drenner has studied and mapped 204 Texas lakes and more than 3,300 bass.

The scientists have spent the past six years gathering samples of the fish, which Texas Parks and Wildlife sent them, running the samples through a machine that measures the level of mercury contamination, and inputting the data into a comprehensive map.

The map shows a picture of eastern Texas speckled with hundreds of different-sized dots. The dots, each representing a lake, have varied sizes to represent the levels of mercury contamination. The bigger the dot, the more contaminated the lake.

“That’s our data,” Drenner said. “And we’ve identified the areas in Texas where the mercury concentrations in bass are the greatest, and they tend to be in East Texas.”

Chumchal said about half of Texas’ bodies of water have fish with mercury levels above the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe-consumption levels.

Drenner said the significance is that regular consumption of the larger bass could be bad for pregnant women.

“Mercury is one of the most toxic compound chemicals known to man,” he said. “If someone eats high concentrations of mercury when she’s pregnant, then it could affect the development of the fetus she is carrying.”

The bass consumed must be large and consumed on a regular basis to be harmful to a fetus, he said.

Drenner’s work has not always been on levels of mercury contamination, but his focus has always been on freshwater ecosystems, he said.

Drenner received his first grant from the Agency for International Development of the U.S. State Department in 1980 to study fresh water bodies in Israel and Egypt.

“The three governments were trying to cooperate on something, so they picked the area of fresh water to focus on because water is so important to the Middle East,” he said.

The grant funded Drenner’s research on Lake Manzalah of Egypt and Lake Kinneret of Israel.

“I made nine trips and took my graduate students,” he said. “I owned an apartment in Tiberia. I had a car, and I drove the country freely. Times were different.”

Drenner worked with Israelis and Egyptians to conduct experiments and set up tests on the bodies of water in the area, he said.

Phil Hartman, a professor in the department of biology and Drenner’s long-time colleague and friend, said Drenner is not only notable because of his scientific merits, but also for his contributions to the department.

Drenner has overseen the department of biology through a pivotal time of renovations and faculty turnover, Hartman said.

“He’s done a really good job of talking to candidates, explaining what the opportunities are at TCU,” Hartman said. “He’s really been a great ambassador for the department at TCU.”

Chumchal said one of Drenner’s greatest accomplishments as an educator is that he brought the Contemporary Issues in Biology course to the department.

Drenner said the course, which started more than a decade ago, introduced a new way of teaching biology that made it more attractive to non-science majors.

“A student from business, or fine arts, or any other area of the university doesn’t need to be prepared to go to med-school or graduate school in biology,” Drenner said. “So, I decided that a good way to teach the course was to have each lecture or each lab focus on a contemporary issue in biology.”

Since its inception, the course has grown to more than 900 students each semester, and several faculty of the university are involved in teaching it.

Rachel Adcock, a freshman pre-major, said she enjoyed the course when she took it.

“I thought it was a lot of fun because Dr. Drenner made it interesting,” she said. “It impressed upon me the importance of staying up-to-date with medical information.”