Lawrence B. Slobodkin
From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2005. Profile circa 2004.
Department Ecology and Evolution
Organization Stony Brook
Eminent Ecologist Award 2005
I was born just before the stock market crash of 1929. My father was an artist. Up to age 13, I was raised in the Bronx with access to Bronx Park and its Zoo, the American Museum of Natural History, other New York parks and the public school system of the city- eventually including the Bronx High School of Science. By 12 I knew I wanted to be a biologist, had a mini-menagerie including turtles, a rabbit, a canary, a horned lizard and tropical fish. Summering in Rockport on Cape Ann permitted me to see tide pools and surf organisms. Very early experience on a dirt poor farm in Ellenville, N.Y., belonging to cousins, gave me a feel for meadows, farm animals, hay fields, and blueberry marshes.
After high school I went to a small college without any ecologists, where I taught myself some field botany and took standard pre-med courses, without any intention of going to med school.
I did not know that ecology existed as a possible profession until I encountered G. Evelyn Hutchinson at Yale in 1947. In those days hardly anyone knew ecology existed. I got my Ph.D. under his supervision in 1951. My graduate minor was in philosophy of science- including a course with Carl Hempel.
My first job was as chief of red tide investigations for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. After 2 years I quit and went to Michigan as an instructor in zoology. There I had brilliant colleagues and students who taught me many things and subjected me to elegant criticism. I left as a full professor in 1965 to found, what I think, was the first department of “Ecology and Evolution” at Stony Brook, where I remain ‘till now. Stony Brook is also replete with excellent colleagues and graduate students.
My advice to student ecologists is partially cribbed from Hutchinson: Take the most advanced math courses you can still pass. Really know some group of organisms and some landscape. Hutchinson repeatedly emphasized that Macarthur really knew birds. Be as broad in your interests as you can be. Be outside the classroom as much as you can, teaching yourself. My own advice on career development is that there are three career paths open and it is wise to excel at one of them: The first is to become an expert on some group of organisms that excites you. The world may not need 20 experts on the Pycnogonida but it does need around five or six. Second, you should become very good at the most popular current techniques at the highest technical level you can imagine. In contrast, you can take the third, and most dangerous, path. You can strenuously avoid doing what everyone else is doing and search for new ideas and new tests for old ideas.
My basic assumption has been that while facts of simple kinds can be trusted, theoretical speculations are almost always wrong, particularly if accepted by a large majority. You will either do very nicely following this path, as I did, or be thrown out of the field entirely.
Finally, teaching and communicating with the public requires clear vocabulary, clear ideas and honest enthusiasm. Using catch phrases, alarmist rhetoric, obfuscatory jargon and quasi-religious mottoes may be useful for grant writing and money getting but are insulting to normal working people.