James W. Porter

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

Degree                                                         Ph.D.
Position                                                       Marine Biologist
Department                                                 Institute of Ecology
Organization                                               University of Georgia

Eugene P. Odum Award 2005

jporterWho wants to stay indoors all day? In my case, I can certainly trace my interest in science and ecology back to a hand-me-down butterfly net and a cigar box filled with poorly pinned butterflies. Having been hooked on the beauty and excitement of the natural world, the seed to study ecology had been planted.

I had an outstanding biology teacher, Mr. William O. Allen at the Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, PA, who realized that this level of interest was worth fostering. He advised me to participate in an NSF high school summer program on dragonflies at Dennison University in Ohio. This led to an undergraduate biology major at Yale. My undergraduate advisor, Charles Remington, was a field biologist, and I was privileged to work summers at the Wedge Plantation in McClellanville, South Carolina and at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Crested Butte, Colorado. Summer field courses should be part of every life-sciences major. This is where you find out if you love what you are doing, and change directions if you don’t.

Life is non-linear. After graduation from college, I was headed for doctoral work in entomology. However, the summer before entering this Ph.D. Program, I got a job traveling around South America with a marine biologist, Gary Vermeij, who is now a Professor UC Davis.

I had grown up in Ohio near Lake Erie, and was comfortable in the water. Experiences on Lake Erie, and watching live news reports as the Cuyahoga River burst into flames, had not prepared me for the biotic intensity of a coral reef. After emerging from my first open-water dive, I decided that since I had absolutely no knowledge of anything I had just seen, I should devote the rest of my professional life to studying it. As an oceanographer, I now study the one environment on earth without insects. Finding your True North does not always mean going in the same direction for ever.

As a graduate student back at Yale, my new mentors (Willard D. Hartman and G. Evelyn Hutchinson) also encouraged field studies. This encouragement led to a Pre-Doctoral Fellowship at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama where I lived with the Cuna Indians, and over a coral reef, for two years.

Teaching is not just who, what, when and where, but most importantly, why. Why are the facts important, and what do they mean in relationship to the great societal issues of our time, such as creating a sustainable future. Providing context requires a tremendous amount of preparation, but it often means the difference between a boring lecture and an interesting one, or between inspiring the public to solve an environmental problem rather than to ignore it. The natural world is being lost at an extraordinary rate. It’s your future; get involved.

Life tenure as an academic provides an extraordinary degree of independence. It is a special kind of employment, one that is almost unprecedented in the history of humankind. If you are independent-minded, there can be no higher calling.

Once you have found your True North, detour often. As Justice Holmes observed, “Connect your subject with the universe, and thereby catch an echo of the infinite.”

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