This year, we have the pleasure of welcoming Dr. Andrew Rypel to UC Davis and the Center for Watershed Sciences to his appointment as the new Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Endowed Chair in Coldwater Fishes. Dr. Rypel shares some of this thoughts about fish, science, and his new position:
1. How does it feel to be the new Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Endowed Chair in Coldwater Fishes?
Incredible and unbelievable – a great stroke of fortune – the opportunity of lifetime! What else can one say? When I first started out in fish science, my primary goal was to just have a cool job where I got to work with fishes. Over time, that has evolved; for example, I have developed other aspirations and interests, like using science to move the needle on conservation issues that matter. However, to have reached a point and be honored like this…wow.
It feels especially surreal to follow in the footsteps of Peter Moyle. As I have gotten to know Peter over the last year, it’s clear we share much in common. We’re both Midwesterners! We also see eye-to-eye on many of the fish conservation issues of today and the type of thinking that will be required to come up with solutions that work for fishes – and people. I’m really looking forward to collaborating with Peter and his many former students in the coming years.
Another draw to this opportunity for me was the potential to partner with a dynamic and forward-thinking organization like CalTrout. Working with people and organizations that are passionate, organized, and driven by science – that is what has always been needed to do conservation science right, but increasingly so as global environmental change effects take further grip on our fishes and ecosystems. It is telling that the slogan for CalTrout is “Fish-Water-People,” which is similar to what you see in any Fisheries Management textbook describing a proper fisheries management system – the interaction of fish, habitat and people. CalTrout is full of dedicated folks that have staked much to make my position available in its current form. I recognize this and am energized and inspired by it.
Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Collectively, we are poised to do some special things in the coming years, and I am thrilled to be a part of that science and the partnerships that will support that!
2. What are you looking forward to most in this new position?
A few things. Number one on the list is teaching and mentoring students. Over the past several years the importance of leaving a legacy for future generations has crystallized for me. That legacy can be physical, like healthy and resilient fish populations, but it can also be values-based. It is hard to conserve something if people don’t care about it.
Teaching and mentoring students on the diversity and mysteries of fishes is something I am already relishing – fish biology class here at UCD is already in full swing! The moments when a student first holds or touches a fish, perhaps one they might have never held or touched before, is special. I’ve seen it change people – I really have! And it doesn’t even have to be with fish, although I would prefer that. Connecting with salamanders, ducks, plants, even insects can be transformative for people. It’s a particularly special experience though when that experience (E.O. Wilson might refer to it as biophilia) dovetails together with the scientific method and the collection of data towards some larger question or public good.
There are nerdy fish things I am looking forward to working on in California. Places to study others have not, or not much. Interesting things to think about, new species to work with. California is like no other place I have been, and the fishes, freshwater fauna, and environmental issues are unlike every other place I have worked. It appears to be a place ripe for those with a creative approach to science and conservation, and I am excited to join the conversation and start conducting science. The Center for Watershed Sciences is emblematic of this type of interdisciplinary approach – a place where scientists of disparate interests and backgrounds can gather to collaborate collectively on problems that matter.
Finally, I am excited to work with various agency partners and CalTrout on applied conservation issues. What most people find surprising about successful conservation and natural resource management work is that it often involves a heavy dose of working with people. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most scientists are not trained to actually work with people. This is unfortunate because so many of the potential solutions to the environmental problems that plague us are fundamentally people problems as they are linked to policy and governance structures.
I am a firm believer that scientists do need to escape the “ivory tower.” There was a hashtag going around on Twitter recently (#actuallivingscientist) that I found to be a rather sad and ironic commentary. As in “nobody knows an actual living scientist.” And as much as I hate to admit this, this is probably our fault. As human beings, we naturally gravitate to and align ourselves with people similar to us, which only reinforces group-think and confirmation bias. Gathering, harvesting and adapting new and different ideas is what is most exciting to me. And these ideas can come from anywhere, including from people you might not agree with on every single issue. I of course have many ideas and experiences from my past work that I am excited to share. Yet I am also anxious to learn more about the ideas of others, perhaps especially those of non-scientists. It’s more fun to meet, interact and work with a diversity of people anyways!
3. What will this position allow you to do that you weren’t able to do before?
I’ll focus on one particularly important thing that came with this job for me. Tenure. Some people don’t realize, but tenure is under attack in the US. In some ways, this is understandable as in other job sectors, job security is not the norm. However, erosion in tenure protections is unfortunate for science. It is one of the basic protections for academics in pursuing truth, as we are mandated to do, e.g., via the scientific method. It also frees up scientists to pursue ideas that might challenge the status quo or otherwise be unprofitable.
I have the hard-won experience now to have worked in places where scientists were not afforded such protections, and it fundamentally changes the way scientists behave and work. Researchers quickly learn the consequences when they produce data or research that is at odds with those in power. The effect is large and chilling. I am grateful for having received tenure at UC Davis, and hope to use it. Not to intentionally “rock the boat” or go after controversial ideas, but to do science – real science that we think is important. That science can be risky, can have economic implications but not necessarily, and to do it with students within the support system or tenure – that is huge.
I am increasingly convinced tenure is an essential element to a free and democratic society. People might be surprised, but without tenure protections, ideas and data that challenge and diversify our thinking and that of our students are lost, and we can often behave like scared sheep.
3. What will you research and how will it benefit the world?
Honest answer: I don’t know. I have so many ideas and topics I am personally interested in, but I also want to do research that connects with people and has the potential to move the needle on priority conservation issues. So…I am all ears! Once I finish teaching this fall, I would like to get in a car and drive around the state – learn the people and what the priority and consensus science needs might be. It is a big state and there are so many people to meet, agencies and non-profits to engage, fishes to see! All this is to say – if you have an idea or would like to work with me, or have an idea, come find me, I would love to hear your ideas and find ways to align my research here with things people care about!
4. What sparked your interest in research or science in general?
Well, I am one of those people that grew up fishing. I got it from my Dad, who started taking us at a very young age. I was raised in Wisconsin and would spend summers exploring every inch of the lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands in Wisconsin (mostly northwestern WI). Anything me and my Dad could wedge a canoe or a pair of waders into. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to work with fishes, I just never thought it would be possible.
When I was in college, I majored in the closest thing I could find to something involving fishes – Environmental Science. However, I had never really “done” science. It wasn’t until I was 23 or so and finishing up my MS at Auburn University that I figured out I might have a talent at science. My MS project was related to studying sexual differences in PCB pollution in fishes from a reservoir. On the side though, I wound up getting interested in the ecology of freshwater drum (Aplodinotus grunniens).
Drum (or Sheepshead as they are sometimes called) are a curious and intriguing species – they have the largest latitudinal range of any freshwater species in North America. And individuals can be ultra long-lived (>70 years old!). They occur in both lakes and rivers, and in some of the larger rivers, can dominate fish biomass. Nobody was doing on work on them, and I found that odd.
I wound up writing a small grant to do a statewide survey of some of freshwater drum populations in Alabama, and I got the funding. It was exhilarating to get funding and really go after a science idea, travel all over the state to do the field work, do the lab science and stats and then write and publish a series of papers on it. That was it – I was hooked – and it was clear to me that I loved science (and fish) and had a talent at it. The rest is history!
5. What is an interesting fact about yourself or something you want people to know about you?
I play guitar and have played in several bands, and solo. I have a recorded version of Amazing Grace that is archived in the Library of Congress. Before the freshwater drum project hit, I was seriously considering moving from Auburn to Nashville to be a singer – songwriter. Good thing science worked out! I still love to play – only now mostly for our two young boys.
I do believe though that science has a creativity component. There is a good book called Thinking Fast and Slow that makes a solid brain science case for this – our minds are sharpened by using both the slow (science and reasoning are slow processes) and fast (creative) parts. There is also a case for the SciArt movement in there. People can’t do science all the time, the brain isn’t built like that. Art, music and other creative endeavors are a chance to use the other parts of our brain, and that probably enhances our overall ability to think. It’s also a chance to connect with our parallel scholars of the humanities with whom we rarely interact.
Andrew Rypel is a fish biologist and holds the Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Endowed Chair in Coldwater Fishes at the University of California, Davis. He is also an affiliate of the Center for Watershed Sciences.