Thoughts by Ebb, January 2014
Some combinations are powerhouses of our field. After completing Honours in marine biology in Townsville and being especially interested in fish feeding ecology, I went flicking lures and drifted away from fish science before some year and a half later obtaining my first job in freshwater fish ecology in the Murray-Darling Basin. There, I drove a desk. I was on a steep learning curve having exclusively been interested in marine fish up until that point. I was familiar with research by marine fish duos such as Choat and Bellwood but knew nothing of the gurus in the freshwater fish world.
I was fortunate to meet a number of Basin big names in that first year, including John Harris, since he was a steering committee member on the project that I had been assigned to. My job involved plenty of literature review and I quickly became aware of papers authored by John Harris and papers authored by Peter Gehrke, as well as papers written in concert by Harris and Gehrke. They were the first dynamic duo that I was aware of in Australian freshwater fish ecology.
I then started reading about freshwater fishes beyond what it seemed was a country known as the Murray-Darling Basin. At the same time I was gravitating back toward an interest in fish feeding ecology. Trophic papers were popping up by Pusey and Kennard, and I realised the emergence of another dynamic duo was well underway.
A decade on, I heard a Kimberley centric presentation by a guy named David Morgan during an Australian Society for Fish Biology (ASFB) conference by the Glenelg seashore. Bailed him up outside whilst he polished off a durry, and went home and read up on a few of his papers. In recent time I’ve watched the emergence of the Morgan and Beatty duo. If you’re an East-coaster you may not be overly aware of their work. But in time you will be.
So these are the three dynamic duos that come to my mind in Australian freshwater fish ecology. There are no women in my examples, which is a shame. A shame because we have got to shed the boys club era. If I have overlooked such an example, I am ashamed. Perhaps it is inevitable that there are not any female dynamic duos that leap to my mind, given the low frequency of women relative to males that have been in our profession historically. I guess Angela Arthington might argue that she was part of a dynamic trio, and anyone that has read Pusey, Kennard and Arthington (2004) the book, might mount such a contention on the spot.
So what are the fundamentals that underpin these great double acts? From an outsider’s perspective it is interesting that Pusey was Kennard’s MSc and PhD supervisor, as was Morgan one of Beatty’s Honours and PhD supervisors. Postgraduate supervision can make or break the professional bond; such is the intensity of the postgraduate experience. Last year in a bar in downtown Okinawa, Pusey told me that Mark (Kennard) was his best mate and that Mark had already surpassed him as a researcher. Pusey and I were sharing a few deserved rums, so it is possible his quote was off the record.
Fast-forward. I rang Mark up the other day, late on a Friday afternoon, and asked him straight out, ‘What has been the secret to the success that is Pusey and Kennard?’ He answered immediately, ‘friendship’. I probed a little further and asked as to any skills they each had that complemented or conflicted, and he said, ‘Brad is a great ideas man – a big picture thinker. And perhaps I bring a quantitative element to the game.’ I was working back late that Friday, in what is a rarity for me these days. A message comes through on my email reading: ‘This is a message from the phone of Mark Kennard’. It says: ‘Oh yeh, and Brad and I both enjoy each others camp cooking.’ In the fisho world, maybe with the exception of the modellers, most of us tip the hat to that one.
Similarly, I know that Dr Morgan speaks highly of Dr Beatty, though this was extracted from the former, carefully in a Dr Phil moment. A touch of the 4.8% ethanol solution helps with him, I’ve found. When asked what makes them click, Dave Morgan spat out, ‘Similar principles in life, and honesty.’ He pauses and then adds, ‘We are both conservation minded, and also how we treat people.’ Clearly, Morgan and Beatty are mates.
I couldn’t help myself, my self-promoted status as fish science journalist had me reaching to see if it could be three from three. I knew Harris had not supervised Peter Gehrke for postgraduate studies, however, I was more than curious to find out if they were friends. They had come together as a powerhouse at New South Wales Fisheries, which culminated in the epic NSW Rivers Survey. I tried to contact Gehrke and got trapped in a holding pattern by one of those virtual secretaries. After several attempts and being kept on hold to the point that virtual secretary’s voice was sounding more familiar to me than my wife’s voice, I cut my losses and made a play for Dr Harris. No harm, Gehrke would have been hard to get a word out of anyway! Then bingo, hooked a Dr Harris first cast. ‘I can’t speak now I am driving, but you can call me back in fifteen,’ he says. Ever reliable JH, as I remember him from those early steering committee days. I give him 25 minutes to be sure and then shoot from the hip.
So what did Dr Harris unveil about their complementarity combination? First let me say, it’s not just what John says that pulls you in. It’s how he says it. Put simply he speaks with two parts calm and one part the underlying joy of a thirteen year old, off down the river with a brand new fishing rod (In fact he was just back from bagging some bream in the Manning). It went pretty much like this:
Me – You didn’t supervise Peter for postgraduate study did you?
JH – No. That’s right. In fact I gave him the job [at NSW Fisheries] and he had just come back from studies in British Columbia. I actually had never met the guy until he started working with us.
Me – Did your skills complement each other and what did you each bring to the table?
JH – We were lucky. Really fortunate and we had a big responsibility. Peter is a good guy, productive, energetic. We had a good team and Peter was imaginative combined with good analytical skills.
Me – Yeh, but what about you, what did you bring to the combination?
JH – I guess I had a background, and I was also enthusiastic. [he paused for a little]. I had a population dynamics background, and that was quiet new in Australia [in freshwater fish ecology] at that time. With the exception of Richard Tilzey’s work from Eucumbene no one else was pushing the population dynamics angle in the Australian freshwater fish arena back then. Peter is a good friend. We were really fortunate.
Bidding John farewell on the phone I felt a little like the hobbit parting ways with Gandalf. Spiritual stuff indeed, having again crossing paths with the soothing Dr Harris.
Where does that leave my thinking on the dynamic duos of our field? Well I’ve spent all this time reading papers and reports, and even trying to write the odd one myself. Yep, I’ve read a fair bit of freshwater fish literature to this point. I should also mention that I have a morbid fascination with methodological studies. Therein, I come across written discussions of better ways to sample fish communities, or analyse survey data or how it is more cost effective to plan for conservation of rivers this way or that way. In browsing all these thousands of ecology papers and reports, it hits me. I’ve never read about the topic of friendship in fish science journals.
Perhaps friendships are just a by-product of scientific endeavour. But maybe, just maybe, on occasion, friendships are actually the optimal scientific method − three out of three speaks to me. And for those of us who aren’t necessarily going to make it to the status of dynamic duo any time soon, surely many of us can be consoled by some really great friendships that have sprouted on the job. Either way, the terrestrial world has its stars: Superman, the Flash, and Wonder Woman. And by convention we have Aquaman. But the submerged world of Australian freshwater fish ecology is not without the occasional Batman and Robin.
Literature that inspires
Gehrke, P. C, & Harris, J. H. (2000). Large-scale patterns in species richness and composition of temperate riverine fish communities. Marine and Freshwater Research 51, 165–182.
Pusey, B. J. & Kennard, M. J. (1996). Species richness and geographic variation in assemblage structure of the freshwater fish fauna of the wet tropics region of northern Queensland. Marine and Freshwater Research, 47, 563–573.
Pusey, B. J., Kennard, M. J., & Arthington,A.H. (2004). ‘Freshwater Fishes of North-eastern Australia.’ (CSIRO Publishing: Melbourne)