Today in Water Jobs we discuss fishing and writing with Dr. James Garvey, who is the director of the Center for Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Aquatic Sciences, as well as a professor of zoology, at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Dr. Garvey is a graduate of Miami University (Ohio) and completed his MS and PhD at Ohio State University. His interest in fish was inspired by “spending summer vacations on a houseboat in Kentucky, sweating, swimming, and fishing” where he said always felt “more comfortable on a boat or scurrying around underwater than hanging out on land.”
You’re the first professor we’ve featured on Water Jobs. Would you please tell us what being a professor looks like in the day-to-day?
What I like most about being a professor is that every day is different. I get to hang out with the brightest people and learn new things all the time. So, it is a bit tough to map out a typical day.
My hypothetical day starts with me coming into the office and feeding the fish, anemones, and corals in our three aquaria. While doing that, a couple of my graduate students pop in and ask for advice about how to ship off some of our fish specimens from our ichthyology collection to a researcher at another university. After chatting with them about that task and telling them to finish their proposals, I work on a textbook I am writing and then, when I’m finally getting somewhere with the text, I have to run off to teach my class. I miss lunch as usual, finding myself in a meeting talking about university politics with colleagues. In the afternoon, I run over to our lab and hitch a ride with one of our research crews going into the field to collect water samples from a local lake. When I get home, I eat dinner with the family, and then settle into the evening by reviewing a research proposal, while watching some episode of Dr. Who. I might remember to take a shower and wash off the fish smell, if my family is lucky.
We’ve observed that most professors work a lot more than 40 hours a week. How much time do you spend on your work, and how do you divide it into teaching, research, and service?
Being a professor is an honor and a gift. Most of us consider it a lifestyle rather than a profession. For me, a trip with the family to the beach is more than sunscreen and straw hats. It’s an opportunity to contemplate the complex biological processes occurring in the ocean. I can’t turn it off!
So, I guess I work all day, every day, because that’s what I was made do. The distinctions among teaching, research, and service are fuzzier than many folks outside of universities might realize. Teaching is going on all the time. I may spend only a few hours a week in the lecture hall, but I interact with students at all levels throughout each day, whether to talk about class stuff, research progress, or career goals. My days of collecting my own research data are largely over, although this is by choice - many faculty still do lab and field work. My students conduct most of the research, which I help guide through conversations and the occasional field trip. The students cringe when I go into the field with them, because I’m a disaster (very accident prone). Something expensive on the boat is going to get broken if Garvey’s in the field. Service is a weird category for faculty. Technically, none of us faculty get hired to “serve” the university or our profession, but heck, yeah we do a lot of it. An example of service is sitting on a committee to decide how much service faculty should be doing – really. I try to avoid doing service, but we senior faculty seem to end up doing more of this to spare the newbies. All I can say to that is “yawn”.
What is your favorite aspect of your job, and does it correspond with any good stories you’re willing to share?
Traveling to meet with colleagues and talk about research is probably my favorite job-related activity. I had the opportunity to visit China a couple of years ago, which was illuminating in a variety of ways. I work with Asian carp, an invader here in the US, but a native delicacy in China. My first night was in Shanghai. After getting off the plane, I had a total of an hour to relax before my first dinner meeting. In a blink, the phone in my room rang and I realized I had passed out. Jet-lagged and exhausted, I shuffled down to the private room where a lavish feast was laid out before my companions and me. The very first course was fish-head soup made from a bighead carp – one of the invaders here in the US. My study organism was floating in broth in its home country, staring me down. And it was absolutely delicious.
When did you decide you wanted to go to graduate school?
When I was in fifth grade, I wanted to be an astronomer. That was Carl Sagan’s fault. Does that count?
Actually, I had no clue about graduate school until I was a junior in college. I had an opportunity to conduct individual research in a lab and met some great graduate students and post docs. I decided that I liked what they were doing – conducting research, writing, and talking science. The alternative – a real job – was not looking as desirable. I worked in a lumberyard during college and knew what real labor was like. Exercising my mind was more of my style.
Would you explain your research to us as you would to say, your dentist?
If you were a dentist, I’d tell you that the freshwater of the world is like a giant tooth with a bad cavity. I’m trying to save the tooth before it has to be extracted. And for me, unlike my dentist friend, there are no dentures to fill the gap.
After we’ve had a good laugh and I’ve gotten my dose of painkiller, I’d mumble that I work in water with fishes and invertebrates, focusing on issues associated with their conservation. There are lots of threats, with novel species from other continents called invasive organisms being a primary problem. I try to help fish managers devise ways to control these invasive species, like Asian carp, before they cause native species to go extinct. One of our best options for control of carp may be harvest. But before we, as a society, spend a lot of money trying to fish them out or to encourage market development, we need to understand how the carp populations will respond. I help collect data to predict what these fish will do and whether fishing will be effective.
Since you work with endangered species, do you ever get frustrated by your findings or discouraged about the future of the animals you study? Have you found effective ways to address some of the situations you observe?
I do research on the federally endangered pallid sturgeon. The most frustrating problems my colleagues and I face with this species include the lack of knowledge the US public has (1) about pallid sturgeon and large river organisms generally, (2) the multiple threats assaulting our precious rivers, and (3) the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a living, very active piece of legislation. In a large portion of its range, the pallid sturgeon will never recover by itself unless the US makes a very difficult decision – remove the massive dams on the Missouri River in the north-central portion of the country. As you probably know, this region has experienced an extreme, multi-year drought, which may be even worse this summer. Those dams provide water for irrigation and drinking. How can you ask the residents of those states to give up water for an endangered species?
Seriously, if taken literally, the ESA demands that the federal government do whatever it can to keep the species from blinking out, even if it means removing the dams and letting those states dry up. How can you look someone in the eye and ask them to give up their homes and jobs for that?
Being a pragmatic soul, I seek compromise as a solution. The federal government has done this with the pallid sturgeon. In the dammed portion of the Missouri River, pallid sturgeon cannot reproduce, but the adults survive and grow. So, the solution has been to create a large hatchery system that takes adults from the wild, spawns them in the hatchery, and rears the young sturgeon in captivity. When the pallid sturgeon offspring are old enough, they are released back into the wild and the population is artificially supported, with human help. This is a classic band-aid tactic for meeting the demands of the ESA.
This approach is very costly for society and seems ridiculous. But it works. I’ve found that most environmental solutions require similar flexibility and a sense of humor. Digging your heels in and resisting any progress typically bodes poorly for the species of concern and produces a lot of unnecessary heartburn for the resource managers.
We really enjoy your blogging at Bad Anemone Press. What got you interested in blogging and what inspires your posts?
I’m glad you enjoy reading my random thoughts about aquatic ecology, conservation, and life in academia. I love to write - like some people enjoy painting, playing music, participating in sports, or cooking. I’ve kept a journal forever and have been publishing technical articles since I started graduate school. Blogging is a little way for me to share my personal perspective and experience before my mind starts to go. It is far more relaxing than writing manuscripts for journals or yelling at my students.
Just about anything I encounter inspires me to write. Ecology and evolution are intertwined with everything around us. Our biology shapes our lives in so many ways - from the chairs we sit on to the media we consume. If you squint hard enough, you can see the connections and they are fascinating. Metaphors and analogies are beautiful and serve as great teaching tools for scientists.
We’ve also heard that you’ve written some novels. Would you tell us about that, please?
I have this weird affection for science fiction and ecology. This may seem like combining cotton candy with fish sauce, but somehow I’m determined to make them work together. Science fiction allows us to see beyond the limited knowledge available to us right now. I like to use it to explore where ecology as a science may take us in the future. The two books I’ve written were really meant for my students to reach beyond the confines of the facts I present in my lectures and think outside our biosphere. There are hints of real science sprinkled about in my prose that link directly back to what I teach. The fun is sorting out the science from the fiction.