We are thrilled to welcome Adam Meyer, an MSc student at Queen’s University to the blog today. Read all about his love of organisms below! For more about Adam, check out the end of this post!
Finally! That is what I’m thinking as I traverse the winding trail towards my study lake on field day #1. After 8 months of lab-based tinkering, failed and re-designed mesocosm prototypes and the scorching of a permanent GOOGLE SCHOLAR tattoo on the back of my retinas, I’m finally back in the world of the living! EVERYTHING IS ALIVE! MUAHHAHAHAHA!
Sorry. It was a long winter, ok?
I think spring is a special time for all Canadians. We’re reunited with the chirps of robins and chickadees and the refreshing smell of wet dirt and grasses. Not to mention the Sun’s much anticipated return to working at least regular business hours. We all appreciate these changes, but as an aspiring biologist I can’t help but feel an extra pulse of giddiness as I hike through the newly green Ontario forest towards my site on Round Lake. It’s real. This thing, this place that I’ve been reading about and planning for and picturing for months is real, and it’s wild! This sense of elation at being back in nature after a long winter of simply reading (albeit a lot) about ecology caused me to reflect on a bit of advice given by my undergraduate supervisor, Dr. Graham Bell.
Upon being asked by a student newspaper what he felt every biology student should take from his or her education, he responded,
“I think a love of organisms. Just liking, and being interested in the organism. I see that as being a bit of a shortcoming in many of the classes that I teach.People tend to think in terms of concepts. In ecology, people are interested in population regulation or invasive species or whatever, or in molecular biology they’ll be interested in particular pathways of development or transmission. But I think that a feeling for the organism is really important to a biologist.”
I like this bit of wisdom for a couple of reasons. First, while it is something that stuck with me, it’s also something that I didn’t really understand until now. I work in the Nelson Lab at Queen’s University, which is a lab for experimental and theoretical population biology. I study maintenance of diversity using Daphnia (a small aquatic crustacean) in Round Lake and as I’m sure you can tell, I absolutely love the outdoors. Despite my motivations, when I began my new M.Sc project and found myself (necessarily) navigating through a vast ocean of population biology literature for months at a time, a disconnect formed between the theory I was reading and the natural world. I found that by (again, necessarily) breaking down an ecological system into its bits and pieces and going through the logic of the biological question, I began to see the organisms not as animals but as “units” being pushed and pulled through the world by this force or that factor. The logical problem was interesting, but where was the love of organisms? I see this as a trap for population biologists, and a strange place to be for a field that I feel is ultimately rooted in just how freaking cool organisms are, and how their interactions shape life on this planet. So, this advice stands out to me for making me aware of this disconnect, even before I had experienced it.
The second reason why I continue to enjoy Dr. Bell’s insight is because I have a ready solution for evading the trap. Do field work! There is no surer way of rekindling a love of organisms than by hanging out with them for 4 or 5 months. On any given day, just on the way between QUBS and my study site, I may see deer, turkeys, black rat snakes, painted turtles, snapping turtles, owls, turkey vultures, loons, thousands of dragon flies, blue herons and a million other living things that would be ridiculous to try to list here. I can’t study all of these organisms this summer, but getting to see them is exhilarating, incredibly motivating and a reminder as to why this is all so important.
I’m not saying that everyone has to do fieldwork. It isn’t for everybody and there is important work to be done elsewhere. I understand that, but I also see a pressing need to keep population biology, a field that is steeped in theory and modeling, connected to the natural world and a love for the organism in a way that is meaningful to those that do the work. For me, doing fieldwork up at QUBS is a surefire way of preserving this connection and reminding me of just how much more there is to know about our environment. Hopefully, everyone can find some time to get out and enjoy our fellow organisms!
Adam completed his B.Sc in biology at McGill University in 2013 and began his M.Sc in the department of biology at Queen’s University later that year. He is interested in the mechanisms maintaining diversity at fine spatial scales. His current project examines the role of strong environmental gradients in maintaining phenotypic diversity in freshwater zooplankton.