The scientific road not taken: knowing what you know now, if you had to start over again and pick a totally different research area, which one would you pick?

I enjoy doing the population and community ecology I do, and I think there are good reasons to research those subjects. I have no regrets about having gone into population and community ecology. But knowing what I know now, if I had to start over again and pick a different research area, I’d pick evolutionary biomechanics.

I hadn’t known much about evolutionary biomechanics until I sat on a faculty search committee in that area. Sitting on a search committee is a great way to get up to speed on a research area. So now I’m an evolutionary biomechanics fanboy. From my outsider’s vantage point, evolutionary biomechanics has everything I like about my own field, and more.

  • Diverse examples of general principles. All organisms obey the laws of physics. They all evolve via evolution by natural selection. And many of them have to solve the same basic biomechanical problems in order to survive and reproduce, like “how to move efficiently through a fluid”. But yet the evolved solutions to those problems can vary quite a bit from one species to the next. So you have lots of interesting variation, but it all fits within a framework of general principles. Clear-cut patterns in the variation often emerge once you understand the relevant general principles.
  • Math plus biology. Perhaps in part because of its close connections to physics and engineering, many problems in evolutionary biomechanics are amenable to mathematical modeling. Indeed, they aren’t just amenable to mathematical modeling, they demand mathematical modeling. Without mathematical modeling, you often wouldn’t know what biomechanical questions to ask in the first place, much less be able to answer them. Good luck verbally intuiting your way to, say, an explanation of how hummingbirds hover. The amenability of biomechanical problems to mathematical modeling helps to make them tractable.
  • “How” plus “why” questions. One of the most basic divisions in biological research is between people and subfields focused on “how” questions, and people and subfields focused on “why” questions. In evolutionary biomechanics, you get to ask both kinds of questions, and the best work links them together. The “how” questions are engineering-type questions about, well, how the organism does whatever it does. The “why” questions are evolutionary questions, for instance about the fitness costs and benefits to the organism of moving as it does , rather than in some other way.
  • Good null models. By a “null” model, I mean a model that omits some bit of the real world, but that describes the rest of the world approximately correctly. We can compare the behavior of the real world to the behavior of the null model to learn about the effects of the omitted bit, if any. The trouble with a lot of null models in ecology is that they often don’t really omit whatever it is they purport to omit, and don’t describe the other bits of the world with sufficient accuracy. Whereas null models in evolutionary biomechanics seem work pretty well, at least as best I can tell. For instance, it seems to be common for investigators to calculate quite precisely how fast some organism could move some body part via muscle contraction alone. If the organism turns out to move its body part faster than that, that’s strong evidence that it’s not just relying on muscle contraction. Instead, it must have some method of “power amplification”–some way to store energy in a spring for subsequent rapid release (see Longo et al. 2019 for review).
  • Holy s**t. A lot of evolutionary biomechanics involves working out the hows and whys of biomechanical extremes–organisms pushing the limits of what’s possible. Which means that, as an evolutionary biomechanicist, it’s your job to watch organisms doing things that make you go “Holy s**t!” I don’t know about you, but I could use more “holy s**t!” moments in my life. 🙂

I mean, I know this is familiar to all of you, but it will never not be amazing:



Just look at this:



Are you kidding me?!:



I had to pay good money for a sonicator; they come standard on pistol shrimp:



Ok, come on, this can’t even be real, this is the real life Matrix:



Now it’s your turn: if you had to start over again and pick some other topic or field besides the one you currently work on, what would it be?

Related old post:

The road not taken–for me, and for ecology. One of my better efforts, I think.



31 thoughts on “The scientific road not taken: knowing what you know now, if you had to start over again and pick a totally different research area, which one would you pick?

  1. Well, fewer “holy s**t” moments, but if I wasn’t allowed to do what I do, I’d love to do research in science studies – asking how scientists do the work they do. More specifically (and nobody will be surprised by this), I’d like to study the effectiveness of different writing practices. Everybody (including me) has strong opinions about how one should write a scientific paper. Active voice or passive? Assertive sentence or question title? Jokes or straight-up serious? One or two spaces after a full stop? (OK, that last one is just to rile folks up; do whatever the heck you want, people, the journal will typeset it by their style guide anyway.) We all have these strong opinions – but almost none of them are backed by high-quality, peer-reviewed research. If I started over, I’d do some of that.

  2. What are the things which prevent or discourage switching fields if you’re already quite far along in your career? On the pure theory side we do this somewhat often I think, because we don’t have the constraints of labs/equipment/people that experimental scientists do, but it can still be enormously demanding in terms of time to learn a new area properly. Of course this can also lead to things like this XKCD comic:

    Are there particular reasons why you won’t start studying this field now? Is there a point in one’s career where such changes are no longer feasible or attractive? All of this of course depends on the “distance” between fields, but I’m curious if there are useful perspectives here in general.

    • “What are the things which prevent or discourage switching fields if you’re already quite far along in your career?”

      Lack of background knowledge and technical training. I don’t know nearly enough about biomechanics to identify good questions, or to answer them.

      • I had a similar thought as Andrew. After some slow but steady reading “on the side”, paying attention to the cutting edge, I suspect that Stephen could do or collaborate on a “real” science studies study, and that Jeremy could contribute to evolutionary biomechanics, just as someone in a different field could learn enough about some branch of ecology to do the same. So, I say go for it! You only live once.

      • “suspect that Stephen could do or collaborate on a “real” science studies study, and that Jeremy could contribute to evolutionary biomechanics, just as someone in a different field could learn enough about some branch of ecology to do the same. ”

        That’s very kind of you to say, but I’m not sure about that. I suspect there might be a fair bit of variance among fields in terms of how much background knowledge you need to learn in order to be able to do “real” work. Like, imagine trying to teach yourself enough math “on the side” to do “real” number theory!

        Now I’m thinking of this great early oughts reality tv show from the UK called Faking It. Every episode, they’d take someone with little or no relevant background experience, and in one month teach them to fake it as someone with considerable experience of some occupation. Say, teach a sheep shearer to fake it as a professional hair stylist, or a burger van man to fake it as a haute cuisine chef, or an office manager to fake it as an equestrian show jumper. The climax of every episode was a competition against other pros, judged by top pros. The judges would decide the competition winner, but were also asked to pick out the faker (sometimes with advance warning to look for a faker, sometimes only learning afterwards that one of the contestants was faking it). Anyway, one thing I took away from the show was that there was a *lot* of variance in how easy it is for person X to pick up profession Y. For instance, it turns out you can’t take someone who has a desk job and doesn’t exercise and teach them to fake it as a pro surfer in a month. They just can’t get physically fit enough in a month. On the other hand, it turns out you can totally take a professional cellist and teach her to be an *awesome* club DJ in a month. Like, literally from zero to “probably the best club DJ in London” in a month. So where on the spectrum from “guy with a desk job learning to surf” to “cellist learning to DJ” would “me learning to be an evolutionary biomechanicist” fall? Somewhere in the middle, I guess? But it might be towards the “guy with a desk job learning to surf” end of the spectrum.

        OTOH, now that I have an (invited) paper in press at a philosophy journal, I’m reasonably confident that, if I wanted to, I could switch from ecology to philosophy of ecology. That’s a switch I’m fairly “pre-adapted” to make. I’ve had some philosophy classes, have read some philosophy on the side, and I already have the scientific training that philosophers of science increasingly are seeking out for themselves.

      • A further thought/question: what the latest career switch anyone has ever made from one scholarly field to another? For purposes of this question, you don’t count as having “switched” until you’ve written at least a couple of good papers in your new field, without collaborating with someone else (interdisciplinary collaborations don’t count as switching fields).

        For instance, I can think of several people who switched from physics to ecology shortly after finishing a physics PhD or a single physics postdoc. But I can’t think of anyone who made that switch after that. But perhaps I’m forgetting someone?

      • Regarding late switchers: both James Murray and Michael Reed started out doing very theoretical mathematical physics, but both became well known as big names in mathematical biology. At least within mathematics, this is one of the largest jumps I’ve seen.

        My postdoc supervisor also did the same – PhD in quantum field theories, now studies biomechanics of sperm swimming, immune therapies in oncology, and developmental biology topics among other things.

      • Point taken for sure that some people (me, for example) have no chance of making contributions to number theory or Russian literature. I started with the assumption that Stephen had the background on writing practice and Jeremy in math to not be excluded on the grounds of lacking fundamental technical abilities. Those barriers seem “hard”(ish). Others seem surmountable, if of course one has the time to invest in taking a crack at it…

      • “For instance, I can think of several people who switched from physics to ecology shortly after finishing a physics PhD or a single physics postdoc. But I can’t think of anyone who made that switch after that. But perhaps I’m forgetting someone?”

        Geoff west, of metabolic ecology fame, is a particle physicist, who began working with Brown and Enquist (and then me a bit later ) in his late 50s.

      • Clearly I should’ve thought a bit harder before writing the comment to which you’re replying. 🙂 Never mind forgetting Geoff West, I forgot Bob May! He was a physicist for 13 years post-PhD, made it all the way to full professor, before he switched to ecology.

      • John maynard Smith was an airplane engineer before he went back to school to learn biology. Then he mostly did experimental population genetics. After Haldane died he took up theory.

      • Re: Maynard Smith going back to school to learn biology, I’m not sure whether a distinction should be made between people who went back to school in order to switch fields, and people who didn’t. Not that one way of switching fields is inherently ‘better’ or ‘harder’ than the other. But they do strike me as fairly different.

      • Ooh Bob May is a good example. I had vaguely remembered hearing he switched after doing physics, but it didn’t stick in my head for some reason.

      • Afraid I just heard some coincidental bad news: Bob May just passed away. I put a post in the queue for tomorrow, trying to do his work some justice, but I’m sure I fell very short. It’s very hard to do justice to everything Bob May did for ecology.

        RIP Bob, you will be much missed.

      • Pretty sure John Harte got tenure as a physicist (or at a minimum hired tenure track as a physicist) before becoming ecological.

  3. Other answers from other venues. Name (what they currently do): what they’d do instead.
    Dan Bolnick (evolution in sticklebacks): cancer evolution
    Jon Schurman (forest ecology): bitcoin
    Ju Morimoto (insect behavioral ecology): clean energy

  4. I’d say astrophysics. The kind of space-for-time substitution a few of us try to do to get at community / population dynamics is mainstream in studying stellar life cycles. In ecology noise and complexity make space-for-time harder, more so because ecologists place less premium on studying ecological dynamics. But in both fields I think this technique let’s us get at we can’t experiment with and involves some very clever ideas.

  5. *lets us get at things we can’t experiment with

    And the greater emphasis on statistical studies in Ecology is of course right (sometimes we need to make predictions on things that are complex or urgent), if IMO overemphasized.

  6. Economics. The more data-science (aka econometrics) end of economics that looks at a broad range of policy questions including education is appealing to me. I didn’t know it existed in college though (even though my econ TA called himself an econometrician). Most intro econ classes are very classical equilibrium theory model based. But just like your checklist the more data-driven, policy said fits my list of really complicated and messy with lots of opportunities for data analysis.

  7. Re: Brian’s comment, yes, I switched to a mix of field and theoretical ecology after 3 years as a postdoc and 5 years as a physics asst. prof at Yale, doing theoretical fundamental physics. I tend to agree with Mark and Andrew that changing career path can be done at any age. The barrier is often, I think, not capacity to learn new things but the stress of leaving a field in which one knows the rules and is a
    comfortable member of of a community. It really was stressful for me. What made my transition somewhat easier was that as a kid I was a pretty serious birder/naturalist; I probably had a better “feel” for ecosystems than for quantum fields, or even for electric circuits.

    • Thanks very much for sharing your experience of this transition John–very interesting. I note with interest that Bob May was a keen birder too. Now I’m curious how common it is for physicists who make this transition to have something “ecological” in their background that helps them make the transition.

  8. Me, I’d like to work in the History of Science – I loved history at school, still love historical novels, love genealogy and my blog often delves back into the olden days 🙂

  9. Considering I ended up in insect ecology accidentally, after a failed undergrad attempt at boring old mammal research, I’m pretty happy with the outcomes! But beyond ecology, I would say ancient history/archaeology – it was my best subject at school and I went to uni first to study history/archaeology & literature. This dream fizzled quickly when I realised how much self-funded travel was involved to be an archaeologist (I hadn’t met field ecology yet!), but I still retain my interest in history with science history 🙂

    • I wonder how many people get turned off to field X because of a single “dealbreaker”. “I’d love to be an archaeologist, except for the self-funded travel part”. For me as a kid, it was “I’d love to be a paleontologist, except for the having to sit scraping at dirt with a toothbrush for hours part”.

      • In later life, it became clear to me that there are various other things that would’ve stopped me from being a good paleontologist, and from enjoying it very much. I don’t enjoy geology. I have no eye for spotting bits of fossil sticking out of cliffsides or riverbanks, and doubt I’d get good at it even with practice. I have zero ability to visualize what a squashed, 2-D specimen would’ve looked like in 3-D. I get frustrated by inconclusive data and arguments. Perhaps one or two of those could’ve been overcome with the right choices of study system/subfield/coursework. But all of them together would’ve made me a pretty mediocre, sad paleontologist, I think.

        Much better for me to collaborate with my paleontologist colleague Jessica Theodor and her group, or to take on grad students with paleontological backgrounds. I get to leave the actual paleontology to people who like it and are good at it, and help out with the bits that I like and am good at. 🙂

  10. Pingback: What’s the latest career stage at which a researcher has completely changed fields, and made important contributions to their new field? | Dynamic Ecology

  11. Pingback: If I hadn’t become an entomologist, what would I have become? The scientific road not taken | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

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