Marten Scheffer

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

Degree                                 Ph.D.
Position                               Head & Professor
Department                         Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management group
Organization                       Wangeningen University

schefferDr. Scheffer, along with his colleagues, is the recipient of ESA’s 2004 Sustainability Science Award, which is given annually to the authors of the peer-reviewed paper published in the past five years that makes the greatest contribution to the emerging science of ecosystem and regional sustainability through the integration of ecological and social sciences.

I have been lucky to have known three generations of amateur naturalists in my family and they stimulated a lively interest from my earliest year on. Before I went to university, I was largely fascinated by the diversity of life and spent lots of time birding, insect collecting (and drawing and painting them), and going on local floristic expeditions.

Entering university marked the turn from a fascination for the players in nature to a fascination for the complex game these players are involved in. At Utrecht University (The Netherlands) Paul Sondaar’s teaching got me attracted to the big questions of evolution, plant ecologists such as Jos Verhoeven and Frank Berendse opened the world of succession theory to me and animal ecologists shared their enthusiasm for unraveling terrestrial and aquatic invertebrate communities. Yet, the real big eye-opener to me was the world of theoretical biology taught in Utrecht by Pauline Hogeweg.

After two years of working on bird diversity in cities, and animal migration in fragmented landscapes, I moved to the Dutch Institute for Inland Water Management (RIZA) where I worked for 11 years as a theoretician in a team focused on restoration of eutrophied shallow lakes. That period really shaped my focus on ecosystem stability. The lakes appeared to be trapped in a turbid state from which they did not recover, even after reduction of nutrient levels. The British aquatic ecologist Brian Moss had the intuition that this represented an alternative stable state to a clear situation, and this inspired me to explore this possibility with the tools of mathematical biology. Excitingly, whole lake experiments confirmed the hunch we had. In this period, my tendency to simplify mechanisms into appealing theory was kept in balance by my interactions with the Danish limnologist Erik Jeppesen who has a tremendous insight into the details of how these ecosystems work. After playing with very simple models to capture ecosystem dynamics I became attracted to the magic of individual based models, and Don DeAngelis, then at the Oak Ridge National Lab, was kind enough to teach me the tricks of that. He also stimulated me to write the book ‘Ecology of Shallow Lakes’.

Another scientist who has been very influential to me is Steve Carpenter. This is not only because of his work on the trophic cascade which helped us understand our lakes better, but also because he introduced me to the ‘Resilience Alliance’. This network of ecologists and social scientists was set up by Crawford (Buzz) Holling to analyze mechanisms that regulate resilience and change in the coupled system of societies and nature. The discussions in this network sparked my interest in linking ecological and socio-economical dynamics.

In 1998 I accepted a position at Wageningen University as head (‘professor’ as we call it strangely) of the Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management group.

On my first job, which was at an applied institute (for water management) the idea was that I should make elaborate predictive ecosystem simulation models. It was a real challenge to sell the idea to work on minimal models as a tool for guiding management and research, but in the end these models (especially some of the graphs) turned out to be a surprisingly good tool for communicating the ideas about lake management that we had.

What advice do you have for communicating ecology to diverse audiences?

Keep it simple.

What key advice would you offer a student today?

Follow your fascination.

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