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Interview with James Brown, September 23, 2014

Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, University of Georgia
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00:00:22 - Early interests in ecology

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Partial Transcript: So Jim, what activities did you enjoy as a youth that may have led to an interest in ecology, where are you from, and how did you grow up, and that sort of thing?

Segment Synopsis: Brown discusses some of the things that got him interested in ecology at a young age, including the fact that his mother had a masters in zoology from Cornell University. He says that he majored in biology at Cornell, and was involved in a biology club that led him to take a lot of great classes that had been suggested by the other club members.

Keywords: Cornell Ornithological Lab; Doug Futuyma; Patagonia, Arizona; Sally Hoyt; Thompson County; University of Arizona; University of Michigan; evolutionary biology; insect behavioral ecology; pygmy shrew; veterinarians

00:09:38 - Graduate school / Interest in politics

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Partial Transcript: So, this came from one of your former graduate students, this question. In what ways do you think your early choices of taxa and ecosystem affected your development as an ecologist, and the development of your ideas?

Segment Synopsis: Brown talks about his time as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, saying that he studied climate adaptation in neotomas (pack rats) in the Western United States. He discusses how he naturally fell into studying desert animals because he had always been interested in mammals and the southwest. Brown also discusses his involvement in politics, saying that he did not get heavily involved until he was a professor at UCLA, where he was involved in the anti-Vietnam movement and the first ever Earth Day.

Keywords: Berkeley; Doug Futuyma; Mary Jane West-Eberhard; Sputnik; University of Georgia; University of Michigan; funding; mammalian ecology

00:23:52 - Development of discipline of ecology

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Partial Transcript: I'm going to move on to the development of ecology as a discipline.

Segment Synopsis: Brown talks about the two areas of emphasis in the early days of ecology: exchanges of energy and materials and population and community ecology. He talks about how there that was little success in integrating the two for a long time. In his own personal career, he was influenced by Robert MacArthur to study more community ecology and less physiological ecology. Brown also discusses coining the term "macroecology"--a way to study biodiversity on a broad scale.

Keywords: Bob Paine; Brian Maurer; Eugene Odum; Joe Connell; Martin Cody; Robert Whittaker; competition; density dependent; density independent; energy; manipulative experiments; materials; metabolic ecology; nutrients; predation

00:42:16 - Career challenges / Major controversies

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Partial Transcript: So, on a slightly different note, what have been the major challenges of your career?

Segment Synopsis: Brown talks about some of his career challenges, most of which involved balancing his work with his personal life. He also discusses the controversiality of his work in macroecology, saying that he expected some backlash because his mentor Robert MacArthur had received it. He also recalls being at odds with Dan Simberloff, a colleague in the field, who thought that randomness was more important that competition in a community.

Keywords: Andrew Allen; Brian Enquist; Brian Maurer; Dan Savage; George Stevens; Robert Whittaker; biological scaling; metabolic ecology; null hypothesis

00:55:29 - Effects of work on field at large

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Partial Transcript: So going along with that, what effects has your work had on the field at large?

Segment Synopsis: Brown says that a lot of his work is still "wait and see", meaning that future generations will still be judging his work. He also talks about how he has gotten a lot of help from graduate students and other collaborators that have made his research possible.

Keywords: Brian Maurer; Jeffery West; Rick Charnoff; University of Utah; body size; coexistence; interaction; macroecology; metabolic ecology; non-random assembly; rescue effect; rodents; south west deserts

01:06:40 - Career accomplishments

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Partial Transcript: Well with that said, what are you most proud of personally in your career?

Segment Synopsis: Brown talks about the two things he is most proud of: his pioneering research, and working with graduate students. He also discusses his belief that it is important to promote diversity in ecology, and says that he has trained many female ecologists.

Keywords: Chile; Germany; Mexico; The Nature Conservancy; UCLA; non-governmental organizations

01:14:55 - Reflections on career

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Partial Transcript: Let's see, well let's just see what you say, if you could repeat your career is there anything you would do differently?

Segment Synopsis: Brown talks about the things that he would do differently if he could go back, saying that he could have been kinder and has realized now that people were intimidated by him. However, he says that he tries not to look back, and mostly has no complaints.

Keywords: Berkeley; University of Michigan; mentorship; peer reviews

01:20:17 - Plans for future studies

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Partial Transcript: What are your plans for your future studies?

Segment Synopsis: Brown discusses his plans for the future, saying that he is currently on the Editorial Board of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and is also doing some collaborative work in metabolic ecology and some other national and international collaborations. He also talks about the Human Macroecology Working Group at the University of New Mexico, saying that they study material resource use and depletion and have published five papers so far.

Keywords: Jeff West; John Grady; John Schramski; Scaling; University of Georgia; University of Reading; energetic ecology; google chats

01:28:16 - Informatics movement / Lack of theme in ecology

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Partial Transcript: Another question from a former student of yours, what do you see as the pluses and minuses of the current informatics mania in ecology?

Segment Synopsis: Brown discusses how he believes that informatics as applied to ecology is is a good thing overall but that he is concerned about a decline in natural history. He also comments on what he perceives as a lack of a theoretical framework for evaluating ecology as a whole. He believes that if there was a better ecological theory, it would be easier for society and economists to understand the importance of things like population regulation.

Keywords: Alaska; Brian Maurer; ESA; Malthusian growth model; PNAS; demography; developed countries; ebola; economics; energy; evolutionary biology; fossil fuel; genetics; macroecology; metabolic ecology; metals; overpopulation; reindeer; sociology; sustainable biosphere; underdeveloped countries

01:41:36 - Training graduate students / Climate change

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Partial Transcript: Alright, I'm going to shift gears a little bit. How do you think that graduate students should be trained, and what do you think that budding ecologists should know?

Segment Synopsis: Brown talks about his philosophy for teaching graduate students, saying that everyone should have a foundation in the basics but that each person should receive training based on their individual strengths. He also discusses the impact of climate change on science as a whole.

Keywords: IPCC; Robert MacArthur; academic ecology; chemistry; flow of energy and materials; interactions; physics; population growth; post-docs; research expenditure

01:51:08 - Involvement in the ESA

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Partial Transcript: So the last thing we are going to touch on is the development of ESA as a professional organization.

Segment Synopsis: Brown talks about his presidency of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), and says that the main issue that was going on at that time was finding a new director of the Washington Office. He also discusses the committees that he served on for the ESA, focusing on the committee that formed the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), which he believes was most important. Brown also talks about The Nature Conservancy, an organization which developed out of an ESA committee.

Keywords: Jane Lubchenco; Jim MacMahon; Katherine McCarter; Mark Tercek; NSF; New Mexico; University of Georiga; informatics