The amazing thing about trees is that they start as seeds. Some small enough for ants to carry. Others that ride in the guts of bats. Others still that float in the wind, tumbling across fields and continents.
Similarly, the amazing thing about the best scientists is that they start as students. As I say this, I am not thinking about my own students (though my own students have been wonderful, the highlights of my professional life), I am thinking about the young people with whom I started graduate school.
I went to graduate school at the University of Connecticut in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB). My wife was a student in the department of anthropology. We learned we were both accepted to UCONN by calling my mom from a phone booth in Ghana. The phone booth was incredibly hot, the phone dysfunctional and expensive and yet the experience of finding out we both got in, elation.
But what did we get in to? We really didn’t know, or at least I did not. I didn’t yet really understand science, much less ecology and evolution. Nor, I think, did many of the other graduate students I joined in EEB. We were seeds, seeds of many types, seeds transported by many different means and paths, and yet, inescapably not yet trees.
Fortunately, no one told us we were not trees. Instead, in EEB, faculty who were experts in mites, shark tapeworms (I love shark tapeworms), army ants (or rather the animals that live with army ants), tropical plants, aquatic plants, frogs, cicadas, lizard tongues, vibrating insects, and mosses treated us as though we were already scientists and, so knowing no better, we started to act as though this fiction were a reality, we started to do science and as we did we began to grow.
Growth, of course, can be awkward. As students we simultaneously believed ourselves to be naïve and, also, the only people in the world who really understood the topics and organisms with which we were beginning to fall in love. We debated, until late at night, for instance, the relationship between ecosystem function and diversity. The merits of molecular versus morphological systematics. The parameter estimates in species-area calculations. Do these debates sound obscure? They were and are and yet enmeshed in them we built our skills, honed our abilities to shine the lights of science out into the darkness.
Over the course of very few years those young people with whom I pretended to figure out the universe became slightly older people who are now actually doing so. To my (and their) shock my young colleagues have become key players in the problems of our generation, whether by teaching, working to apply biological insights to real world challenges, or studying problems in ecology and evolution that relate to core issues of how the living world works. Among the twenty or so folks I overlapped with in EEB, played foosball with, drank beer with, watched UConn Women’s basketball with, ran with, and lovingly argued with, young, fun, dopes who, like me, didn’t yet understand the world, are people who became faculty at The University of California Davis, LeMoyne College, Colorado State University, The University of Kansas, George Washington University, Suny-Oneata, Bucknell University (two people!), Plymouth State University, Conicet, The University of Colorado, The University of Minnesota, The University of Alaska, Fairbanks and elsewhere. Among those twenty is the co-director of what is likely to be the most important research station in Africa, the Vice President of Research and Public Programs at the San Diego Natural History Museum, and more. Among those twenty are great high school teachers, writers and more.
Among those twenty are people I now look to when I need insight. Among those twenty are great mentors helping to garden another generation of seeds (And, of course, there have been many more than twenty, dozens in total). But how does one nurture seeds? What worked in EEB? Now that I have my own students, I spend A LOT of time thinking about these questions. I have my ideas. In part it is taking young people seriously even before they were quite ready, and then helping (inconspicuously) to garden their wildest ideas. In part it is great classes. In part, I am still not sure. What I do know is that when I have the good fortune to meet the new students that graduate from EEB (one of whom just moved down the street from me upon starting a faculty position at Meredith College) it is clear that whatever it is that worked in EEB when I was a student still works.
April 18th the department will usher in its thirtieth year with a grand dinner. I won’t be able to go, but if you live near Storrs, you should (http://www.eeb.uconn.edu/eebwww/30th-anniversary/). While there if you meet some students, students with big ideas, students who have not quite figured it all out but are trying ferociously to do so, buy them dinner, buy them beer, listen to their ideas, question them. Help them as they grow from seeds into trees, from young students into mature scholars, scholars on whom much will depend.
The Man Who Touched His Own Heart (http://www.robrdunn.com/books/the-man-who-touched-his-own-heart/)
Thanks so much, Rob. What a lovely tribute!
What a great piece, Rob. As a grandchild of the UConn EEB dept. I appreciate how great the program was and continues to be. It’s funny how it is all connected. I could pick out people you were referring to in the article and see how they too influenced my own graduate/professional career.
Yes this really sums it up. First: “But what did we get in to?” Then: they “treated us as though we were already scientists and, so knowing no better, we started to act as though this fiction were a reality”. Whatever mix of effort and wisdom and caring went into making that community the way it is, it works and seems very rare.