Shahid Naeem

From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2005. Profile circa 2004.

Degree                                    Ph.D.
Position                                  Professor and Chair
Department                            Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology
Organization                          Columbia University

snaeemSomewhere in my senior year as an undergraduate at U. C. Berkeley I became interested in ecology. The undergraduate course in ecology I took was dull and really never gave the sense that ecology was a cutting-edge science like cell or developmental biology. I had a work-study job, however, with Prof. Robert K. Colwell, now a professor at the University of Connecticut, whose infectious enthusiasm for the intellectual challenges of evolution and ecology eventually won me over. Prof. Wayne Sousa (a.k.a. Wayne-bo) also convinced me that ecology was as rigorous and mechanistic a science as any other in biology. These two helped me discover that ecology was rich in detail, complex, intellectually challenging, cutting edge, and enormously fun.

Ecology as a profession or career is pretty much a non-concept for most high school or undergraduate students. As an undergraduate working part time in an ecology laboratory back in the 1980s, I became aware that one could actually dedicate one’s career to being an ecologist, but as there seemed to be virtually no jobs in ecology, there was a high probability that unemployment was what awaited most who followed such a track. After graduating, I worked for 3 years as a part time technician in Colwell’s lab while I pursued a career in illustration. I am now Professor of Ecology and Chair of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia University in the City of New York.

As an undergraduate, having grown up in a Black ghetto in New York City, I felt that ecology was a middle class science – it lacked diversity, was socially homogeneous, seemed provincial, and lacked relevance to the major issues of our time. At best, ecology’s relevance was to environmental issues, but we grow up and live in a world where environmental issues are almost always middle class or luxury issues. After 3 years as a technician with Colwell, working with him and his students in the Caribbean, Central America, and California, and seeing Colwell roll up his sleeves and delve into the national and international issues surrounding the scientific issues of genetically engineered organisms, I discovered the broader scope and meaning of ecology and what one could accomplish as an ecologist. I began as a PhD in science and education, but when I realized I did not want to give up research, I switched to a PhD in Zoology.

Choose research projects that are so cool, you’d be willing to stay up all hours of the night, for days on end, to see it done. Focus on the project to hand, but be as broad in your thinking as you possibly can – stellar evolution, carbon nanotubes, and apoptosis are just as interesting as biodiversity. Eschew eco-chauvinism and eco-chauvinists at all costs. Your loved ones, colleagues, fellow students, those you teach, and the discipline as a whole are more important than another paper. Be patient; make yourself the best scientist you can be, then save the world – no one will let you do this in reverse order. Never, ever, ever be chair of a department.


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