Tag Archives: job market

Lenski Interview with The Molecular Ecologist

John Stanton-Geddes asked me some great questions for a series on “People Behind the Science” at The Molecular Ecologist blog.  He gave me permission to repost the interview here.

1) Did you always think you’d become an evolutionary biologist?

No!  I always enjoyed being outdoors (sports and hiking), but I didn’t have any particular interest in biology.  However, my mother (who dropped out of college when she married, but then co-authored a sociology textbook with my father) was very interested in biology.  She would give me articles she had read and enjoyed from Natural History and elsewhere.

I went to Oberlin College, where I thought that I might major in government.  But I disliked my first government class.  I also took a team-taught biology class for non-majors.  All of the instructors spoke on topics about which they cared deeply, and I was hooked!  I took more biology courses, and I was especially drawn to ecology because there were so many ideas and questions.  At that time, I wrongly viewed evolutionary biology as a more descriptive, old-fashioned field with fewer questions that one might still address.  (By the way, several other evolutionary biologists were at Oberlin when I was there including Deborah Gordon, Joe Graves, Kurt Schwenk, and Ruth Shaw. Not bad for a small school!)

I went to graduate school at the University of North Carolina, where Nelson Hairston, Sr., was my advisor.  Nelson was interested in the interface of ecology and evolution, and that opened my eyes.  I was also influenced by Janis Antonovics, then at Duke University.  I took his Ecological Genetics course, and he served on my committee.  Janis had written a paper in which he argued that “The distinction between ‘ecological time’ and ‘evolutionary time’ is artificial and misleading.”  That really got me thinking.  I tried to develop a couple of field-based projects that would address evolutionary questions, but I didn’t know what I was doing and they failed.  In the end, my dissertation project was pure ecology.

By then, though, I knew I wanted to pursue evolutionary biology.  While we were finishing our doctoral projects, a fellow grad student Phil Service and I spent a lot of time discussing model systems for studying evolution.  For his postdoc, Phil chose to work with Drosophila.  I recalled an undergrad course in which we read about elegant experiments with microbes that addressed fundamental questions, such as one by Salvador Luria and Max Delbrück showing that mutations happen at random and not in response to selection.  Meanwhile, in a graduate seminar, we read a paper by Lin Chao and Bruce Levin on the coevolution of bacteria and viruses.  I wrote Bruce to ask if he might have an opening for a postdoc.  Lucky for me, Bruce knew Nelson and invited me for a visit.

2) You’ve described the theme of your research as “the tension between chance and necessity”. Can you comment on how chance and necessity have shaped your career?

The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus said, “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.”  In my long-term evolution experiment with E. coli, we can explore the tension between chance and necessity because we have replicate populations started with the same ancestor and evolving under identical conditions, and because we can replay evolution from different points along the way.  But it’s difficult, if not impossible, to tease apart the roles of chance and necessity with a sample size of one, which is the life that each of us has experienced, and without the ability to replay our own lives.  (On that last point, let me recommend Replay, a science-fiction novel by Ken Grimwood.)

I would say, though, that most people who have had some success in their adult lives also started out very lucky.  We were fortunate to be born at times and in places where we had food, familial love, education, and opportunity.

3) Reading your blog it’s clear that you are a student of the philosophy and history of science. Do you think we should include more history and philosophy in scientific training? Any advice on something we should all go out and read?

I do think that the history and philosophy of science deserve more emphasis in science and education than they usually receive.  But I didn’t have any formal education in those areas.  Instead, I became interested in these issues through teachers, mentors, colleagues, and my own explorations.

For something to read in this area, I suggest Darwin’s Century by Loren Eiseley.  (Originally published in 1958, it was republished in 2009 by Barnes & Noble.)  The book discusses the fascinating history of evolutionary thought in the decades before and after the publication of The Origin of Species.  I first read Darwin’s Century in a course at Oberlin taught by James Stewart.

4) If you were starting your career today, what would you study? 

If I were starting today, and at my present age, I might choose to study the history of science, especially evolutionary biology and its antecedents.

But if I were starting out young, as one usually does, I’d like things to unfold as they did.  It might be tempting to skip the rough patches, but dissatisfaction with my early research led me to make the switch to microbial evolution.  Would I have enjoyed this lab-based work as much, if I hadn’t discovered that I was not nearly as good at fieldwork as many of my peers?

5) How close have you come to giving up as a researcher and doing something completely different?

The job market was tough when I was a postdoc, and I had a growing family to support.  So after a slew of applications and rejections, and a period of uncertain funding, I started to think about other possibilities.  Luckily for me, things turned around before I had to make a switch.  (You can read more about it in my blog post, The Good Old Days.)

6) What’s the meaning of life?

I think that some understanding of evolution—at a basic level accessible to anyone with an open mind and a decent education—gives perspective about our place, both as individuals and as a species, in the grand sweep of time and space.  Recognizing the transience of my personal existence fills me with awe and respect for the continuity of life and ideas.  And belonging to a species that is profoundly altering the world that enabled the continuity of life reminds me of our responsibility for ensuring its future.

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An Alternative to Schekman’s Boycott of Luxury Journals

In a provocative op-ed that appeared in The Guardian, Nobel Laureate Randy Schekman says that he and his scientific team will “avoid” luxury journals, and he “encourage[s] others to do likewise”.  In effect, Prof. Schekman is calling for scientists to boycott Science, Nature, and Cell, probably the three most prestigious scientific journals in the world.

Prof.  Schekman raises some important issues about scientific publishing—ones that are receiving more and more attention as scholars and publishers alike experiment with new modes and models for publishing.

But Prof. Schekman’s biggest concern seems to be with the problems that “luxury” journals (or ‘glam’ journals, as they’re called on Twitter) create in terms of excessive attention and inappropriate incentives.  These are important issues, too, but I think there are some flaws in his argument.

Prof. Schekman compares luxury journals and the problems they create with Wall Street’s out-sized bonuses and the problems they’ve caused for the financial system.  That certainly grabs attention.

Prof. Schekman is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the luxury universities.  Here’s the title and one key paragraph from his opinion piece:

“How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science”

“These luxury journals are supposed to be the epitome of quality, publishing only the best research. Because funding and appointment panels often use place of publication as a proxy for quality of science, appearing in these titles often leads to grants and professorships. But the big journals’ reputations are only partly warranted. While they publish many outstanding papers, they do not publish only outstanding papers. Neither are they the only publishers of outstanding research.”

Now let’s make a few small changes. I don’t think the words I’ve substituted are any less true than those that Prof. Schekman wrote.  I’ve changed only those words in italics:  

“How universities like Harvard, Caltech, and Berkeley are damaging science”

“These luxury universities are supposed to be the epitome of quality, training only the best students. Because funding and appointment panels often use place of degree as a proxy for quality of science, obtaining degrees from these institutions often leads to fellowships and professorships. But the big universities’ reputations are only partly warranted. While they produce many outstanding scientists, they do not produce only outstanding scientists. Neither are they the only producers of outstanding scientists.”

So, will Prof. Schekman and his group also avoid luxury universities, and will he encourage others to do the same?

 

[EDIT: ADDED 1:30 PM]  Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that these universities should be boycotted. Rather, I simply want to point out that there many dimension of “luxury” and “glamor” in science (as in life more generally), and these can distort attention and incentives.  I’m not convinced that boycotts are the best way to address the underlying issues with respect to either journals or universities.

[EDIT #2: ADDED 1:35 PM] Let me also say I think eLife is off to a great start, with some new ideas on how to improve scientific publication.  I wish Prof. Schekman and the journal every success.

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The Good Old Days

I started applying for faculty jobs in 1983, after about a year and a half as a postdoc.  The job market was tight then, as the US was coming out of a deep recession.  (Sound familiar?)  And faculty jobs in microbial evolution simply didn’t exist in those days.  So I applied for any and all positions that had anything to do with ecology or evolution, whether at big universities, small colleges, or anywhere else.  The first year I sent out around 75 applications, as I recall.  And I do mean sent out, because in those days applicants had to copy things and mail them.  I had one interview, but no offer.  Meanwhile, Bruce Levin’s grant that was going to support me going forward got rejected.

My wife and I had one child, and our second was on the way.  I wasn’t panicked, although maybe I should have been!  However, I did start vaguely thinking about back-up plans.  I was good with numbers, and I’d written a couple of papers on the analysis of life-table data with Phil Service when we were grad students.  So when I saw an announcement for some talk on actuarial analysis, it caught my eye.  I thought that might be a possible alternative career.  I went to the talk, and I might even have gotten a business card from the speaker.

In the months ahead, Bruce revised and resubmitted the grant and, thankfully, it was funded, so I was secure for a while longer.  The next year, I again sent out applications far and wide.  I had a couple more papers, so my CV was stronger and the economy was improving, too.  I got three interviews and, with my postdoc secure, I actually declined another one.  However, the interviews were near the due-date for our second child, so I worried that I might have to cancel (and reschedule, if they’d allow it) the interviews.  Luckily, #2 arrived in time.  So I left my wife at home with a 10-day old baby and a toddler … and took off for back-to-back-to-back interviews.  Soon after I got home, I got two job offers on the same day.  (When it rains, it pours.)  One offer was from UC-Irvine, and that’s where we went after deferring the start for a year so I could get more research done as a postdoc.

I see there’s a lot of angst out there about the job market in academics.  And rightfully so.  Positions are scarce, and the competition is extraordinary.  I feel fortunate that I got a very good faculty position to start my career.  Things were tough back in the day, but they are much tougher now.  I admire all of you who are pursuing your dreams, but it never hurts to consider a backup plan – whether you need to use it or not.  There are, after all, many roads to happiness and success.

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