Researchers Under the Microscope

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Dr. Jeremy Kerr

University Research Chair in Macroecology and Conservation Biology

Dr. Jeremy Kerr is a full professor and researcher at the University of Ottawa, as well as the holder of the University Research Chair in Macroecology and Conservation, and is the President of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution. His research focuses on the investigation of biodiversity decline due to climate change, the development of strategies to fight for biological conservation, and the analysis of vector borne disease risk. He is also very active in the domain of science-policy at the national and international levels. Dr. Kerr is currently looking for motivated honours students to join his lab, and welcomes your application to jkerr@uottawa.ca.

OSURJ:  How did you come to start your career as a researcher and a professor?

JK: I began as an honours student, maybe even in 2nd or 3rd year. I became increasingly passionate about academic work around discovering solutions to environmental challenges, particularly around the conservation of biological diversity, and pursued that hard at the honours level. That work ended up turning out pretty well, and we published it in a journal, which was great. But that was a gateway drug for me for continuing with research at the graduate and post-doctorate levels. All of that just got more and more zeroed in on particular research questions, but also on the broader mission of trying to make a difference with problems that seemed to be much more solvable to me than society recognized. That has been a theme in my research as well, that a lot of these challenges are pretty achievable in terms of fixing problems. Aspects of climate change impacts on biological diversity, for example, a very motivating problem for me and we have been working on aspects of it for a long time.

OSURJ: Where did you do your undergraduate degree?

JK: Here! I did my undergrad right here, in this faculty, in this very building in fact [Gendron] which is totally weird. I went away for grad school to York University in Toronto and to Oxford for my post-doc, and was offered a faculty position in 2002 here. That was an opportunity to come back here, or I had an alternative to go back to Toronto, which I didn’t want to do, having lived in the two places. I grew up here at a high school level.

OSURJ: Did you consider any other professions, or was it always research and teaching for you?

JK: It was always research for me, and teaching is central to that mission as well. I don’t think of them as being particularly distinct, it’s all part of the job. But that’s always been the thing that I wanted to do at a professional level, I wasn’t thinking about other careers. I think it may have occurred to me for a brief 10 minutes in high school that med school was a possibility, but I am not passionate about the practice of medicine, whereas I am passionate about parts of my research that deals with epidemiological challenges, as an ecologist I have something to say. So there are aspects of medical research that I find fascinating, but the practice of medicine is just not something I care about, whereas my research program I care about a great deal. I thought it was important to do something I cared about, and I had a chance to do it, so that was nice.

OSURJ: Are there any words of wisdom that have stuck with you from a mentor during your undergraduate or graduate studies?

JK: I don’t know if I was taught this at an undergraduate level or if it diffused into my brain at a later stage, but the idea of doing academic research, the practice of academic research is really hard. And failure is much more common than success on a day-to-day basis. So people who are doing undergraduate research are going to experience challenges all the time. And I think something that would be really helpful for people beginning their research careers to understand, is that that’s normal. That’s what the practice of research looks like. On a day-to-day basis, it’s just obstacles, stuff that’s holding you back. But as you go forward, those failures, you begin to get over some of those challenges. And then there are other challenges waiting for you. Moments of success are interspersed among these long periods of difficulty. And it’s those moments of success that become the milestones that define discovery, not the moments of failure. A bit of persistence is really necessary to get past those moments of challenges or of difficulty to get to those moments of success. That’s something that I would recommend to people beginning their careers as researchers, to really see past those obstacles directly in front of them, things that are hard to do or achieve, to where you want to get to. Understand that many people have been in that boat, and persistence and hard work will usually get you where you want to go, with a little bit of help from good mentors if you can find them.

OSURJ: Could you describe a funny or embarrassing moment you had as an undergraduate or graduate student?

JK: One embarrassing thing I did as a graduate student, it was just appalling. It was the first time I’d ever had field assistants, I had two field assistants who were coming out into fields with me, I was doing butterfly research. We were going out into these habitats, it was really hot, and I was trying to show how intrepid I was to charge out and get all these butterflies. It’ll be great, watch me! And I ended up wading through this sea of poison ivy to get to this habitat, and I got absolutely creamed, it was brutal. The most amazing rashes on my legs, I was wearing shorts at the time which made it even worse. It was the first time I had poison ivy, the second time I had been exposed I suspect. It was so horrible, I can hardly describe how awful it was. As embarrassing moments go, that was memorable. Not what you want to be demonstrating to your field assistants. Three days later, I went back to work, and it was really disgusting. It took a month to go away. It just turns out that I am really, really susceptible to poison ivy. The other people were totally fine.

OSURJ: Do you still do fieldwork after that experience?

JK: Oh yeah, these days I worry less about poison ivy because I have a very, very good radar for it. These days I worry more about ticks. You have to watch out for stuff that you didn’t have to watch out for 15-20 years ago. Otherwise, lions. I do work in East Africa, too. I haven’t been in the last couple of years, since 2015. We do research on malaria there, but this requires us to go into areas that have lions. This is a partnership with some local peoples and researchers.

OSURJ: What is your favorite aspect of being a researcher? Is there anything that you dislike?

JK: It’s a tie, depending on the day of the week that you ask me this, it might be the one thing or the other. I’ll just give you both. One of them is, we get to define the problems that we work on to a substantial degree. This means that if I’m really passionate about one aspect of research, I can push that, I can go for that, I can challenge myself to be better at that. I am able to define the characteristics of what I do on a day-to-day basis, which is a really nice thing to be able to do. But going back to the reason I got into all this in the first place, it’s because I’m motivated and passionate about aspects of environmental challenge. So, another aspect that I particularly like about this job is the fact that in my work I get to make a difference with things. It’s not just work where I am being self-indulgent, it’s work where there is a broader contribution to society, to making things better in tangible ways, I really like that too. So for me, it’s either one or the other, the self-definition as a researcher and the capacity to contribute to solving problems. [Is there anything you dislike?] The pressure. It’s a high-pressure job, so you are what you make yourself become, being a professional researcher. We are professional discoverers. You have to be making discoveries and publishing peer-reviewed literature all the time. Professors are pulled in many directions at once all the time, which creates ongoing a lot of pressure. It means that on a day-to-day basis, being a professor in a science faculty, which is very output-oriented, we don’t disappear to our cottage for months at a stretch. We have to be intense all year-round, and we have to be because this job is very demanding and requires excellence at all levels all the time. And that’s stressful, if you have other things going on in life that occupy your time too, sometimes that juggling job is hard to do. But then, that self-definition thing takes the edge off because you’re doing what you love and that helps.

OSURJ: Are there any new methodologies or discoveries in your field that you are excited about?

JK: I’ll give you two. One is that we are increasingly good at understanding the distribution of wildlife on Earth. When I started my career, we were not very well-informed about where species and populations were found. We’ve collected huge amounts of data along with many other researchers around the world, and put those data sets together, and they’ve given us a much better picture of the distribution of life on Earth. This means that we can begin to analyze and investigate problems that have to do with the causes and origins of the distribution of life on Earth. That’s a pretty exciting scientific thing to be able to do. Another thing that I find very interesting, that is a very remarkable capacity that’s new, is remote sensing. Not only do we know where species are found now, in a way we didn’t 20 years ago, for instance, we now have the capacity to measure the environment anywhere in the world, at almost any time. And we can do so in an ongoing way. So when there’s an environmental change somewhere, we can see that almost in real time. This lets us detect the potential for impacts of environmental change to the distribution of life on Earth, and that’s a remarkable power. For researchers, this is something that gives us a lot of insight and potential for discovery, but also the capacity to make a difference with problems, and I like that capacity. These are things [my research] uses on almost a daily basis.

OSURJ: How do you spend your free time? Do you have any other passions outside of research?

JK: I do a lot of athletic stuff. I run around a lot, I do some downhill skiing, although the weather this year has been a bit uneven. I’m really kind of intense athletically. And I have kids, so I spend a lot of time hanging out with my kids and doing fun stuff with them, which I think is the most important thing I could be doing with my not-working time. They are 12 and 14, and they still seem to like having me around, which is great. That could change at any time, and I am aware of that, so I want to try to make sure I have as many of those moments with them as I can before they don’t want to see me anymore.

OSURJ: Are you looking for new students in your lab?

JK: We’re always looking for really good honours students, people who are going to be passionate about their work and who are self-starters. This is super important, for researchers, honours projects are part of our mission in the teaching sense, so we want to try to be as generous with our time as we can be. Honours students can accomplish a lot – they produce peer-reviewed papers, they make discoveries that can appear in really good journals. And that’s really important for them to understand. People who are self-starters can accomplish a lot. Even if it’s a really difficult field, and the work kind of doesn’t achieve orbit, doesn’t really get to where you want it to go, that process can be excellent. People who are really passionate about their work take out of that experience something really valuable. We are always looking for people who will have those characteristic, and potentially will be interested in graduate work as well or in continuing in the summer. So I would definitely be interested in hearing from honour’s students who are passionate about aspects of the work that we do, and who are going to be self-starters in terms of really not requiring me to constantly remind them to please participate in their own project, but for them to be constantly coming back to the lab to say, what can we do next, what’s next, how can we push this further? And we love to see that kind of thing.

OSURJ: Is there a message that you would like to leave us off with?

JK: Become good writers. Writing is excellent and important as a skill, it’s something that people underestimate, often scientists don’t think of writing as a critical skill. And I hope that people, by the time they get to 4th year, at least, have begun to realize that is very much not true. Writing is one of the most vital skills that anybody is going to learn, doing any kind of university degree. And you just kind of basically can’t be a functioning scientist if you can’t write in an effective way to communicate a discovery, the context of discovery, the meaning of discovery, the importance of discovery, the passion of discovery. These skills are indispensable. So I would suggest to people who may have become very good at aspects of technical science that they need to be very good at communicating science, and not just in a written way but in a spoken way, and in other ways. There are a lot of cool things going on with science communication. It is worth taking the time to be aware of those issues and developments, and become good at some of them, especially writing. It’s the one you can’t do without. Writing becomes a special thing they do at the end of the month, then you sit down and you expect that you’re going to write really well. But if you haven’t been writing for six months, it’s like you haven’t been running for six months. You’re not going to run a 10K race, and expect to either survive it or run it fast, if you haven’t been training. Treat writing like training. Do a little bit every day, take 15 minutes and write a paragraph that’s coherent and catchy that has a good topic sentence. These are skills that people can practice at home but it’s like anything else, if you don’t do it, you’re not going to be very good at it when you sit down to do it. Practice is essential. Train for it like you actually were doing something that was hard. They treat writing like it’s the thing they do at the end of the train, like it’s the least serious part of the job. But it’s the only part of the job that anybody hears about or knows about, and it will define whether the discovery is successful. Even if you made a good discovery, if the writing is terrible, no one’s ever going to hear about it. The discovery may as well not have happened. You should practice writing, if not every day, then at least very regularly. This is a common view among well-known authors, in their advice to authors – look, if you want to be a writer, write a lot!