Friday, June 14, 2013

When two of Professor Earl Werner's former students heard of his impending retirement (December 2013), they joined forces to plan EarlFest: a symposium to pay tribute to their mentor on May 18, 2013.

Colleagues, current and former students, postdocs, friends and family gathered to celebrate Werner’s career and influence on the field of ecology. A great lineup of speakers was selected from among people connected to Werner at different times in his career and from different perspectives. Mark McPeek, David T. McLaughlin Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences, Dartmouth College, and David Skelly, professor of ecology and associate dean for research, Yale University, were the organizers. Here’s a fun fact: McPeek was Werner’s last student at Michigan State University when Werner worked at the Kellogg Biological Station. Skelly was his first student when Werner moved to U-M where he is director of the E.S. George Reserve. Students flew in from as far as Brazil and California to join the tribute.

The symposium was held in East Hall on the Ann Arbor campus. A pig roast followed at the E.S. George Reserve.

Throughout the symposium, a theme “that emerged repeatedly was the idea of an iterative research program that combines multiple approaches including fieldwork, experiments, and theory to address ecological questions,” said Shannon McCauley, a former student of Werner’s who is now an assistant professor of biology at the University of Toronto Mississauga.“It was fascinating to me that while the research questions addressed spanned a wide range, the iterative research approach and a mechanistic, trait-based approach to ecology was at the core of most of them. The fundamental tools and scientific vision gained in Earl’s lab is being applied to diverse questions in ecology and evolutionary biology.

“When I heard about this event I knew I would attend. How could I not? Earl has influenced my thinking as a scientist more than any other person. He has also influenced me personally – showing me that humility and kindness are not barriers to succeeding. His passion for this work and  joy he shared with us in being able to pursue research in these glorious natural environments has sustained me in pursuing this career and I know it will continue to do so as I try and pass some of that on to my own students.”

McCauley said that her career was further impacted by the way her former professor brings out the best in people by treating everyone with respect and as someone with valuable contributions to make, another example she hopes to pass on to her graduate students.

Of his professor’s legacy to the field, McPeek said, “Few people have one great idea. Earl has had three major themes in his research career. The first was as an original developer of optimal foraging theory. He then used those insights to understand how organisms might balance those foraging gains with the risk of predation in choosing among potential habitats. Then he moved on to develop the issues associated with how predators and prey might interact through changes in behavior and not simply from the prey being food for the predators (i.e., trait-mediated indirect effects).”

“Earl’s own remarks were probably the highlight of the day for me,” said McCauley. “He discussed what his students and postdocs had meant for him and I think for all of us to know that we had given something back to him was a wonderful feeling. He talked about the contributions students had made to research and to the vibrancy of the lab and it was a kind and deeply felt statement that had many of us in tears.

“The pig roast was also a delight – people shared stories, most of them about Earl’s reactions to our mistakes and foibles (generally patient and slightly amazed at the ridiculous stuff we managed) and of course, there were a few funny ones about Earl too.”

“Earl was always a quiet inspiration to all his students,” McPeek observed.

Captions: (from top) Earl Werner receives gifts from his many fans including a painting by former student, Gary Mittelbach, who is now a professor at the MSU W.K. Kellogg Biological Station; a rocking chair and a hammock. Credit: Mark McPeek.

Back row left to right: Gary Mittelbach, Mark McPeek, David Skelly, Luis Schiesari, an associate professor of environmental management at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Front row: Earl Werner. Credit: Karl Dunkle Werner.

Sharing memories and laughter around the campfire at the E.S. George Reserve. Credit: Karl Dunkle Werner.

Enjoying EEB collegiality at the symposium during a break. Credit: Mark McPeek.

In this article:

Werner, Earl