Saturday, September 16, 2017

Work-Life Balance or Work-Life Fusion?

We were in a remote area of British Columbia, having driven from our already remote cabin to the very end of an old logging road and then having hiked up a game trail for more than an hour. Cedar and Heather were out of sight a hundred meters or so away in the old growth timber, collecting information on obstacles that animals face while walking along the trail. Aspen and I were standing at a three-way split in the trait, setting up a camera trap to film animals as they selected one branch of the trail over the others. We had just turned on the GoPro for Aspen to walk the trail recording its obstacles, when just behind us we heard a loud WHOOOOSH , like a mix of a bark and a hiss (recorded [listen closely] in the video below). We spun around to see a big grizzly not 5 m behind us …

When I get back from a trip, which is exceedingly frequent these days, people I know outside of work – and sometimes even at work – often ask “Was it work or a holiday?” I always hesitate to answer because, for me the dichotomy is a false one. My personal interests (adventure, exploration, nature, diving, fishing, photography) are so closely relate to the things I do for work that every “work” trip involves some fun and every “holiday” involves some work. This might seem paradoxical to some who emphasize the need for work-life balance but, for me, it is instead a work-life fusion. I have chosen a job that I love – not just for the job itself but because I would do much the same even if I didn’t have the job.

Perhaps the most direct illustration of work-life fusion is research with your family, which I have found exceedingly rewarding – and I hope my family has too. In this post, I want to sketch little vignettes of the story behind research projects with my brother (Part 1), my kids (Part 2), my wife and kids (Part 3), and my wife and friends (Part 4). In doing so, I hope I can supplement the discussion of life-work balance with a recognition that life-work fusion is also rewarding. And, perhaps, along the way, I can inspire others to conduct research with their families.

Part 1. From fishing to fishery science

My brother (Mike) and I grew up with fishing being our primary passion. Much of this passion was concentrated at our cabin on the Kispiox River in northern BC, which my uncle Paul purchased in 1975 and my parents bought into in 1980. We, especially my brother and I, started fishing for coho salmon and then, in 1985 or so we transitioned to steelhead being our primary target. Soon this passion had spread beyond the Kispiox, with both of us choosing the University of Victoria so that we could fish for steelhead year-round.

Our first steelhead season, 1985.
In 1991, Mike started working at perhaps the most famous steelhead camp in the world – the Lower Dean River Lodge. (NOT coincidentally, my father had gone with Bob Stewart and Dick Blewett on their first scouting trip to Dean River 1961, a year before Bob started the lodge.) Soon after starting to work their, Mike was steeped in the lore and mythology of premier steelhead fly fishing.

Mike and I with a spectacular Dean River COHO salmon.
In 1995, I was a graduate student in the lab of Tom Quinn at the School of Fisheries at the University of Washington (UW), and Mike had just finished his undergraduate degree. I arranged for Mike to work for Tom on a variety of projects for which Tom’s students needed help. Being constantly surround by people conducing research on salmonids got Mike to thinking: “Hey, I should do this too” – so he hatched a plan to study the population structure of steelhead in the Dean River. 

Together, we planned a study in which Mike – and all the guides and clients on the Dean River – would collect life history information (size, scales for ageing) and genetic samples (small fin clips), and conduct mark-recapture sampling, of steelhead in the river. Mike wrote to all the Dean River fishermen telling them of his plans and asking for a small financial contribution to purchase equipment and do genetic analyses. To their credit, many of the fishermen chipped in and the study was a go.

Sampling over the summer of 1996 went very well, with 591 fish captured, measured, and tagged. In the fall, Mike brought the genetic samples back to UW and worked with John Wenburg in the lab of Paul Bentzen to analyze them genetically using DNA microsatellites – a cutting-edge technology at the time. The scales were analyzed for age by another researcher at UW, Kate Myers. Then – primarily over a Christmas at home with our parents – Mike and I analyzed the data and wrote the paper. Published in Transactions of the American Fisheries Society in 2002, the study provided the first evidence for population structure within this premier fishery.

While Mike hasn’t conducted additional formal studies, he has since helped me with my research in Alaska, Trinidad, Galapagos, British Columbia, Chile, and Uganda. He has also monitored fish in the creek that flows through the Hendry Vineyard, which he manages.

Part 2. Hendry Vineyard stickleback (excerpts from early post).

In 2009-2010, I completed my sabbatical at the University of California at Davis. In reality, however, much of my time was spent on my family’s vineyard in Napa, California, where I lived for that year. (The vineyard and winery are owned by my uncle, George, and the vineyard manager is my brother, Mike.)

Nearly every day, my kids (Aspen – 7 years old – and Cedar – 4 years old) and I would go for a stroll around the vineyard. A few weeks into our stay, we found ourselves walking along the creek that flows through the property. The kids got all excited about the small fish they could see rushing around in what little water remained in late summer. “Catch the fish Daddy, catch the fish.” Well, it is hard to resist the kids when they want to catch fish, and so we got some small nets and set to it. To my complete surprise, it turned out that the most numerous fish in these tiny pools were threespine stickleback, which I was studying in my own academic research.

A few weeks later, one of our walks took us past the two reservoirs on the property and I happened to look in and notice some small fish swimming around. I looked closer – stickleback again! Now fate just seemed too obvious to ignore – we were literally living between a reservoir and a creek, and my stickleback research focuses on lake and stream populations. Moreover, the two reservoirs had been created in the early 1970s by pumping water from the creek – and this would have been how the stickleback colonized the reservoirs. So not only was it a lake-stream stickleback pair in our backyard but it was also a potential “rapid” evolution scenario – one of my other major research interests. How could we not study it? 

The creek is shown in the white line and the reservoirs in the white circles.
Aspen and Cedar set and retrieved the minnow traps, Cedar “died” the stickleback, I photographed them, and Aspen labeled and preserved them. The next year back home in Montreal, we continued the project on rainy days and in the dead of winter. Aspen set the morphometric landmarks on the computer, Cedar took the fish out of the vials, I measured and dissected the fish (thanks to my Mom donating her dissecting microscope), and Aspen recorded the data in the computer and returned the stickleback to the vials. The next year it was back to the vineyard for a second round of sampling and then came another winter of fish processing.

Aspen checking traps.
Cedar searching (with Jake) for traps.
Our first major finding was the lack of noteworthy divergence between creek and reservoir stickleback. Although this was initially disappointing, it eventually became more exciting – because it represented a dramatic exception to many other lake-stream pairs and to the frequent evidence for rapid evolution in stickleback. Our second major finding was that morphological variation in Hendry Vineyard stickleback – in both reservoirs and in the creek – was extremely high. In fact, consultation with many stickleback biologists suggests that the variation at these sites was higher than that in any other known stickleback population.

 A really cool spin-off outcome from the paper we published in Evolutionary Ecology Research, and the blog post I wrote about it, was that several other researchers subsequently were inspired to conduct research and write papers with their kids. Here is one from Heather Gray and her son documenting some unexpected behavior in a tropical toad. Here is one from Steve Cooke and his kids studying the effects of “playing time” on the recovery of fish caught by hook and line.

Part 3. Walk this way.

In the remote area described at the start of this post, a very heavily used game trail meanders its way for several kilometers along a ridge between the river and a lake. As the trail winds along, it periodically splits into two (or even three) branches before reconnecting again just a few meters to a few hundred meters later. Why? Why should some animals go one way and others go another way? Do bears take one branch and moose the other? Do male moose with cumbersome antlers follow one route and female moose with calves another? Do animals take one branch going north and the other going south? Are some animals left-handed and others right-handed?

Aspen, Cedar, and Heather asking "which path would you take?"
I had often pondered these seemingly inconsequential questions when walking the trait and thought it would be a fun question to answer. So, this year, the whole family decided to find out. We set up 8 Reconyx game cameras to film animals at the various splits in the trail and, next year, we will pull the memory cards and analyze the resulting videos, which we can then relate to data on obstacles along the trails, which brings me back to that grizzly.

Working on a camera trap.
just behind us we heard a loud WHOOOOSH, like a mix of a bark and a sneeze. We spun around to see a big grizzly not 5 m behind us. For just a few seconds, we all just stood there looking at one other and then the bear wheeled around and ran 10 m or so back down the trail. At precisely the moment I realized “damn I forgot the bear spray,” the bear stopped and turned back toward us, sniffing the air and bobbing its head up and down. While I love watching bears unobtrusively, it struck me that this might be a good time to be more obtrusive, so I started to yell “Hey bear.” The bear continued to stare at us for another minute and then walked back the way it had come. “Whew”, I thought, “that was really cool” and then, just a second later, “Whoa, where are Heather and Cedar?” Off we went to find them and soon, all reunited we reminisced about the exciting adventure as we walked back toward the cabin.  

The video below records this entire sequence, with data collection starting seconds after the bear left. "Did it hiss at us?" Aspen asks. (Sadly, we never thought to point the camera at the bear - it happened too fast.)

Part 4. The Heir of Slytherin?

When our friends, Hans and Gemma, were renovating their house, we looked after their snake, which was great fun. When they took their snake back, they gave us another one as a way of saying thanks. The next year, we bought our first ball python. The year after that, we bought our second. These snakes became more and more a part of our menagerie and the first ball python, Nagini, has become a regular feature in the biology classes of both Heather (at Vanier College) and myself (at McGill).

Nagini helping me teach.
Now, a number of years later, we have more than 30 ball pythons and Heather has become obsessed with breeding them. The reason is that they show dramatic color variation and Mendelian predictions for the various morphs are well known, you can use the “genetic wizard” to plan your crosses to generate particularly rare or exciting morphs. Who wouldn’t want to breed an “emoji” ball python – as one breeder succeeded in doing.

Just a few of our snakes.
A couple of years ago, at the joint HenDRY-BARrett (DRY-BAR) Christmas party, we were all looking at the snakes and started talking about how great this system would be for studying the genetics of color. This, then, is our next big family (and friends) research project. Heather has been collecting shed skins from a number of cooperating breeders and we will use genomic methods in an effort discover the genes and causal mutations driving color variation.

The point of all this.

All of these projects are entirely curiosity driven. No funding body has made a “call” for proposals on them, no opinion papers in Science have pointed to a need for them, and none of them has (yet) become a citation classic. Nevertheless, each study has made (or will make) a small contribution to our understanding of the natural world that will aid and guide additional research. (Our steelhead paper has been cited 37 times and our stickleback paper 9 times.) Beyond that, the act of conducting these studies has helped to create a work-life fusion that makes the work more fun for everyone and the holidays more interesting at the same time. Perhaps it isn’t the right strategy for everyone – but it certainly is for us.

And, in closing, Cedar's moose trail obstacle simulation ...

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