Things I learned from my undergraduate advisor, David Smith

A few weeks ago I had the great privilege to attend a celebration of my undergraduate honors thesis supervisor, David Smith, on the occasion of his retirement from the Dept. of Biology at Williams College. During his time at Williams, David mentored dozens of undergraduates, most of whom assisted him in his field work on the chorus frogs and spring peepers that breed in rock pools on the shore of little North Government Island in Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. Like me, many of those students went on to become ecologists and evolutionary biologists. David’s “academic fitness” is impressively high given that he exclusively mentored undergrads, even allowing for the fact that Williams students are more likely than most undergrads to go on to PhDs. David steered me down a scientific path I wouldn’t otherwise have gone down, and taught me some of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned. Often without even realizing he was doing it, and in one case without even being in the same place as me. So here are some things I learned about science, and life, from David Smith.

David Smith, now happily retired.

  • Working too hard is counterproductive in the grand scheme of things. So is perfectionism. Late in the spring of my senior year, with my honors thesis due in a few days, I put in only a token appearance at the end-of-semester parties, left my friends, and went over to the computer center to pull what turned out to be an all nighter working on my thesis. I didn’t regularly pull all nighters (indeed, I can only remember pulling one other one), and I hadn’t left my thesis until the last minute. I just wanted my thesis to be perfect. I remember I spent a lot of time tweaking statistical analyses and formatting ANOVA tables. A buddy of mine was there for a while too working on his own thesis, but eventually left in the wee hours. He told me later that when he got up to get breakfast, he ran into David Smith. He told David, “You should be proud of Jeremy, he spent all night working on his thesis.” To which David replied, “Why?” Hearing this from my friend, I suddenly realized how silly it was to spend all night formatting ANOVA tables when I could’ve been hanging out with friends (many of whom I haven’t seen since graduating), or getting some sleep, or doing just about anything else. (As an aside, I had missed the first opportunity to learn this lesson from David, so I’m glad I got an accidental second chance. I was unusual among David’s honors students in not spending the entire day with David in the field. Rather, I’d go to our field site in the morning, collect my samples (which didn’t take that long), then return to our camp where the microscope was so I could spend the rest of the day IDing protists and rotifers. It’s only in retrospect that I realize I probably should’ve spent less time trying to process MOAR SAMPLES and more time just hanging out with David and his other students.)
  • It’s fine to write just a few papers, if they’re really good. David doesn’t have a ton of papers on his cv, and I’m sure most of you have never heard of him. But talk to people you probably have heard of, who work on the community and evolutionary ecology of anurans, and you’ll find they have huge respect for David and his work. I’d single out three papers of his that have had a lasting influence. First, Smith (1983) reports observations and a field experiment showing how wave disturbances, dragonfly predation, and intraspecific competition determine the distribution of chorus frog tadpoles along the shore of North Government Island. It’s a classic story of species distributions along environmental gradients. It may not look all that exceptional today, but you have to remember that back in the late ’70s and early ’80s field experiments were an up-and-coming way of doing ecology. In 1989, the great Nelson Hairston Sr. published a book, Ecological Experiments, covering many now-familiar aspects of experimental design and reviewing what ecologists had learned from field experiments up to that point. Guess what paper he spends 5 pages discussing, as his first example of the power of a well-conceived field experiment? Smith (1983). I read Nelson’s book early in grad school and I remember being really excited and proud when I got to that passage. 🙂 Second, Smith (1987). Back in the late 70s and early 80s, mesocosm experiments on anurans and other pond-dwelling organisms took off in community ecology in a big way, thanks largely to the influence of Henry Wilbur and his students (e.g., Peter Morin’s 1983 Mercer Award-winning paper on the competitive ability-predation resistance trade-off and its consequences for larval anurans). Mesocosms are great, but one limitation they have is that the surviving anuran larvae metamorphose into adults and wander off. How do you know that whatever happened to them as larvae matters for them as adults? As Peter Morin said to me once, “David Smith is the only one who has data on this.” The frogs on North Government Island have nowhere else to go, so they return to the same pools every year to breed (among-island dispersal is pretty much non-existent). David took advantage of this to do mark-recapture and follow adult chorus frogs for their entire lives. Revealing that what happens to tadpoles does matter for (or at least correlates with) adult demography: tadpoles that mature early, and at large size, have a fitness advantage as adults. Smith (1987) has been cited hundreds of times, because as far as I know it’s still the only study that allows us to extrapolate from the results of mesocosm experiments on anuran larvae to the entire anuran life cycle. Third, Smith and Van Buskirk (1995). David and his collaborator (and former honors student) Josh Van Buskirk discovered adaptive plasticity of behavior and morphology of tadpoles, particularly chorus frog tadpoles, in response to dragonfly predators. In the presence of dragonfly larvae, tadpoles move around less, because movement puts them at risk of attack, and they develop deeper tail fins that improve their ability to swim away from an attack. That comes at some cost to their ability to compete for food, but improved survival makes the trade-off worth it. Besides being a very well worked-out case study of functional morphology and adaptive plasticity, this paper helped spawn a major research program, taken up by many labs, on how plastic changes in species’ phenotypic traits in response to predators or competitors can have knock-on consequences for other species living in the same place, so called “trait-mediated indirect effects” (see Preisser and Bolnick 2005 for review). I don’t know about you, but I’ll be proud if at the end of my career I can point to three papers of mine that have made that much of an impact. Note that I don’t take this as a lesson about exactly how many papers you need to get tenure or anything like that–it’s not that specific a lesson. It’s more a broad point of view. However many papers you think you need, for whatever purpose you need them–for tenure, to substantially advance your field, to earn the respect and admiration of colleagues, or just for your own self-satisfaction–well, are you sure it has to be quite that many?
  • Model systems are awesome. As I noted in the previous bullet, North Government Island is a model system for anuran ecology, because it has unique features that make it tractable to ask questions that would be difficult or impossible to ask elsewhere. It was through working with David on North Government Island, and later doing a protist microcosm experiment with him, that I first came to appreciate the power of model systems in ecology. Going on to do a PhD with Peter Morin of course reinforced that view, but it was working with David that first set me down the rarely-trodden path I’m still on today.
  • Your mentees will learn a lot just by hanging out with you. One memory all of David’s honors students share is sitting around the wood stove after dinner chatting with David about ecology, science, and life. I don’t remember anything in particular that we talked about. But I must have learned a ton–a lot of “tacit knowledge” about how to be a scientist. Because these days, when I give advice to my own mentees, or give advice on the blog, I’m often saying things that just seem obvious to me. I can’t recall where or when I learned them, save that I know I didn’t learn them in a class or from reading others’ advice. But of course, they’re not obvious, and I must’ve learned them somewhere. On reflection, I’m sure I learned them from hanging out with David (and with Peter Morin, my PhD supervisor). So now, one thing I try to do as an undergraduate instructor and graduate supervisor is make time to hang out with students.
  • Give your mentees independence. David gave me a lot of rope on my honors project. During my summer field work, it was my job to sample the protists and rotifers in rock pools that were part of a larger experiment David and Josh were running. But it was pretty much up to me to figure out how to do it. Now, perhaps David felt able to give me that much rope in part because my data wasn’t essential to the project. If I’d screwed up it wouldn’t have sunk the whole project. But whatever the reason, I’m glad he gave me as much rope as he did. I’m sure that that’s part of why I felt comfortable down the road developing my own PhD project, and later running my own research program as an unusually-independent postdoc. I confess that I perhaps haven’t taken the lesson to heart as much as I should in my own mentoring. I don’t give my own honors students as much rope as David gave me, and I sometimes wonder if they’d be better off if I did.
  • It’s great to be a great natural historian–and totally fine if you’re not. David is a great natural historian, and not just of his own study system. Another memory all of his honors student share is what an incredible birder he is. He has the entire Audobon Guide to North American birds memorized pretty much word for word (no joke). Many of his students went on to become great natural historians themselves. But not me, slightly to my embarrassment.* But here’s the thing: my slight embarrassment at not having followed David’s example and become a great natural historian–or even become a field ecologist–does not reflect David’s own feelings. David never pushed me to become a better natural historian, and he’s not secretly disappointed in me for never doing so. That’s come to mean a lot to me, as I’ve gone on in ecology and occasionally read or heard other ecologists implying that I and people like me are not real ecologists because our work isn’t grounded in natural history. More broadly, for all of David’s honors students who went on to become ecologists or evolutionary biologists, many others didn’t. They became medical doctors or camp counselors or other things–and David’s just as proud of them as he is of the ones who became ecologists and evolutionary biologists. I’m eternally grateful to David for giving me the opportunities he did–and for being completely fine with me taking advantage of only some of them while passing on others. The best mentors know that there’s no one Right Way to be an ecologist, or a person. They help you become the best possible version of yourself rather than a crappy version of somebody else.

*I look at great natural historians the same way I look at great musicians or great painters. It’s like they have a superpower. I can’t imagine myself ever putting in all the time it would take to get really good, or that I would be really good even if I did put in the time.

3 thoughts on “Things I learned from my undergraduate advisor, David Smith

  1. Hi Jeremy. I have been reading your blog for a while, but have not commented until now. Thanks so much for this tribute to David Smith. As you know, I knew David when I was an assistant professor at Williams back in the 1990s. David is an impressive scientist and he was a wonderful colleague. I really appreciated being able to interact with him as I was getting started as a college professor, and I learned a lot from both him and his wife Joan Edwards. You were lucky to have had him as an advisor, and to have been able to visit Isle Royale with him and Joan in the summer. They always took a crew of students with them to do research, and it must have been a great experience. By the way, I am enjoying your blog! Keep up the good work.
    Gretchen Meyer

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