Monday, November 12, 2012

Four reasons to pursue science

I delivered the following lecture on Saturday, Nov. 10 to competitors at the Siemens science, math, and technology regional competition at the University of Notre Dame. Siemens competitors at high school students but my main points--that love of nature, sense of adventure, a desire to help people, and a n obligation to address grand challenges--apply equally well to undergraduates and young grad students. It's good from time to time to remember why you do what you do...

"You have had a long and exciting day today and a strenuous journey to reach this event. Congratulations to you for your achievements and for all of the accomplishments ahead of you. You truly are among the best minds we have in this country. And you occupy a privileged position, one with great opportunity and responsibility.

I want to close today with a big-picture question, a really big-picture question: WHY? I want to invite you to think about why you are here and how you are going to take your scientific aptitude and experiences and—as football fans say here at Notre Dame—move them down the field. Each of you has pursued extraordinary work, and you will do more excellent work in the future. But I’d like to invite you to think about why the science that you do is important and what motivates you to do it. To be a great scientist, you need brains and creativity, but you also need persistence, drive, and motivation. I’d like to talk about finding these motivating intangibles—pulling them out and giving them a good hard look.

So, my question for you: “WHY?” What is it all for? Why have you worked so hard at school, in the projects that have gotten you here today? I hope that the research that you have pursued was rewarding; I’m sure that it was. But I also know some of the other reasons that students give for studying science, math, and engineering, things like: to gain admission into one of the world’s best universities (like the one that you have visited here today), to get the highest grades in the class, to make your family and friends proud, or just because you’re good at it. Or maybe it’s to get a good job, earn a high salary, or launch some tremendously successful and lucrative company. Or perhaps the reason is the stuff we hear from politicians—that developing science and math leaders will rescue our economy and keep us from slipping in the great international competition of science and math test scores.

Well, I’m here to tell you, as someone who has dedicated her life to the pursuit of science that it’s not about any of those things, or at least it shouldn’t be. All of those things: college admission, pride, financial success, miraculous inventions that save our economy—they are all secondary. They might come to you, but if they do, they come only if you obey some deeper principles, if you pursue science for loftier, more personal and social reasons.

It is a deep and meaningful purpose that gets a scientist like me out of bed day after day after day, over the duration of an entire career. It’s hard for money alone to do that, and after you’ve graduated from college that getting-into-college bit wouldn’t be a good reason any more, and even being the super hero that saves the US economy isn’t enough stir the imagination for a lifetime of scientific work.

So what does? I’m going to describe four deeper reasons that speak to me—maybe some of them speak to you too. Let’s reflect on these for a few moments before we leave here today, before all of you head off to your next big accomplishment.

1) The #1 reason that I am a scientist is a fascination with nature, a fundamental desire in my soul to understand how nature works, so that I can appreciate its beauty, creativity, and value. I am inspired to find ways to foster nature, mimic nature, and protect nature. I fundamentally believe—and know as a scientist—that all human endeavors take place in and depend upon nature, so I want to use it wisely and protect it for the benefit of humanity. There is nature in molecules—in this is hemoglobin, for example. And there is nature in people living real lives outside of the laboratory. The earth, the universe, and all of the things that humans do in that universe are part of nature. Science is the study of nature, of our very being, and the stardust that we are made of. I find this fascination with nature to be a profound notion, one worth getting excited about each morning.

2) Another reason I love being a scientist is for adventure. When I was young, I followed the career of the first woman astronaut, Sally Ride, very closely. Sally was a physics major at Stanford and flew in the space shuttle as a mission specialist in 1983 and 1984, right around the time that I was getting interested in science. I found her efforts to break physical and social barriers and her eagerness to visit the frontier of space highly inspirational. Because of Sally Ride, I flirted for more than a decade with a career in astrophysics, at least until I discovered ecology as a sophomore in college.

In my career now, adventure comes in the form of field research and an opportunity to study beautiful places and creatures. For example, my work takes me to the west coast of North America, to the shores of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and to the beautiful oak savanna and dune ecosystems close to home here in the Midwest. Other ecologists study coral reefs, tropical forests, or the frozen tundra. What amazing places to get to spend time! For others, adventure might come at the bench of a genome sequencer or a nuclear magnetic resonance machine, but a sense of exploration is there regardless. In my opinion, scientists should strive to learn or experience something new every day, harnessing that youthful sense of adventure.

3) A third reason why many scientists, myself included, perform research is to help people. Science is the ultimate humanist endeavor because there are few issues that confront on our modern society that do not have a scientific issue, question, or dilemma at their core. Humans struggle to overcome poverty, disease, and injustice around the world, and science has tremendous potential to alleviate this suffering. For example, colleagues of mine at Notre Dame are studying the evolution of malaria that is resistant to cloroquine, a once-effective treatment for malaria worldwide, in an attempt to increase survival rates in drug resistant areas.

4) But the fourth—and most important motivator for me personally—is participating in a grand challenge, an issue of profound importance to many people and places—something that does not have an easy answer and requires the best and brightest minds to solve.

The grand challenge that occupies my time and attention is global climate change. This same grand challenge occupies thousands of scientists around the world and together—from our diverse perspectives and different disciplines—we are piecing together the implications of climate change and what we might do about it. I take great pride in the privilege to participate in solving one of the largest and most vexing issues facing humanity.

Lest politicians tell you otherwise, the consequences of climate change are all around us, and they are profound. Thanks to steadily increasing emissions of greenhouse gases from human activity and lack of progress to combat those emissions, we now expect warming of 7-11 degrees Fahrenheit, on average, around the globe by the end of this century, with some places experiencing warming upwards of 13 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a world that within 100 years will be as different from today as today is different than the last ice age. A big deal; a big challenge.

Let’s just take two recent examples from close to home:
We know that climate change will influence the severity of storms, and sea level rise will increase the damage caused by storm surge, much like we saw less than two weeks ago with Superstorm Sandy. Droughts in the south and southwest US, predicted by global climate models, also set the state of Texas ablaze in 2011, across the entire state from east to west.

My own research explores how climate change affects our ability to use and conserve biological resources, from endangered species—like this Karner blue butterfly—to pollinators—like bees and wasps—to pests of trees and crops. I do this work because it stimulates my personal desire and professional obligation to make the world a better place by studying and revealing a grand challenge. My students and I have discovered, for example, reasons why species may not be able to track changing climate by moving closer to the poles; we have revealed strategies for ecosystem management that might reduce the vulnerability of some species to climate change; and we have shown where to expect non-linearities and surprises in species’ response to climate warming. These results will help us live better in the world and preserve it for the future. They also send warning signals that climate change must be confronted before it reaches disaster proportions, proportions so large that we cannot adjust to them or keep them from progressing and accelerating.

So, I invite you to consider the reasons why you are here today, why you have made it so far in a prestigious science competition, and the reasons why doing science will propel your forward. I urge you to think about where your personal fulfillment comes from and how to incorporate that in your studies and career.

I have given you four reasons that I have for being a scientist: a love of nature, a sense of adventure, a desire to help people, and the responsibility to address grand challenges. I feel the last of these is critically important, and I urge to spend your time and efforts on scientific issues of social significance. Fortunately, there’s significance in nearly every facet of scientific research, some value or benefit to society. The race to find the Higgs Boson is a grand challenge; reconstructing the structure and function of past life is a grand challenge; global climate change is a grand challenge. Figure out what grand challenge compels you; be able to explain to other people; and focus on that value to drive you forward.

When we all get out of the bed in the morning inspired to do great things, all of the other rewards will simply follow as a consequence. Best wishes to you in your future adventures. Be thankful for the good fortune and great promise that you all embody."

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Is conservation as we know it going to be enough?

Climate change will present new challenges to achieving ecosystem conservation and sound management of natural resources. Thanks to climate change, some species will increase, others will decrease, and the productivity of ecosystems will shift in ways that are difficult to anticipate. (A recent paper about how profound these changes might be, and how unprecedented, can be found here.) When species that we do not like (or are harmful to us and other species) increase, or when species that we use or appreciate decrease, we might want to take action. We might want to counteract those changes if we can. We call this climate change adaptation.

In this post, I discuss whether or not the discipline of conservation biology is up to the challenge of climate change adaptation using the tools that it already has. In other words, can conservation as we know it--the conservation tool kit that we already have--successfully combat the effects of climate change? I'll summarize the argument for both sides, but I think that the "no's" have it, at least for now.

First, we need to define what we mean by "successfully combat." Others may have different opinions, but I think that the best that we could hope for is achieving two things: 1) minimize biodiversity losses, including the extinction of species and the reduction of genetic diversity, and 2) maintain functioning ecosystems that provide benefits for humans, including water purification, recreational opportunities, and productive fisheries and forests. So now let's ask the question again: Is the current state of conservation biology, and the current management that we apply to ecosystems, enough to counteract the effects of climate change and achieve #1 and #2 above?

Yes--it is
We already know what needs to be done to conserve biodiversity and maintain healthy ecosystems. To minimize the negative effects of climate change, we simply need to do these things more and better and over larger geographic areas. Specifically, we need habitats that support populations that are large enough to dip from random disturbances and climate change without going extinct. We also need these habitats to be connected over large geographic areas so that species can move naturally as the climate changes and relocate to keep up with changing climatic conditions. We know that rampant invasive species can directly consume or compete with species that we value and reduce native population sizes. Therefore, we know that we need to control many invasive species.

In the last several decades, we have identified relatively few new techniques for doing (and succeeding) at natural resource conservation. Captive breeding and zoos have become increasingly important, but they are not a substitute for maintaining large amounts of high quality habitat in the wild. In fact, most zoo programs count on the fact that habitats will be sufficiently restored for large-scale reintroductions. We have learned quite a lot about the relationship between people and nature and how to incentivize conservation. In many cases, we even need people and their economic activity to enable and advance conservation (e.g., sustainable timber harvest in a park to justify forest preservation). We also have identified new reasons to do conservation, including the potential to partially counteract greenhouse gas emissions through carbon uptake of forests and other vegetation. But the basic rules remain the same--maintain large, connected places with lots of buffering capacity so that local disturbances, and now climate change, have minimal long-term effects.

No--it is not
While the basic necessities for conservation are quite simple, it's unlikely that we can deploy traditional approaches enough to keep pace with the ecological effects of climate change. Some people think that only parts of conservation biology that truly count as "adaptation" are actions that are *different* than what we were doing before, something beyond business as usual. This implies that most standard conservation practices (e.g., setting aside land, managing invasive species) are not enough because they do not explicitly take steps to counteract climate change. Still, it is possible that our traditional practices could be adjusted according to climate change, such as doing prescribed burning earlier or later in the year as the seasonality of an ecosystem changes. Strategies for controlling an invasive species might also be altered if the invasive benefits from climate change. For example, hand pulling might have kept a species in check in the past but chemical control might become necessary with climate warming.

But even if we made adjustments to the toolbox so to that we use hammers and screwdrivers in ways that we did not use them before. Is that enough, or do we need new approaches all together? Overwhelming scientific data suggest that Earth's ecosystems are already under considerable pressure. Despite the existence of conservation biology, for example, the biodiversity crisis--the growing list of endangered species and increasing number of species that go extinct--continues and may be accelerating. Land is increasingly converted to agriculture, urbanization, or other uses that conflict with conserving large tracts of native habitat. Many of our endangered species already have small populations, probably too small to handle the additional stresses of climate change. And it seems unreasonable that massive new corridors would be established over areas such as the agricultural Midwest or urban, coastal California so that species could use these corridors for migration under climate change. There also are some data to suggest that select invasive species, because they are hardy and disperse more easily than native counterparts, might do better under climate change than they did in the recent past. This could lead to a weedier world, and controlling those invasive species could become harder, more time consuming, and more expensive. Given budget constraints, it also seems unlikely that we can just grow the scale of conservation operations, including land acquisition and the number of personnel needed to monitor and manage species adjusting to climate change. If we are already loosing ground without climate change, how can doing more of the same be sufficient?

If it's not enough, then what?
If conservation as we know it cannot keep up, then what? First, we can argue for the expansion in conservation monitoring and activities that would be necessary for it to try to keep up. We need a great deal of research to figure out how to adjust traditional tools to fit with changing climate, and we need an expanded commitment of resources and land to deal with the worldwide threat of climate change. Second, we will need new ideas that directly address the threat of climate change and overcome problems that are insurmountable with traditional approaches. These could include looking for conservation opportunities in non-traditional places, such as in urban parks and backyards. It could include moving particularly vulnerable or valuable species to new areas (where the risks of doing so are acceptable), and it could involve traditional or high-tech breeding to introduce resistant genes or facilitate evolution to changing climatic conditions. We may even need to change our definition of nature itself so that biodiversity conservation happens in more places than just wilderness and higher degrees of human intervention are tolerated for the benefit of particular species and ecosystems that really need it. These things will eventually create a conservation biology that looks very different than it does today.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Nature’s clock and climate change

March in the Midwest and East US was very warm, usually so. Chicago experienced 8 days over 80 degrees, when there is usually only one day over 80 degrees in April. Unofficial reports suggested that spring flowers and leaf flush come to Chicago 5-6 weeks ahead of normal. April turned cooler but peonies in Indiana and Michigan are still blooming two weeks before Memorial Day. The peony is a patron flower of Memorial Day here in the Midwest. As the climate changes further, we might need to find a new flower for honoring the graves of loved ones on Memorial Day.  

So who is keeping track and making sense of this stuff—these anomalies in climate and the timing of creatures? The answer is the National Phenology Network (NPN), a government-funded organization that is collating and investigating one of the most visible aspects of climate and climate change. “Phenology” means “ecological timing” in the parlance of ecologists. The NPN sits in Tucson, AZ but interfaces with scientists, managers, and the public nationwide. Anyone can submit observations to the NPN to help in their research. You could post an observation about the first arrival of a migratory bird in your neighborhood or the timing of lilac flowering in your yard. Postings are made via their public database at Nature’s Notebook. You can also visualize data that others have contributed to the database at

Several studies have shown that climate change is altering the timing of life (see this paper or this one). Spring has come earlier to many parts of the country and world, leading in some cases to mismatches of species (e.g., see this study). Experiments also show that warming can change the timing of two or more interacting species, changing them in ways that affects their overlap and individual success. Take the endangered species, the Bay checkerspot butterfly, for example. When we warmed the Bay checkerspot and its habitat, we found that warmer conditions accelerate the insect and it’s food plants. But that acceleration happened faster in one host plant species than another, increasing the butterfly’s reliance on the second host species, when and where it is available. This result means that warming affects the butterfly itself but also affects its success by changing the timing of its food.

Recording observations about the timing of life is one of the easiest ways to track the effects of climate change. Such observations are a kind of “biometer” (like “thermometer” but measures how creatures perceive the climate). There are several things that researchers need to learn about phenology to maximize the value of its measurement, however. First, we need to learn if shifts that we see in species’ timing are useful changes that represent adaptive (good) adjustments that species are making, or if those changes are maladaptive adjustments that undermine a species’ or ecosystem’s success. We also need to better understand *why* species are changing at all: What cues are they reacting to? What genes or traits control these responses? And why do some species or populations adjust and others do not? Finally, we need to determine how much of the changes in species and ecosystem timing are due to exposure and how much is due to sensitivity. In other words, are species and populations changing because the climate where they live is shifting rapidly, or are they instead finely tuned to climatic variables?

We can look in the future to the NPN for answers to these and other questions. Please help the NPN by contributing your own observations. (Anybody can do this!) And keep an eye on the NPN as they grow and discover new things about our changing world.

Also, check out efforts related to the NPN at the Chicago Botanic Garden, called Project Budburst.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Scientist profiles at

LiveScience, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation, is running a really interesting series that profiles scientists, what they do and why, and how they got to their position today. You can find all of the ScienceLives entries here. I think that Sally OttoMarla Spivak, Naomi Oreskes are interesting entries--all are women who question the status quo and are great role models for girls. The following is my ScienceLives story (May 2012).

You have probably heard about the great scientific and social dilemma called global warming or climate change. The climate has changed many times in the past, but this time it is changing rapidly because of chemicals that humans are adding to the atmosphere. All creatures on Earth are exposed to the climate and are affected by it, so they will change when the climate changes. Jessica Hellmann, a researcher at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, and ecologists like her are figuring out how and why creatures change when the climate changes, and what can be done to reduce the negative biological effects of climate change. Hellmann was born in central Indiana and raised in the heartland of the auto industry and agriculture. A Bachelor of Science from the University of Michigan in natural resource management launched her long-term interest in blending basic and applied science. Hellmann earned a Ph.D. from Stanford University and held postdoc appointments at Stanford and the University of British Columbia. She now enjoys research and teaching at Notre Dame. Her field studies take place in the wilds of British Columbia and Oregon and in the mixed-used landscapes of the Indiana Dunes and the greater Chicago area.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?
Space camp, my grandpa’s farm, great biology teachers and a dad who was an engineer all inspired me. Put all those things together and you get ecology, genomic biology, and an interest in environmental policy, I guess. Oh — and my mom was an English major who taught me the difference between "good" and "well." As a result, writing and reading are very important to me. Today, I am highly motivated to write and talk about science in an accessible way.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
It sounds cliché, but I remember a high school teacher telling our class that the only reason to do anything was if you really loved it. At the time, the sentiment clicked, and I remember never worrying thereafter if I was doing the right thing or was going to make enough money. I just knew that as long as I was good at what I was doing and I enjoyed it, all would work out in the end.
What was your first scientific experiment as a child?
Figuring out how long a lightning bug could stay alive in a glass mayonnaise jar with holes poked in the metal lid. The answer: Not long.
What is your favorite thing about being a researcher?My graduate students are one of my favorite things about research. My own students might be surprised to hear that, but one of the best things about being a research professor is the opportunity to help young people discover new things and become creative thinkers, strong writers and independent scholars. Grad students are the bedrock of my lab group, and they bring enthusiasm and excitement. I am extremely grateful for every student who wants to work with me. Being a professor is a great privilege and a joy.
What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher?
A researcher must exemplify persistence: Try, try, and try again. Get advice from others. Listen to your harshest critics, but build a thick skin that protects your heart from unfriendly critique. Believe in yourself but be humble. Always strive to do work that betters humanity and the earth.
What are the societal benefits of your research?
Society is facing an enormous challenge in global climate change, perhaps the greatest that we have ever faced. As fast as possible, we must learn how to prevent catastrophic climate change and live with the climate change that we have already caused. I study the ecological effects of climate change and other human-caused environmental changes so that we can know which species and ecosystems are most sensitive and why. My students and I then convert this information into strategies and techniques so that humans can protect nature where it needs it. We have an obligation to preserve life on Earth, and we depend on other species completely.
Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher?
I have benefited from many excellent mentors. My graduate advisor at Stanford, Paul Ehrlich, taught me how to pursue excellent research and communicate those findings to the public. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Stephen Schneider, a leading climate scientist who passed away in 2011. Steve and his science- and life-partner, Terry Root, who also works at Stanford, taught me that all the great problems in science have a social dimension. Without reaching out to people, those problems can’t be solved. Steve and Terry also taught me that science speaks truth to power.
What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most?
I think it would surprise people to hear that principal investigators are like small business owners. That we spend nearly as much time doing accounting, human resource management, and talking with the public as we spend time in the lab or field. There is a lot more that goes in to running a research group than good science skills. We could stand to teach our students more about these other aspects.
If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be?
Samples from our negative 80 degrees Celsius freezer. They are about the only thing that we have that is not replaceable. I remember one time when we shipped some live specimens from the field to the lab via [a commercial delivery service]. They got lost and arrived weeks late — and dead. If I remember correctly, [the company] was willing to pay $100 for not living up to their "next-day guarantee." I thought: "$100! Those bugs were worth millions in blood, sweat and tears!"
What music do you play most often in your lab or car?
I hardly ever listen to music in my car. I’m a dedicated NPR listener and supporter of my local station, WVPE. I listen to music on my iPod though, especially on long runs by myself. The faster the music, the better, but two of my favorite songs are by the Fiery Furnaces.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Winter warming--some like it hot, others not

A study by Caroline Williams and Brent Sinclair of the University of Western Ontario, together with the Hellmann lab, was just published in PLoS One. The paper reports our findings that winter warming negatively affects overwintering butterflies by increasing their metabolism during the months when they are supposed to be resting. Interestingly, we found that some populations of the Propertius duskywing butterfly were better able than others to tune down their metabolism under warmer conditions, partially compensating for the energy drain of warmer conditions.

This paper has several important things to say about the response of species to climate change:
1) Warming during the winter can cause energy drain in insects that reduces their overall fitness and therefore can cause population declines. These effects can occur when a species is not active and combines with climate effects in other parts of the year.
2) Many organisms can partly adjust to climate change by changing physiologically. Figuring out how much they can adjust is a critical to predicting species' responses to climate change.
2) Populations within a single species respond differently to climate change. We should not assume that all parts of a species react to climate change in the same way, yet most of our current models do exactly that. Ecological models of climate change should allow for population differences and include physiological mechanisms such as the effects of temperature on metabolism, survivorship, and reproduction.

These factors matter to human management of biodiversity under climate change--or adaptation of species and ecosystems. It means that we will need to consider population differences when designing management strategies, and we cannot treat a species as if it were the same everywhere across its range. If we were to move species to new locations, for example, we should consider which populations are most appropriate for relocation (or several). Physiological tolerances for climate change also question whether or how much adaptation is needed in the first place. We should not assume that species have no adjustment capacity of their own; instead, we need to measure it.

Click here to see the press release that UWO wrote about our paper.

Click here to see the paper itself.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Visionary of the land to speak at Notre Dame (by Bill Gilroy & Rachel Novick)

Wes Jackson, a visionary and pioneer in sustainable agriculture, will be speaking on campus at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 28, in Jordan 101.
“What is most exciting about Dr. Jackson work is how it benefits both people and nature,” said Jessica Hellmann, Associate Professor of Biology at Notre Dame. “Dr. Jackson’s work reminds us how central agriculture is to sustainability—we have to find ways to feed the world without degrading the land for our kids and grandkids.”
For over 30 years, Jackson has led the Land Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization devoted to Natural Systems Agriculture. The institute’s research is focused on agricultural practices that mimic nature, rather than dominating or ignoring it, and developing new plant breeds that act like wild plant species while providing food like farmed crops. Its work addresses a wide range of challenges facing industrial agriculture, including soil erosion, climate change, and pesticide resistance.
“Wes Jackson has made it his life’s work to take modern agriculture and turn it on its head, to the immense benefit of both human society and the planet,” said Sara Brown in the Office of Sustainability. “Jackson has had a transformative impact on the way we perceive our relationship to plants, soil, and the natural world as a whole.”
Jackson is the author of several books, including New Roots for Agriculture and Becoming Native to This Place, and is widely recognized as a leader in the international movement for a more sustainable agriculture. In 1990, he was named a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment. He received a MacArthur “genius” award in 1992, and in 2000, a Right Livelihood Award—the alternative Nobel Prize presented annually in Sweden.
Jackson earned a bachelor’s degree from Kansas Wesleyan, a master’s degree from the University of Kansas and a doctorate from North Carolina State University. He established and served as chair of one of the country’s first environmental studies programs at California State University, Sacramento, then returned to his native Kansas to found the Land Institute in 1976.
Jackson’s lecture, titled Why Agriculture Must Take the Lead Toward a Sustainable Future, is free and open to the public, and a reception will follow. It is the inaugural installment of theLecturer in Sustainability program, an annual event organized by the Minor in Sustainability.
The lecture is sponsored by Notre Dame’s College of ScienceInstitute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts in the College of Arts and LettersInstitute for Advanced StudiesOffice of SustainabilityCenter for Sustainable Energy and Department of Anthropology, as well as the Center for a Sustainable Future at Indiana University South Bend.
A previous version of this article was published by William G. Gilroy at onMarch 15, 2012
See original article at:

Monday, January 16, 2012

Creating a mission and vision statement for our research group

My lab and I recently participated in an exercise that I think might be worthwhile for most science groups. We—grad students, undergrads, postdocs, and research staff—sat down at a recent retreat and brainstormed about who we were and what we were striving to achieve. We talked about specific things that we do, projects that we are working on, and ways that we collaborate with others to do our work. We talked about *why* we do what we do and why anyone—including us!—should care about that work. And then we tried to sum all of that up into some statements that we felt we could all get behind and be motivated to achieve.

In short, we wrote a mission and a vision statement for our lab. It might seem like a strange thing for a bunch of scientists to do, but we realized that our university has a mission statement—Where/how do we fit into that mission? We realized that all of the stakeholders that we work with have mission statements—Do they overlap with our goals and aspirations? How are we distinctive? We figured the only way to answer these questions was to see if we could come up with a mission and vision for ourselves.  After brainstorming collectively, we worked in small groups to come with some suggested text that I later edited, combined, and finessed.

Here’s what we did and how it went…

First, I collected from several webpages some guidelines and suggestions. Most of the guidance out there is for corporations or non-profit organizations, but it was not hard to adopt it for academic purposes.

From some online research, we learned that a MISSION STATEMENT is a description of the purpose for your organization, primarily as it now is and/or will be within the next few years. A good mission statement should accurately explain why your organization exists and what it hopes to achieve in the near future. It articulates the organization's essential nature, its values, and its work. The statement should resonate with the people working in and for the organization, as well as with the different constituencies that the organization hopes to affect. It must express the organization's purpose in a way that inspires commitment, innovation, and courage.

A Mission statement should:
Be a short paragraph;
Express organization's purpose in a way that inspires support and ongoing commitment;
Motivate those who are connected to the organization in some way;
Be articulated in a way that is convincing and easy to grasp;
Use proactive verbs;
Be free of jargon;
Be short enough so that it can be easily remembered or repeated;
Be understandable to anyone who is outside the organization or field.

The statement should answer three questions:
1. What are the opportunities or needs that we exist to address?
2. What are we doing to achieve these needs?
3. What principles or beliefs guide our work?

[Most of the above text is taken/adapted from Radtke 1998.]

Here’s what we came up with—it’s a work in progress and we will review and revise it every year or so. I’m not sure that it does all of the things that good statement should do (it’s a bit long to memorize), but I think it’s a pretty good start…

The Hellmann Lab MISSION:
Climate and other environmental changes demand society’s attention. The world needs leadership in understanding the biological impacts of global change and potential for solutions to those impacts. We believe that decisions about global change must be informed by scientific understanding and public values. Therefore, we: 1) develop and deploy cutting-edge science to understand the changing natural world, and 2) engage diverse stakeholders in conversation about solutions to environmental change.

A VISION STATEMENT, in contrast, looks at least five years into the future and defines a future state. It is an articulation of a world that the organization and people are working toward, not what is expected to happen now. It should be written in a manner by which people, at all levels, can be held accountable. (Or so says Simon Simek of Start With Why.) We decided to include some kind of statement about our beliefs or goals at the broadest, most successful level, and we tried to make that vision short and punchy. We also tried to make the vision statement distinctive from our mission statement by making it about our aspirations and desired outcomes rather than what we do on a day-to-day basis. For example, Simek says that that Southwest Airline’s vision statement says nothing about flying—so our statement below doesn’t say anything about doing ecology.

The Hellmann Lab VISION:
We envision a world abundant with biodiversity that sustains humanity. To help achieve this, we strive to:
1) Understand ecological responses to climate and other environmental changes;
2) Develop strategies to help people and ecosystems reverse or adapt to these changes;
3) Engage in regular dialog with the public to implement such strategies.

Even more broadly, this also is our vision:
We desire and enable sustainable management of Earth’s ecosystems, for the benefit of all.

Has your group of scientists tried to create a mission and vision statement? If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences! And what do you think of what we created? For that matter, does our vision sound good to you? Come join us!