Q&A with an ecologist: Professor Mick McCarthy

It’s Mick’s turn in Q&A with an ecologist.

I’ve admired Professor Mick McCarthy’s work for quite some time, because of the rigorous quantitative and often novel approach he takes to ecological research and environmental management.

Last year we even got to work together on a couple of things, further testament to combining the powers of social media and science!

We’ll forgive Mick for being a Bombers supporter and I must freely admit I am just a wee bit jealous that he’s recently had a species named after him.

1. What got you in to ecology?

I’ve always liked the natural world. Apparently I used to play at the back door with (and get stung by) wasps that would come into the house after feeding on rotten apples in the garden. Camping at Wyperfeld, and looking for animals and plants there (and bones, I was mad keen on bones as a kid) sticks in my memory. So, after getting over the adolescent wish to be a fighter pilot, I leaned toward something in nature. I did a forest science degree, but decided production forestry was not for me. Mark Burgman, who supervised my fourth year research project, suggested I do a PhD on population viability analysis of helmeted honeyeaters. Before I knew it, I was in ecology.

2. Why are you still in ecology?

I enjoy it. I can’t think of a better job. The research, teaching and engagement (and even some of the admin) is fun, but the real clincher for me is the people I work with; they are excellent.

3. What’s the best mistake you’ve ever made?

Whenever a student chats to me about doing a research project, I always tell them to shop around. They should investigate who in the world, within the realm of what is personally possible, would be the best supervisor to do the research that they want to do. Then they should find out what that person is like as a supervisor, figure out if that person’s supervisory style suits them, and find out the range of outcomes for their students. I made the mistake of not checking out any of these things, so I got incredibly lucky to end up with a great supervisor in Mark Burgman.

4. What’s your favourite organism and ecosystem?

It is hard to go past mountain ash forests. As a forestry student in Victoria, you learn from day one that they are the world’s tallest angiosperm (and possibly had the tallest living tree at one point). I have worked on these forests on and off since, including a major effort with David Lindenmayer when doing a postdoc at the Australian National University.

For an organism, I really like cascade tree frogs, which I encountered when helping Kirsten Parris with some of her PhD fieldwork. The males’ call sounds like “Reeep pip-pip”. If you make the “Reeep” sound yourself, you can get the males to do the “Reeep” part of their call back to you. I imagine they are saying “Back off mate! This is my turf…”. Here I am, bordering on 190 cm tall, eye to eye with a frog smaller than my thumb, and it is telling me to back off… all class. Or all hormones. One of the two.

5. What result has surprised you most in ecology?

I think it is hard to go past some of the complexities that can arise from simple processes. The cyclic dynamics of simple predator-prey models come to mind; only very basic properties in predator-prey relationships are required to generate interesting cycles.

6. What do you see as the next ‘big thing’ in ecology?

If we knew that, we’d all be doing it now! I’m just going to mention a trend that I’d like to see. I think ecology should have a stronger experimental focus. Some of the most highly cited contemporary fields in ecology have very little experimental work — species distribution modelling, for example. Michael Kearney’s work, as it relates to species distribution modelling, is a notable exception. Other exceptions exist in other ecological fields. I saw a really nice experimental test of effects of inbreeding and population size on extinction by Tim Wootton at the Ecological Society of America meeting in 2012, and Chris Clements’ experimental protozoan communities to test extinction estimators is also nice.

I can see lots of opportunities for using experiments to test all sorts of different predictive and correlative models — I’ve even done some myself lately. I can’t really say experimental testing is “the next big thing”; after all, experiments have been part of ecology forever. And I don’t mean to imply that all ecological research should include experiments. But I’d be happy to see experiments used more frequently.

7. What advice would you give to someone starting out in an ecology-based career?

Have fun. Beyond that, identify how your skills and interests can be used to address unique questions, or answer questions in a unique way. In essence, look to fill vacant niches by using a rare combination of traits.

8. If you had 10 minutes with a decision maker what key message would you give them?

Right now, I would discuss with him/her the value of research for universities and society.

Research is clearly important for national innovation. But research also drives the international reputation of universities. Given selection of universities by international students is influenced strongly by reputation (and hence research), and education is one of Australia’s highest export earners (e.g., ahead of tourism and similar to gold), investment in universities is critically important for both sustainable innovation and competitiveness of this major export sector. And these export dollars are a fraction of the value of universities to the national economy via domestic education and innovation.

9. What’s your favourite field food?

Euan, I think you are asking the wrong person. But chocolate; definitely chocolate.

10. What’s the best popular book you’ve read?

To Kill a Mockingbird — empathy for the vulnerable, and courage to do what is right, not just expedient.

11. What’s the most important scientific paper you’ve read?

That’s a tough one! I’m going to take that as “Which paper has influenced your research the most?” Perhaps Bayes (1763)? The paper itself is quite hard work, especially when 18th century print represents many instances of the letter “s” as a character that looks like “f”. So I keep reading “in most cases” as “in most cafes” — let alone trying to read what at first looks like “fuch events”. And Price’s commentary that accompanies Bayes’ essay has some of the longest sentences in the history of humanity. However, the paper has fubfequently influenced many fields, not just my research.

12. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Early during my PhD, I wrote some notes describing simulation results that investigated the influence of demographic stochasticity on extinction risk. Mark Burgman told me to work them into a journal article and submit it. That advice to publish throughout my PhD was less common then, but it really helped my career.

13. What’s your most interesting/funny field story?

Again, Euan, you are asking the wrong person. I’ll have to borrow from some field work that I did with Kirsten Parris again.

It is 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, and we’re in the forest somewhere between Jimna and Kenilworth in southeast Queensland. This is a special part of the world. The biggest town nearby is Kilcoy. My favourite postcard from Kilcoy was an aggregation of five images: the sculpted yowie in Yoiwe Park; the Jimna fire tower (tallest of its type in the Southern Hemisphere at 47 m); sunset at Somerset dam; horse racing at Kilcoy; and the pièce de résistance — boning at the Kilcoy abattoir.

Anyway, we’re a fair way into the forest with the bright lights of Kilcoy an hour away, there’s heavy fog, the car is splattered with blood having just driven through a pile of guts where someone has recently killed a deer, and a guy pulls up driving the other way. We peer at him through the fog. It is atmospheric, to say the least.

“Have ya seen me pig dog, but ay?” he asks. “It went tearin’ off afta a boar this arvo and I never see it again.” No, sorry mate. We hadn’t seen any dogs. In our sleep deprived state, the whole combination of events was completely surreal. We drove on.

A few days later, we tell of our encounter to the forest managers in the barracks we are using at Jimna; the thought of that night still makes us laugh. The forest manager then tells us two things: Firstly, never stop at night for another car in the forest (the reason was anything but funny). And secondly, a pig dog turned up at the school camp just down the road. I hope it didn’t keep the kids too occupied.

14. If you weren’t an ecologist what would you be doing?

Well, I wouldn’t mind being an astrophysicist. I’ve got no idea if I would be good, but I think that would be really interesting.

15. Who will win this year’s AFL grand final?

As an Essendon fan, I’m claiming that you are bullying me to ask such a question, and I refuse to answer. And I’ll add that if Barry Brook doesn’t remove the hawk from his Twitter avatar soon, I’ll be forced to consider unfollowing him. 😉