John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto assessing coffee plants for rust in Chiapas, Mexico. Credit: Michigan News International.

If you think of John Vandermeer as a drop that started a ripple effect in the ocean of agroecology and activism, then the recent symposium in his honor made it clear that a virtual tsunami has formed that is taking the world by storm.

One of Vandermeer’s former students, Luis Fernando Chavez, eloquently described the effect his professor had on him as a realization of “our power to change things and move forward to a new stage where science is not used to justify atrocities and where science helps to improve the lives of people without compromising our unity with nature.”

From May 6 to 8, 2016, over 200 people from across the U.S. and around the globe gathered in Ann Arbor to celebrate the myriad achievements of John Vandermeer, Asa Gray Distinguished University Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor.

For the Symposium in Honor of John Vandermeer, also known affectionately as VandyFest, two days of talks, discussions and meetings were accompanied by social gatherings on and around the University of Michigan campus. The weekend symposium featured 50 speakers, including many of Vandermeer’s former and current students, collaborators and colleagues. The theme of the symposium was “Science with Passion and a Moral Compass.” Attendees traveled from across the United States, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Spain, Costa Rica, Belgium and Japan, with the vast majority from out of state or abroad.

A panel discussion called "An insatiable appetite for curiosity: A celebration of Outside of the Box" with (left to right): Theresa Ong, Doug Jackson, Dave Allen and Senay Yitbarek. From Twitter SciForThePeople @UMSftP

“The energy, love and commitment (to continue the struggle for a better world) was felt in the room throughout the whole weekend,” expressed Professor Ivette Perfecto, George W. Pack Professor of Ecology, Natural Resources and Environment and Vandermeer’s partner in research and in life, and who Chavez called his “coupled oscillator.” Chavez is currently a professor at the Organization for Tropical Studies in Costa Rica.

“John’s keynote talk was quintessential Vandermeer: filled with humor, history, dialectics, weird graphs and, of course, ant stories,” Perfecto said.

She called the "Out-of-the-Box" (OOTB) session on Friday evening led by two current graduate students, Theresa Ong and Senay Yitbarek, and two former students, Drs. David Allen and Doug Jackson, “fantastic.” The event was exemplar of the engaging community Vandermeer has created that has broadened students’ knowledge. OOTB is a discussion group that has met at Silvio's (Organic Ristorante and Pizzeria) nearly every Wednesday for the past seven years. At this session dedicated to Vandermeer, they discussed infinity and infinitesimals. The discussion ended as all sessions do, with the question, "What will (Noam) Chomsky say about this?"

“Then, the most amazing thing happened,” Perfecto recalled. The entire room, including restaurant patrons who weren’t part of the original discussion, continued the conversation on infinity and infinitesimals. “It was pure beauty.”

Here’s just a small sampling of some of Vandermeer’s former doctoral students, who were in attendance, to provide an idea of the breadth of areas that his students are engaged in:

Peter Rosset, technical advisor for La Via Campesina International (a wordwide social movement of peasants); Margaret Reeves, senior scientist working on farmworker's issues at the Pesticide Action Network North America; Katherine Yih, assistant professor and epidemiologist working with vaccine safety in the Department of Population Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Bruce Ferguson, professor of agroecology ECOSUR-Chiapas, Mexico; Edmund Russell, professor of history, Department of History, Boston University; William Durham, Bing Professor in Human Biology, Emeritus, Anthropology, Stanford University; M. Jahi Chappell, senior research fellow, Center for Agroecology, Water and Resilience; Shalene Jha, assistant professor, College of Natural Sciences, Department of Integrative Biology, University of Texas; Stacy Philpott, associate professor, Alfred and Ruth Heller Chair in Agroecology, Department of Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz.

On the just launched VandyFest website, there are dozens of wonderful tributes written to Vandermeer, delightful letters from Vandermeer to attendees and the organizing committee, a call for papers and tributes for a special publication on the symposium, information on a scholarship fund (Science for the People) that is being created, a list of names and emails that make up the Vandermeer network (you can add yourself to the list), videos of the event talks and photos.

It seems fitting to end the article with trademark words of humility directly from Vandermeer, excerpted from an email he wrote to attendants of his festschrift:

“Thank you all for your incredible outpouring of praise for me… that outpouring was actually quite unexpected. I think I mostly expected a somewhat more muted and academic set of discourses… But you all said so much more, and so much more than I expected. I was, and am, overwhelmed. Yet, again at the risk of false humility (which most of you know I am not capable of anyway), thinking purely analytically about it, there truly are way more of YOU affecting ME than ME affecting YOU.”

In the end, the festschrift to honor the long, illustrious and ongoing career of Vandermeer did so, fittingly and in great measure. As it turned out, the event paid as much (Vandermeer says more) tribute to his corps of students and the incredible work they’re engaged in around the world. Believe it or not, after some basic math, we figured out that Vandermeer has taught over 10,000 undergraduate students in Biology 101 (Food, Energy, and Environmental Justice) over the past 40 years. Including his current graduate students, he has mentored 40 Ph.D. students, not counting many others whose committees on which he has served. Viva Vandermeer! Te amamos (we love you). 

Funding and support for the symposium were provided by the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the School of Natural Resources and Environment, the Program in the Environment, the Department of American Culture/ Latino/a Studies, the Center for the Study of Complex Systems, the Institute for the Humanities, the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program, the Museum of Natural History, the Science Technology and Society Program, and the Department of Cellular, Molecular, and Developmental Biology.

Science with Passion and a Moral Compass: A Symposium in Honor of John Vandermeer website

The Vandermeer crew with fists raised in solidarity.