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Careers in Science


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Careers in Science

John Hoenig
Mathematical Ecologist

How did you choose your present profession? What were your biggest motivators? Who were/are your greatest mentors/heroes?
When I was a little boy I was fascinated by the natural world and wanted to be a “naturalist.” In high school, I realized that meant I wanted to be an ecologist. In college, I refined the idea and decided I wanted to be an applied ecologist–one who deals with how human activities affect the environment. I might have studied birds, insects, plants or some other area of ecology but one professor excited me by showing how we could quantify and model impacts. It seemed he was the only one making any progress so I fell into his area–fisheries science.

Was there a pivotal  event in your life that helped you decide on your career path?
My first ecology course was a tremendous disappointment. Everything was qualitative. This affects that, and so does this other thing. But, they never said how much things were affected, what was important in controlling what happens, and they never had any predictive approaches. Then I took a fisheries course and suddenly we were developing equations to describe growth, mortality, reproduction, and we were putting things together to predict population size and commercial yield. It seemed we were getting answers!

What has been the biggest surprise in your life as a scientist?
When I started out, I had no idea that mathematics would be important to the study of ecology, and I never dreamed that one could be creative with mathematics.

What would you recommend for students wanting to pursue a similar career?
Focus on the skills (tools) you’ll need. When I was in high school, I met a genuine ecologist. Upon hearing I wanted to be an ecologist he said “Good. Major in chemistry.” I said I didn’t want to be a chemist I wanted to be an ecologist. He said “Ok. Then major in physics.” I repeated my objection and my desire to be an ecologist. He suggested I major in mathematics, statistics, computer science, physiology and various other subjects. His point was that to make progress in ecology you had to have tools and these other subjects provided exactly that. He said it would be what set me apart from other ecologists. He was right. I just wish I had listened to him earlier. It wasn’t until I completed my master’s degree in oceanography that I realized the value of statistics and started pursuing a degree in stats. It has made all the difference for me.

What do you like  best about your profession?
I like the diversity of questions and the diversity of approaches. I particularly like the fact that one day you can be dealing with an important question in a situation where the data are highly limited (a euphemism for “the data are really crummy”) and you try to come up with a simple (and simplistic) approach that will provide an answer that is useful (or at least better than no answer), and another day you’ll be working on a problem for which there are tons of data and your approach is highly sophisticated and state of the art. You can make important contributions in both cases.

What would you say has been your greatest  achievement?
I’m proud of the way my students have learned to approach ecological questions using mathematical and statistical methods. Every student I’ve seen has been afraid of mathematics and statistics. Some were merely intimidated while others were almost paralyzed with fear. But, they quickly saw how useful these subjects were as tools and they used the tools to solve important problems.

Are you optimistic for the future of the planet and if so why?
I am not optimistic. But, the sudden surge of technological development in electronics holds our best hope for tackling problems. I just hope it’s enough.

What are your greatest fears for the future of the planet?
I tend to be a great pessimist. Things have changed much for the worse during my career (which isn’t even over yet). In recent years, there’s been an awakening to the problems of the environment and yet the population is growing and the problems are multiplying so fast that we’re not even staying even. I think the population will get so dense that almost all freshwater and coastal waters will be polluted to the great harm of the natural communities.

What s the one message you would like the next generation of scientists to hear?
If we’re going to protect the environment and keep it reasonably healthy, we’re going to have to embrace change and we’re going to have to be active in social issues. The next generation of scientists will have to constantly be learning new skills in order to be relevant, and the next generation will need to be active in advisory, legislative and legal work. For now, most students will need to learn these skills “on the fly.”

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