Bill Schlesinger

From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2005. Profile circa 2004.
Degree                                 Ph.D.
Position                               James B. Duke Professor
Department                         Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences
Organization                       Duke University
When did you get interested in ecology? Who was most influential in guiding you into ecology?
I would trace my interest in ecology back to a summer field course that I took as a junior high school student at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. It was taught by Russell Hansen , who also stimulated Stan Temple and several others in field ecology. When I got to Dartmouth, Bill Reiners crystallized my interest in ecology as a science and as a potential career–steering me away from our family tradition in medicine. (Years later, my father finally agreed that this was wise). At Cornell, Peter Marks made sure that I did not forget the natural world as I pursued biogeochemistry. George Woodwell has always been another role model, and it was he who urged me to perform my first synthesis on the pool of carbon held in soil organic matter as a component of the global carbon cycle. Peter Vitousek, located down the road at UNC, and I had a great and stimulating relationship during my first three years at Duke (1980-83), due to our shared interest in biogeochemistry.
What is your position title now?
My position now is James B. Duke Professor of Biogeochemistry and Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University.
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 took a very traditional route: BA in Biology at Dartmouth; no time off; then Ph.D. in Ecology and Systematics at Cornell. I jumped right into my first job as an Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at UC Santa Barbara. UCSB was great and I have maintained an important friendship with Bruce Mahall, the best natural historian I know, through occasional field trips to the Mojave Desert. After 4 years at UCSB, I moved to Duke as an Assistant Professor, moving up through the ranks to my current titles. As early as Dartmouth, I was also interested in the geosciences, especially hydrology and geomorphology. That training has been invaluable in my career as a biogeochemist. My most important accomplishment was writing my own textbook – Biogeochemistry: An Analysis of Global Change (2nd. ed. Academic Press, 1997). However, if I were to do it again, I’d get better skills with technology.
What key advice would you offer a student today?

  • Browse and read widely; a lot of new ideas are old; a lot of old work spawns new ideas.
  • On any given day, work first on the project that is closest to completion–e.g. your publication.
  • New empirical work is great, but you’ll advance faster with great synthesis.
  • Learn to write well.
  • Avoid meaningless co-authorships; you’ll be most proud of the papers you did yourself.
  • Don’t spend your day fulfilling some else’s agenda.
  • Avoid ego; it has no friends.
  • Bust your tail 7 days a week, but leave Saturday night for dissipation.
  • Life is short and our work too important; if you’re not having fun, do something else.

What advice do you have for communicating ecology to diverse audiences?
Make your message VERY simple, and then simplify it some more. You’ll get some heat from your colleagues about this, but it is better to get an overly simplified message across than no message at all.