Making time for slow science: an argument for the ‘low-impact’ and messy hands on ecology

Published in Ecology & Evolution
Making time for slow science: an argument for the ‘low-impact’ and messy hands on ecology
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I did not get three degrees in environmental science, forestry, and ecology and evolutionary biology obsessed with plants and microbes to work on a computer. Yet, somehow, the more I advance, the less work I do with actual organisms. Even though analyses, bioinformatics and writing are integral to good science, that’s not enough for me. In the end, I need balance, and continued inspiration - so, I’m making it happen.

I declared my major in Earth and Environmental Science in the second week of my first year in college. I loved taking peat cores to reconstruct floral history and spending a day on the side of the highway finding fern and trilobite fossils from the Pennsylvania Schist (I bring a fern fossil from this trip with me wherever I live). In my Master’s, I loved the madness of fieldwork in Ecuador, complete with landslides, hours digging to collect fine roots on 20-30 meter tall trees, and picking bats off of mist nets at 2 am. Through classes and research, I was exposed to life - the thing I wanted to study.

Figure 1. Collecting fossils and peat bog cores when I was an undergraduate student.

In my PhD, I developed my molecular, bioinformatics, and analysis skills. But, I also worked with cultures, spent time collecting seeds in tallgrass prairie, sampling soil back in Ecuador and setting up greenhouse experiments. I also completed my first global analysis. This was amazing as it allowed me to test for microbial mediated plant colonization of islands, across the world (see paper here and blog here)! The power of this work was what I could say with it; how generalizable it could be. I’ve been able to build on this first analysis, and answer massive global questions.

The thing is, all my adventures in classes, the lab, greenhouse and field wasn’t just exposing me to life as in biology, but also new places, people and experiences as a human – just life. Although this type of work may take more money and time, and might not tell you something at the global scale, it has real value. In addition to there being value in understanding intricacies of ecosystems at a smaller scale and generating results from original experiments, maybe more important is the sorely needed inspiration and human connection these experiences bring.

I’ve decided to actively make time and advocate for field work, culturing, and greenhouse experiments. Giant analyses hold so much power, but my work is only great when I’m inspired, and I’m happiest and inspired when I can be out and dealing with the mess of life. For now, I’m working on completing a long term project with collaborators at the University of Kansas and setting up a greenhouse project here in Zurich with another postdoc in our lab (studying plants and fungi from bogs!). Sure, this work is messy and we have to visit with and message a million people. But, we discover new resources, people, and learn together. Just last week, for the project in Zurich, we were trying to figure out the extremely old automatic agar dispenser to make culturing paltes, and we failed (read, it would not stop dispensing); it was great. We spent some time away from our piles of emails, R scripts, and drafts and just did something with our hands, and working with our fungi, together.

There are definitely people who are happy doing ecology on a computer and nothing else. That’s not me. And if it’s not you, fight to keep a balance, even if your new project is not a shiny global analysis.

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