About Jeremy Fox

I'm an ecologist at the University of Calgary. I study population and community dynamics, using mathematical models and experiments.

Friday links: new National Academy members, pandemic vs. new profs, and more (UPDATED)

Also this week: top UK epidemiologist Neil Ferguson resigns from government advisory position, Harvard report on Jeffrey Epstein, cartoons vs. lockdown life, great pandemic models, terrible pandemic models, math games for kids, and more. Links from all three Dynamic Ecologists this week!

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

Commenter Jeff Houlahan asks an interesting question. Paraphrasing: what recent research (say, from the last couple of decades) should be taught in intro bio courses, but isn’t?

Jeff suggests Jack Szostak’s research on the origins of life as something that should be taught in intro bio courses, but isn’t. Another commenter suggests Crispr. Any other suggestions?

Since this is an ecology blog, let’s expand the question a bit and also ask it of intro ecology courses.

As Jeff suggests in his comment, we’re not looking here for recent(ish) illustrations of topics already taught in intro bio or intro ecology, for which plenty of good old examples also exist. And we’re not trying to identify recent(ish) studies that students would find enjoyable or engaging. We’re looking for more substantial, fundamental updates to the typical intro bio or intro ecology course. We’re trying to identify important recent(ish) work on topics that aren’t ordinarily taught in intro bio or intro ecology, but could be. And also important recent(ish) advances on topics that are ordinarily taught in intro bio or intro ecology.

Looking forward to your comments.

Saturday blast from the past: weird equipment purchases

This week’s blast from the past is Meghan’s fun old post on how scientists often need to purchase weird combinations and quantities of equipment that’s usually purchased for non-scientific uses. Come for Meghan’s story of buying massive quantities of one specific tote bag, stay for the commenters who reveal the many uses of pantyhose. And, um, vibrators.

Guest post: What if my hobby — what I do for “fun” — is being a workaholic?

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Greg Crowther.


Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about work-life balance — in particular, about its continuing absence from my life.

This is not a pandemic problem per se. Since the arrival of COVID-19, my young children have continued to be in the excellent care of my mother-in-law, and my job — teaching biology to undergraduates — has not changed that much. The lack of balance in my life is my fault. Or, in non-pejorative language, this is something that is within my power to change.

Again and again, I devote unusually large amounts of time to certain work-related tasks, leaving less time for sleep, exercise, family, friends, and so on. You name it, I’m neglecting it (at least intermittently).

If this lament sounds like a humblebrag, well, I don’t mean it as such.  I don’t like the health-neglecting, people-neglecting version of myself, and I’m about to get professional help.

One might think that I could just decide to work less; after all, academics do not need to work 60-80 hours per week to be successful. But here’s the dilemma: the optional time-sucking tasks are ones that I greatly enjoy and would hate to give up. It’s as if my most fulfilling “hobby” is sinking lots of additional time into my favorite peripheral aspects of my job.

For example, as a biology instructor at Everett Community College (north of Seattle), I’ve been told repeatedly that I don’t need to publish anything to get tenure. Yet in February and March I poured dozens of hours into writing a pedagogy paper (now in press) because I had a good idea for improving biology tests, and I enjoy expressing myself in writing, etc. etc. The decision to write the paper seemed rational, and I don’t regret doing it, but it added greatly to the stress of transitioning to all-online teaching at the end of winter quarter and spring break.

Then last week, I spent a half-day reviewing a paper for a science education journal and another half-day creating a music video for a 13-second mnemonic song for my anatomy students. More interesting, worthwhile tasks that are not requirements of my job and that I didn’t really have time for.

I think these examples capture the situation pretty well. My strong enjoyment of teaching biology — generally a good thing — spins off, tornado-like, into side projects that I seem unable to control.

No one should feel sorry for me for having a life in which I choose (more or less) to fritter away my time on such things. All the same, the problem is real; I’ve been living with it for years.

As I head into therapy, I’d welcome any thoughts that others have on staying on the right side of the line between healthy devotion and unhealthy obsession.

RIP Bob May, 1936-2020

Very sad news: Bob May passed away yesterday. He was 84.

“Who’s the greatest ecologist in history?” isn’t a question worth taking seriously, except as a conversation starter. But Bob May is among those who’d come up in any conversation started by that prompt. Put simply, Bob May invented large chunks of modern ecology–both the questions we ask, and the standard approaches we use to answer those questions and others. He was part of the generation of now-household names who turned ecology from a peripheral, backwater discipline to a core biological discipline.

Bob May was born in Australia. After spending over a decade as a physics prof at the University of Sydney, he moved to Princeton and switched to ecology in 1972. He immediately made a massive impact. He began working on the question of when a “complex” community–meaning a community comprised of many species, all interacting strongly with one another–will be stable. In the simplest baseline case, the shocking answer was, basically, “never”. That is, increasing complexity is actually destabilizing in the simplest baseline case. The answer was shocking because it was completely contrary to the strongly-held intuitions of ecologists at the time. The notion that diversity or “complexity” begets stability dates back at least to Charles Elton. But according to May, that notion is wrong (or at least, so vague it might as well be wrong). Far from promoting the “balance of Nature”, high species richness and strong interspecific interactions actually inhibit that balance. Bob May first published that insight in a 1972 Nature paper, and then fleshed it out with related results in a now-classic Princeton Monograph, Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems. As of this writing, Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems has been cited over 8700 times, according to Google Scholar. One could fairly describe much of the subsequent 40+ years of theoretical and empirical community ecology research as an attempt to find ways around May’s result. Either additional biological realism that would reverse or overcome the destabilizing effects of increasing complexity. Or else other ways of defining “complexity” and “stability“, for which Elton’s intuition still holds. That the attempt has had successes doesn’t diminish the importance of May’s original result in the slightest. We wouldn’t have even known that that 40+ year research program needed doing, if not for Bob May.

Leaving aside the specific results in Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems, the approach it took also was massively influential. Along with Robert MacArthur, Richard Levins, and a few others, Bob May helped make ecology safe for what he called “strategic” models. Simple mathematical models that deliberately strip ecology down to the bare essentials, in order to capture the essence of one key phenomenon. The empirical research inspired by strategic models has something of a mixed track record. The history of ecology is littered with weak tests of model’s like May’s stability-complexity model. (Including from me! I think Fox and McGrady-Steed 2002 JAE was a creative attempt to test May’s idea, but looking back even I don’t find it especially convincing.) But that probably just illustrates how original and inspirational May’s work was.

Now, here’s a thing: Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems is probably only Bob May’s third most important achievement.

Number two is probably chaos. Bob May wasn’t the first to discover chaos–roughly, deterministic dynamics that are extremely sensitive to initial conditions, and so are effectively unpredictable more than a short time into the future. But as far as I know, his was the first work on chaos to attract widespread attention in biology. In 1976, May shocked the world by showing that the discrete time logistic equation–the dead-simplest model of density dependent population growth–could exhibit chaotic population dynamics for some parameter values (basically, sufficiently high r). His Nature paper reporting this result, “Simple mathematical models with very complicated dynamics”, has been cited over 7500 times. That paper led to a massive explosion of interest in what came to be known as “chaos theory”, ably chronicled in James Gleick’s popular book Chaos. The search for chaotic population dynamics in ecology bore fruit in the lab; whether there are any examples in nature remains somewhat debatable. But again, that doesn’t take away from May’s work in the slightest. We wouldn’t have even known to look for chaotic dynamics if it hadn’t been for Bob May.

And number one is probably his pioneering work with Roy Anderson, modeling the dynamics of infectious diseases. The first part of Anderson & May’s two-part 1979 Nature paper, “The population biology of infectious diseases”, has been cited over 3200 times. It’s the foundation of essentially all subsequent disease ecology and epidemiological modeling. Their 1992 book, Infectious Diseases of Humans: Dynamics and Control is a standard reference and has been cited over 12,000 times. It’s one of the odd coincidences of history that Bob May passed away during a coronavirus pandemic that has highlighted once again the tremendous importance of infectious disease modeling.

May wrote many other papers and was involved in several other books. Many of which have themselves been cited thousands of times, and which would be crowning career achievements for most any ecologist. Here’s his Google Scholar page.

During his illustrious career, Bob May held faculty positions at several of the world’s most prestigious universities, and won more or less every honor available to an ecologist. His most notable honors include the ESA’s MacArthur Award, the 1996 Crafoord Prize (the closest thing ecology has to the Nobel Prize), and the 2007 Copley Medal from the Royal Society of London. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of London (and later its President), and an honorary or foreign fellow of several other national scientific academies. In 2001 he was created a life peer (choosing the title Baron May of Oxford), one of the first 15 “people’s peers” to be elevated to the UK’s House of Lords in this manner. He also served as Chief Science Adviser to the UK government from 1995-2000.

It was shortly after his term as Chief Science Adviser ended that I met him for the first and only time. He spoke on UK government science policy at Silwood Park, where I was a postdoc. Afterwards, I asked him to sign my copy of Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems. I felt a bit embarrassed, but he was very kind and happy to sign. I got the feeling I was far from the first junior ecologist to ask him to do this.

I’m not the only Dynamic Ecologist influenced by Bob May. Here’s Meghan’s old post on how she finds herself rereading Anderson & May (1979) over and over again, discovering new insights every time.

Having only met Bob May once, I have no personal memories to share. He was widely admired and famously competitive (even at croquet). Perhaps those who knew him will share their memories in the comments.

I’ve written before about feeling like the generation of ecologists I “grew up” admiring in grad school is now passing away. With Bob May’s passing, I feel it even more keenly. I don’t have any special connection to him, I’m just one of many, many ecologists he influenced. Indeed, “influence” doesn’t really do it justice. Bob May’s influence on ecology is ongoing in the same way that the sea’s influence on fish is ongoing. Rest in peace, Bob. You will be greatly missed. But your legacy lives on.

I will add links to obituaries and remembrances of Bob May as I find them; please share them in the comments.

May’s 2005 valedictory address as President of the Royal Society of London

May’s 2012 lecture on beauty and truth in mathematics and science

May’s 2012 lecture on complexity and stability in the financial system

The Life Scientific (2012 BBC radio interview)

Bob May on Desert Island Discs

Guardian news story

NY Times obituary

Guardian obituary

Telegraph obituary

The Times obituary

LiveScience obituary

Nature obituary

Imperial College London tribute

Santa Fe Institute tribute

The Silwood Circle is a history book about Bob May and other influential ecologists associated with Imperial College London’s Silwood Park campus from the 1970s onward. Here’s my review.

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.

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.

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Saturday blast from the past: the (r)evolution of ecology in the 1950s and ’60s

Two of the least important victims of the coronavirus outbreak are the time and inspiration I need to write decent blog posts. So if you miss reading meaty half-baked half-meaty discussions of the history and philosophy of ecology as much as I miss writing them, you’ll have to make do with our back catalog. Here’s a favorite of mine from 2016, on how the revolution that ecology underwent in the 1950s and ’60s was really more of an evolution. Right down to having a large element of chance to it.