Statue of Oliver Goldsmith

Lessons from three role models

Warning: a little saccharine. My inner curmudgeon took the day off.

A couple of months ago I was interviewed for the People Behind the Science podcast.  Midway through, the host asked me about my role models – and it was a question I had to think about.  That’s because the best role models aren’t obvious; they don’t broadcast “look what I do” or ham up their behaviour in an attempt to be modeled.  This very subtlety is what makes them effective, at least for me. I’ve never taken overt advice terribly well, and too-obvious role modeling just seems like advice with a touch of condescension.

But even though I had to think about it, of course I’ve had role models.  Plenty of them – but there are three I remember often.

Wayne* was my undergraduate advisor and taught me several ecology courses.  He would do anything for his students.  One year he taught his 4th-year community ecology course, with lab, for a class consisting only of me and two of my friends.  (I realized only years later that he almost certainly did so on an overload, as a class size of 3 wasn’t something my large undergraduate university could countenance.)  He gave me advice about grad schools and wrote strong letters to get me there.  He was a huge help in my development from a completely unfocused Biology undergraduate to a somewhat-less unfocused evolutionary ecologist.  But none of that is what made Wayne a role model. What did? The fact that he did all those things when, I’m pretty sure, he didn’t actually like me very much**.  This is what professionalism is: to work for the success of others, and to do it for those you don’t like (or who don’t like you) every bit as much as for those you do.

Peter was a grad student a year ahead of me in my PhD program.  I got to know him best when I rented the top-floor apartment in his house. It shared the house’s main entrance, which meant that in coming and going I shared a lot of what Peter was doing.  Sometimes that was science (he had a home office near the front door), but often it wasn’t (his TV room was near the 2nd-floor landing).  Some grad students (and some faculty) were trying to work the 80-hour weeks they’d heard they should; but Peter had a different system.  By day, he worked hard; but in the evening he was usually in that TV room, watching a movie with his wife.  Work and life seemed in balance; and the balance didn’t then (and doesn’t today) stop Peter from doing and publishing great science.

Barbara was a senior faculty member at the university where I had my first faculty job.  She was an eminent figure in her field, a bigwig even, with a long publication record, honours, and awards.  I didn’t even realize this for a couple of years, though, because what I saw from my interactions with her was an unassuming and supremely decent person (usually perched on a supremely unfashionable bicycle), who was more likely to chat with me about her garden than about her success.  This might sound like I admire Barbara for a Milquetoastian habit of selling herself short, but that’s not the case.  In faculty meetings she was unafraid to offer strong arguments and defend them.  In her own field of biology, she blew her own horn as we all have to do (because there’s nobody whose job it is to blow it for us).  The trick with horns is knowing when to leave off blowing them, though, and that’s where Barbara became a role model for me.  Barbara knew how to be a hardworking and successful scientist but, at the same time, a lovely person you felt good talking with.

I realized only years later that these people had been role models for me. That’s the subtlety I mentioned before: each of them just quietly went about doing things the right way, and I noticed even if I didn’t notice myself noticing.  I’d be the first to admit I haven’t (yet) perfectly absorbed their lessons, but I’ve tried, and I’m better off for what I have absorbed.  Thank you Wayne, Peter, and Barbara.

© Stephen Heard ( July 11, 2016

*^It seemed awkward to use my role models’ real, full names here, and yet it would be difficult to tell their stories and have them be unidentifiable.  First names are my compromise.  If you want to go all Sherlock on it, I’m sure you can figure out the rest – but what would be the point?

**^To be fair, I was pretty obnoxious as an undergraduate.  (Hey, you back there – I heard that.)  Thank goodness we aren’t judged entirely on our younger selves.


3 thoughts on “Lessons from three role models

  1. Peter Apps

    “This is what professionalism is: to work for the success of others, and to do it for those you don’t like (or who don’t like you) every bit as much as for those you do.”

    Ain’t that the truth. And we could do with a lot more professionals of that kind.

    Liked by 1 person

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