Jay Stachowicz

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

Degree                                        Ph.D.
Position                                      Assistant Professor
Department                                Evolution and Ecology
Organization                              University of California, Davis

stachowiczDr. Stachowicz, along with his colleagues, is the winner of the ESA 2004 Mercer Award, which recognizes an outstanding ecological research paper published by one or more “younger” researchers (under 40 at the time of publication).

When did you become interested in ecology?

Like a lot of kids, I think I was always interested in the natural history aspect of ecology. I spent a lot of time mucking around at the seashore as a kid and that definitely infused me with a curiosity about the natural world and how it works. I’d say that my first exposure to “real” ecology as a science was in a high school Biology class in which we spent a fair bit of time in the field taking data on the composition of vegetation in tracts of land with various land use histories to learn about the concept of succession. An ecology course my freshman year in college probably cemented my interest in pursuing a career in some sort of environmental biology or policy field.

How did you learn about ecological careers?

I’d have to say that my undergraduate mentors and instructors, Carol Folt, John Gilbert, Laura Conkey and Frank Magilligan, each in their own way taught me about ecology and/or pushed me toward a career in scientific research. Earlier on though, I spent a good portion of my childhood near the sea just looking and watching the ocean and all the animals living in it. I am sure that these early experiences played a major role in where I ended up, so I have my parents to thank for bringing the horse to water, as it were.

Early on I was mostly interested in being a naturalist. I would walk the beach at low tide and wonder what is that sea critter and why does it do that crazy thing or why is it more abundant in this place and not over there. I collected shells and loved arranging and cataloging them. I never imagined I could actually get paid to do this sort of thing. As an undergrad I toyed with majors in geography and environmental studies, but ultimately ended up sticking with biology, largely because of the very cool ecology class I had my freshman year. While in college I worked for a state department of fisheries on various stocking and management projects. I later moved to dry land and did some tree-ring analysis both independently and for one of my college professors. Reconstructing historical events through biology just fascinated me, and I later had a job helping reconstruct forest history through pollen records in sediment cores. I ended up doing an independent research project in college involving deer browsing and its effects on understory forest vegetation. In the middle I seriously considered a career in law where I would be more involved with the hands-on aspects of environmental policy and management. But I took some law and policy classes and they just didn’t do it for me the way the science did. I ended up going to graduate school in marine ecology because I wanted to work on plant-herbivore interactions, and seaweeds (which lack roots and woody parts) seemed like a much simpler system in which to work. I also had this nagging desire to get back to the ocean where I was so fascinated as a kid. Since grad school I had a brief stint as a postdoc and then started the job I now hold as an assistant professor.

Describe 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?

I learned about ecological careers as a college student by doing internships mostly. I am currently an Assistant Professor at a research University (UC Davis). I was drawn to an academic research position for two reasons: (1) I loved the idea of being free to spend time learning about things simply because you thought they were interesting and other people needed to know about them, and (2) I love sharing what I know through teaching. Basically, I just saw what my professors were doing, and it looked like a good way to spend my life.

What key advice would you offer a student today?

Find out what makes you passionate, and follow it. It will take you far and you’ll have fun along the way. Do rigorous science that is well-grounded in natural history and it will ALWAYS be appreciated and useful, long after current fads have been relegated to the “dustbin of history”.

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

Know your audience and show enthusiasm. Sounds simple, but ‘speak the language’ of whatever group you are talking to… You can communicate fairly sophisticated ideas to preschoolers and grandparents if you use the right metaphors. At first the “pure scientist” in you might cringe, but the general message will get across and that is, after all what is important.

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