Before people who like this site worry that I’m retiring from writing here, let me clarify. That is not what I mean by “retiring.” Posting here will continue as usual, though there will be only two posts today. As of 4:30 p.m. Chicago time, I’m retiring in the conventional sense—from my job at the University of Chicago. As I sleep tonight in Poland, seven hours ahead of Chicago, I will be transformed from Professor to Professor Emeritus (or, on this site, to Professor Ceiling Cat, Emeritus).
This has been in the offing for two years, but I don’t often post here about personal issues, and wanted to delay this news until retirement was a fait accompli. And, as today’s Hili dialogue suggests, not that much will change for me, save that I will no longer do research with my own hands or teach students (emeritus faculty aren’t allowed to teach at Chicago). I get to keep my office, and will still work hard, but the nature of that work will change a bit.
Several years ago, I began to realize that my job as a scientist and academic was not as challenging as it had been for the previous 35 years. I had mastered the requisites of such a job: doing research, writing papers, mentoring and teaching students, getting grants, and so on. The one challenge left was discovering new things about evolution, which was the really exciting thing about science. I’ve always said that there is nothing comparable to being the first person to see something that nobody’s seen before. Artists must derive some of the same satisfaction when creating new fictional worlds, or finding new ways to see the existing world, but it is only those who do science—and I mean “science” in the broad sense—who are privileged to find and verify new truths about our cosmos.
But finding truly new things—things that surprise and delight other scientists—is very rare, for science, like Steve Gould’s fossil record, is largely tedium punctuated by sudden change. And so, as I began to look for more sustaining challenges; I slowly ratcheted down my research, deciding that I’d retire after my one remaining student graduated. That decision was made two years ago, but the mechanics of retirement—and, in truth, my own ambivalence—have led to a slight delay. Today, though, is the day.
What am I going to do now? Well, I’m not going to take up golf, which I always found a bit silly. I won’t do any more “bench work”—research with my own hands—but I’m not going to abandon science. I will still write about it, both on this website and in venues like magazines and their e-sites, and I’m planning a popular book on speciation. Writing, for me, is the New Big Challenge, and one that can never be mastered. My aspiration is to write about science in beautiful and engaging words, and to find my own voice so that I’m not simply aping the popular science writers I admire so much. That is a challenge that will last a lifetime, for there is never an end to improving one’s writing.
And I do plan to travel more, visiting those places I’ve longed to see but haven’t had time: Antarctica, Australia, Southeast Asia, Bali, the wildlife refuges of Africa, Patagonia, and so on.
But let me look back now, for I feel the urge to close my academic career by summarizing it.
When I was applying for jobs, my advisor, Dick Lewontin, used to write in his recommendation letters something like this: “If Jerry has one fault, he’s too self-deprecating and tends to sell himself short.” He was right, for I never wanted to succumb to the arrogance of those who internalize the admiration they receive. But today I’ll try to be honest without being too self-deprecating.
So what have I accomplished? First, it’s been a good career. Scientifically, I’ve accomplished far more than I ever imagined. In truth, had I known as a graduate student the hurdles I’d have to surmount to become a professor at a great university and accomplish a goodly amount of widely cited research, I probably would have given up. But I didn’t look at the whole track: I took things one hurdle at a time. Now I’m at the end of the race, and though can’t say I’ve won, I’m happy with my finish.
What am I proudest of? My research, of course, for the desire to find out things was what made me a scientist. The pivotal moment was when, as an undergraduate in genetics class, we were given two tubes of fruit flies, one with white eyes, the other with the normal reddish-brown eyes. We were assigned the job of finding out what mutation caused the eyes to lose pigment. When I crossed the flies from the two tubes, the offspring had normal-colored eyes, but when those “F1 progeny” were crossed among themselves, one got four colors in the offspring: normal, white, and two new colors: dark brown and bright orange. How could that be? I remember puzzling this out, and then the solution came to me in a flash while sitting on the bleachers in swimming class. The white-eyed flies must have two mutant genes, one that blocked the production of red pigment (producing brown eyes), and one blocking the brown pigment (orange eyes). When both mutations were present, no pigment was produced, ergo white eyes. I went back to the lab, tested that theory, and found not only that I was right, but that the two genes resided on the same chromosome (the second), though they were far apart. I gave them cumbersome names, but they were in fact the classic mutations cinnabar and brown.
The excitement of that moment, and the clean results I got when testing my hypothesis, is what made me an evolutionary geneticist. Since then, I’ve always tried to do experiments in which the result are clean: experiments in which there are two possible outcomes that are easily distinguishable. While the study of evolution is often messy, evolutionary genetics is neater, and both my students and I have concentrated on studies in which the results unequivocally favor one hypothesis rather than another. It all goes back to that moment in gym class.
I am proud of my work on speciation, and I will try not to be overly modest when claiming that I think I helped revive the study of how species form, at least in a genetic sense—a research area that had lain moribund for many years. There is now a cottage industry of work on speciation, much of it inspired by the work my students and I did at The University of Maryland (my first job) and then at The University of Chicago. The specific things we found, and what they meant, will of course be immersed in and then covered by the stream of science, and our names will be forgotten. But that is the fate of most of us, and it is enough for me to have shunted the evolutionary-biology stream towards one of its more important questions: why is nature divided up into lumps (species) instead of forming a complete organic continuum? And how do those lumps form? I was privileged to have made a few discoveries that helped answer these questions, and to have inspired others to make even more discoveries.
What I’m proudest of, I suppose, is the book I wrote with my ex-student Allen Orr, Speciation, published in 2004. It took each of us six years to write, was widely acclaimed and, more important, was influential. I still see that book as my true legacy, for it not only summed up where the field had gone, but also highlighted its important but unsolved questions, serving as a guide for future research.
I’m also very proud of my graduate students, which are one’s human legacy: the academic sons and daughters whose work will change the course of science long after I’m gone. I have had a very small output of students: only four, with one of them opting for a career in science writing. The other three are well-known academics, and I’m immensely proud that they’re all seen as “stars.” I can’t really claim credit for their accomplishments, as they were all self-starters, nor can I say that I had an eye for talent. All I can say is that I sat in the lab with them, engaged in nonstop conversation about science as we “pushed flies” together (counted and manipulated flies under the microscope with ermine-fur paintbrushes); and I think that conversation helped motivate and guide them.
And I’m proud that up to the very end I did my own research with my own hands. I don’t fault those senior scientists who tell others what to do and sit in their offices writing up the results of that guided research, but being a lab manager was never my forte. In fact, given that I loved to work at the bench, I didn’t have time to manage others, and this also constrained me to have only one student at a time. (I’ve also had only one postdoc, and I am proud of her accomplishments as a molecular evolutionary geneticist.)
On a more mundane level, I’m proud of having never gone without grant support for my entire career, something that’s a rarity in these days of tight funding. I had the same grant, renewed every three years, for over three decades: “The genetics of speciation.” I am immensely grateful to the National Institutes of Health for providing the largesse for all my research.
What could I have done better? To a determinist like me, regrets are unproductive (though perhaps useful to others), as I couldn’t have done other than what I did. But I wish I had been a better teacher, especially of undergraduates. Given that my true love was research, and that one is evaluated at a place like the University of Chicago largely on research rather than teaching, I probably put too little effort into teaching. I wish I had had interacted more with my undergraduate students, for at the University of Chicago they are a bright and curious bunch. My teaching ratings always came in about average, and I always wished they were higher. On the other hand, a lot of my research was done in collaboration with undergraduates who asked to work in my lab after taking my evolution course, and several of these have gone on to careers in either science or medicine.
The University of Chicago is a diverse and stimulating place: we have great professors and courses in every area of the liberal arts and sciences. I wish I had interacted more with my diverse colleagues over my career. The University is a bit Balkanized, though, so such opportunities are rare, and there’s precious little time. But I love the humanities, and wish I had sat in on courses in English, philosophy, history, and the sciences of physical anthropology, paleontology, and so on. Perhaps I’ll have more time to do that now. But at least I fulfilled the two vows I made as an aspiring academic: I would never leave college, and I would always have a job in which I could wear jeans to work.
Academics who retire are often asked what advice they have for younger folks. (I have in fact been asked that question repeatedly throughout my career.) And of course we all tend to advise people to do exactly what we did! For that is really all we can say: do the things that, we think, helped make us personally successful. And here I’ll mention two things, both of which characterized my own career. Perhaps these can influence the neuronal wiring of younger researchers and affect their own lives.
First, there is no substitute for hard work. Brains are not enough, and, in truth, I’ve never seen myself as particularly smart. But I have worked very hard—often seven days a week—and it is to that hard work that I attribute what success I’ve had. Good ideas are few—I’ve had about three in my life—but everyone has the capacity (though not perhaps the inclination) to work hard. To all grad students, then: if you’re not in the lab on weekends, you’re not doing it right. That is not to say that you shouldn’t have a life outside the lab, for of course that’s vital, but if you’re passionate about your work, you’ll want to do it outside conventional work hours. Science is not a nine-to-five job.
The second bit of advice was imparted by my mentor Dick Lewontin at his “pre-retirement” party at Harvard, when he stood up in front of the coelacanth—the “living fossil” fish preserved in a tank of formalin, which Dick pointed out as an appropriate backdrop. He ended his brief remarks by emphasizing the one thing he wanted the younger generation to absorb. It was this: if you’re a professor, DO NOT slap your name as an author on the papers of your students—at least not unless you did substantial work on the project. Such gratuitous co-authorship inflates your curriculum vitae in a less-than-honest way, and also diminishes the accomplishments of your students.
It is a truth universally acknowledged in academics (and named the “Matthew Effect” after the appropriate Biblical verse) that the “senior author” of a research paper—the head of the lab where the work was done—gets the lion’s share of credit for that work. The unfortunate result is that the graduate students and postdocs are left picking up the crumbs, seen as mere functionaries. That is not the way it should be. Senior authors have already attained their status and security, while junior authors are merely aspiring to such a position. To me, the only justification for putting your name on a student’s paper is that you either did a large portion of the work with your own hands or contributed substantially to the analysis. Simply handing a student an idea, providing the funding or materials for the research, or helping the student/postdoc write the paper isn’t sufficient to warrant authorship. Those are our duties as professors, while our privilege is to do the science and find out new things.
One anecdote about this. My first well-known paper showed that, as revealed by gel electrophoresis, some genes had many more alleles (gene forms) than previously thought—up to twenty or thirty forms segregating in a population. I wrote up a paper for the journal Genetics, and at the top put the names of two authors: myself and Dick Lewontin. At the end of the day, I timidly placed the paper on his desk for his comments and emendations.
The next morning I found the paper on my desk, covered with red scrawls (Dick’s handwriting was atrocious), but with Lewontin’s name crossed out. He told me, “Don’t ever do that again.” Lewontin was part of a lineage of academics who abjured credit-mongering. His own advisor, Theodosius Dobzhansky, often published research that derived from his own ideas, for which he did much of the physical labor of reading chromosome slides, and for which he wrote the entire paper—and yet his name wasn’t under the title. Often his technicians were the sole authors: Boris Spassky and Olga Pavlovsky. And Dobzhansky came from the very first modern genetics lab—that of Thomas Hunt Morgan—whose members (save, perhaps, H. J. Muller) didn’t care very much about who got the credit. I am proud to be part of that lineage and of trying to sustain its traditions.
I’m often told that without putting your name on every paper coming from your lab, you won’t advance professionally. That is not true. For 30 years I submitted grant proposals to the National Institutes of Health listing all the papers published during my previous funding period. Many of these papers did not have my name on them. And the NIH didn’t care a bit: they cared about how much good research had been done on their dime, not whether my name was on the papers; and they continued to fund me.
So to the professors: try to not grab credit that you really don’t deserve. It is your job to help students write papers and find good ideas; it is your job to guide their research and suggest how to analyze that research. But that does not justify your taking credit for their work. To the students: do not assume automatically that your professor’s name should go on your paper. Perhaps that’s the lab “tradition”, and you must hew to it lest you offend your boss. But even if you must succumb to this form of coercion, try not to do it yourself when you become the boss.
And with that advice I will end this post. I have had a good run, I regret nothing, at least scientifically, and I’ve been given the greatest privilege a scientist can have: to be the first to discover some previously unknown things about our universe.