Judie Bronstein in 1981

Judie Bronstein (Ph.D., ‘86) is perhaps the world’s expert on mutualisms. In fact, she wrote the book “Mutualism” in 2016. Judie is currently an University Distinguished Professor at the University of Arizona. She has won numerous teaching and service awards and is a Fellow of the Ecological Society of America.

Questions were written and asked by current EEB graduate students, Rosemary Glos, Carolyn Graham, Abrianna Soule, two Michigan State University students, Sylvie Martin-Eberhardt and Bruce Martin, and one EEB postdoc, Ash Zemenick in coordination with Marjorie Weber, assistant professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Just to set the stage for the context in the newsletter readers: when were you a graduate student at Michigan? Who was your advisor? What building were you in? 
Judie: Oh gosh. I was there 1979-1986, which to me feels like yesterday and wasn't. My advisor was Beverly Rathke who passed away a few years ago. Also on my committee was Deborah Goldberg who ultimately became department head of your department, but at the time was a brand new professor. She's now retired in Tucson and we're really close friends, so that's fun. Then two other professors, Herb Wagner, who was a great plant systematist of the age, and then George Estabrook, who was a theoretical ecologist. Now, the joke about my committee, by the way, is that George didn't really have his Phd. He was hired without his Phd. Technically, I don't have a legal Phd because I only had three committee members. There was always this joke hanging over me. If they ever want to get rid of me, they can do that, but it's never really come up. The building was Kraus, In fact, all of biology was in Kraus, except for the museum and the people who had their offices over in the museum. But I spent almost all my time in Kraus.

Grads: We're in the fancy new building!
Judie: Which I've been in once or twice. And it's like, wow, not where I was a graduate student. But you know, I loved Kraus. I would walk into those steps and I would get this odor of old decrepit biology building. And it was just like “science, man”. This is the smell of it happening. I loved that it was falling apart. I loved it. 

What did you do for fun as a graduate student? What were your favorite places to go in Ann Arbor?
Judie: I used to love on Sunday mornings going and getting the New York Times and going into my office at like nine in the morning. All of my whole cohort would be there. We'd all be working, but  not very hard. We'd take breaks and we'd read the newspaper and just hang out and be working at a very low power. But we were a real social unit. I really liked that. We laughed at the faculty and we made fun of the faculty. 
I loved Ann Arbor! Whenever things got too much, I'd go over to the Borders, which was the original Borders bookstore. It was right across from Kraus, that was its original location. I would just go over there and hang out in the bookstore and have fun.  I also played music with George Estabrook, who was on my committee. That was later in grad school. We got a group together of several graduate students and George and we would go over to his house once a week and play Baroque music. 
Zingerman's started when I was a graduate student, so it was just like this hole in the wall that nobody knew about. I spent a lot of time at Zingerman's and Borders, and The Blind Pig. The ArK was in the basement of a church and you would go and basically everybody would sit around on the floor. And then this nationally famous group would be there. I would go. What was involved in ushering is you made the popcorn to serve at the break. I saw every show. A lot of amazing music in the big concert hall on campus.

Photo by Judie Bronstein

Could you tell us a little bit about your dissertation?
Judie: This was a time when there was a huge upheaval in community ecology going on with the advent of statistical techniques that made it obvious that a lot of the weaker conclusions about how communities are structured were deeply flawed. And there was the need for null models. It was a very tense and controversial time. Community ecology was getting ultra quantitative, and that didn't honestly appeal to me very much. I started to think more and more about pairwise interactions. But, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do my dissertation on. At the time the qualifying exams, comprehensives, whatever you call them, were detached from the proposal. I passed my comps, but I didn't yet have a dissertation proposal. I didn't know what I was going to do. I went on the OTS course, so that I didn't have to think about it. One thing led to another, and I ended up finding my dissertation down there. 
I came back to Michigan, spent a year writing a proposal. It went through 14 drafts. I kept giving it to my committee, and finally they said, “Judie, stop it. We don't want to see another draft. Go do something, get out of here.” I went and within like three days, discovered that my whole proposal could not be done because I was sitting in Ann Arbor writing this thing about what I was going to do in Costa Rica, without really having any experience with the field site. I very quickly learned that the whole thing was completely useless. So I had to scramble around and figure out what I was doing down there. That was a nice, fun, stressful time. 
I had gotten really interested in figs and fig wasps, and nobody really knew anything about them. So it was a situation in which kind of anything I found was going to be new. And it's so funny because I was and remain a very, very question driven person. I mean, with me it's always like, data are great, but what's your question? I was trying to find a dissertation in which I could address a big question. I wanted a system that fit my needs, to address the questions I was interested in. I can't even remember what they were, but I know I was doing that. You can't do that. You can't make a system be something it's not going to be. This was why I got myself really tied up in knots. What finally happened is I fell in love with the system. I fell in love with the figs and fig wasps. I realized that I could tweak my questions so that they worked for that system. Since then, when I mentor people, even when they're super question oriented, I'm like, you have to be looking out for systems. And then like this alchemy happens and there's like this melding of the system in the question. That's equally true if you're really system oriented, you still have to find questions. Then I had a fabulous system, the figs. In retrospect, I think it looks like I had a super easy time. It did not feel like I had an easy time, honestly. And I think this is true for most of us. It felt like a series of mistakes, but it all weirdly worked out in the end. 

Student: You were just talking about choosing the system and being driven by questions, and I just wonder if you could talk a little bit more about what exactly that alchemy looks like. Because I'm a very question oriented person, but other students in the lab are more system oriented. Could you talk a little bit more about how those two perspectives can be married? 
Judie: I think if I had stayed in Michigan beating my head against the wall, reading a ton of stuff, I wouldn't have gotten anywhere. I had to get away from reading, which to me it's the hardest thing. Stop reading articles and go somewhere and just look at stuff! Now, in those days you went to Costa Rica, this is pre-Internet, right? There was one phone in Monteverde. I couldn't call my advisor and say, “I can't figure out what I'm doing.” I had to look around me and figure it out. 
What about your graduate training at UM do you try to carry forward in your own training of graduate students?
Judie: Sure, yeah, great question. My advisor had an open door policy. She gave us whatever it was we wanted.  She was our scientific advisor, but if and when we wanted it, she was also a real mentor. And one thing I've learned over the years is your advisor doesn't have to be both your science advisor and your mentor. Some are good at both and others really just want to advise your science and that can be okay as long as you have other people to go to. Beverly did both. I would say that the approach I've adopted is knowing that I'm always there for my grad students if they want to come talk to me about anything. Now they don't necessarily want to, right? Particularly as I've gotten older. When I was a very young faculty member, frankly, a lot of the grad students were the same age as me or older. There was a rapport of being the same generation. Sometimes there was tension: they didn't always like someone their age telling them what to do or evaluating them. But there was a rapport that doesn’t exist now, as I’m much older than them now. Also times have changed. The graduate students do not want to socialize with the faculty now in a way that was common then when we were a little more all integrated. But Beverly’s style was open door. Whatever you need: confidentiality, a shoulder to cry on. I definitely do that. It's appreciated, honestly. 
My committee read things fast. I emulate that. They didn't leave me waiting for three months to get comments. They didn't much like that. I would turn things over overnight and get them back another draft, and they I were like, “I don't want to see it again! Just spend a month and work on it. I have other things in my life to do!” But they were critical in the right way. I think that's a really important thing. They pushed me to go to meetings, they pushed me to give talks. Beverly ran a terrific lab group in which we talked about ideas and we talked about papers. And a lot of people from other labs came and I definitely emulate that. 

Photo by Judie Bronstein

What advice do you have for graduate students / if you could talk to yourself as a graduate student (send a message back in time) what would you say? 
Judie: Well, I'd probably say “lighten up” but you know, that's such an easy thing to say. What else would I say? You know, I think I had this sense that having a life was something that I didn't really have time for. If I could fit it into the cracks, it was okay. But to succeed, I had to be all focus, focus, focus. I think in retrospect I could have been a little less focused and I would have been a happier person. I think there were some things I did right though. I went to all the seminars. I talked to people doing a very broad array of stuff, and I'm really glad I did that. I encourage grad students to get out of their own lab, find out who's doing things in other departments, go to all the talks! Because this is where you find that spark of the alchemy. You have some idea that is floating around in your head and then you hear something in a talk, and bingo!  
What else? I think that I often avoided hard stuff. I avoided putting scary people on my doctoral committee. I avoided taking really hard courses because I didn't want to fail. Because I thought I probably couldn't cope with that. And that was not to my advantage. Because what ended up happening was the tough things like the super tough questions at national meetings and so on, it could have been my committee. If I had had a tougher committee, they would have made me do tougher, more quantitative work. When I got out into the world, I would have been ready to keep learning quantitative approaches, let's say. And I think I would have just done better science, honestly. That one's on me, I think. I mean, nobody made me, but I could have made myself. I was too used to being a straight A student, and the thought of taking something where I might not excel was something I wanted to avoid. 
We wanted to flip it for the last question and ask if there's anything that you want readers to know about your experience at University of Michigan, your career, or your life. 
Judie: A great question. I loved Michigan. I loved it. I'm very, very devoted to it. And if they had ever offered me a job, I would have come right back because I love Ann Arbor and I love the Department. I love the philosophy, particularly under Deborah, but also earlier. The desire to just foster really brilliant science and to help people get the resources they need. I think you guys have been on the forefront in addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion in creative and impactful ways, and hiring spouses and finding solutions to problems that have been festering for a very long time. I always see Michigan out doing something interesting about things. I don't think that's an illusion. I don't know, maybe I'm idealizing. But conversely, maybe you're too close to realize that Michigan has always had a very special role. It is very exceptional.  I really love that. I love seeing your job ads and see what you guys have thought really hard about the next way that ecology and evolution will evolve. When I was an undergrad, one of my professors, and I won't say he was a mentor, but he was a professor, had gotten his PhD at Michigan. When I first started looking at grad schools, he looked at me and said, “if you're any good, you'll go to Michigan”. When I applied to grad schools and got into Michigan, I said, “I'm going to Michigan because maybe I'm good!”  That's cool. There is a legacy of Michigan because it's great. Yeah. You guys are lucky to be there!