What unusual skill or past experience helps you be a better ecologist?

All ecologists receive broadly similar training. They’ve all read lots of papers and books about ecology. They’ve all had some statistical training. They’ve all had some practice at scientific writing and other communication skills. They all know their own study systems well, whether those study systems are lakes or viruses or differential equations or whatever. Obviously there’s variation–some ecologists know more stats than others, for instance. And when you first start working in a new study system, you often don’t yet know much about it. But broadly similar.

But science is a creative endeavor, and being good at it often involves making the most of your own unique abilities. In an ill-defined field like ecology, in which there are so many questions one could ask and so many ways one could go about answering them, there’s a fair bit of scope for individual ecologists to go their own way. And even if someone else is asking similar questions as you, and answering them in similar ways, the path that led them to that point might have been very different than yours.

So in the comments, I hope folks will share their stories of how some unusual aspect of their backgrounds helps them be better ecologists. Brian’s background in business taught him how to run a meeting and how to wear the many hats a PI wears. My undergraduate philosophy courses help me think about the value of simple theoretical models in ecology. Reading economics and finance blogs helps me think about everything from the structure of the scientific communication ecosystem to faculty hiring practices in ecology. In an old comment thread (sorry, can’t find it now), Jarrett Byrnes noted that his theater background helps him give better talks, and gives him creative ideas for teaching others how to give better talks. My biologist buddy Greg Crowther is a musician who uses music to teach science. Share your own example in the comments!

30 thoughts on “What unusual skill or past experience helps you be a better ecologist?

  1. Nice idea to ask this question – usually kids are asking: why I should learn this and this? For which purpose I will use it? My example: as a kid I liked to draw, I was in Biatlon club and at school I learned Russian. This shaped my career as ecologist. I worked in Arctic (polar bear safety training with shooting was not problem for me) and in mountains (mapped snow cover), I am drawing belowground plant organs (published whole book with them) and doing database of belowground plant morphology (lot of literature in Russian language).

  2. That’s an exciting discussion! My background in martial arts taught me the value of discipline and tenacity, skills that made my “scientist’s journey” less difficult. Eastern religions also taught me about duality, a world view that inspired me to study the balance between mutualism and antagonism.

  3. As a youngster, I worked as a summer camp counselor and program coordinator for an outdoor education and leadership program at a YMCA. I taught both children and adults the importance of clear communication through silly games and challenges to make them think about how important building trust is between a group of people to help them excel together. (For example, in one exercise we used to pair people up, one person was blindfolded and on their hands and knees while the other person was to lead them through a maze of mousetraps on the ground WITHOUT USING WORDS. Every. single. team. made it out without getting snapped by a mousetrap). These experiences demonstrated to me that we’re all capable of learning these skills, and often trust is the key to fostering good communication and leads to positive working relationships. I always tell my students and interns that wouldn’t ask them to do anything that I wasn’t willing to do myself.

  4. One more from me: in high school my summer job was cave tour guide. And then in college I gave tours for prospective students and their parents. I think this was good practice for being a blogger (and also just an early sign that I was the sort of person who’d enjoy blogging). As a blogger, I’m basically a tour guide to ecology and academia.

  5. Two years as an equities trader and analyst after my PhD made me much better at managing short term stress. The analyst bit also honed my coding skills. Sadly, I am not also a rich man.

    • Back when I was a postdoc I knew of a couple of British ecologists who went the other way, from ecology into day trading. One later returned to ecology, I believe. I don’t know if they got rich either.

      • I might have been working with them. 🙂 One did quite well in the end…

  6. I’d say that martial arts helped me be a better scientist by increasing discipline and focus, and also a better field ecologists by improving hand-eye coordination in general and the ability to use a machete to open trails in the jungle 🙂 And experience with environmental education helped me become a better teacher. I also used to sing, which helped me become a better teacher as well, especially regarding not being afraid in front of an audience and knowing how to better use my voice; and more recently, I think that taking clown courses (yes) also helped me teach and communicate better.

    • “I think that taking clown courses (yes) also helped me teach and communicate better.”

      I’ve heard several people talk up the virtues of improv comedy classes for improving your teaching and public speaking. I believe it. I’ve taken one myself (purely for fun, not to become a better speaker), but it was after my public speaking skills were already fairly honed so I’m not sure if it made any difference for me.

  7. Military training was good, not so much for dicipline, but for learning how to pull myself together and finish the task at hand despite things going wrong and situations being tough (particularly good skill during fieldwork). Also taught me to deal with the fact that life is, very often, unfair…

  8. I was zookeeper for a while, and it was the single greatest lesson in public speaking and communication (particularly with all education/age levels) that I’ve ever had. It’s also nearly impossible for the general public to shock me now. I’ve pretty much heard it all! Being a zookeeper also made me a much better observer of animal behavior. Zookeepers aren’t just training animals, they’re shaping and encouraging natural behaviors and looking for any signs of illness through changes in behavior. It’s an incredibly observant job.

    I was an RA in college, and facilitation/mediation training gave me skills that I now use regularly (I work in a pretty contentious area with a lot of stakeholders).

    Finally, I grew up in a fairly rural part of the world with really mechanically inclined family. I can drive almost anything, and that comes in handy all the time doing field work.

  9. I grew up in a very fundamentalist, religious household where all science was based on the earth being several thousand years old. But this has taught me that many topics that a scientist would consider taboo with this group (i.e., evolution, climate change, conservation) are actually on the table when you know the language to use and framework to hang the concepts on.

    • “But this has taught me that many topics that a scientist would consider taboo with this group (i.e., evolution, climate change, conservation) are actually on the table when you know the language to use and framework to hang the concepts on.”

      That’s a very good point. Would be interested to hear more about your experiences with this if you want to share them.

  10. The best field crew manager I ever worked with had spent years in the restaurant industry. She told me that after managing a bunch of teenage servers during their first job, field crews were EASY.

  11. As a tween, I was pretty shy. People don’t believe that now. In Scouts I got involved in leadership training, eventually serving as youth staff on many courses. All staff had to perform at campfires and since I coukd remember lyrics, I became the song leader. When you’ve sung goofy Scout songs in front of 1000 people, complete with goofier motions, being in front of a group is nothing. (Plus, leadership, outdoors, etc.)

    Later I was in the Peace Corps in Senegal working in forest conservation. The perspective from PC definitely shapes my preference for applied questions, and my tendency to avoid black and white approaches, like “native species good, exotic bad.”

    Finally, though not a musician myself, if I see music on an app to work in my lab, that’s a big plus. Seems like learning a piece of music and writing a thesis require similar planning skills.

  12. Gosh, where to start? I don’t think there’s anything I’ve done in previous occupations/life stages that haven’t helped me in my current career. Here’s a few examples:

    – working in the microbiology lab on a large brewery gave a me a good grounding in sterile lab techniques and made me very comfortable discussing microbes in intro biodiversity classes.

    – working as a roadie made me very efficient at packing field equipment!

    – getting on stage with a guitar and singing my own songs helped with later lecturing stage fright.

    – growing plants as a hobby is one of the best ways to help begin to really understand plants, how they grow, how they react to abiotic factors, etc. In fact all of my early knowledge about tropical plant families came from growing houseplants!

    – having kids at a relatively young age, beginning 18 months into my PhD, helped me become much more effective at time management.

    – coming from a poor, northern English background means that I empathise with many of the students on our courses, a high proportion of whom are the first in their family to attend university. A flip side of that, however, is that I have no patience with students who I see squandering opportunities or wasting their time in education.

  13. Pingback: Atividades não-acadêmicas úteis academicamente – Mais Um Blog de Ecologia e Estatística

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