What’s the latest career stage at which a researcher has completely changed fields, and made important contributions to their new field?

Further to a conversation we had in the comments yesterday: it’s rare, but far from unheard of, for scientists and other scholars to switch fields. For instance, I know more than one person who switched from physics to ecology. But the ex-physicists in ecology whom I know all made the switch right after their PhDs, or maybe after a couple of years as physics postdocs. So they were pretty early in their careers when they switched. Thus raising the question: what’s the latest field change any researcher has ever made? I’m particularly interested in cases in which late field-changers went on to make important contributions to their new fields.

Offhand, I bet that many candidates will be mathematicians, or scientists with a lot of mathematical training. Mathematics being a very “portable” tool that’s useful in many fields. Bob May for instance got a PhD in physics in 1959 and became a full professor of physics before switching to ecology in 1972. Similarly, commenter Andrew Krause points us to James Murray. Murray got a PhD in mathematics in 1956 and held positions in applied mathematics and mechanical engineering for at least a decade after that, before becoming a leader in mathematical biology. Andrew also points us to Michael Reed, who got a PhD in mathematical physics in 1969 and worked on quantum theory for at least a decade before switching into mathematical biology. And commenter Ric Charnov notes the Geoff West, of metabolic theory of ecology fame, was a particle physicist in his late 50s when he started working on metabolic ecology, in collaboration with ecologists Jim Brown and Brian Enquist. So maybe a second question to ask is, what’s the latest field switch that wasn’t made by someone with advanced mathematical training?

Casual googling turns up this article (also linked to at the beginning of the post) on scientists who changed fields mid-career. Focuses mostly on biomedical researchers who switched fields while working for pharmaceutical companies.

And there’s this piece on people who started research careers very late, having previously worked in some non-research career. Such as former accountant Julie Dunne, who at the time that piece was written was a 57-year old postdoc in paleoanthropology. And of course, our own Brian McGill spent over a decade working in the computer software industry, before going back to school to become an ecologist.

18 thoughts on “What’s the latest career stage at which a researcher has completely changed fields, and made important contributions to their new field?

  1. Jared Diamond (born 1937) is certainly worth mentioning. Started out as a physiologist (PhD from Cambridge) in the early 1960s, then began a parallel second career in the mid-1960s in ecology and evolutionary biology (inspired by New Guinea birds). At 65, he switched to geography and environmental history (while continuing to work in evolutionary biology).

  2. The best example I know is L. F. (Lewis Fry) Richardson. What makes him a good example is that a cognitive psychologist friend knew of him only for his work in sociology (_Statistics of Deadly Quarrels_, e.g.), while I knew him for inventing numerical weather prediction (_Weather Prediction by Numerical Process_, 1922) and work in geophysical fluid dynamics, especially turbulence (for which the Richardson Number is named).

    He switched in his late 40s after discovering that his work on turbulence was being used by the military to further gas warfare plans. He was a pacifist, and had seen the effects of gas warfare as an ambulance driver during world war I. In between runs, he carried out the first numerical weather prediction.

  3. Don Ludwig, one of my PhD advisors, is one of my favourite examples. After a well established career in Applied Math (Professor of mathematics at NYU and UBC), Don became interested in ecology and ended his career as a Professor of Zoology after having made important contributions to mathematical and fisheries ecology, publishing for 30 years with people like Buzz Holling, Carl Walters, and Marc Mangel. He was the mathematical engine behind a lot of classic work. Though a theoretician, he was a strong advocate for a solid grounding in data and was an early advocate for what we would now call “data science.” As a mathematician, he was also perplexed that ecologists seemed to assume that ALL problems had a tractable solution. Don also had a BA in music and was an accomplished cellist.

  4. Michael Lynch’s earlier papers are on the ecology of freshwater plankton, then he shifted into population / quantitative genetics, then genome evolution, and now is focused on the evolutionary biology of cells. I don’t think these are as big discontinuities as some other famous researchers, but it’s an interesting evolution in research focus.

      • Leo Szilard might be a better example- at the age of 51, horrified by the prospects of ever more destructive nuclear bombs, he switched from nuclear physics to biochemistry / genetics.

  5. I can’t believe no one has mentioned Jane Elith yet! According to her c.v.: “After graduating with a BAgrSci (hons) [in 1977], I was a research assistant and tutor for 3 years, then spent the following 12 years raising my children. I returned to the university in 1992, and moved into a research career via my part-time PhD,” which she completed in 2003 in statistics and ecology. She is a pioneer in species distribution modeling and spatial ecology: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=IoWsesQAAAAJ&hl=en

    • Admittedly, I don’t know the specifics of her undergrad degree beyond that it was in Agricultural Science, so maybe not such a dramatic shift (but certainly a long enough period of time that statistical ecology in 2003 would be very different from agriculture or forestry in 1977.)

  6. Jack Szostak comes to mind – won a Nobel Prize for research on telomeres and has done amazing research over the last ten years investigating the origins of life. And he was born in Canada.

    • And not to stray off topic but this reminds me of a question I’m curious about – what biological research of the last 5 – 20 years should be being taught in Intro Biology courses but rarely is? Thinking of Jack Szostak reminded me of it because I think his research is a good example. So, not simply interesting research that first year students would enjoy – but research that gets at the most fundamental questions in biology.

      • I would say CRISRP-Cas9 should be taught in intro bio, but as a tool and emerging technology. Not sure if it gets at any a “fundamental question in biology” beyond the sophistication of bacterial immune systems, but certainly is going to revolutionize biology as much as PCR.

      • Adam, I hadn’t thought of, but agree on CRISPR. And I think it would fit pretty well into teaching about evolution – the potential for ‘directed’ mutations as opposed to random mutations.

  7. Pingback: Hoisted from the comments: what recent(ish) research should be taught in intro bio courses, or intro ecology courses, but isn’t? | Dynamic Ecology

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