Becoming an ecologist: A detour makes a difference

Note: I started this blog to update stories in my 2015 book, Tools for Critical Thinking in Biology, as new research was reported. This posting doesn’t serve that purpose, but instead is a reflection on the circuitous route that led me to a career in ecology.

Watching Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s 2017 documentary on the Vietnam War brought back a flood of memories of that formative time in my life as a scientist. I was a senior biology major at Dartmouth College in 1967-1968. My advisor was a fungal geneticist who had gotten me a job in a colleague’s lab at Stanford the previous summer. In spring 1968, I was awarded an NSF fellowship for graduate school and accepted by 3 prestigious PhD programs in genetics around the country. As required in those days, I had registered for the draft at age 18, but college students were granted deferments from military service for the duration of their undergraduate and graduate programs. In 1968, however, as more and more soldiers were needed for the growing war in Vietnam, deferments for graduate school were suspended.

My classmates had a variety of responses to the war and the change in rules about educational deferments. One of my best friends enlisted in the Air Force. A few of my classmates emigrated to Canada. Many Dartmouth seniors, including me, decided to apply for K-12 teaching jobs to avoid being drafted. Of course we hadn’t been trained or certified as teachers to meet requirements of public school districts so we taught at private schools or public schools in rural areas or inner cities where recruitment of certified teachers was difficult. I took a job at a private school near Detroit, where I taught 5th through 12th grade math and biology.

After teaching for two years, I decided to apply for conscientious objector status. This was granted by my draft board, which meant that I would be assigned to alternative service such as working in a hospital if I was drafted. I also decided to reapply to graduate school, was successful, and began a PhD program at Harvard in fall 1970. I was called for a physical shortly after the semester started, but given a medical deferment by a sympathetic eye doctor whose daughter was a graduate student in biochemistry in California.

The result of my physical exam for the draft enabled me to continue my graduate program. Rather than genetics, which I would have studied if I had entered graduate school directly after completing my BA degree, I was now interested in studying animal behavior and ecology. Three things contributed to this change of direction. During my senior year at Dartmouth, I had taken a course in animal behavior taught by a new faculty member. With some distance from my senior genetics project, I thought about how much I had enjoyed the ideas and field work in this animal behavior course. I also remembered the expectation of my supervisors in the windowless basement lab at Stanford where I worked in summer 1967 that we should remain during lunch for conversation and mini-seminars. I much preferred to enjoy the California sunshine during that break. Finally, I was teaching teenagers in April 1970 when the first Earth Day took place. I was excited by their enthusiasm about environmental issues, but felt poorly prepared to teach them about natural history and ecological principles as the foundation for acting to protect the environment. This led to a graduate program in which I did dissertation research on foraging behavior and ecology of beavers.

After completing my PhD, I accepted a teaching position in biology at the University of Nevada, Reno where I taught from 1974 until my retirement in 2011. UNR was not a high-powered research institution during my early years on the faculty. Teaching loads were high and research expectations were modest. We had a handful of students in a new PhD program, with most of our graduate students supported by teaching assistantships. There were wonderful opportunities for ecologists, however, since Reno sits between the Sierra Nevada on the west and the Great Basin on the east, with short commutes to both desert and montane field sites. Reno has expanded so commutes are longer now, but the Great Basin remains the least well-studied North American desert.

Events during the height of the Vietnam War triggered a shift in my research interests that led to a very satisfying career of teaching and research. Although I had no major administrative responsibilities at UNR, I helped build our department and the university by serving on key search committees. I was a member of our Faculty Senate during the recession of 2008-2009, when loss of state funds caused contraction of several programs on campus. We rebounded from that period with growth in the size and especially the quality of biology and other programs. One of the greatest pleasures of my retirement has been getting to know our new, young faculty as they establish exciting, well-funded research programs while developing valuable outreach projects and showing genuine commitment to good teaching.

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