Career arcs and “My Life in Fish”

I mentioned the other week that one of the books in my “to-read” pile was Gary Grossman’s My Life in Fish – his graphic autobiography (by which I mean it’s heavily illustrated in the style of a graphic novel, not that it’s NSFW!). Now, books sometimes linger on my “to-read” pile for a long time; but I read My Life in Fish last weekend and it made me think.

My Life in Fish is, obviously, the story Grossman tells about his own career (he’s a recently retired fish ecologist). But reading Grossman’s story made me think a bit about my own, and the way our career arcs have been both different and the same. I hope Gary would count this as a win for his book.

Grossman tell his story, from childhood through grad school and his career as a scientist and university professor. He doesn’t shy away from the hard times (personal and professional):  both family mental health issues and toxic bosses show up, as they do for more of us than is often publicly acknowledged. But overall, you get the feeling that he knows what a joy it is to have a career doing something you love. You also see a nice riposte to the sadly-widespread notion that scientists are coldly dispassionate logicians in lab coats who aren’t interested in anything outside science. Grossman writes, for instance, about the similarities between writing scientific papers and writing poetry: “Both try to identify something new and noteworthy in the natural world, and both try to capture the essence of those characteristics using writing that is unique, terse, and elegant.” (p. 98) I’ll pick a minor nit here: I wish I could agree that those writing scientific papers are generally trying for “elegant”. For sure, some are. Too many, though, are trying instead to sound science-y, with dreadful consequences for our prose. But more generally. I know what he means, and there is a fascinating set of ways in which scientific writing and poetry sometimes intertwine. I just haven’t tried the latter myself.*

I don’t read a lot of scientific biographies, or for that matter “campus novels”, as I prefer my reading to escape my day job rather than echo it – but I quite enjoyed reading about Grossman’s career. And the graphic format works: the illustrations (by Ryan Taverez) are often dramatic and often playful, and add to the story.

I said that My Life in Fish made me think about my own career in science. Two main reasons. First, Grossman and I started out very differently. Second, Grossman and I seem to be finishing quite similarly.

On beginnings: here are Grossman’s first two sentences: “Wild spaces fill my heart, animals and plants, especially fish. Even as a young child in the ‘50s, a walk through a forest or down a beach evoked wonder and curiosity”. This is a very common trope in the life stories of ecologists: the idea that from early childhood, you were curious about animals and plants, a nature child who kept slugs in terraria, leaned birdcalls, and all the rest. Sometimes, in fact, it seems that there’s something wrong with not having this backstory. But I don’t; not really. I spent loads of time outdoors as a child, to be sure; but I don’t remember ever being that kind of nature child. I became an ecologist not because I was fascinated by any particular group of organisms, but because I was interested in the workings of natural systems, as systems. I’m not sure how strange this makes me. While Grossman’s kind of story is the one you hear a lot about, I wonder if my kind of story is more common than you’d think – flying under the radar because those like me are vaguely embarrassed by not having the right kind of origin story. (I still struggle to learn birdsongs; but thank goodness for the Merlin app.)

On finishing: Grossman writes that late in his career he “became more and more interested in giving back to students and colleagues, [rather] than in just publishing more and more ecological research articles”. For him, that meant becoming involved with pedagogical research, exploring the use of singing/songwriting for teaching science, and publishing on “science community” topics like peer reviewing and mentorship. I’ve had a similar kind of evolution (as you’ll know if you’ve been hanging around Scientist Sees Squirrel for a while. I still enjoy doing research in my field (whatever the heck that is), but I’ve realized that just a handful of people read most of my scientific papers. My alternatives haven’t been quite the same as Grossman’s (nobody wants to hear me sing about biology, or for that matter about anything else); but I’ve also become much more interested in supporting the scientific community. For me that’s been partly through service to scientific societies (I’ve just finished a stint as President of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution), partly through my publication of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, and partly through a miscellany of other service and advocacy bits (some public, some not).  So Grossman and I may have started out quite differently, but we seem to have ended up on the same page.

Speaking of pages (I’m all about the polished segue), would you enjoy My Life in Fish? If you’re curious about how a career in ecology (or academia more broadly) looks to someone who’s wrapping one up, this is a friendly and accessible way to see that. It’s an easy read (although as I mentioned, it doesn’t shy away from some tough subjects) and includes some entertaining stories. I think it assumes some knowledge of how academia works, so it’s best suited for folks who are either in science, or have scientists as friends and family. I’m glad I read it; as you’ve seen, it made me think.

My Life in Fish is self-published** and available here or from Gary Grossman’s own website – no payoff for Jeff Bezos here.

© Stephen Heard  Dec 22, 2022

*^Beyond birthday-card doggerel, I mean. And I think we’d both rather keep it that way. I have, though, thoroughly enjoyed learning more about poetry – for example, through participating in a creative-writing symposium with some very fine poets, and through once, very strangely, being the external examiner for a poetry thesis.

**^Self-publication was once the refuge of the charlatan and the crank, but it isn’t any more. (Sadly, this is partly because charlatans and cranks now get deals with major publishers; yes, I’m looking at you, Dr. Oz.) It’s become easy to publish a professional-looking, well manufactured book on your own. The catch is promotion and distribution (especially for those, like Grossman, who have resisted lining Jeff Bezos’ pockets).  I don’t remember if I’ve ever told this story here, but when I was working on The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, I was quite upset to discover that the Princeton Press wouldn’t give me a contract based on a few sample chapters; they wanted to consider a complete manuscript. Why, I thought, would I write an entire book if I wasn’t sure a publisher would take it? That one stumped me for a while, until I realized the key question was this: if no publisher wanted The Scientist’s Guide, would I be willing to self-publish it?  I decided that I would be, so I stuck with the writing. I’m glad I did; I’m proud of the book.


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