Tag Archives: personal

The importance of luck in academic careers

survivorship_bias

As usual, there’s an XKCD comic for everything.

Not long after I received my first permanent academic contract I attended a conference and went out drinking after the sessions. By the end of the evening I found myself amongst a large group of people around my own age, mainly post-docs and PhD students. Conversation turned to careers and it so happened that I was the only one with a secure position, which prompted an immediate question. What was the secret? Everyone was feverishly after the same thing, and here was someone in the room who knew the trick.

My answer, ‘luck’, went down like a glass of cold sick. It was honest but unpopular. I now regret saying it, and realise that I should have added ‘privilege’. At the time I hadn’t appreciated the extent to which privilege played a part in the relatively smooth passage of my career*. It didn’t seem that way to me, but in retrospect I certainly had it easier than most. The truth, however, is that ‘luck’ is often the secret, insofar as it’s the element no-one wants to talk about. All the other things, the ones we can either control or are imposed upon us, are obvious. I had none of the magic bullets: no Nature paper or prestigious research fellowship**. Objectively there was nothing on my CV that set me apart from most other post-docs on the job circuit. It certainly felt a lot like luck to me.

Why don’t people like to hear this? Accepting the importance of luck downplays the extent to which anyone has agency in their professional lives. We like to hear that working hard and chasing our dreams brings success in the end. I think for the most part that it’s true, and almost everyone who manages to get into the ivory tower will tell you that backstory. But it’s akin to hearing an Olympic gold medalist tell you that their secret is dedication and never giving up. As if all the people that didn’t come first just weren’t dreaming hard enough.

Telling people to keep plugging away until they get their break also assumes that there are no costs to them doing so. It’s the mindset that leads to the eternal post-doc, a restless soul traveling from university to university, country to country, for the chance of another year or two of funding, then having to pack up their things and move on once again. While still young and relatively carefree, that can be fun for some. When you’re 40 and want to get married, buy a house, have children or care for your parents, it becomes impossible. I never had to go through that and I’m extremely grateful for it.

Declaring the importance of luck and privilege also somehow diminishes the achievement of those who have made it, and therefore provokes hostility from those who are already through the door. It’s not the story we like to tell ourselves, and it’s certainly not one we like other people to tell about us.

So let me lay my own cards on the table. I believe that I deserve to have a permanent academic job***. I worked hard to get here, and I’m pretty good at it. But I can also say without any equivocation that I’ve known people who worked much harder than me and were demonstrably smarter than me but who didn’t manage to capture one. I’m comfortable admitting that although I surpassed the minimum expectation, if it were a true meritocracy then the outcome would have been different.

My first job came about because I was in the right place at the right time. I had hung around long enough in a university department to pick up the necessary ticks on my CV, despite substantial periods of that being spent on unemployment benefit. Small bits of consultancy through personal connections and a peppercorn rent from a friend made a big difference. I had the privilege of being in a position to loiter long enough for a job to come up, and the good fortune to find one that fit. Lots of others wouldn’t have had the luxury of doing so, and had it taken another six months, I wonder whether I would have been hunting for another career as well.

Does any of this change the advice given to an eager young academic? No. You still need to publish papers, get some teaching experience, win some competitive grant income, take on some service roles, promote yourself and your work as widely as possible. The formula remains exactly the same. It’s not easy, and it’s got even harder over the last 15 years. Good luck. And if you don’t have luck, make sure that you have a Plan B in your back pocket.

Any change needs to come from the academy itself. Its us who have the problem and it’s our responsibility to fix it****. There’s no way to entirely remove luck from the hiring equation (think of it as a stochastic model term) but we can influence the other parameters. I was wrong to think that privilege wasn’t part of the equation that got me here, but I can try to minimise its distorting effects in future.

 


 

* I have the ‘full house’ of privileges, being a white, male, heterosexual, tall, healthy, able-bodied, native English-speaking, middle class… did I miss anything out? Don’t bother talking to me about my struggle because I didn’t have one.

** The one thing jobs, Nature papers and grants all have in common is that your probability of getting one increases with the number of times you try. It’s not entirely a lottery but there is a cost to every attempt and some can afford more of them. And I still don’t have a Nature paper.

*** There are almost certainly people who will disagree with this, but let them.

**** As pointed out in this post, however, our survivorship bias can prevent us from recognising that those following us are facing very different challenges to the ones we went through.

 


 

Postscript: I already had this post lined up to publish when an excellent and complementary thread appeared on Twitter.

From tiny acorns

My father planted acorns.

This is one of those recollections that arrives many years after the fact and suddenly strikes me as having been unusual. As a child, however, it seemed perfectly normal that we should go out collecting acorns in the autumn. Compared to my father’s other eccentric habits and hobbies, of which there were many*, gathering acorns didn’t appear to be particularly strange or worthy of note.

In our village during mast years the acorns would rain down from boundary and hedgerow oak trees and sprout in dense carpets along the roadside. This brief flourishing was inevitably curtailed by the arrival of Frankie Ball, the local contractor responsible for mowing the verges. His indiscriminate treatment shredded a summer’s worth of growth and ensured that no seedlings could ever survive.

sprouting_acorn

Sprouting acorn (Quercus robur L.) by Amphis.

Enlightened modern opinion would now declare that mowing roadside verges is ecologically damaging; it removes numerous late-flowering plants and destroys potential habitats for over-wintering insects. I’m not going to pass such judgement here though because it was a purely practical decision. Too much growth would result in blocked ditches, eventually flooding fields and properties. Frankie was just doing his job.

My father, however, couldn’t allow himself to see so many potential oak trees perish. His own grandfather had been a prominent forester back in the old country (one of the smaller European principalities that no longer exists), and with a family name like Eichhorn it’s hard not to feel somehow connected to little oak trees. He took it upon himself to save as many of them as he could.

And so it was that we found ourselves, trowels in hand, digging up sprouting acorns from the roadsides and transporting them by wheelbarrow to the wood on Jackson’s farm.  Here they would be gently transplanted into locations that looked promising and revisited periodically to check on their progress. Over the years this involved at least hundreds of little acorns, perhaps thousands.

They all died. This isn’t too surprising: most offspring of most organisms die before they reach adulthood. Trees have a particularly low rate of conversion of seedlings to adults, probably less than one in a thousand. That’s just one of the fundamental facts of life and a driving force of evolution. Why though did my father’s experiment have such a low success rate? He’d apparently done everything right, even choosing to plant them somewhere other trees had succeeded before**. It’s only after becoming a forest ecologist myself that I can look back and see where he was going wrong.

First, oak trees are among a class of species that we refer to as long-lived pioneers. This group of species is unusual because most pioneers are short-lived. Pioneers typically arrive in open or disturbed habitats, grow quickly, then reproduce and die before more competitive species can drive them out. Weeds are the most obvious cases among plants, but if you’re looking at trees then something like a birch would be the closest comparison.

Oaks are a little different. Their seedlings require open areas with lots of light to grow, which means that they don’t survive well below a dark forest canopy. Having managed to achieve a reasonable stature, however, they stick around for many centuries and are hard to budge. In ecology we know this as the inhibition model of succession. Oaks are great at building forests but not so good at taking them over.

The next problem is that oak seedlings do particularly badly when in the vicinity of other adult oak trees. This is because the pests and diseases associated with large trees quickly transfer themselves to the juveniles. An adult tree might be able to tolerate losing some of its leaves to a herbivore but for a seedling with few resources this can be devastating. This set of forces led to the Janzen-Connell hypothesis which predicts that any single tree species will be prevented from filling a habitat because natural enemies ensure that surviving adults end up being spread apart. A similar pattern can arise because non-oak trees provide a refuge for oak seedlings. Whatever the specific causes, oak seedlings suffer when planted close to existing oaks.

This makes it seem a little peculiar that acorns usually fall so close to their parent trees. The reason acorns are such large nuts*** is that they want to attract animals which will try to move and store them over winter. This strategy works because no matter how many actually get eaten, a large proportion of cached acorns remain unused (either they’re forgotten or the animal that placed them dies) and so they are in prime position to grow the following spring. Being edible and a desirable commodity is actually in the interests of the tree.

jay

A Eurasian jay, Garrulus glandarius. Image credit: Luc Viatour.

Contrary to most expectations, squirrels turn out to be pretty poor dispersers of acorns. Although they move acorns around and bury them nicely, they don’t put them in places where they are likely to survive well. Jays are much better, moving oaks long distances and burying single acorns in scrubby areas where the new seedlings will receive a reasonable amount of light along with some protection from browsing herbivores. My father’s plantings failed mainly because he wasn’t thinking like a jay.

My father’s efforts weren’t all in vain. The care shown to trees and an experimental approach to understanding where they could grow lodged themselves in my developing mind and no doubt formed part of the inspiration that led me to where I am today****. From tiny acorns, as they say.

 


 

* His lifelong passion is flying, which at various points included building his own plane in the garden shed and flying hang-gliders. It took me a while to realise that not everyone’s father was like this.

** One possible explanation we can rule out is browsing by deer, which often clear vegetation from the ground layer of woodlands. Occasional escaped dairy cows were more of a risk in this particular wood.

*** Yes, botanically speaking they are nuts, which means a hard indehiscent (non-splitting) shell containing a large edible seed. Lots of things that we call nuts aren’t actually nuts. This is one of those quirks of terminology that gives botanists a bad name.

**** Although I’m very sceptical of teleological narratives of how academics came to choose their areas of study.

Moving jobs as a mid-career academic

bindle

Why would anyone leave a permanent academic position at a research-intensive university?* After all, for many (if not most) PhD students, post-doc researchers and temporary lecturers, this is the ultimate dream. Openings for permanent posts don’t arise very often and competition for them is fierce. Once you’re ensconced in your own office with your name on the door then to most observers outside the ivory tower you’re living the dream.

And yet academics do move. Although it happens relatively infrequently in the career of a given individual, at least once they become permanent members of faculty, at any time all departments have a turnover of staff departing and (usually) being replaced. When this moves above a trickle it indicates problems, but there remains a background rate, even if on the surface everything is going well.

Having completed such a move just over a year ago, the rest of this post explains my thinking in doing so. I won’t mention who my former employer was, not that it’s hard to find out. That’s simply because I don’t want this post to even carry the suggestion of hard feelings or criticism of any individual or institution. But first: a story.

Two years ago I completed a job application on a flight home from the US. The flight was delayed and the deadline was the same day, which meant that on arrival at my parents’ house I rushed through the door and submitted online with minutes to spare. Recovering from the jetlag or even showering had to wait. A few weeks later I received notification that I had been shortlisted, then not long afterwards found myself back at the airport flying over to Ireland for an interview.

This had only been the second job application I had made that academic year and the first response.** That I only made a handful of applications was in part through being selective but also because mid-career positions don’t come up very often. There are often places at the bottom of the ladder for junior (tenure-track) lecturers, though nowhere near enough to meet demand, but by the time you’ve been in the business for over a decade, your skills and experience are so specialised that you either need to be lucky enough to find a opening for someone exactly like you or a call so broad that you can engineer your CV to fit. I also wasn’t going to risk moving for anything other than a permanent position.

Given all this, I went to the interview with the intention of treating it as practice and continued applying elsewhere. It’s always worth having several lines in the water, even if you don’t end up needing them. I wasn’t desperate for a job because I was in the fortunate position of already having that security. Maybe this relaxed, open-minded approach helped, because I got an offer.

There’s a slightly embarrassing element to the next part. When the phone call first came through to offer me the position I hung up. At that precise moment there was a tearful post-grad in my office who had come to see me for help. I will always put supporting a student in distress ahead of any phone call, however important. Luckily UCC weren’t offended by my rudeness and called back later.

To end the story, here I am. There are lots of great reasons for being in Ireland right now, and specifically at UCC. These include a growing focus on my field, national investment in forestry and agroforestry, and a booming higher education sector. The reasons for leaving UK Higher Education would surprise no-one.***

Why though did I leave a permanent academic position at a global top-100 university with international recognition? Several junior colleagues were aghast at what looked like folly. I had invested 13 years in the institution, built up a research group, developed teaching materials that were tried-and-tested, and no-one was trying to get rid of me. On the contrary, at the same time as I was trying to leave, they gave me an award and a performance bonus. I loved my colleagues in ecology and evolution; they’re a wonderful group and remain friends. The opening to replace me attracted a host of well-qualified applicants and they had no difficulty recruiting someone brilliant.

Why then did I leave? More generally, why would anyone disrupt their stable work and family life to move mid-career? These are my reasons, which may not translate to everyone’s circumstances, but perhaps might help clarify my thinking for anyone in a similar situation.

  1. I had gone as far as possible in the context of my existing position. After 13 years without a sabbatical the lack of respite from accumulated responsibilities left no space to reflect or develop. The backlogged manuscripts weren’t getting written; new projects were grounded; every year the expectations rolled over and incrementally increased. The thought of spending another year (or more) doing the same thing in the same place filled me with existential dread. Had I felt as though an alternative was within reach then I would have stayed. There’s no complaint implied here; the job had just became one that didn’t fit me any more.
  2. This was a quiet period with several major projects recently completed. Although I had four PhD students on the books (all with co-supervisors), actually the group was at a relatively low ebb, and nothing new was on the horizon. This was partly deliberate; having made the decision to go, I didn’t want to leave too many people in the lurch.
  3. It was time for a new challenge. When I returned to the UK from Malaysia in 2002 I had no intention of staying for long. That it took 16 years for me to leave again was simply because the opportunities lined up that way. Life had become comfortable but also a bit boring.
  4. I wanted to shake up my perspective. After over a decade working in the same place you know your colleagues well and if collaborations haven’t sparked then there’s little chance that they will. Working with new people is the best way to expose yourself to new ideas. This either means moving yourself or hoping that fresh recruits will restore energy in the place you’re already based. It had been a very long time since the latter had happened (after 13 years I was still the youngest permanent member of staff in the building) so I left instead.
  5. We were starting a family, which prompted reflection on my approach to work-life balance. Long hours, working evenings and weekends throughout the semester, were not compatible with the life I wanted or the parent I hoped to be. Nor was I going to be taking extended trips overseas to visit field sites and collaborators. The fieldwork had been one of the compensations of my old job; if that was being scaled back then I wanted the possibility of stronger research interests at home.

I can’t say just yet whether the move has been successful, and at any rate there’s no way to know for sure without a controlled comparison of some partial metric. But what I can say is that I’m enthusiastic about science again, enjoy coming into work every morning, and optimistic about getting some projects I care about off the ground. On that basis alone it’s been worth it. In fact, the department will be recruiting more people very soon — if you want to join us then keep your eyes open for forthcoming positions!

 


* For ‘permanent’ you can read ‘tenured’ if you like, but the truth is that tenure doesn’t mean quite the same thing outside North America. Universities generally can’t fire us for no reason but the level of protection isn’t equivalent. For ‘research-intensive’ you can read R1 in the USA, or Russell Group in the UK, or whatever your local class of prestige universities is.

** I’m not telling you how many failed applications had gone in over the preceding few years, but there were plenty. These had however been rather speculative; what changed was that I put serious effort into developing much stronger applications.

*** Brexit, HE funding issues, Brexit, low pay, Brexit, workload, Brexit, managerialism… did I mention Brexit?

Books I haven’t read

V.D10 Origin 1st edn title page_0

The opening pages of Darwin’s classic text in its first edition as held by the library of St John’s College, Cambridge.

A number of years ago on a UK radio show there was a flurry of attention when Richard Dawkins, under pressure from a religious interviewer, was unable to recall the full title of Darwin’s most famous book*. This was perceived as a flaw in his authority as an evolutionary biologist. How could he claim to support evolution if he couldn’t even name the book which launched the theory?

There was a prompt backlash to this line of argument from scientists who pointed out that we don’t have sacred texts in science. Unlike religions which fixate upon a single original source**, we recognise those who made contributions to the development of our field but don’t treat them as inviolable truth. Darwin, like all scientists, got some things wrong, didn’t quite manage to figure out some other problems, and occasionally changed his mind. None of this undermines his brilliance; the overwhelming majority of his ideas have stood the test of time, and given the resources and knowledge he had available to him (remembering that it was another century until we understood the structure of DNA), his achievement was astonishing.

Confession time: I haven’t read On the Origin. Maybe I will one day, but right now it’s not on my very long reading list.

There are many good reasons for reading On the Origin, none of which I need to be told. By all accounts it’s a fascinating, well-written and detailed argument from first principles for the centrality of natural selection in evolution. As a historical document and inspiration for the entire field of biology its importance is unquestionable. I’m certain that Richard Dawkins has read it, even if he didn’t memorise the title.

None of this means that I have to read it. The fundamental insight has been affirmed, repeated and strengthened by over 150 years of scientific study and publication. Even though I used to be a creationist, it didn’t take reading Darwin to change my mind***. What we know now makes a modern account more convincing than a Victorian naturalist could ever have managed.

An even more embarrassing confession is that I haven’t read The Theory of Island Biogeography****. This admission is likely to provoke horror in anyone from that generation of ecologists (my own lecturers) who remember the seismic impact that MacArthur & Wilson’s 1967 book had on the field. It defined the direction of enquiry in many areas of ecology for decades afterwards and effectively founded the scientific discipline of conservation biology. Some of their ideas turned out to be flawed, but the majority of ecologists still view the central model as effectively proven.

I’m not one of them. Yes, I apparently fall among the minority of ecologists, albeit led by some pretty influential voices, who view the model as so partial and incomplete as to lack predictive value in the real world (I’m not going to lay out my argument here, I’ve done that before). That I’ve reached this decision without reading the original book doesn’t perturb me in the slightest. In the same way as I’m confident that I can understand evolutionary theory without reading Darwin, I’ve read enough accounts of the Equilibrium Model of Island Biogeography (and taught it to undergraduates) that it’s not as if going back to the original source will change my mind.

If this upsets you then consider whether you’re happy to agree with the majority of evolutionary biologists that Lamarck’s model of inheritance was wrong without without bothering to read Lamarck (or his later advocate Lysenko). Lamarck made many great contributions to science; this wasn’t among them. For similar reasons I’m happy to make judgements on Haeckel’s embryological model of evolution (rejected), Wegener’s theory of plate tectonics (accepted), or Hubbell’s neutral theory (ambivalent), all without reading the original books.

What have I actually read then? Among the great classics of our field I’m pleased to have gone through a large number of Wallace’s original works, which were contemporaneous to Darwin, and Humboldt’s Essay on the Geography of Plants (1807). I can strongly recommend them. But they didn’t change my mind about anything. It was enjoyable to go back to the original sources, and by the end I was even more impressed by the authors’ achievements than before, but my understanding of the world remained unaltered. For that reason I wouldn’t ever claim that everyone should read them.

There are, however, a number of books which have changed my mind or radically reorganised my understanding of the world. These include Chase & Leibold’s 2003 book about niches or Whittaker & Fernandez-Palacios on islands. Without having read them I wouldn’t hold the opinions that I do today. I’m glad that I placed those higher on my reading list than On the Origin. But that certainly doesn’t make them essential reading for everyone.

We all follow our own intellectual journeys through science and there is no one true path. For this reason I’m always sceptical of attempts to set essential reading lists, such as the 100 papers every ecologist needs to read, which I and others disagreed with more on principle than content. So yes, if you like, you can think less of me for the reading that I haven’t done. But my guess is that many people who read this post will be feeling a quiet reassurance that it’s not just them, and that it’s nothing to be ashamed about.

 


* It is, of course, the barely memorable “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.”

** This in itself is baffling given that sacred texts have their own complex histories of assembly from multiple sources. Most modern Christians don’t dwell on the fact that the issue of which books to include in the Bible was so contentious, especially for the Old Testament, and some traditions persist with quite different Bibles. Why include Daniel but not Enoch? Then there’s deciding which version should be seen as definitive, and whose translation… it’s not as simple as picking the one true book.

*** Notably a dominant theme in creationist critiques of evolution is to pick away at perceived errors or inconsistencies in Darwin’s writings on the assumption that undermining its originator will unravel the whole enterprise of modern biology.

**** And this from a former book reviews editor of the journal Frontiers of Biogeography. They’ll be throwing me out of the Irritable Biogeography Society next.

 

Did I actually lose my faith?

Abandoned_Church_15

Abandoned church in Italy. Photography by Roman Robroek from a series on abandoned houses of worship in Europe. Used with permission.

It’s now more than twenty years since I left Christianity and became an atheist. There was no Damascene conversion; like many people I drifted away rather than having a sudden insight. A series of events and discoveries led me to finally break from the church, although it took moving country to finally sever the social bonds and expectations that had kept me involved long after I would otherwise have left.

It’s been a long psychological journey from growing up as a creationist in a church of Biblical literalists (not the extreme Young Earth kind, but close enough) to becoming a professional academic biologist who teaches evolution. In that time I’ve established a career, worked all over the world, started a family, lost some friends and gained many more. All the turbulence that makes up a fairly normal life. Neither the good times nor the bad have led me to reconsider my position on religion.

The last two decades were also a period during which the tension between science and religion broke into mainstream discourse. A number of prominent atheists derided what they saw as unreason; none of the arguments were new but their vehemence and prominence were unusual. Of the main figures, the most persuasive was Christopher Hitchens, a man by all accounts possessed of magnetic charisma, compelling in debate and uncompromising in his writings. Other notable contributions were Dawkins’ The God Delusion and PZ Myers’ Pharyngula, for a while the most-read science blog on the internet. None of them influenced my decision because I had already become a convinced atheist before I encountered any of them.

Times have changed as the main protagonists have died, become caricatures of themselves, or merely declined in profile. It would be nice to think that people grew tired of hearing angry old white men argue with each other. They certainly didn’t succeed in making religion disappear and were likely a symptom of declining religious belief rather than its cause. While tempers on the subject have cooled, at the same time I have matured and become more reflective, and it’s now possible to look back on this period with a degree of detachment.

One of the ways in which leaving religion is described is as ‘losing your faith’. This is worth interrogating a little further. The Apostle Paul gives the following definition of faith, the only explicit one to be found in the Christian Bible:

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.*

The basic point is that faith means believing in something despite not having complete or direct evidence for doing so. This seems as good a definition as any to me; I don’t know whether other religions have similar ones in their sacred texts. Put simply, you don’t need faith if you have incontrovertible evidence.

Much of the modern rationalist case against faith in general, and the Christian religion in particular, can be traced back to this verse. It is a prima facie example of how religious belief requires the absence of evidence, in contrast to scientific rationalism, which only allows for belief in things which can be directly proven. Religious truths are obtained through divine revelation, and are hence diverse, whereas scientific truths are produced via rigorous enquiry, which means that eventually they should hone in on a single answer.

The strongest proponents of scientific rationalism declare it to be impossible to be a true scientist whilst also holding a spiritual belief. This is clearly not the case; many scientists worldwide are religious. I know a good number and think no less of them. Whether the two positions are intellectually incompatible is not something I want to get into here, although I will note that we all manage to sustain contradictory viewpoints on many things. It has been claimed that biologists are less religious than other branches of science, but the evidence for this is inconsistent, and may to some extent reveal social norms within fields rather than any link with the subject material or mode of enquiry.

Regardless of whether I might describe myself as not having a faith, I expend a lot of my time believing fervently in things for which I have no direct evidence, at least not yet. What is ‘confidence in what we hope for‘ if not the anticipated outputs section of a grant proposal? Past evidence of over-ambition has not changed my approach to these.

As for ‘assurance about what we do not see‘, there’s more to this than believing the results of papers which we can neither replicate nor access the underlying data or code. Even were we are able to do so, we usually lack time and resources to check. Instead we invest our trust in institutions (journals) or authority figures (other researchers) whose work we often accept without direct scrutiny. Given that we can’t check everything, we place confidence in the peer review system to rigorously inspect claims, despite personal experience of its occasional flaws. The difference between something I could check, at least in principle, and something I will accept without further question, is semantic insofar as how I respond is unchanged in practice. Such intellectual shortcuts are standard for everyone.

Moreover, our field (like most in science) is littered with fundamental theorems which work in closed or simplified systems but come unstuck when faced with the complexities of the real world. This doesn’t mean that they’re incorrect, but rather that uncovering the evidence for them is harder than we assume. If you’re an ecologist then perhaps ask yourself how often you’ve thought to directly test the logistic model of population growth, equilibrium model of island biogeography, Tilman’s R* or any number of theories which for many of us form the cornerstones of our understanding. If you have then my guess is that it didn’t go as smoothly as you hoped.** For the most part our evidence base derives from a surprisingly small set of case studies. Other theories for which the jury remains out (e.g. Metabolic Theory of Ecology) have advocates who by very definition are basing their belief on incomplete evidence given that other critical observers remain unconvinced.*** Is believing something because logically you feel it must be true that much better than accepting something without direct evidence?

A few weeks ago I stood on a seashore and stared at a rock covered in barnacles. The patterning was inconsistent with a model of their organisation which I’d published a few years ago. What went on in my mind was not a collapse in confidence but rather a reconsideration of what other processes or factors I might have been missing. I looked at that rock still believing in some version of the model even while the evidence in front of me so obviously disagreed. If I continue to work on this system then I remain certain that the model can be recovered, and have a few ideas of how to go about it. What is this if not a form of faith?

All this comes round to a recognition that perhaps I didn’t lose my faith; I simply realigned it by investing in a different set of principles and authorities. God disappeared from my worldview but maths and the scientific method took over. I may believe that my work is in pursuit of truth and serving a higher purpose****, but this this any different to those who follow a spiritual calling? In the last twenty years I have certainly changed but perhaps not as much as I thought.


* Hebrews 11:1 in the New International Version. The remainder of the chapter goes on to give historical examples of faith in practice.

** In writing this I am in no way questioning whether any of these fundamental theories is correct. Well, maybe the equilibrium model.

*** For the record, my take on metabolic theory is that it must be correct on some level but perhaps we haven’t been able to characterise natural systems in the appropriate way. I’m planning to have a chapter on this in the next edition of my textbook (don’t start getting excited just yet).

**** If you agree with me that understanding trees and barnacles represents a higher purpose then we really should be friends.


CODA: having swum in these waters before I know that taking a conciliatory line on religion and science is likely to see me being savaged by both sides. So let me be absolutely clear about my own position before anyone assails their favourite straw man. I am a scientist, humanist and atheist. I am convinced that the scientific process, whilst sometimes flawed and inefficient, remains the best means of deriving facts about the world. I hold no spiritual beliefs of my own but respect those who choose to and do not question their personal reasons. In response to this post I welcome constructive discussion that aims to increase mutual understanding but will not allow any comments which do not meet this standard, regardless of the viewpoint they seek to advance.

A lie about my childhood

 

img270

I would like you to believe that this is how I spent my entire childhood. It would be a lie, of course, but climbing trees was not uncharacteristic behaviour.

Anyone involved in admissions or graduate recruitment in ecology will be familiar with the stereotypical opening of the personal statement:

“When I was a child, I loved to play outside in nature. I watched the birds and the insects and the flowers and I knew that I wanted to spend my life studying them.”

Something along these lines opens the majority of the applications I read each year. Perhaps for some it’s actually true, though I suspect that most are teleological. Either the author is trying to convince me, or has already convinced themselves, that the whole direction of their life has been moving steadily and inexorably towards ecological research from their very first awakenings of consciousness.* Who am I, hard-hearted cynic, to stand in the way of manifest destiny?

Why am I so sceptical? I too am passionate about nature. I genuinely love being outdoors, collecting data, or simply observing natural systems and trying to figure out how they work. I grew up in the countryside and was most at peace when taking my dog for long walks through the fields and woodland or climbing trees. This bucolic upbringing is bound to have had a lasting influence on my chosen direction in life.

And yet… the evidence for a similar effect isn’t there from anyone else in the village, other than those who have continued on the family farm, for whom options were more limited. My siblings and friends from childhood include a doctor, dinner lady, teacher, policeman… none of whom are remotely associated with nature. There is one other academic, my older brother, who actually works on wood, or more strictly cellulose. That said, he’s a materials scientist and predominantly investigates its structural properties in the lab. He might enjoy long walks but he’s not an ecologist.**

img264

Another typical shot of my childhood. Note favourite dog just out of shot.

There are other anecdotes I could pull together to tell a partial story. We did tie old wellies to a rope and throw them in a pond to try and catch newts. That probably happened a handful of times and I don’t recall ever reeling in anything but mud. I remember my father encouraging me to help in the vegetable garden, and the excitement at eating my first crop of radishes. They were to be my only harvest, and any further assistance was through compulsion. It may be true that I once took myself off into the woods in Germany, disappearing for a whole day to the great consternation of my parents, then casually strolling back into town at dusk as the search parties were being assembled. I wasn’t lost in the embrace of nature; I just wanted to get away from the family for a bit.

I could tell a different story, of the boy who came home from school every evening and promptly ran upstairs to play Sensible Soccer on his Amiga until his hands developed callouses. The child who lagged behind on family walks bleating about the imposition.*** A bookworm, happier sat indoors reading science fiction than out in the sunshine. All these would be equally accurate, if similarly selective.

At no point was I ever a spotter or a collector, two traits that I frequently hear colleagues assert are key indicators of those with a great future in ecology. My plant taxonomy is entirely self-taught but was developed late and only in order to allow me to do fieldwork. It would be a lie to claim that I spent sunny afternoons as a child learning flowers. I do collect — mainly West African music and obscure European electronica. The boxes of entomological specimens I brought back from Borneo have languished in my office for over a decade, unidentified, and I retain them more through guilt than any abiding intention of rectifying this.

To this day I still have a profound disinterest in many aspects of the natural world. Quite honestly, I don’t care about birds. I couldn’t identify any British bird by song and the few I know by sight are only the most common. The idea of birdwatching as a leisure pursuit is anathema to me. Give me a glass of wine and a book any day.

There is at least one thing I recall from childhood that links directly to my current career, and where the narrative thread is not stretched to breaking point. I always — always — wanted to travel. My parents were well known for welcoming people from all over the world into their home. Their hospitality knew no bounds and I was lucky enough to be exposed to visitors from all manner of cultures and backgrounds. The superficial details are forgotten, and probably left little impression, but the undercurrent was an awareness of a wider and exotic world out there that I needed to see.

It was for that reason that I was so keen, while an undergraduate, to take part in an expedition to Kamchatka. It was there that I first realised that forest ecology was the path for me. Since then, and probably missing a few, I’ve worked in China, Malaysia, Mexico, Kenya, Tanzania, Russia, Australia, Uganda and all over Europe. I’ve made friends across the globe, eaten strange foods, drunk peculiar alcoholic beverages and danced awkwardly to mesmerising beats. I can sing songs in languages that I don’t even understand. I lost my religion and replaced it with a ever-widening appreciation of the breadth of human culture. And yes, I’ve seen some of the most incredible wild places on the planet, and returned with beautiful data.

Ecology was an excuse to travel, and the travel remains one of the great blessings of my job. It’s not the reason I do it — unravelling the mysteries of forest growth has long since taken over as my main obsession. Nevertheless, I’m fortunate enough to be writing this from a research station in Portugal where I’m teaching an undergraduate field course. Tonight I will drink local wine and plan the next adventure. It’s Mexico this summer, and I have an awesome collaborator in Ghana who really wants me to visit…

RIMG1176

This is the Quinta de Sao Pedro, just outside Lisbon, Portugal. If you’re looking for a location to run a field course then I can’t recommend it highly enough.


* Other ecologists have written about how the path into their current obsession was not a straight line, and involved large elements of chance and coincidence. Childhood experience may have played a part, but not the defining one.

** He did once cite me, although mostly for humorous reasons, and not entirely positively.

*** Like any child, I had phases. There were periods when I would run ahead, dashing round before collapsing in a heap exhausted. But to emphasise those while ignoring my awkward patches would create a false narrative.

The most important day of my scientific career

You might imagine that the most important day in my career would be linked to a significant achievement. Perhaps my PhD viva, or my first paper being accepted, or when I was offered a permanent academic job. It could be the day on which I had a Eureka! moment of discovery*. It’s none of these. Actually it took place when I was an undergraduate, only 20 years old, entirely alone and a long way from home. No data were collected. I spoke to no-one. And yet I can trace my whole academic trajectory from that day.

The location was Kamchatka, a volcanic peninsula that protrudes from the far eastern edge of Russia. It’s 12 time zones from the UK, and even nine from Moscow. This is the wild east. I was there as part of a University of Cambridge expedition to visit the newly-created Bystrinsky Nature Park, which had been designated part of the Volcanoes of Kamchatka World Heritage Site. The region had only recently been opened to foreign visitors; a few years previously it was closed even to Russian tourists. There had been almost no work published in the international scientific literature since the great botanist Eric Hultén‘s Flora of Kamchatka, completed in 1930. It had nevertheless fascinated scientists, anthropologists and explorers since at least the pioneering expeditions of Krashenninikov (1711–1755). We were treading in noble footsteps.

The main difference was that we were idiots. That doesn’t mean that we were stupid; more that we were young, naive and nowhere near as well-prepared as we thought we were. I’m still very relaxed about sending undergraduates off to far-flung parts of the world in much the same state because it was such a formative experience. We learnt more through throwing ourselves into it than any lecture could have taught us. So long as you’ve made reasonable plans and thought about safety, go for it.

At the foot of Anaun volcano, September 1998. Photo by Valeri Vassilevich Yakubov.

Younger and with much longer hair, at the foot of Anaun volcano, September 1998. Photo by Valeri Vassilevich Yakubov.

As the flight landed in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the only notable town and regional capital, a full moon was bathing low clouds with an ethereal glow, punctured by the immaculate conical peaks of the volcanoes. I distinctly remember watching this mystical landscape beneath us and thinking — before I had even set foot in it — I must find a way to come here again.

Our chosen project was to examine the spatial patterns of the local forests. I’d read that they were a mix of birch and larch, which I was assured by the legendary Peter Grubb was impossible, since both species are highly light-demanding and unable to recruit beneath a canopy. It turned out that they were exactly as Hultén had described (which is documented in a later paper). Sadly we never published our findings; they were used for our undergraduate final-year projects then shelved as we moved on to other things. I have since returned, however, and am still following up on those first hazy impressions.

Enough of the background, what of the most important day? We had been surveying a forest of stone birch (Betula ermanii) a few kilometres east of the village of Esso. Stone birch is unlike any European birch — the wood is incredibly tough and the trees have a gnarled, low-branching form as a result of heavy snowfall in the long, cold winters, which gives them an interesting architecture. If anyone ever asks for my favourite tree, or favourite forest, then I can wax lyrical about them, but for now I’ll save that for another post.

Stone birch (Betula ermanii) in the Uxychan valley, west of Esso, Kamchatka.

Stone birch (Betula ermanii) in the upper slopes of the Bystrya valley, south of Esso, Kamchatka.

Our small team had finished work in the area and decided to head back to the village for a clean-up, change of clothes, hot meal and indoor bed. I wasn’t quite ready yet though, and opted to remain behind alone. Earlier in the trip we had attempted to climb the small mountain to the east but turned back in poor weather. I was determined not to be defeated and wanted a second shot.

It was that night that I had my epiphany. Alone in the forest, sat by a roaring fire and surrounded by nothing but trees, I realised that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I sat and wrote a letter to a friend **, drank the remainder of the vodka and watched a curious mink dance through the branches above me in the flickering light ***. Nothing much happened. I sang a few songs to keep myself company (and the bears away), went to bed and passed an uneventful night. There is no doubt in my mind though — that was the crucial moment to which I can trace back my passion to work in, describe and understand the architecture of forests. It’s what I’ve devoted my life to ever since.

The next day, almost incidentally, my strike at the summit was successful. I climbed back down, collected the tent, and walked back to the village to rejoin the team around nightfall. I revisited the same peak in 2008 on another expedition. Being especially eager to see it again, I reached the summit long before the students and other scientists. This was fortunate because I promptly burst into tears. That wasn’t the only time I cried with emotion on that expedition; the second time was a few month later, on what was the best day in my scientific life so far, almost exactly ten years after that solitary night in the woods. But that’s a story for another time.


* I’m still waiting for one of those. Or at least one that doesn’t, a few days down the line, turn out to have been completely misguided.

** An interesting side-story in itself. She was at the time on another expedition in New Caledonia. Not only did she eventually receive my letter, she replied, and I received it — perhaps the only time that letters have been exchanged between Kamchatka and New Caledonia. This was of course long before the days of global internet and constant e-mail access. She is now a well-known conservation biologist in her own right and has probably forgotten our correspondence.

*** Mink were introduced to the peninsula centuries ago by fur-trappers and were once one of its most important exports. They are now fully naturalised, and with so little hunting taking place, they have almost no fear of humans.