Diverse Introspectives: A conversation with Jay Stachowicz (2 Comments)


This past November, Dr. Jay Stachowicz visited the Northeastern University Marine Science Center to give a seminar on “Effects of biodiversity on the structure and function of marine ecosystems”. My labmate, Chris Newton, and I took advantage of the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Stachowicz to hear his views and insights on a career in science and the field of biodiversity.

Dr. Stachowicz is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at University of California Davis and since 2009, has served as director for the Center for Population Biology. Dr. Stachowicz, beginning with his work as a student, has made considerable contributions to several fields of marine ecology. Arguably, his work on positive interactions and mutualisms, invasion and biodiversity, intraspecific diversity, and more have not only been at the forefront of marine ecology but also has provided the impetus for others to pursue these topics as well. We are grateful to Dr. Stachowicz for taking time to chat with us and provide us with his perspective for what leads to a successful career.


[KMB] As graduate students, a lot of us are looking forward and thinking about developing our own research programs, as opposed to research projects.  How did you approach this task? Did it just happen or was it very deliberate? How did you develop your research as a lab? What do you recommend students do and think about when they are developing their own research programs?

[JJS] I definitely did not plan out my major research agenda. It’s just things that sort of happened and stuck together. Things that I liked doing I kept doing, things that I didn’t or weren’t productive fell by the wayside. Once you sort of get enough things going you can ask, “ok, is there something here I am really excited about and want to move forward on?” and then you can make a conscious decision. I find it, I found it, very difficult to make that decision in a vacuum – to move, have a new job, and decide what my research program going to look like here. I think it depends on what kind of scientist you are. Are you a come up with an idea/theory and go find a system to test it or are you a go look around and see what the system is telling you would be a good question to ask kind of scientist. Both are good approaches to take but depends on which of those you are.

Are there particular skills that you wish you had cultivated in graduate school? How do you think that they differ from skills that think young scientists should be especially keen to cultivate now?

I think the things I wish I had picked up are those things that I wish I was better at. And those would be quantitative skills and better genetic training – those are both things that would be helpful now. But did I know in grad school what those things would be 15-20 years from then? No, I didn’t have any idea – and those weren’t so obvious or easy to pick up in the situation I was in. I think for any ecologist it is important to pick up some sort of technical skill that makes you be able to do more than just count stuff in a quadrat. Whether that is genetics or stable isotopes or modeling or sophisticated analysis – having something else you bring to the table as a scientist besides your natural history intuition. Which is valuable, I don’t mean to diminish those things. But having something else to add that can be an asset to people and systems and questions outside of those you’ve worked on. What exactly that is depends on who you are and who you want to be as a scientist.

In this generation many students feel pressure to pick up a lot of different skills. Do you think there is potential for the problem of ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ to occur with this pressure?

It can. That’s one of those things that everyone has to weigh for themselves. You can point to examples of very successful generalists in science and very successful specialists. I don’t think there is any one path to being successful that I would advocate over others. A lot of it is who are you, I read somewhere once that productive people know what they can’t do and they don’t waste time trying to do it. So if you’re just not good at mathematical modelling don’t beat your head against the wall over it and work really hard at becoming a mediocre modeler. Be a great whatever it is that you are. If you happen to be great at lots of things then super. It’s always hard to know if you’re not good enough or just not trying hard enough. So you have to try hard enough to know you’re not good at it or someone has to tell you you’re not good at it. But if you’re not good at something don’t try to become an expert – find someone who is an expert. At least that’s my cop-out for ‘why aren’t you better at statistics’.

What piece of advice do you wish someone had given to you when you were a graduate student?  If you could go back in time and tell the graduate student version of yourself one thing, what would it be? Is this different than advice that you would give a current student?

Don’t worry, it will all work out. This is no consolation to you but it will all work out. Sometime between year 2 and 4 is the toughest part of your graduate career where the glow of the newness of it has worn off and the hardness and the dead ends have shown up. And you don’t know if you’re good enough and you are going to question yourself. Don’t worry—this is perfectly normal, before you know it you’ll have more way more to do than you could ever possibly get done in a lifetime and you’ll never have a problem thinking of questions to answer. It’s mostly that – it really all will work out. I don’t know that I would do anything differently. Because anything that I would do differently would involve some cost to those things that I did. I could say I wish I spent more time learning theory but that would mean I would’ve spent less time in the field. I am pretty happy how things turned out so I am not sure how much I would change other than to reassure myself, to say, “don’t worry here’s a picture of yourself, you have a job and you’re happy. I am not going to tell you where it is or what you’re doing but you made it!” If you’re persistent and you work hard you will make it – whatever that is. Making it may not be what you thought it was when you first started graduate school. Just as most undergraduate students in biology start off thinking they’re going to be a doctor because they don’t know anything else, most PhD’s who enter don’t realize that there is more out there than just being an academic. Or at least when I entered grad school that was more the case. I think people are much more savvy about the range of things you can do with a PhD now. I think you learn over the course of graduate school what the other things people can do or have done with a PhD, not just a straight research track or teaching/research track. There are people that have made their own way – and that’s cool, I never knew you could do that. Today, it’s not like you’re a failed student if you don’t get a faculty position. So the realization of that and that there are really important things to do that aren’t being a faculty member.

What opportunities in your career have been most unexpectedly valuable? Are there opportunities you wish you had taken?

The story of how I got a post doc is a good example. I planned ahead and contacted faculty, sent them letters (we sent actual snail mail letters in those days!) and wrote proposals and had a conceptually motivated idea that I really wanted to do. And none of that ever went through at all, it flopped and I had spent a ton of time on it. Then someone advertised for a post-doc, I sent in an application, and I was hired. I didn’t really put much in time or thinking about it and it was a great job that totally sent me off on a different research direction than I was headed and totally influenced what I am doing now in that area. So it was totally fortuitous. I was in the right place at the right time and something that I didn’t plan at all. And I think that happens to people over and over again, you’re presented with a bunch of choices and chances are most will probably work out. But I think some of it is sort of recognizing what sort of opportunities are out there for you and to take advantage of them when they pop up.

What is a foundational paper that heavily influenced your thinking or your research?

That is a good question and I won’t point to just one. The work coming out of Mark Bertness’ lab in the mid 90’s on positive interactions were really formative for me. Taking stuff I was doing on my own and putting it into a broader framework, apart from the systems I was working in, and seeing how someone else was thinking about what these interactions were doing and how they might be important. The Bertness and Sally Hacker papers at that time were very influential in what direction my dissertation work took for sure. In terms of general direction, and how I got to grad school in the first place, my advisor’s [Mark Hay] work was very influential in getting me excited about species associations and mutualisms and got me to spend a lot of time working on these sorts of questions but Bertness’ work helped put it into a broader context.

Can you tell us about a particularly memorable experience you had doing fieldwork, good or bad?

Lots of them! The story I remember the most was there was a site about 3 miles offshore we’d, my buddy and roommate from Mark Hay’s lab, go diving at – and it was in these crazy inlets that you had to sort of navigate to come back in. If the tide and the wind were in opposite directions you’d get standing waves in the inlet. [That day] the dive was successful and we came back and there were these huge standing waves. We were in one of those Boston whaler type boats with the center console that had one of those big windshields that was supposed to keep the spray off you, perfectly safe so we weren’t worried. We got through almost the whole thing and we were down to the last set of standing waves, and we were about to go through the last one and I knew we were going to plow right through it. I looked at my buddy and I yelled “duck!”. We hit the wave, we both ducked, the boat filled with water, and we got up and the windshield was gone. It was just gone off the boat somewhere in the ocean and it was a good thing we ducked because we would have gotten hit. It was the last set of waves so fortunately we were out but the boat was filled with water and we were soaked. That was one of those things were you go “phew”.

Intraspecific diversity is arguably the least studied biodiversity ‘metric’ – what do you feel are the most important findings in this area thus far? What are the important unanswered questions with respect to the importance of intraspecific diversity on higher order processes? How should we be approaching those questions?

I feel like we have gotten the sort of phenomenological level down. That intraspecific variation is associated with X – more production, less production, more stability, less stability, whatever. I guess what I would like to see more of are the biological mechanisms underlying these patterns. What are the trait differences among genotypes or the interactions among genotypes that lead to those emergent properties? I think that is even true in the species diversity world – where the mechanisms people are looking at aren’t really mechanisms. Knowing whether it is a key species or the result of a mixture of species, it is often inferred that it is complementarity from that. But people don’t often know what it is that is complementary from that. You know, like, does this species have a shallow rooting depth and this one have a deep rooting depth? People have done a little bit of that at the interspecific level but I think we’re really generally poor at doing that at the intraspecific level, at connecting the number of genotypes to actual traits or trait diversity.

How to get there is not quite as obvious to me, there are lots of different ways on could go.  One could be purely ecological and measuring traits, manipulating trait diversity or trait combinations. Or one could take a much more genetic approach and look for actual loci that control particular traits. Particularly for organisms that have whole genomes, you could get good data on what is the genetic variation that exists in terms of functional variation. Connecting functional variation to genetic variation is the place we need to go and I think, as always, the way to do this is to take a bunch of paths and see which one yields results. Because I think there are a bunch of ways we could do this and I wouldn’t advocate that we all do the same one. Turn everybody loose and see what happens.

Considering your postdoctoral work with Bob Whitlatch looking at diversity and invasibility, and how it fits into our current views on the role of diversity. In particular, across spatial scales (Fridley et al. 2007, Kimbro et al. 2013) – do regional overwhelm local processes every time?

I guess what I would is that my post doc work still shows that if you lose species, this is what I would predict would happen. It didn’t say anything about the relative importance of that mechanism to other sorts of things, so I’ve left it to others to think about that. At the larger regional scale, we generally don’t lose species at that scale anyway. In most marine environments species generally aren’t going or have not gone extinct at the regional or larger scale, they may have gone locally extinct but not biologically extinct at broader scales. I provided a mechanism and evidence that a mechanism operated and I provided some correlative evidence that it even was consistent with being important in the system I was working in at the “site” scale. It’s hard to imagine any ecologist would say “I did this in my system therefore it is important everywhere” and so it doesn’t surprise me that it would be important in some places and not others.

Our later work in Bodega Bay showed it might be more important in places where space limitation is really obvious but at other places because of low recruitment or habitat modification alleviates space limitation there is not that negative relationship between diversity and invasion. And even our own work in fouling communities showed that as you look at different places with different recruitment rates or different species that relationships shift around. That doesn’t surprise me, what I think it tells us is that in communities that are largely competitively structured I’d expect that mechanism to operate but whether that will be stronger when there are periodic salinity pulses, low salinity pulses, or something like that who the heck knows. So if turns out that most communities aren’t competitively structured then it probably isn’t that important. But if there are communities out there that are competitively structured, and I suspect there are few, then I would expect that mechanism to operate and at the scales at which they are competitively structured. So a community might not be competitively structured at the regional scale but they may be at the local scale.

What is your view on the link between biodiversity science and conservation? With respect to intraspecific diversity how do we make the case to conserve it when it cannot be ‘seen’? If simply higher genetic diversity per se enhances conservation efforts, what is a good approach to deciding what is conserved – especially given high costs of molecular analyses?

The cost of molecular analysis is almost not an issue. The biggest cost is paying someone to go out there and collect the data and the cost of the molecular analyses is becoming cheaper. The conservation relevance in terms of intraspecific diversity is less about conservation and more about restoration. It is more useful when you are restoring species and thinking about whether there are particular places you want to sample your transplants from or whether you want to get things from a diversity of sites.

What are your hopes for the next generation of scientists? What should we be focused on? What do you think is the most exciting frontier in biodiversity? How do you think we should go about studying it?

I hope expect they’ll be smarter than us and they should do whatever they think is most interesting. They should listen but not blindly follow the old farts of the world (like me). Listen and take it all with a grain of salt, don’t reinvent the wheel but also don’t slavishly follow what someone else says you should do. You might do the wrong thing but so what? If you think about the people who have made the biggest impact in ecology they are generally the people who didn’t spend time doing what others told them they should be doing. They’re generally people who did things pretty different. They were people who started doing experiments, they were people who said it wasn’t all about competition and predation and that facilitation might be important, they were people who said humans are having a big effect on top predators, they were people who said we needed to look at things at larger spatial scales. These people understood the orthodoxy and understood where it was coming from but didn’t just throw it out because it was orthodoxy. They also recognized whatever its limitations were and didn’t hold themselves to it because it was the way people did it or because their advisor told them it was an important thing to study.

I guess I don’t have a definitive answer. I don’t know what my research will be doing in 5 years let alone telling someone else what their research should be doing in 5 years. Science works the best when people do a lot of different stuff and there is a sorting process that goes on. Like biodiversity, I think scientific diversity is important and all types of scientific diversity. People with different backgrounds, people with different approaches, and people who study different systems or questions. I might think some piece of work is pretty boring in the here and now, but it might lead to something really important and might totally change the way I think about stuff down the line.  Or I might just be wrong (certainly wouldn’t be the first time). I am definitely one of those who casts a net broadly and see what falls out. It does mean that some people will do things that aren’t very interesting or useful at least in the short run. But if we all knew what the right thing to do was we’d all just work on it and I am not sure that’s where we really are. I am sure other people who have been asked this question would have much stronger opinions and I guess I am not someone who is willing to pretend I know what we should all be doing – at least not at this point. I guess mostly, I wouldn’t want to stifle somebody. I‘ve seen this happen, where someone actually has a good idea and asks somebody else and they drop their good idea because that somebody else said it was not a good idea or that what they should really be doing is this other thing. Ask for a lot of opinions, consider them but follow your judgment in the end. At least you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.


7 January, 2014

January 7, 2014