Out in the forest, and out on a limb

Images: A field crew disappearing into the forest; field sites and gear for our soil-carbon project.  All © Stephen Heard CC BY 4.0

Warning: long and detailed – but the details are really the point, so don’t give up too quickly.

I called this blog Scientist Sees Squirrel in recognition of my lack of an attention span.  For 25 years, I’ve been bobbing and weaving academically, shifting research focus as collaborators, funding, access to systems, and just my idiosyncratic curiosity have favoured new projects asking new questions in new systems.  This has benefits and, no doubt, costs (so I’m definitely not claiming it’s right for everyone or even that it’s optimal for me), but it’s kept me excited about science for a quarter of a century.

And I’ve done it again.

For the last couple of decades, if you’d asked me, I’d have told you that my research focus was the evolution of diet specialization and diversity in plant-feeding insects.  Most of this involved work on gallmaking and leafmining herbivores of asters and goldenrods, which seem to have diversified, quite possibly in sympatry, via the evolution of host- and habitat-specific races.  Interested?  An old paper that lays out the underlying logic is here, and our most recent paper is here (yes, both paywalled me; email me if you’d like copies.)

Then one day, a few years ago, I looked around my lab and realized that wasn’t my research focus anymore.  While I wasn’t looking, I had somehow morphed into a forest ecologist; and the process seems to have become complete with our newest grant.  So how did it happen?  Like every shift of emphasis over my research career, it was what I call “academic Brownian motion”: not a deliberate move, but the outcome of many small circumstantial nudges.  Those nudges come from the places I am, the people I interact with, and the opportunities that present themselves. While the details of my particular journey are arguably unimportant, there’s a bigger picture from the story I’ll tell.  That’s because these nudges happen to everyone and I think they’re much more important to careers in science than they’re given credit for (although to be sure, some people are more susceptible to nudges than others).

My slide into forest ecology began subtly and gradually.  When I arrived at UNB (in 2002), there was one other entomologist on the university’s faculty – Dan Quiring, a forest entomologist in our Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Management.  It was only natural that we talked, and that I ended up on his students’ committees and he ended up on mine.  This worked well, despite the fact that I knew next to nothing about forests, or forest insects, or forestry, or trees, or applied entomology (something that hasn’t changed nearly as much as you might think*).  Dan was a bridge for me, introducing me to the research scientists at the Canadian Forest Service (one of CFS’s five regional research centres is located just 5 minutes from my campus).  But I still did my own thing.

Then, about five years ago, something weird happened.  Dan retired, and for reasons I’ve never understood our Faculty of Forestry chose to hire in other fields.  That left Forestry without an entomologist – in a province in which forestry is the single largest industry, and one that’s staring down the double barrels of a rising spruce budworm outbreak** and an assortment of looming invasive forest pests.  My colleagues at the Canadian Forest Service were eager to cosupervise (and fund) graduate student projects, and my lab in Biology was now the only game in town to give those students an academic home.  Plus, there was a remarkably healthy funding stream for work in forest entomology – and it seemed prudent to me that if there was a pipe gushing research money, and I had a bucket, I should place my bucket under the pipe. (Provided, of course, that I can ask interesting questions over there.)  Before long, the evolution-of-diet-specialization students in my lab had been joined by forest entomology students; before much longer, my lab had graduated its first couple of forest entomologists.  As of last week, six grad students have finished degrees in forest entomology in my lab***, and four more are in progress.  Evolution-of-diet-specialization students in the lab?  Currently, and sadly, none.

Once you start slipping down a slope, you tend to keep sliding. I can now pretend to know things about forest insects, but our new grant focuses on carbon cycling in forests soils.  (I know even less about soils than I know about forests.)  It’s a 3-year grant to ask how soil carbon stocks and dynamics are changed by budworm-caused defoliation, or alternatively, by spraying (with Btk) to prevent defoliation.  We’re doing this work in 12 watersheds in Gaspésie, Quebec, near the edge of the current outbreak; some will be sprayed to suppress budworm while others will be left unsprayed.  We’ll track defoliation, frass and litterfall, soil carbon stocks, soil respiration, decomposition rates in soil, mycorrhizal communities, and more.

So from forest entomology now to forest soil science.  How did that happen?  Well, in addition to its Canadian Forest Service research station, my city has an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research station, and that station hired a new soil-carbon scientist.  I’d had a small industrial-collaboration grant from NSERC (Canada’s national science funding agency), comparing budworm mortality from Btk spray on different tree hosts.  That program offered a fairly-easy-to-get “Stage II” grant, and I persuaded my new soil-science colleague that we should propose some pilot work on soil carbon in sprayed and unsprayed stands.  That was funded; and completely by accident, it ended up positioning me ideally for a funding call from NSERC in a program called “Advancing Climate Change Science in Canada”.  That program offered major funding but low odds of achieving it – but the call asked for proposals that (1) focused on cooling technology, forests, or the carbon cycle; and (2) featured collaboration between university researchers and federal-government researchers.  And here I was already doing research on carbon in forest soils – not just one but two of the target areas – in collaboration with researchers from not just one but two federal departments.  How could I not apply?  So I did**** – or more accurately, we did: the team included Michael Stastny and Deepa Pureswaran from the Canadian Forest Service and Cameron Wagg and Louis-Pierre Comeau from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.  I needed the team, of course: those four are the ones who actually know stuff about forests, and soils, and mycorrhizae.  Our application was one of nine that were funded nationwide (in April, but with a news embargo until quite recently).

Still with me?  That was a lot of detail; but that’s the point.  It’s the little details that have driven my research career.  A move into forest entomology and then into soil science might seem like strategy – but believe me, that would give me way too much credit.  Instead, it was all due to those circumstantial nudges.  There was my location (a province with forestry, a town with two federal research centres).  There were the people around me (a genial Dan Quiring to nudge me gently to the edge of the slope, then a town with forest-entomology researchers but a university without them to nudge me over the edge).  There was opportunity and timing (an Advancing Climate Change Science call just as I was wrapping up pilot work that fit the call like a glove).  It’s hard to illustrate academic Brownian motion better than this.  It’s taken me a lot of places over my career. Where will it take me next?  Where has it taken you?

I couldn’t have done any of this alone.  In addition to Dan Quiring, who I’ve already named, my forest entomology collaborators and students have included Cameron Webb, Kate van Rooyen, Zach Sylvain, Jon Sweeney, Lauren Stead, Michael Stastny, Peter Silk, Ilesha Sandunika, Lucie Royer, Marc Rhainds, Deepa Pureswaran, Emily Owens, Bjorn Økland, Eric Moise,  Mallory MacDonnell, Paal  Krokene, Rob Johns, Rylee Isitt, Allison Heustis, Dorothea Grégoire, Mischa Giasson, Eldon Eveleigh, Sara Edwards, Ian DeMerchant, Ken Dearborn, Louis-Pierre Comeau, Drew Carleton, Eric Bauce, and Jennifer Anderson (I apologize to whoever it is that I have, inevitably, missed).  A couple of these folks wouldn’t consider themselves forest entomologists – but then, neither would I have, until very recently, and that’s precisely the point of this post!

© Stephen Heard July 31, 2019


*^Although if you end up a reviewer for one of my forest entomology papers, I want you to forget that you read that bit.  Maybe I’ll insist that it was inserted when someone hacked my WordPress account.  Yeah, that’s it.

**^Spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana) is a tortricid moth that undergoes spectacular population outbreaks on about a 35-year cycle.  Outbreaks defoliate millions of hectares of spruce/fir forest across eastern Canada, cause extensive tree mortality, and cost the forest industry billions of dollars.

***^Two PhDs, both of whom started their work in Dan’s lab before he retired but finished in mine; and four MScs.  Most were cosupervised with CFS scientists.  Two more PhDs in tree population genetics finished under my cosupervision around the same time.

****^Which was an enormous pain in the butt, because the call dropped in November with a deadline in January, and proposals required all kinds of participation from bureaucrats who (completely understandably) took Christmas vacation.  Guess who didn’t take (much) Christmas vacation? Granting agencies take note: this is not cool.

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1 thought on “Out in the forest, and out on a limb

  1. Macrobe

    Very glad to see a scientist unafraid (and not paralyzed) by initiating change and risk. Thank you for your post!

    When I was an undergrad in Maine (1970’s) , diversity of knowledge and experience was embedded in the culture, daily life, and education. At university, that diversity was encouraged. A ‘Jack of all trades’ knowledge base was a foundation of most Mainer’s life and education (from which many acquired ‘Masters of many trades’). Higher education and grad school in Oregon, where strict specialization in education and career tracks were the norm, was a shock. After reeling from the culture shock and disappointment, I rebelled. I have often suggested to several molecular biology colleagues that a class in ecology might be useful. 😉

    After talking to students and post-docs who have become dissatisfied, confused, and discouraged at the strict narrow tracts and expectations of academia, I have wondered if specialization tendancies contribute to the drop-out rate. The three examples I am personally familiar with -a graduate student and two post-docs- strengthened that. Two left academic science for public service and the other was ‘paralyzed’ and depressed.

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