Monday, May 9, 2016

Orthogonal

Picking up an ecologist at the airport is always easy. We wear this unofficial uniform that functions better than any name-tag. We're casual, unassuming. Not like the business people who travel in suits and skirts and blouses - quite often, we're the only ones in jeans.

I had the pleasure of picking up a prominent ecologist at the airport near Coos Bay this week and hosting him at OIMB. Dr. Nicholas Gotelli, of the University of Vermont, was the latest speaker in OIMB's spring seminar series. I was especially excited to meet Nick because I've read and cited his work extensively. In fact, he developed most of the statistical analyses I'm using in my thesis. He is a brilliant mathematical ecologist, adept at both field sampling and modeling techniques. He's spent his career following the scientific questions wherever they lead, and he's worked on everything from marine invertebrates to pitcher plants.

The Young lab and Nick
As it turns out, Nick and Craig, my Ph.D. advisor, go way back. I consider myself blessed to be part of such an extended scientific network and to have the opportunity to share my work with a variety of senior colleagues. I spent a large part of the past few days talking with Nick about my work, picking his brain, and sharing stories along the way.

The highlight was definitely Friday night, when Craig hosted a potluck dinner following Nick's afternoon seminar. Evenings at Craig's house always feel like a step back in time. He's got an impressive library filled with classical scientific literature and antique microscopes. For the OIMB Christmas party last December, the living room was decorated to rival Act I of The Nutcracker. Spontaneous house concerts often take place after dinner, as we revive a tradition dating back centuries.

Nick is actually an accomplished guitarist, so I knew well in advance to bring my violin to dinner. After fish tacos next to the fire pit on Craig's deck, the group moved inside and the instruments emerged. Both Nick and my labmate, Caitlin, had come prepared with collections of Celtic tunes, so the three of us crowded around a music stand and sight-read our way through. It actually worked pretty well with Caitlin and me on the melody line and Nick outlining the chord changes underneath. Sometimes, I could feel him watching my fingers and adding in complementary notes.
Caitlin, Nick, and I playing an Irish tune. Photo by Craig Young.

You know, it's not uncommon for ecologists to be musically trained. I'm convinced that the two disciplines are complementary. Nick described them as "orthogonal," which is actually a better way to say it - they use different parts of the brain and are in many ways separate but enhance each other nonetheless.

Collaborating with other researchers is one of the best by-products of being a scientist, and I got to do it in two ways today. I take great pleasure in building connections with other scientists, discussing our work, conceiving of new ideas, and hey, even jamming on an Irish tune. It was a great evening.

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