Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson

Michelle Harvey agrees with inspiring advice to young science researchers to never forget what initially attracted them to the discipline

May 9, 2013

I am an early- to mid-career researcher, and Letters to a Young Scientist struck a chord with me from the very first page. The journey from amateur enthusiast to professional scientist is an exciting, challenging and often difficult one, and Edward Wilson - a Pulitzer prizewinner and one of the world’s greatest entomologists - is well qualified to guide and advise the new generation. Written as a collection of letters filled with anecdotes and well-considered advice, this book is inspired by the author’s experience of the journey from being a young boy enthused by ants to an eminent scholar. Like many in his field, Wilson’s education began when he was a child fascinated by insects in the garden (my own summers spent excavating ant nests feel somewhat validated). He traces his progression through formal education to the establishment of his own scientific research programme.

Pitched at “young scientists”, this book could profitably be read by teenagers with a nascent interest in the sciences who are considering their formal educational options, by undergraduate or postgraduate students embarking on scientific careers, and by postdoctoral researchers seeking to carve out their own niches. But it serves equally well as a source of empathy and solidarity for researchers - myself included - who have recently navigated the rite of passage that is the establishment of one’s own research programme, finding their feet and setting forth on an independent, new scientific direction, the complications of which are generally unspoken. This collection is far from formulaic in its advice, and indeed, I doubt that any one volume could prescribe a one-size-fits- all set of guidelines on how to become a scientist. But it does offer a measure of awareness, guidance and reassurance that will be of great benefit to aspiring scientists.

Letters to a Young Scientist is filled with useful snippets of information, advice on selecting a field to specialise in, enlisting collaborators, and above all, staying inspired and never losing sight of the original passion that sparked one’s interest in science. Wilson draws on interesting stories from his own work to colourfully illustrate his points. Perceptively, he identifies the ideal scientists as dreamers - coming up with big ideas before formulating ways to tackle them, initially thinking like poets and only later working methodically like bookkeepers. He advises imagining yourself looking back on your successful career many years hence and asking, what did you discover or accomplish? That, after all, is what you must set out to achieve. Interestingly, he asserts from personal experience that the ideal scientists are not geniuses. They are instead bright enough to see what can be done and how to do it, but not so bright that they cannot maintain the interest to see it through. He likewise dispels the myth that all scientists must be brilliant mathematicians, which will leave more than a few young scientists breathing a sigh of relief.

Wilson identifies passion as key, but adds that it must be fostered. He describes many PhDs as “creatively stillborn”, with their thesis the end point of their scientific endeavours. In fact, with the conclusion of one’s thesis comes the real challenge - to set forth and undertake independent research in your own right, rather than under the direction of a doctoral supervisor. This process can be daunting and it has been the making or breaking of many aspiring scientists. To secure that initial funding, publish those works and become an independently recognised authority is challenging, and it requires the guidance and experience of a mentor. This mentor is a person who understands the passion within you, sees the potential, and helps you to navigate the early stages, ensuring that your inner fire is not smothered by politics and administration.

Wilson offers wonderful advice on thinking big while being prepared for the small side issues and projects that come up along the way. Peripheral issues, he suggests, have the potential to transform your research, and these possibilities should be seized - he likens this to scientific gold fever. He asserts that we become most devoted to topics that inspire us early on, during our childhood, and we become driven by different goals and loves he refers to as archetypes: journeys to unexplored lands, searching for some holy grail in our field, the battle of good v evil. And, after 60 years of teaching and research, he declares that his feelings and passions for science remain the same: “I did not let them be smothered by the trivial necessities of life, and I hope that, whatever path you choose, neither will you.”

Appealing and inspiring, rather than authoritative and formulaic, because it focuses on the variable nature of our motivations and origins, this book traces all experience, progress and directions back to raw curiosity. Particularly entertaining are Wilson’s descriptions of his ad hoc experiments, which he refers to as entrepreneurship. These fast, uncontrolled and unrecorded experiments (also called, unpretentiously, “messing around”) have included such endeavours as passing magnets over ants to see if their direction of travel could be altered. Small, curiosity-driven experiments such as these are the reasons that science progresses. Preliminary results from informal experiments provide the ideas that fuel the bigger picture. It is Wilson’s frank admission of the importance and enjoyment of such informal work that shows his true love of science.

In carving one’s niche as a scientist, the challenge is to find a topic that is open enough to require new approaches and research, yet compelling enough to find support. Wilson recommends that young researchers stay away from the glamorous topics already attracting funding and winning prizes, for fear of becoming lost, a small figure among more prominent and lauded peers. Instead, he suggests “marching away from the guns” and choosing an area of promise that interests you, and he repeatedly highlights the expanses still requiring attention. Numerous geographical regions have yet to be explored thoroughly, and our estimates of species diversity in the world indicate that there is much exploring, discovery and taxonomy to be performed. In Wilson’s view, young scientists are urgently required to tackle our deficient knowledge regarding biological diversity. We need them.

Although the final chapter, “Truth and ethics”, is short and sweet, it offers some valuable advice on professional conduct. Handling competition, providing credit for original discoveries, honesty and altruism are all highlighted along the path of the noble pursuit of scientific wisdom, and Wilson also covers conceding errors, abandoning work when appropriate resources and time cannot be given and admitting uncertainty. These are issues of professional conduct that are not generally taught, or even articulated, but are learned behaviours. Wilson’s openness in stating these points outright further serves to make this work a thoroughly honest appraisal of what it takes to be a scientist.

I’ve often pondered on the wisdom I wish to impart to my PhD students as they complete their study and move on. How best can I help them avoid my mistakes, steer them clear of obstacles and, most importantly, direct them towards fruitful and fulfilling scientific discovery? Condensing such experience into concise guidelines is difficult. But Letters to a Young Scientist does so effectively, using Wilson’s voice of experience to guide and inspire, as he implores young scientists never to lose their passion or the inner love for science that fuelled them, and to always remember what drove them to play with ants in the grass as a child.

The author

Eminent biologist, late-blooming novelist, passionate defender of biodiversity and of the humanities, and indisputably the Lord of the Ants (as a PBS documentary put it), Edward O. Wilson completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Alabama and headed north to Harvard University.

It was 1951. Wilson recalls receiving a warm welcome. “I had a rather weak background in most of the sciences, and even a lot of modern biology, but I was a prodigy in one respect. I knew a tremendous amount, by the time I arrived in Cambridge, about natural history, because that’s what I had soaked up continuously since my teens. To my surprise, I was looked on by Harvard as valuable. It was easy to take make-up courses in biology and I even picked up some mathematics courses along the way.

“Harvard is a university that looks for unusual people, and I guess I was unusual in some respects. I was elected to the Society of Fellows, which at that time was a group of two dozen people who were from all fields of learning and had been selected for their creativity, and they were given three years to do anything they wanted to do. It was amazing. I immediately left for the tropics; I did a lot of fieldwork in Cuba, in Central America, and then I went to New Guinea, to Australia, so I was away a good part of the next three years. It was wonderful. I did what I wanted to do, I studied what I wanted to study, I collected more ants and got stung by more species of ants than any person in history, and I came back happily… and pretty quickly I was picked up by Harvard to become an assistant professor.”

This book, he acknowledges, was inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. “The title was inspired by it and certainly the tone that Rilke takes influenced the tone I took, and the decision to write it in the second person. I just sensed that that was somehow the right approach to take to young scientists.”

It is dedicated to his own mentors - “two people nobody ever heard of: Ralph Chermock, who was at the University of Alabama, and William Brown, an assistant curator at the time I was an assistant professor at Harvard. Both of them, on meeting me in callow condition, treated me as an adult, an equal. They kept saying to me, don’t mess around; get busy on an important research project. Learn more about that. Come back to me; I’m interested in finding out what you’re discovering. And by gosh, I would have followed Bill into hell if I knew there were ants there.”

Letters to a Young Scientist collates the advice Wilson most hopes to give those starting out in research. “If I could put it on one word, the key to bringing young people into science and technology and empowering them and making them really want to find out everything they need to know to achieve - that one word would be proprietorship,” he says.

“Right now so much of the teaching of science in secondary schools is done like the US Marine Corps - if you’re going to be a Marine, you’d better learn how to clean and shoot this automatic rifle accurately. That’s really a lot like how we teach science and technology today. Telling students, you’ve got to learn mathematics, for heaven’s sake, you’ve got to get calculus, you’ve got to know a certain amount of biology, here’s what you need to know about chemistry. But this is suffocating.

“The correct way to bring future scientists and technologists into those disciplines - and to reach out to people in other fields that need to know science and technology, and increasingly that’s more and more fields - is to say, ‘You are part of this; welcome, please join us. We want to put you on the road and get you moving toward productive careers as fast as possible, and here’s how you do it. Work with us.’ You address them as you would a young kid who shows talent with a cello - ‘Here is a cello on loan, go with it.’ Equally in science: ‘You’re interested in this? You’re interested in the control of neuronal growth, the origin of life or what the early stages of synthesis might have been, the early environment? That’s a great thing to know and work on - why don’t you get on that right away?’

“I see it almost as the opposite of the standardised testing approach, the ‘no child left behind’ approach. And I think it could become infectious,” Wilson adds.

“One of the principles I work on, and I declaim on in the new book, is the opposite of the military dictum for lost battalions -I say, do not march to the sound of the guns. Keep your mind and your eye on the least populated part of the frontier. I believe that those who show an intense interest and passion for an unpopulated part of the frontier - who show that they want to become real experts on the history and the biology of Madagascar or the Oceanic islands, or who are determined to become the world authority on scorpions - are the kind of people that faculties pick up on and promote, particularly if they produce. I would say that the doors are opening wider. Just move forward and pick an area where you can do something new, fast.”

In 2010, Wilson - who had already won two Pulitzer Prizes for his non-fiction, and who insists that “scientists are not truly creative and committed in their field unless they can make their work crystal clear in relatively simple language” - made his debut as novelist with the publication of Anthill.

“I wanted to try it out,” says Wilson, “and I often wondered how a fiction writer operated mentally and imagined it all. But also I had something else in mind. I wanted to go home. I’d been at Harvard for all these years, but I grew up in an entirely different culture and I had this lingering affection for the South, the very deep South, all the way down to the Gulf Coast in Mobile Alabama.

“I wanted to somehow reconnect and recreate that culture, re-grow those roots, and in a meaningful way. This might sound a little grandiose, but I’d seen how successful Harper Lee, a lady I’ve had the privilege to meet, was in legitimising the civil rights movement, helping to bring it to the attention of the whole country, in creating that timeless classic, To Kill A Mockingbird.

“I wouldn’t expect to be able do that, but what I wanted to do was to identify for my fellow Southerners the great problem they have facing them, which is the management of the land, and the great resources they have in the region’s biological diversity. It is important to preserve the land for the future instead of converting it as fast as possible, which is what happened following our Civil War when people turned to cutting down the great long-leaf pine forests that covered almost 60 per cent of the South, just for money. They eliminated almost all of it and changed the landscape, the biological environment itself.

“I didn’t for a minute expect to have Harper Lee’s success - it’s a once-in-a-generation event - but I hoped at least to carry a message that way. So I had multiple reasons for writing the novel: just for the fun of it and as a creative effort; to re-identify myself and actually even reconstruct that background in my own mind, asserting my roots; and finally to hope to have something of a social message.”

He is still, he says, a Southerner in exile. “It’s difficult not to feel like an exile if you’re from the old South. I left in 1951, and it was still the old South. It was segregated, it was racist, it was all the things people thought in caricature about the southern states. It has changed enormously. I go back as often as I can; I am helping to plan and promote a new national park - we hope it will be at Mobile, with the great delta there turned into a national park. I return to the University of Alabama, too, and I’ve gotten actively involved and I’ve helped set up a fellowship programme in environmental biology and biodiversity studies. Of course when I go there I find the new South, but then I also find a lot of remnants of the qualities of the old South that I loved and that I want to see preserved.

“The past means not just the best social qualities of the old South, but also the deep past, that is, the evolutionary, the biological past of the South. It’s the richest part of the Eastern United States biologically. I know that doesn’t count for much in the consciousness of modern-day Americans, but I want it to count for the future.”

Wilson says his official retirement from Harvard in 1996 was “probably earlier than I could or should, but I wanted to spend all my time in research, travel and writing. I now live outside of Boston in the community of Lexington, where the American Revolution started; where those British soldiers fired on those poor men standing out there waiting in the green and it started the battles to follow - but I digress. I live there because it’s 30 minutes or less to drive into my office. Harvard has allowed me to keep a suite of offices, so I have three offices and an assistant and library and I do a lot of my work at Harvard. I also have the largest ant collection in the world there, built up by three generations of myrmecologists.”

But, he admits, “I haven’t really retired. When I retired from Harvard all it meant was, ‘I hereby officially disengage myself from formal teaching, giving classes, and committee meetings and so on’. But honestly, I never thought of retiring. I still do fieldwork. In fact in 2011 I led a team to the South Pacific to Vanuatu and New Caledonia. We were the first team to explore the ants of Vanuatu - and not just to find out what ants were there, but to add to the bigger picture of fauna and flora spread across that part of the Pacific from one archipelago to the other. We had a glorious time. And I’ve been doing fieldwork in Africa, in Mozambique at the Gorangosa National Park. I may have to slow down now; I’m getting on in years. Right now I’m actively involved with mathematicians - who I hope I didn’t seem to disrespect in the book - working with them on aspects of theory in evolution and particularly social evolution.

“I think of myself - I’ll be 84 in June - realistically, of course, but also as pretty much the way I thought of myself, oh, sixty years ago. That is, my view is that there are so many wonderful things to discover in the world and so many things you can do that it is just very satisfying to live this kind of life. So in spirit, ambition and excitement, I haven’t changed, I don’t think, at all from my early twenties. I just have a little more trouble getting around.”

Karen Shook

Letters to a Young Scientist

By Edward O. Wilson
W.W. Norton, 192pp, £15.99
ISBN 9780871403773
Published 14 May 2013

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