Have any ecologists or evolutionary biologists ever switched from one sort of research to a totally different sort?

Nobel Laureate economist Robert Mundell recently passed away. I know nothing about Mundell, but I was interested to read that his intellectual legacy is complicated, apparently because he switched from doing one sort of economics to a completely different sort. It’s not merely that Mundell changed his mind about important economic matters. It’s that he changed his whole approach as well.

We’ve discussed scientists who’ve changed their minds about important scientific matters. But I don’t think we’ve ever discussed scientists changing their whole research approach. Are there any examples of this from ecology and evolutionary biology? The equivalent of me switching to, say, dinosaur paleontology or condor conservation or something?

Note that I’m not thinking here of undergraduate or graduate students changing their whole approach. It’s common for students who are still figuring out their own interests to switch between labs taking totally different approaches to science. And I’m not thinking here of scientists quitting science for some other occupation, or people with established non-scientific careers switching to scientific research. Those are definitely big switches; they’re just not the sort of switches I’m interested in for purposes of this post.

No great candidates come to mind off the top of my head. Dave Tilman switched from algae in chemostats to grasslands, but I feel like all of his work is very much of a piece, conceptually. He didn’t give up on R* theory or experimentation when he switched to working in grasslands.

Can you think of any examples? Looking forward to your comments, as always.

p.s. Analogous examples from other areas of life seem to be pretty rare. For instance, it seems to be pretty rare for fiction authors to totally change their writing style, though there are more examples of writers whose styles changed gradually over a period of many years. See here and here for discussion and some examples.

65 thoughts on “Have any ecologists or evolutionary biologists ever switched from one sort of research to a totally different sort?

    • Your suggestion prompted me to look up Pigliucci’s cv. I hadn’t realized he’s published so much philosophy, and that not all of it is philosophy of science (there’s also stuff on stoicism). In my head, I’d had him in more or less the same “box” as Richard Dawkins. But having seen his cv, he looks like he’s in a rather different box, though still with some overlap with Dawkins.

    • Yeah, I was thinking about Jared Diamond. He’s certainly right up there. I think if you were going to push back against Diamond as an example, you’d have to argue that a lot of his later work was shallow. That he was dabbling.

    • from memory of a talk from him back in the 90s: Jared Diamond was always *both* a physiologist and ecologist — his ability to maintain the ecology part was an explicit part of the package in moving to UCLA, not sure that Harvard would have given that to him.

      • Agreed that Diamond was a two highly diverse things at the same time, not one big switch.My understanding is that he spent his summers birding in Papua New Guinea and such and would write that up all while keeping up his credentials as physiologist. I guess, like Turchin, his switch to writing history/anthropology (although again I think he kept his earlier research programs) was maybe bigger.

  1. I don’t know about switching completely, in the sense that someone ditches one approach completely and from then on only does the other thing. But I have a very short academic attention span. Early in my career I had a straight-up ecology “line” in processing chain ecology, with a completely unrelated line in the topology of phylogenetic trees. At some point I more-or-less left those behind and started working on host-race formation and diet specialization in plant-feeding insects. Now I have (accidentally, it seems) left that behind to focus on forest insect pests and, most recently, forest soil carbon dynamics.

    I don’t know what you think of as a “totally different sort”, but I can assure you that explaining how all these things are part of one cohesive research program has involved a lot of sophisticated wordsmithing (cough, cough, fiction, cough, cough) in grant proposals and tenure and promotion packages.

    But I think maybe you mean something even more dramatic? Because I don’t think I’m the only one who has wandered this way. I’m actually really fascinated by the OPPOSITE: people who have stuck with the same approach/system/questions for 30 years. And there have been fascinating, important examples. How do they do it???

    • Heh, I’d forgotten you used to do resource processing chains in streams! Yes, switching from that to host race formation and diet specialization in phytophagous insects does seem like a pretty big switch to me.

      What prompted that switch? And what do you see as the connecting threads that make it all one cohesive research program? Looking for the honest answers here, not what you’d say on a grant application. I promise not to tell the program officer. 🙂

    • I’m with you Stephen. I find it really hard to do more than about 5 papers on one topic and then I feel very “done” with the topic. Not that there is not more research to be done but I’m pretty sure I don’t have the interest to continue nor much new to say. I recall getting really itchy as a postdoc when I realized people were trying to label me as “neutral theory” or “species abundance distributions”. So I’m sure I don’t arrive at the level of switch Jeremy is talking about, but I find people who don’t switch it up more surprising.

    • Bob May made a similar switch…but I suspect it is less common to move the other way (an ecologist becoming a physicist seems like a huge jump if the mathematical foundation is not already in place)

      • Yeah, as noted in the comments on George Oster, mathematics is a general-purpose tool kit. So as you say, it’s not *that* rare for somebody with serious mathematical chops to move from one field to another.

      • I think it’s a mistake to think of the kind of moves made by Bob May, or George Oster, or Simon Levin, or Shripad Tuljapurkar, with just finding a new place to apply the same mathematical tools. In each of those cases (and probably more) there was a genuine and sustained intellectual engagement with a different field.

    • I was also thinking about Bob May (who switched early in his career) – and a few other physicists who have jumped to theoretical ecology.

      Maybe Stuart Pimm’s an interesting example? Switched from developing ecological models (after starting with ornithology) to a very strong applied conservation focus.

      • Maybe it wasn’t a sudden switch – more like a gradual move back to where his heart always lay, but I think he’s got impressive conservation credentials!

        E.g., from his department webpage “His commitment to the interface between science and policy has lead to his testimony to both House and Senate Committees on the re-authorization of the Endangered Species Act” and lots of international prizes/recognition.

        [Disclaimer: I co-authored a review-type piece with Stuart following some workshops a few years ago – I was really happy to meet him because of his work modelling population/community dynamics, but didn’t know much about his conservation contributions before then either!]

  2. What about George Oster? In the 70s he wrote a book with E.O Wilson called “Caste and ecology in the social insects”, an article in Paleobiology entitled “Size and shape in ontogeny and phylogeny” and an article with Bob May in the American Naturalist, entitled “Bifurcations and dynamic complexity in simple ecological models”. Then he switched research fields entirely and worked on cellular and molecular system. It was 3 decades later I heard him give this fantastic lecture on molecular motors, which he was working on (see the book Molecular Motors: Theory that he co-authored; https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-0-387-22459-6_12). George Oster was a theoretician which facilitated such a career switch, but his career is nonetheless impressive.

    I found this very interesting biography of George Oster published in PNAS in 2006 (https://www.pnas.org/content/103/6/1672.full). Reading it emphasised for me once again how serendipity sometimes shapes careers. Here is a direct quote from the profile:

    — As Oster was preparing to leave Berkeley, however, a spot serendipitously opened. The Entomology department was looking for a population biologist, and they had interviewed Simon Levin, an old friend of Oster’s. Levin turned down the position but told the search committee, “What about my friend George?” —

    Who would have thought that? Do read the profile, it is very amusing for a number of reasons.

    • I find it hard to judge how hard it is for a good mathematician to switch from working on one set of problems to another set that might seem entirely unrelated.

      I guess one question is, to what extent does the mathematics of molecular motors have anything in common with the mathematics of simple ecological models? I’m thinking of Duncan Watts’ work on synchrony for instance–the same math can be reinterpreted to apply to everything from firing neurons to heart pacemaker cells to flashing fireflies.

      That bit of serendipity regarding Oster’s career certainly illustrates how the academic job market has changed in the US and Canada! I’ll take the excuse to shamelessly re-up this old post on that topic: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2019/03/06/when-and-why-the-ecology-faculty-job-market-first-got-so-competitive/

    • Yeah, I thought about Turchin. In retrospect, I maybe should’ve mentioned him in the post. I didn’t because his approach to history is very much like his approach to population ecology back when he worked in population ecology. But perhaps I’m overrating the importance of that connecting thread?

      (Aside: I think Turchin’s approach was much more successful in population ecology than in history, because in population ecology he had much better data, over much longer spans of time relative to the period of whatever cycle (or putative cycle) he was studying. He could also write down mathematical models of hypothesized processes generating the cycles, and fit those models to time series data and/or evaluate their plausibility with other lines of evidence. But I don’t know much about Turchin’s historical work so perhaps I’m underrating how successful it’s been?)

      • I don’t know much either about how successful the “dynamical systems” approach to history has been – we may need to talk to historians to be able to answer that!

      • Back in 2010 or so, Turchin did predict that the world would see a peak of unrest in 2020. One can certainly appreciate why he’s claiming that as a successful prediction, while also wondering if he got lucky.

  3. Apparently the astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar made a career out of purposely switching fields, after having made foundational progress in each one. I have read that he would work in a field for about a decade, write the defining book on the topic, and then box up his notes and papers on that, and pick a new field.

    From Wikipedia:
    “Chandrasekhar developed a unique style of mastering several fields of physics and astrophysics; consequently, his working life can be divided into distinct periods. He would exhaustively study a specific area, publish several papers in it and then write a book summarizing the major concepts in the field. He would then move on to another field for the next decade and repeat the pattern. Thus he studied stellar structure, including the theory of white dwarfs, during the years 1929 to 1939, and subsequently focused on stellar dynamics, theory of Brownian motion from 1939 to 1943. Next, he concentrated on the theory of radiative transfer and the quantum theory of the negative ion of hydrogen from 1943 to 1950. This was followed by sustained work on turbulence and hydrodynamic and hydromagnetic stability from 1950 to 1961. In the 1960s, he studied the equilibrium and the stability of ellipsoidal figures of equilibrium, and also general relativity. During the period, 1971 to 1983 he studied the mathematical theory of black holes, and, finally, during the late 80s, he worked on the theory of colliding gravitational waves.”

    • To which, not sure. I kind of feel like evo-devo is a big topic of longstanding interest in paleontology, going at least as far back as Gould’s Ontogeny and Phylogeny. So I’m not sure that going from paleo-based work in evo-devo to genetics-based work in evo-devo is really *that* big a switch? But I’m not the best person to judge.

      • Also, I feel like there are others out there besides Neil Shubin who integrate genetic work and paleontological work to study evo-devo? Which suggests that the gap between the two approaches isn’t *so* big that only very rare people can bridge it.

  4. Michael Lynch went from a zooplankton ecologist to hard core evolutionary molecular genetics.

    Jim Bull [https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=LYy5Ny8AAAAJ&hl=en] went from evolutionary ecology of sex determination, sexual selection,life history etc. to to molecular genetics of disease [ phage, bacteria, etc].

    • Dan Bolnick has been moving from evolutionary biology to the interface of evolution and immunology, though I don’t think he’s gone down the molecular genetics road. So not as big a move as Strand.

  5. Tim Clutton-Brock switching from competition/mating in red deer to cooperation in meerkats? Perhaps not as ‘major’ of a shift as you were envisioning, but it was definitely a big pivot.

      • 🙂
        My now retired colleague Lawrence Harder liked to tell the story of how he worked on porcupines for his MSc and only ever saw one. He joked that he switched to working on flowering plants and pollinators because he wanted to actually see his study organisms.

        I do feel like that’s a big thing many plant ecologists like about plants. Plants don’t move around, so once you’ve found them, you can mark them and find them again.

  6. I began to study evolutionary traps in graduate school, with a focus on birds, but the postdocs I was able to land were entirely focused on agroecology and ecosystem services across taxonomic boundaries. Upon getting a faculty position, I took a risk and left my training in ornithology and started working in an entirely new study system having to do with the impacts of light pollution on aquatic insects. This has been very productive for me and has turned out to be a model study system for understanding evolutionary traps. It has also been a very inexpensive and handy study system to work on with undergraduate researchers. Certainly, all these changes fell within the heading of behavioral ecology in general, so there are dimensions in which I didn’t have to change my entire approach to science. I also found all of this switching has given me insights and opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

  7. Charles Darwin: natural selection/evolution, decomposition/worms, taxonomy of inverts, coral reef building processes and probably many others I can’t remember 🙂

    • Heh. 🙂 I was wondering if someone would bring up Darwin. He did have broad interests, though in the context of his time I’m not sure that they were as exceptionally broad as they would be today.

  8. Irene Pepperberg was a chemical physicist who bought a pet parrot, named him Alex, and became one of the most famous animal cognition and behavior researchers ever. I think she’s pretty fascinating and inspiring!

      • Wow – sorry to hear from the wikipedia article that Alex (the parrot) has passed. He was up stairs from me during grad school. Every time there was a fire drill/alarm, somebody (usually a grad student) had to bring him out of the building and I would see him hanging out with the rest of us waiting to get the OK to go back in the building.

  9. I was going to mention Peter Turchin too because that seemed like a big shift to me. Jared Diamond works for me as well. I remember writing him an email as a grad student asking for his opinion on something about the appropriate way to randomize species-site matrices to capture a realistic null model (he had been involved in that discussion). And him replying, that he had completely lost interest in that discussion and had nothing to add. But even if his later work may be seen as dabbling just the shift from a hardcore physiologist to an ecologist seems pretty profound.

    E.O. Wilson’s name came up but not as a candidate – I don’t have good sense of his cv but that move from island biogeography to sociobiology seems pretty big. And mentioning EO Wilson brings to mind Dan Simberloff – does moving from a focus on how ecological communities are structured to invasive species qualify?

    And what about James Brown? Moving from physiology to experimental community ecology to scaling laws to metabolic theory? Or is that more like what Brian and Steve see them as doing – going deep for as long as they can and then moving on.

    I’ve always seen scientists as existing along a two-dimensional continuum from deep and narrow to shallow and broad with most people falling somewhere away from the extremes (although Stephen and Brian sound like they are towards one end – sorry guys you get stuck with the ‘shallow’ versus ‘narrow’ adjective). My feeling is that granting agencies reward deep and narrow more than broad and shallow but broad and shallow tend to get the headlines.

    • Wilson was always working on ants, so I don’t see his move from island biogeography to sociobiology as a big shift.

      Similarly for Simberloff–an interest in the drivers and management of invasive species is not a very big leap from the sort of community ecology he started out doing.

      Jim Brown strikes me as more someone with an unusually broad research program rather than someone who made a big shift. But obviously there are some commonalities between people able to make a big shift, and people able to pursue two quite different lines of research at the same time.

      Your 2-D continuum suggestion is interesting, I’ll have to think more about that. And maybe steal it for a blog post! 🙂

      • When geoff west began working with Jim Brown, Brian Enquist ( and soon after me, Jamie gillooly , Van Savage, Drew Allen, others) on what is now termed ‘the metabolic theory of ecology’ he was a particle physicist at LANL. He gave that up ca 1997 and has spent the last 2 decades looking for ( and finding!) scaling rules for many biological areas, and even the functioning of human cities.

      • It’s interesting that both Geoff West and Jim Brown have come up in this thread, and worked together.

        Bob May and George Oster have both come up in this thread as well, and worked together for a while.

  10. We can call it the the r-K tradeoff of ecological careers. OK – I have no idea which end is r and which is K.

    I can’t be expected to do all the work.

    • I think Stephen and I count as the weedy (r) end of the spectrum – we move into new areas where we perceive opportunity, grow quickly, and then die, existing only through finding new patches! That is not a K strategy of occupy and hold ground by out competing everybody else.

      • (Although I’m waiting for Jeremy to weigh in on the flaws of r-K terminology and link to an old post on the topic …)

      • I think this works, Brian. Better than I thought it might. But I really need Steve to know that it wasn’t me who called him ‘weedy’.

  11. Joel Brown (U Illinois Chicago) just gave a talk here – he spent most of his career looking at predator-prey dynamics in the context of landscape/ecology of fear but more recently has begun to apply evolutionary ideas to model and develop cancer treatment ideas. So arguably still within the realm of broad evolutionary biology, but very different applications!

    • Yeah, that’s an interesting one. Joel Brown has long been a game theory person, so there’s an element there of identifying a new problem to which to apply tools you already know about. (I’ve done the same in the past myself, with the Price equation). But I’m sure there’s also a big element of “oh man, now I have to learn about cancer biology in order to do any useful research on it, and the literature is just massive and full of jargon and totally new to me!”

  12. Claud Shannon? Vladamir Nabokov? Bern Heinrich?

    Shannon: dissertation on pop/evolutionary genetics seems to be a one-off
    Nabokov: never switched just a polymath
    Heinrich: switch was opposite – physiology to natural history

  13. Henry Horn’s two Princeton Monographs are called The Adaptive Geometry of Trees and Social Butterflies, which seem… different. No idea if there’s some common underlying theme.

  14. (Full disclosure–my grad advisor) John Harte (UC Berkeley) began as a theoretical physicist, switched to the “green side” and became an environmental scientist (studied eutrophication in lakes and air pollution), then on to climate change impacts on communities and biogeochemistry, and now mostly focuses on macroecology.

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