I interviewed awesome ecologists at the 2011 Ecological Society of America meeting in exchange for reader donations, which paid for my conference attendance. This is one in a series of posts about those interviews.
After a lazy Sunday morning spent reading Middle World over buckwheat pancakes and strawberries, I poured myself another cup of coffee, opened up JeremyFoxInterview.txt, and had a small heart attack. The file had just one line: ‘Notes from interview with Jeremy Fox.’ Unable to find a version of the file actually containing those notes in a month of backups, I sadly sipped my now cold coffee and, horribly embarrassed, began composing an email to Dr. Fox: ‘Hi Jeremy, Remember making time at the end of an exhausting meeting to sit down and be interviewed by a graduate student? I’m afraid that was a complete waste…’ But halfway through writing the email, I realized that I didn’t remember tossing out the original handwritten notes I’d done during the interview. And then there they were, tucked away in a catch-all pile of papers between a student loan bill and a customs declaration form.
I’d been planning to go through that pile of papers for weeks, but if I had, those notes would be part of a cereal box by now. So, brought to you by the power of
procrastination excellent record keeping, my interview with University of Calgary ecologist, Jeremy Fox!
Dr. Fox decided to go into ecology when he was a teenager. Influenced by a childhood spent exploring New Jersey tide pools, he decided to be a marine intertidal ecologist, and kept this goal into graduate school. Luckily, his undergraduate advisor knew better than he did what Fox actually wanted to do and encouraged him to do his graduate work with community ecologist Peter Morin. Community ecology is where Fox stayed, though I doubt he’s lost his fascination with the marine intertidal zone.
When I asked Dr. Fox about the big questions in ecology, he didn’t give me a list of problems or unknowns. Instead, he described how he answers ecological questions. He tries to think in a process oriented way about how our world works and to bring models of those processes to bear on data. Instead of focusing on this or that particular piece of information, he’s interested in developing tools that can deal with whatever set of questions we think need answering.
One of the tools he uses are microcosms, which are intentionally simplified and/or highly controlled versions of some natural system. This kind of approach is widespread in ecology: Nick Gotelli uses the mini-food webs in pitcher plants and Steve Ellner builds his own system of predators and prey in chemostats. The reason this simplifying approach is so widely used is because it excludes extraneous factors to let us get a clear signal from the underlying ecological process we’re trying to understand.
But can studying two protists in a bottle [pdf] really help us understand what’s going on with elephants or crocodiles or other organisms? Fox acknowledges that elephants and crocodiles are clearly different from protists in many ways, but pointed out that they’re the same in others. If we’re trying to understand general principles, those principles should apply to both protists and crocodiles. Using a microcosm to answer a question in ecology is a bit like building a model airplane. If your tiny model can’t fly, your real sized plane probably won’t either.
Using microcosms, he and his collaborators have recently learned a lot about the spatial synchrony of predator prey cycles. Here’s a description of the project from his website:
The aim of this project is to explain two common, important features of natural communities: stability and synchrony. Stability refers to the fact that most populations in most places persist for many generations without wild oscillations in abundance, despite environmental fluctuations. Synchrony refers to the fact that spatially-separated populations of the same species, and coexisting populations of different species, often fluctuate synchronously. This is problematic from a theoretical perspective, because theory suggests that synchrony and stability are rarely compatible. David [Vasseur] and I are developing and testing realistic (i.e. stochastic, nonlinear) models of spatial community dynamics (metacommunity dynamics) to tease apart the links between synchrony and stability.
Microcosms are only part of how Fox figures things out. He also relies on math, going so far as to say that
It’s impossible to develop and test rigorous hypotheses without mathematical help.
The world is complicated and thinking logically and rigorously is hard. Math makes you smarter – or at least forces you to explicitly define your problem and predictions. He’s not saying that everyone needs to be a modeler, just that we can’t get by on natural history and intuition alone. If you don’t have a strong math background you can collaborate with people who do, or you can buff up your own math skills, perhaps by forming a reading group with other people at your institution looking to do the same.
At his first job interview, Fox was asked about his favorite paper. He named this paper by Brian Enquist and others because he was very impressed with how creative it was and the range of things it explained. And then his interviewer pointed out that Fox’s work wasn’t at all like that. Oops! He does still think it’s a good paper – part of the reason it still impresses him is because it’s very different from anything he would or could ever have done himself. Now he’d recommend Bill Wimsatt’s book chapter False Models as Means to Truer Theories [pdf]. The essay is a bit of applied philosophy of science on ways that false models (which all models are, of course) help us learn the truth – in spite (or because!) of the fact that the models are false.
Fox wrote about his own favorite paper over at Oikos Blog, and this is my favorite part of the post:
It represents hard-won knowledge. It literally took me three years of hard work to really understand the Price equation (‘speed’ is not one of my strengths as an ecologist). And there were several points at which I thought I understood it but didn’t. One of those ‘false dawns’ led me to embarrass myself in front of Alan Grafen, a great evolutionary theoretician and one of the world’s leading experts on the Price equation. He came to Silwood Park to give a talk while I was a postdoc there, and I scheduled a one-on-one meeting with him to tell him about my clever idea. So we stood in front of a white board and I started walking him through my idea. After about 30 seconds he interrupted with a small question about my notation. It was an easy question, so I started to clarify—and then I realized I didn’t actually know the answer. Which meant I didn’t actually have any idea what the hell I was talking about. The conversation went downhill from there. When Fox (2006) finally came out I had a strong urge to send a reprint to Alan Grafen with a note reading “Sorry for wasting your time.” Or perhaps “See, I’m not an idiot after all!
It’s nice to know that other ecologists feel like idiots sometimes, too! Fox’s experience also shows that attempting to communicate our ideas early on – even when we’re wrong – is an important part of making progress on hard problems.
Fox is my favorite ecology blogger and the most prolific of the bloggers over at Oikos Blog. He’s pretty web savvy for an ecologist (Did you notice the Wordle on his lab page?) and enjoys the platform blogging gives him. (It’s also given him a bit of name recognition among younger ecologists, which is probably good for his career.) But he’s careful in his use of technology and social media – he doesn’t use new tech because it’s new, but because he finds it useful. I couldn’t convince him to join twitter, even when I mentioned that I link to fabulous shoes on a regular basis.
If you’ve enjoyed my posts about ESA and the ecologists I met there, I recommend reading Fox’s ESA posts, especially the ‘Highlights.’ And here’s Fox talking about blogging in an interview with Wiley-Blackwell: