How I got into ecology

Meg is compiling posts on how people got into ecology, her compilation appears tomorrow. So I guess I’d better write one!

(attention conservation notice: it’s short)

I knew I wanted to be an academic ecologist from late in high school. I liked and was good at science, especially biology, though I also liked and was good at other subjects too. I liked evolution. I thought sharks were really cool. And during my family’s annual summer beach vacation in New Jersey, I liked poking around the jetties looking for starfish and other interesting creatures.

So when I started applying to colleges, I put a lot of weight on whether the college had a marine ecology program, ideally one focused on the intertidal. Looking back, I put too much weight on that and not enough on other factors. But it worked out, because I ended up going to Williams College, which would’ve been perfect for me even had it not had a semester-long maritime studies program that included a marine ecology component. I majored in Biology, taking most of the ecology courses Williams offered (though avoiding the most natural historical ones; more on that in a sec). I did the maritime studies program, and did an honors thesis. And I applied to grad schools, focusing almost exclusively on leading ecologists working in the rocky intertidal. My dream was to be Bob Paine’s last grad student. Or else work with Bruce Menge and Jane Lubchenco.

Which I’m sure would’ve been great had it worked out that way. But I didn’t get into Washington. And Oregon State seemed awfully far away from my then-girlfriend, now-wife, and awfully far to ask her to move for me. There were some other people I was in touch with, doing other sorts of work, but I wasn’t as enthusiastic about working with them. So it was lucky for me that my amazing advisor David Smith probably knew better than I did what sort of ecology I’d like best. He told me to contact a guy he knew at Rutgers, Peter Morin. Peter had started out doing the same sort of amphibian community ecology David did, but had recently moved into protist microcosms. I’d worked with protists for my honors thesis, which included a microcosm experiment that eventually became my first publication. So I went and visited Peter, really liked him and his lab, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Looking back, it was only after becoming an ecologist that I fully understood what really attracted me to ecology. It wasn’t love of the outdoors or love of natural history or a desire to save the earth, at least not mostly. I liked those things well enough–well, except for natural history, which seemed to me like a lot of rote memorization and for which I had no aptitude. And as I said, I did really enjoy poking around tide pools. But what attracts me to ecology is the conceptual side of the field. Besides ecology, my favorite subject in college was philosophy.* I like being in a field in which what questions to ask, and how to answer them, are somewhat up for grabs (without being so up for grabs that there’s little possibility of progress, as in some fields of humanities and social sciences). Those sorts of foundational and methodological issues are borderline philosophical issues. And I like being in a field in which one can connect abstract ideas to real life. Ben Bolker said it better than I could:

Quantitative ecologists are only loosely anchored by the natural history of particular systems. Even the word “systems” is a giveaway; we see organisms as realizations of ideas, not as furry, feathery, or green individuals. Many of us came to ecology from physics, or mathematics, or statistics, because we loved its ideas. If we didn’t care about the organisms, we would have been content as mathematicians or physicists, but our true love was for the way that real ecological communities could embody general mathematical concepts of dynamics and variation. Our attachment to ideas gives us great flexibility, even more than other ecologists. Some of us are drawn to model systems, such as microcosms of flour beetles or plankton, where we can put ideas to searching experimental tests; others are drawn to the opposite extreme, that is, to long-term observational data from systems such as lynx populations or measles epidemics that challenge our ability to infer ecological processes from patterns. In either case, we are primarily interested in how we can use organisms to understand general principles rather than in the particular organisms themselves. This flexibility lets us pursue interesting questions wherever they lead.

In conclusion, I’m looking forward to Meg’s upcoming compilation of people’s stories of how they got into ecology. I’m sure they’ll reflect the diversity of ecologists’ backgrounds and motivations. People get into ecology for all sorts of reasons, and the field is better off for it. A field with “diversity” as one of its core concepts surely should be able to appreciate the diversity of its practitioner’s backgrounds and motivations.

p.s. As long as we’re talking about how I got into ecology, here’s how I almost got out of it.

*”Really?! I’d never have guessed.” Said absolutely none of our readers.

8 thoughts on “How I got into ecology

  1. Thanks for writing this! A lack of interest in natural history was a common theme of #ecologistconfessions. There was a fair number of ecologists who confessed to not liking David Attenborough documentaries. I find that especially interesting because I think many of my Intro Bio students come in to the class thinking ecology is pretty much just sitting around watching David Attenborough.

    • “A lack of interest in natural history was a common theme of #ecologistconfessions. ”

      Interesting! I missed that, will have to go back and have a look.

      I do enjoy David Attenborough documentaries, though I’m not as into him as some of my colleagues. Our department’s ecology technician holds regular David Attenborough watching nights in the seminar room.

    • Henry Wilbur was my adviser Peter Morin’s adviser as well. Peter’s an *amazing* natural historian. I’m pretty sure I disappointed him a bit in remaining the rubbish natural historian I am.

      • We attempted a family tree of sorts at Henry’s retirement and the branches were amazing!
        I think I learned more from the walks in the woods than anything else in grad school.

  2. Wow Ben Bolker’s quote really resonates. I got into ecology by a series of coincidences. I stumbled upon Alan Hastings intro to population biology book while at the library my sophomore year at UC Davis (at that time I was mostly into math and philosophy), and then less than a week after starting the book (and nearly finishing it), I happened to get an email add for an intro math-bio undergrad research program. I now work mostly in conservation, but my not so secret confession is that I find the problem solving and ecological ideas the most attractive side of the job. Getting to work on saving the planet is a bonus.

  3. Just for the record, I should perhaps clarify that I *don’t* think that my lack of natural history acumen holds me back as an ecologist, or somehow makes me not a “real” ecologist.

  4. Pingback: Back to Science | Salt Water

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