Daniel Bolnick

From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2006. Profile circa 2004.

Degree                                              Ph.D. 2003 (UC Davis)
Organization                                    University of California at Davis

George Mercer Award for 2005

dbolnickDescribe your route to a career in (or using) ecology. What challenges did you need to overcome? What was your training, and what positions have you held?

Like many ecologists, I was drawn into the field by an early love of natural history. My parents began to take me hiking when I was two, bird watching by age four, and by early high-school I could identify many of the common birds, plants, and animal tracks in New England. This hobby crystallized into a career goal in high-school, when my biology teacher, Leo Kenney, took me under his wing. At the time, Leo was working on a masters degree on vernal pool conservation, and I was recruited to help identify, map, and certify vernal pools in and around my home town of Reading, MA. After a few chilly rainy spring nights finding frogs and salamanders, I was hooked. While Leo’s project eventually ballooned into the very successful Vernal Pool Association, I left to spend my senior year of high- school in Lusaka, Zambia. Over the course of that year, I spent more time outside doing field work than in the classrooms of the international school, surveying birds for the Zambian Ornithological Society’s atlas project, and tagging along on field expeditions with a master of central African natural history, Mike Bingham. While Leo Kenney and Mike Bingham get all the credit for drawing me into ecology, it was my undergraduate experience at Williams College that turned me to research. Williams College was and is a fantastic place to study ecology, thanks to several excellent professors and a large research forest. I spent every summer during college doing research: 1 summer of independent study in the Okavango delta of Botswana, and 2 years working on willow hybrid ecology with Collin Orians culminating in an honors thesis.

I contemplated several different ecology careers, ranging from conservation work to environmental economics to research and teaching. Ultimately it was my research experience with Collin Orians that drew me to academic research, which is where I am now as an Assistant Professor in the Section of Integrative Biology at the University of Texas at Austin. Once I settled on pursuing a career in academics, I chose to take two years off from research to gain more experience as a teacher, teaching A-level biology and math in a secondary school in northern Tanzania as a US Peace Corps Volunteer. Living in rural Africa also allowed me to extend my natural history background as well, spending time in montane rainforests, savannah, coral reefs, and diving among cichlids in the east African Great Lakes. I then spent 5 years working on my Ph.D under Peter Wainwright at the University of California at Davis. The Graduate Group in Population Biology at UC Davis was an incredibly stimulating environment with a lot of interaction between students and fantastic faculty, and a culture of extensive collaboration. Our paper on individual specialization, which won the Mercer Award, was the fruit of just such collaboration between a group of 7 graduate students. I would strongly encourage students to develop collaborative side-projects with fellow students, which helps maintain a diverse portfolio of research topics. I stayed at Davis for a post-doc with Michael Turelli, to allow my wife time to finish her Ph.D., before moving to Austin in 2004 to begin a faculty position.

The biggest challenge I faced during my graduate and post-doctoral work was trying to stay in touch with natural history. I spent much of my dissertation working on both developing and testing theory, and there is a risk of becoming more focused on the math than on the biology. Aspiring ecologists do need a good grounding in theory (take lots of math, statistics, and computer language classes!), but need to maintain a balance between that theory and the biology that drew them in to begin with. As for advice for aspiring ecologists, I would suggest they start by developing strong mathematical, statistical, and computer skills, then apply those skills to understanding biology rather than trying to shoehorn the biology to the tools. Research takes a lot of time and energy, so focus on topics that genuinely excite you, but don’t lose sight of the big picture: read broadly and try to maintain some side-projects for diversity.

 

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