The Interdisciplinary Ecologist: Remembering a Great, Helping the Next #ESA100

A guest post by Clare Fieseler (twitter: @clarefieseler), a PhD candidate in the Curriculum for the Environment and Ecology at UNC-Chapel Hill. Fieseler has co-organized a workshop on “Educating the Interdisciplinary Ecologist: Assessing Educational Ecosystems to Help PhD Students Succeed, Get Hired, and Push Boundaries” at ESA’s 100th Annual Meeting in Baltimore on Saturday, August 8, with fellow UNC-Chapel Hill graduate students Sierra Woodruff and Dennis Tarasi.

→Click here to help them out by taking a 10-minute online survey on interdisciplinary research in ecology (Survey closes on July 15, extended to Friday, July 17, 2015 at 11:59pm).


Rafe Sagarin. Credit, University of Arizona.

Rafe Sagarin. Credit, University of Arizona.

In 2008, in my first month of graduate school, ecologist Raphael Sagarin put me on a plane to Texas on an international, interdisciplinary mission. President George W. Bush was a lame duck and the construction of the U.S.-Mexico Border wall, visible on my descent into El Paso, was going forward at a steady but grueling pace.

My task, broadly, was to report back to “Rafe,” as he was called, and his fellow Duke University researchers as to whether interdisciplinary scholarship might help address a group of gathering voices concerned by the wall’s little-discussed impact on hydrology, vegetation, and migrating species.

I assumed Rafe was the norm: an early-career ecologist calling Washington-based security experts one day, emailing environmental advocates the next, and co-drafting NCEAS proposals with wetland scientists on the weekends. Some graduate students mocked Rafe’s slightly sweaty appearance in the hallways, but it was during his frequent bike rides, he once told me, that he did his best thinking.

“Rafe consistently came up with really novel ideas that were counter to the narrative that was out there, that were on the edge. And he turned out to be right,” remembered Larry Crowder, science director at Stanford University’s Center for Ocean ­Solutions and former Professor at the Duke University Marine Lab. Rafe was fervent about generating new dialogue, but also testing boundary-crossing ideas. And the pages of ESA’s Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment reflect that; he was equally as well published in the Write Back section as the thesis-driven Research Communications.

Rafe tragically passed away last month, hit by a truck while riding his bike to the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 where he was founding a new ocean program. Police say the driver was drunk. I like to imagine Rafe was having another brilliant aha! Moment as he was riding that day, synthesizing pieces from history, political science, and ecology.

After his death, I downloaded Rafe’s CV to remind myself of the many diverse workplaces, mentors, research teams, and interdisciplinary working groups his vision reached.

His educational and professional journey to interdisciplinary excellence was somewhat circuitous. Others might call it non-traditional. But his reach was such that practically the whole ecology community mourned his loss and the Washington Post remembered him in a touching obituary. Rafe was not quite the norm. His work on national security, historical ecology, and biogeography was solution-oriented, addressing new complexities. In his absence, and on the eve of the ESA Centennial celebration, I think it’s fitting to ask: will the next generation of ecologists succeed at interdisciplinary pathways like Rafe? Perhaps that requires us to also ask, more fundamentally: What is the current state of interdisciplinary ecological research? And is it changing? 

These are the questions I set out to answer for the #ESA100 meeting with an incredible team of workshop co-organizers. We’re hosting a pre-conference workshop called “Educating the Interdisciplinary Ecologist.” By assessing the current state of interdisciplinary research and the people who do it, we’re hoping to prescribe guidelines to ensure the success of the next generation. We’re asking all ecologists, from all disciplines, to participate in this 10-minute online survey. With enough respondents, the results – used in a forthcoming manuscript– might help us orient the ESA community for the next 100 years of interdisciplinary work.

Of course, we’re not the only #ESA100 attendees thinking about what works when it comes to bridging disciplines. The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (NSESYC) is hosting a half-day symposium at #ESA100 about team-based transdisciplinary science.

The “Science of Team Science” is only now getting some empirical grounding, but new strategies are being developed to ensure the success of participants, especially young scientists, as Virgina Gewin reported in a news article for Nature last week. Setting formal expectation and roles is key, something akin to a prenuptial agreement, reports the article.

Teams must also play nice. That is a tenet from Rafe’s own playbook and something both SESYNC and NCEAS build into their team-based programs. Outdoors activities, bonding, and old- fashioned face time is increasingly considered essential for team members from multiple disciplines. Learning each others’ languages, terminologies, and personal interests can be difficult in purely digital environments.

“If collaborators don’t like each other enough to go for a beer after the meeting, it can be a sign of pending doom,” Linus Dahlander, who studies collaborations at the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin, put it bluntly. Being likeable can take nervous young researchers far. As an early career ecologist, that’s something I didn’t wait long to add to my personal philosophy. Rafe demonstrated it that first month of my professional journey.

“Can we say a few words at our ESA workshop about Rafe?” Elena Finkbeiner suggested to me over email last week. Elena is a current post-doctoral researcher at Stanford University, co-organizer of the workshop, and like me, had been mentored by Rafe. Over email, our team all agreed. Here’s the passage from Rafe’s book that I will read in the Baltimore Convention Center as we try to take stock of the current interdisciplinary landscape and the young people filling rank. I can think of no better introduction for the task at hand.

All of us are living in a time of transformation—economic, social, political, and environmental changes are challenging us everywhere and constantly. It seems obvious, then, that the science of ecology, which deals with the tangled web of relationships between organisms and the biogeochemical world we live in, should also be in a transformative period. The methods, goals, participants, and even philosophies of ecology are changing. The changes we are seeing now are wrought from a convergence of unprecedented environmental challenges and remarkable new opportunities to study ecological systems. Both the signal of this change in ecological science and the vehicle for ongoing transformation is how we use observation to discover new phenomena, to achieve ecological understanding, and to share ecological ideas.”

-Raphael Sagarin, Ph.D. Observation and Ecology: Broadening the Scope of Science to Understand a Complex World. NY: Island Press. 2012.



Saturday, August 8, 2015: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM

306 Baltimore Convention Center


Workshop Organizing Team:

  • Dr. Kendra Spence Cheruvelil, Dept. of Fisheries and Wildlife, Associate Professor at Michigan State University
  • Dr. Larry Crowder, Science Director, Center for Ocean Solutions, Stanford University
  • Dr. Elena Finkbeiner, Early Career Post-doctoral Fellow, Center for Ocean Solutions, Stanford University
  • Clare Fieseler (lead organizer), PhD Candidate, Curriculum for the Environment & Ecology, UNC Chapel Hill
  • Dr. Simon Goring,  Assistant Scientist, Dept. of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Dr. Elizabeth King, Assistant Professor, Odum School of Ecology, The University of Georgia
  • Kristen Lear, PhD Student, Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources, The University of Georgia
  • Dr. Nate Nibbelink, Assistant Professor, Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources, The University of Georgia
  • Dennis Tarasi (co-organizer), PhD Candidate, Curriculum for the Environment & Ecology, UNC Chapel Hill