Academic life - Part 1

“Three things were more important to him: the regular improvement of his game; his rich and resuscitative returns to states of mystic calm whenever his psychic vigor flagged; and, during his seventeenth year, his first love.”

From: Trevanian: “Shibumi” (one of my top three favorite books).

I got my Master's degree in Environmental Sciences at the University of Parma (Italy, my beloved hometown) in July 2003; at the time, in Italy Bachelor's and Master's were combined in a single 5-year program. Later, following the Bologna process, the "3 + 2" (Bachelor's + Master's) became the standard also in Italian universities. For my Master's thesis, I developed a model in Visual Basic for Applications to estimate the amount of pollutants emitted by on-road transportation. The model was never used by the local city agency of environmental control that supported my thesis, but I believe it was a decent piece of software.

Following my Master's and a tremendously boring 2-month job as an environmental consultant for a local company*, Prof. De Leo (formerly my teacher in the Ecological Modeling course and then my PhD advisor, who just got back to academia full time after a one-year stint doing research for a regional institution) encouraged me to apply for the PhD program in Theoretical Ecology at the University of Parma.

The selection process included a written exam, basically a discussion of one paper selected by the committee among some one hundred foundational papers in ecology and evolutionary biology, and an oral exam. I had been an exceptional student (I won the Dean award for best student in my cohort for at least 4 out of 5 years if I remember well, maybe all five), but at the time I had zero experience in academic research, I had never been part of a lab, and maybe I had read a couple of peer-reviewed papers. Unlike many future research colleagues, I also had no long-standing, deep interest for the natural world, I did not come from an academic or professional family, and I have no recollection of ever having had the overpowering urge to find out something about the natural world. I mostly liked reading, writing, studying, doing sports, and getting the highest grades in every class. Work options were simply not so interesting and continuing to study was definitely more attractive. I was also playing semi-pro soccer and income was fine. I am confident I could have played professionally, but I was not really interested, as I very much appreciated the life of the mind.

Playing soccer in 2006

Two PhD scholarships for Ecology were offered at the Department of Environmental Sciences in 2004 and following one of the most rigged selection procedures of all time, I arrived third. There was a "beef" I was not aware of within the Department, scholarships were to be assigned to other faculties and their students, but I was too naive at the time to understand what was going on. Luckily, one of the two winners (now a local politician) gave up on his scholarship and in April 2004 I was able to start my (miserably paid, 800 euros a month) research. However, I did not have any potential research in mind for my 2.5-year PhD (they should have been 3 years, but they became 2.5 because due to funding problems the program started only in late April-early May 2004).

My PhD advisor (who has been very supportive throughout my whole academic career and still is a very good friend) suggested a couple of options for my PhD thesis, one about estimating the yield potential of clams in lagoons using species distribution models (a very profitable, largely unregulated industry in north-eastern Italy) and the other about analyzing data on trout populations living in Slovenian streams. Dr. Alain Crivelli, a biologist at Tour du Valat (France) who had been working with my PhD supervisor on the population dynamics of eels, a few years before had started collecting data on endangered populations of marble trout living in Slovenia (you can find details on the Marble Trout Project in my papers). He told my PhD advisor that he was interested in a PhD student doing some Population Viability Analyses to better understand the risk of extinction of those marble trout populations. PVAs were quite en vogue in the 90s and early 2000s, but are largely outdated now as far as I know.

Since I had no strong interest in a particular area of ecological research (i.e., I knew nothing), but I always felt accomplished when solving problems, I am mildly workaholic, and I do not like to say no, I decided to work on both topics. Marble trout soon appeared to be a much more interesting model system, and the papers on species distribution models were not included in my PhD thesis.

Marble trout eating another marble trout. They are very tasty

Since there were just 3 PhD students in my cohort, formal classes were neither required nor offered. Looking back, some classes (statistics, mathematical modeling, writing papers and analyzing literature, field- and theoretical ecology) would have been extremely beneficial for my scientific development and would have encouraged bonding among students and faculties. Soon, I started traveling taking advantage of a 50% increase in salary when abroad (field work in Slovenia, two-month visit to the University of Queensland in Brisbane in 2005, two-month visit to the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, CA), and my research was largely self-directed.

Although I won't go into personal details, the start of my PhD coincided with the end of a relationship (it was clear that the relationship was over when I spent way too much time betting on the 2004 Olympics. However, I won money with Paolo Bettini in cycling and Karam Gaber in wrestling. I did not know about Gaber, but while in Sharm El Sheikh I watched one of his workouts on the local tv and I immediately understood he could not lose. Easy money, one of the most dominant and spectacular wins in the history of Olympic wrestling).

I tried to use standard software for PVAs, but they were clearly not meant to be used for fish. After attending a class on R in 2004 or 2005, I started using R and Matlab (I do not remember why and how I started to use Matlab, but I quickly became reasonably proficient) to estimate vital rates, developing models of population dynamics for marble trout, and developing spatial distribution models for clams. I worked long hours and spent a big fraction of my waking hours at the office (a very small space shared by 4 people, looking back it was a terrible set-up and it was surprising I was able to work),  but I never felt particularly stressed, overall work was enjoyable, I was publishing papers (5 at the end of my 2.5 years), and very proudly hanging their first page on the wall next to my desk. Quite surprisingly, I found pretty easy to publish papers at the time, despite knowing very little (it is relatively much more difficult to publish now despite me knowing much more - my knowledge climbed from 1 to 3, but on a log-10 scale - although my target journals are now way more prestigious).

However, I had very little idea of the "big questions" behind my research, little or no knowledge of the trajectory of the field (and which field? Basic ecology? Population dynamics? Animal conservation? Species distribution? Ecological statistics?), I was barely thinking about my future in academia, and I was living in almost complete scientific isolation, in part due to location as my desk space was not in the main building of the Department of Environmental Sciences. I just liked finding solutions to immediate problems (how can I estimate this vital rate?) and, being by nature very competitive, I loved publishing papers with my name in front. All mistakes for which, I later recognized, I paid a hefty price**.

* I was advising a ham-producing company for their ISO9000 and HACCP certifications. They had blood-dripping sausages in one of the refrigerators and when I looked at them, the owner's son said: "These are not here". Noped out real quick. Pay was meager, too.

** As Andrew Grove wrote in "Only the paranoid survive":  The sad news is, nobody owes you a career. Your career is literally your business. You own it as a sole proprietor. You have one employee: yourself. You are in competition with millions of similar businesses: millions of other employees all over the world. You need to accept ownership of your career, your skills and the timing of your moves. -- Then,  being less scientifically isolated would have allowed me to better understand the big questions in ecology and evolutionary biology...maybe. As I will discuss later, I was not thinking about moving abroad (I enjoyed living in my hometown, I was earning good money playing soccer, I had friends and pets and family) and to get an academic position in Italy two conditions were (and shamefully still are) necessary, the first way more important than the second: 1) being sponsored by a powerful faculty, usually your PhD advisor, and 2) publishing some papers somewhere. I simply did not see any incentives to have a big, international research vision. When I started my PhD,  word on the grapevine said that there would have been a large number of faculties retiring in 2013; after that, it would have been necessary to have a big wave of recruitment of new assistant professors to fill the empty spots. They simply downsized the personnel. Never plan further than one year in the future.