The more things change, the more they change

Monet Kelp Forest. photo by Bruce McGlynn

Monet Kelp Forest. photo by Bruce McGlynn

I just had the pleasure of spending a couple days hiking around the interior of Catalina Island. The last time I did this was about 23 years ago, when I was a student on an undergraduate field trip for a course in Conservation Biology.

I learned a lot from that course, and a lot of specific things from that field trip stuck with me. The biggest thing that I remember from that trip was: Goats. The second biggest thing that I remember from that trip was: Pigs.

I don’t recall ever seeing a single goat or a single pig during that trip, but their traces were evident. The maximum reach of goats was obvious by looking at any individual plant. The entire flora was literally sculpted by introduced goats, and the soil was radically altered by the introduced pigs.

Now, Catalina still has introduced deer and bison, and apparently some yahoos have recently brought over some raccoons. And invasive Argentine ants seem widespread. But the goats and the pigs are gone as a result of some intrepid conservation efforts. The island looks fundamentally different than it did 23 years ago.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been a student on a field trip. Once in a while – though not as often as I’d like – I’m the one who leads field trips. The concepts I learned in my conservation biology course are still valid. The hard-wired problem-solving abilities remain. But a lot of what I remember is generational knowledge, which belongs more in the realm of history than in a biology course.

The idea that a single exotic species can radically shape an island’s flora is a useful concept. However, I’d be teaching weak sauce if I relied on situations and examples as dated as my recollections of goats on Catalina. Yes, it’s a useful example, and it’s great to be able to illustrate recovery after eradication of the exotic species. But if my teaching uses my own undergraduate experiences as a crutch for lesson development, then that’s a recipe for driftwood or perhaps deadwood.

A lot has changed since I took that Conservation Biology course. During that year, I also learned Biostatistics. By doing analyses with SPSS on a mainframe. I did a fancy lab on the genetic structure of populations. Using restriction enzymes. I learned how to construct phylogenies. With MacClade. I did an independent study project on landscape connectivity, and got data by traveling to a facility that maintained rolls of film from overflights of the area I was studying.

Since my time in university, I’ve clearly learned lot more about statistics, and about population genetics and genomics, and about phylogenetic reconstruction. And I use Google Earth on occasion. During grad school, I acquired the skills that I needed to get my dissertation done, and to prepare myself for a career in academia. But since that time, things have changed. The goats are gone from Catalina, and nobody is using mainframe-based SPSS to conduct ecological research.

The more things change, they more they change.

The hard-wired skills I got in college and grad school are serving me well. They’re keeping my lab funded (at least for the moment), are instrumental in developing and testing new and cool questions, and are foundational for teaching. But the generational skills that I picked up along the way are now of little use.

If I had a big lab with postdocs and PhD students, then I wouldn’t necessarily need to know how to actually perform all of the technical aspects of the work that happens in my lab. But since I’m not running that kind of lab, and I am my own postdoc. Either I have to do it myself – which means learning how to do it myself — or I have to find a collaborator who has the generational skills that I lack. I have a lot of specialized knowledge and skills to offer collaborators, but I should join with others because they also have specialized expertise and skills, not just the simple skills that all new PhDs are expected to have, which are not widely found in my generation of academics.

Some PIs are making a point to keep up to date, but others have a lab full of grad students and postdocs that have specific technical skills that are lacking in the PI. At a research institution, that choice is possible. I don’t have that choice while working in a teaching institution.

What do you call a full professor in research institution who has the ability to write grants and papers like a beast and lacks generational skills? A productive researcher, maybe a bigwig. What do you call a full professor at a teaching institution who can write grants and papers like a beast and lacks generational skills? Deadwood who doesn’t get anything done.

I’m now rounding the corner to full professor, and have been producing scholarship at what I think is a pretty good clip. But the skills that have got me to this point won’t be getting me much further unless I make a point to develop the skills that new grad students are also learning. I can’t reasonably rely on collaborators outside my institution to conduct what is now considered basic research tasks.

This becomes a dilemma because the amount of work that it takes to maintain fundamental skills is the same amount of work it will take to write some grants, write some papers, and also to teach a number of courses. There is a reason that new grad students don’t generate a lot of papers right away, because they’re learning how to do stuff. Now, I need to learn how to do new stuff, to update my previous-generation skills with contemporary-generation skills. Sure, it’s highly unlikely that something like, say, Python, will matter 25 years from now. But at the moment, it matters, and I’m doing research in the moment.

I thought a sabbatical could be used to gain depth. Now, I see that – at least for me – a sabbatical is needed to merely prevent uprooting and desiccation.

One thought on “The more things change, the more they change

  1. I would argue there are contemporary ways to tell old stories; an update to Catalina island, a new wrinkle, new problems to solve…at least it’s accessible and local so maybe your students would resonate with it more? Of course, updating things is not a bad idea either.

    I’m really struggling with this…needing to take time to learn R, python, statistics, genomics…all at once. Oh and become a great writer, find a job, and otherwise really update my entire skillset for a new generation.

    The current system really seems to have a hard time with slack to actually pick these things up other than incompletely and on the fly which can be problematic.

    And if you’re depressed or going through some other life event…it gets harder to do those upgrades of skill.

    As you say, PIs at R1s may be able to just hire peopel with requisite knowledge, or there’s always collaboration, but then it’s harder to impress people when you apply for jobs “well, I learned some of this, but my collaborator was key..” employers invariably seem to want to hear “I DID THIS. ME. ON MY OWN!” denying the reality that in a specialized world where we all need to learn from each other, it’s not really realistic to go it alone.

    I struggle with the line of working with others and needing to do things myself/figure them out on my own.

    Anyway, Twitter is a skill, right? I think I am decent at that at least.

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