Category Archives: Director Message

Director Message

Shifting Priorities

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

All of us occasionally get consumed by the work we do and in doing so it’s easy to lose perspective on the bigger picture.  Nothing shakes us out of our mental myopia like a large hurricane threatening on the horizon and Ian certainly was a wake up call on multiple levels. I am happy to report that all our FWRI staff are safe, and our facilities are in good shape statewide.  However, several members of our team based in Port Charlotte, and some in the St. Petersburg, Ft. Myers and Naples area sustained damage to their homes ranging from yard debris to total loss.  A few will be starting essentially from scratch.

One measure of a high-functioning team is how well it does when faced with adversity.  Years of building trust, respect for all team members and promoting open communication pay off in these times and I am extremely proud of how our team came together in response to Ian.  While the work continues, dozens of supervisors worked together to ensure that all staff were accounted for using a combination of MyFWC alert, backup phone trees and in person welfare checks carried out by FWC law enforcement.  We learned that connectivity challenges impacted communication significantly, and we need to be diligent about maintaining accurate information in backup phone trees and emergency contacts just in case.  Laura Tennant maintains the FWRI phone trees here and emergency contacts are stored in people first under your “Personal Info” tab.  Please take a few minutes to check each of these and make sure they are up to date.  Let Laura know of changes to the phone tree.

You probably know from news reports that FWC was a prominent first responder to areas impacted by Ian.  Colonel Young and his team have been deployed since before the storm hit and will likely continue to be present in the area for some time.  While the difficult search and rescue work has now concluded and some recovery elements (notably restoration of power and temporary bridge access to barrier islands) have been implemented faster than many expected there is much work to be done.  Thousands of displaced, damaged and perhaps derelict vessels both on water and on land need to be dealt with.  While our FWC LE Office of Boating and Waterways typically manages these efforts, the magnitude of vessel related issues associated with Ian will require a multi-agency approach.

I also want to emphasize how grateful I am for the support we have gotten so far.  Our Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida through the FWC employee assistance fund has provided badly needed cash assistance to many impacted staff, including OPS employees with damage to homes that will impact their ability to put in their normal work hours.  The Foundation even leased a few RVs to accommodate staff with severe home damage and no alternative place to stay.  FWRI an FWC leadership will continue to work to account for staff who have storm related needs, and I have no doubt that additional assistance from our Foundation will be coming.  If you or someone you know is interested in contributing to this fund, you can do so here.  FWC maintains a hurricane resources page with useful information for staff here.

Lastly, I want to thank all of you for your offers of assistance to help those impacted by the storm.  I know that we have found ways for many to assist, and more opportunities will be coming.  I was particularly touched by a note from a recently retired employee, Beth Harman, who rode out the storm in a mobile home/RV park in Arcadia. She and her husband spent 10 hours huddled in a small laundry room while vehicles and cars flooded all around them. After a week of no power and limited road access to her location and despite her concerning predicament, Beth phoned our Charlotte Harbor lab to check on the team.  Not only did our team indicate that were fine, but they also wanted to know if they could do anything to help Beth.  When Sara Rios and Emily Clancey learned that they desperately needed ice and water they loaded up an FWC vehicle and make their way to Arcadia.  Not only were Beth and her husband grateful, but many members of the community brought coolers and the ice and water was quickly snapped up. 

I know that Sara and Emily’s caring example is not unique among our team, but it is still worth noting and very much something to be proud of.  Thank you for all your efforts for making our team so resilient and outstanding.  Stay tuned for more opportunities to assist and please do not hesitate to let me know if you or a coworker need assistance with anything.

Director Message

Acknowledging a Truly Impactful Career

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

In just a few weeks, FWC Chief of Staff Jennifer Fitzwater retires which is hard to believe for a few reasons.  First, she is just a few months older than I am and I can’t understand why anyone would be retiring at such a young age.  Second, those of us who have worked closely with Jennifer for years simply cannot imagine an FWC without her intelligent, compassionate, and collaborative presence that has done more to set the tone for our agency than most folks know.

I first met Jennifer nearly 20 years ago when she was legislative affairs director with DEP.  We would sometimes find ourselves in the same committee meetings where legislators might have questions about issues that overlapped our two agencies, such as water quality and red tide.  I remember watching her at the podium and thinking – “she didn’t really answer the question, but all of the legislators seemed satisfied with her response”.  Quickly I realized that she had such a strong grasp of the context and background of the issue (and often a good understanding of the perspective of the legislator asking the question) that her short, concise responses were so much better than any long-winded technical answer I might give to the same question.  I also realized that it was time to start learning from her, something I continue to do till this day.

Jennifer is both a lawyer and a wildlife biologist, and there can’t be many of those around.  Her systematic mode of tackling a problem coupled with an understanding of the complexities and variability associated with trying to understand natural systems has been tremendously valuable to the agency.  As chief of staff, she oversees much of the business and administrative functions of FWC and is often the first point of contact within the agency for calls from legislators and the Governor’s office.  Some of these are not your ordinary calls – the response given (often with very little or no time to gather information) can have significant long-term repercussions for FWC programs and whether or not we get the budget support we need.  I have seen Jennifer in action many times in this context, and although most of you will never know the details, rest assured that we have Jennifer to thank for much of the generally robust level of support FWC receives from our legislature, stakeholders, and the Governor’s office.

Jennifer was aways the first person I called when I needed to figure out the nuances of a complex issue, understand how the law applied to something we do, or wanted advice on how FWRI could conduct its mission more effectively.  These calls were not uncommon – so much so that I had a weird thing happen to me one time.  Out of the blue, Siri on my iPhone asked me:  “Is Jennifer Fitzwater your sister”?  Before I could figure out why Apple’s artificial intelligence would come to this conclusion and give some sort of reply, Siri then stated:  “Ok, I will make Jennifer Fitzwater your sister”.   Thereafter, I simply had to ask Siri to call my sister to reach Jennifer.  For me, a child in a family of four boys – I can’t think of anyone better for my virtual sister.

Jennifer also has a deeply compassionate interest in the well-being of FWC staff.  She was at the forefront of working with the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida to establish the FWC employee assistance fund.  This fund has assisted many FWC employees who have been impacted by major life events such as hurricanes, loss of a home due to fire, or loss of a family member.  This capability to help our FWC family members in need continues to grow due to Jennifer’s influence and interest.

I know many of you have not had the pleasure of meeting or working with Jennifer and that she is trying to leave on a low-key note, but her impact on our agency will be meaningful and long-lasting.  So much so, that it seems not enough to say Jennifer worked for FWC – Jennifer helped build FWC into the agency it is today.  I know our new Chief of Staff, Jessica Crawford, has the experience, intelligence, and knowledge of the agency that it takes to excel in the position and build on Jennifer’s legacy.

I now have an upgraded iPhone that does not randomly assign virtual family members to me, and Jennifer has told me I can call her anytime post-retirement, but she may be just humoring me.  Jennifer, you have been a fantastic colleague and friend to me, and many others and you will be truly missed.  Best of luck to you in your travels.

Director Message

Grateful

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

I had to double check to confirm this, but May 2022 will mark my 20th year as director of FMRI/FWRI.  Many would say that is too long for one person to head up an organization, especially one focused on science. If I am counting correctly (and in this I am only moderately confident), this is also my 78th Director’s article for this newsletter.  I ask your indulgence as I reflect on how far we have come these last two decades.

I invite each of you to take some time to contemplate how unique our Institute is as an organization.  The Constitution of the State of Florida states that FWC will be made up of three main units:  management, research, and enforcement.  The inclusion of research as a component of fundamental law defining FWC is underappreciated in my opinion.  The word “science” does not appear in our state constitution and “research” occurs substantively only one other time, in defining the purpose of the state university system.  There is an appealing parallel here:  our success in implementing our mission at FWRI has been greatly strengthened by a positive, collaborative working relationship with academic institutions.  This is not always the case for state fish and wildlife agencies.  The specific mission of FWRI is further defined in state statute, which defines the purpose of the Institute as generating objective scientific information to support natural resource management.  This law, in which research and monitoring activities are independent from rulemaking and policymaking, gives FWC/FWRI a rock-solid foundation and purpose for conducting science in the public interest.

During the 2 years that I spent as director of the former FMRI (2002-2004), much of my time was spent preparing for the ultimate reorganization of the FWC, which was created by constitutional amendment in 1998 with over 72% of the vote.  To assist with the details, I was tasked with pulling together a Research Advance Team who would determine the structural and functional attributes of the new research entity.  Of the 12 members of that team, only five (myself, Luiz Barbieri, John Hunt, Alan Woodward, and Karl Miller) are still active with FWC.  This team spent the better part of two years traveling the state meeting with every group that might ultimately move into the yet-to-be-named research entity.  It was no small feat to identify personnel, budget, equipment, and facilities that would go into this new entity especially when you consider that we would be breaking up organizational groups that had been together for many decades.  I will forever be grateful to this team for helping to work through these difficult, and often contentious discussions. 

One of the last decisions to be made was the form the new research entity would take.  For some time, it was thought that having separate Institutes, each focusing on specific ecosystem types, would be preferred since it would recognize the significant history and body of work accumulated by freshwater, terrestrial and marine researchers.  Ultimately, a perspective was reached based on the premise that the individual groups shared similar histories and a future commitment to generating high quality science that could ultimately build a cohesive single research capability for the nascent FWC. 

But what would this now single entity be called?  In thinking of this, I did what I often do when faced with a complex problem – simplify it as much as possible.  What was the best way to honor the legacy of the former research groups while promoting the expanded role of the new entity?  Simply flip the “M” upside down and create the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI).  In doing this I counted on the fact that these similar acronyms would create a halo of confusion that would persist for a few years allowing us to build a profile for FWRI that honored our expanded mission while building on the legacy established by FMRI.  In retrospect I would argue that is exactly what happened. 

We have come a long way since that letter-flipping leap of faith.  Due to your hard work and commitment (and those that came before you) we have built something special in the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and I continue to count myself extremely lucky to be associated with such a talented group of people.  Success often breeds success, and I am happy to say that has been our experience as an organization.  When FWRI was first formed in 2004, we had an annual budget of $43 million.  For this coming fiscal year (22/23) it is likely that our budget will exceed $117 million. Collectively, we have weathered many ups and downs and responded to innumerable unpredictable events to build a uniquely valuable scientific institution within state government.

For that, and for all of you, I remain extremely grateful.

Director Message

Perspectives From 40 Years at FWRI

By John Hunt, Leader of the South Florida Research Lab

Gil offered me the opportunity to step in for him and write the Director’s Message. At first, I was hesitant because these are big shoes to fill. After all, Gil has a way with words that can take a topic of relevance to us, find a new perspective, and be inspirational. I have often been inspired by his writings and have returned to past messages many times. I have struggled with what to say in this space for a while. After all, what can an old man say that is more than just musings and memories. I finally realized the most useful statement I can make is to restate that the FWRI mission is important – very important. And, that each and every one of us is important, not just to each other, but to our agency, other agencies and organizations, and to every single person that lives in or comes to Florida to visit.  I admit I chuckle at myself for landing on this topic, but I think it is just – important – to say it. All too often, we forget why we are here and forget that in the day-to-day we as individuals and as an organization make a difference. 

We are in the business of producing knowledge and when we effectively put that knowledge to work, we make a positive difference in the conservation of Florida’s natural resources and in the continued ability of all our stakeholders to experience Florida. We work in and influence conservation outcomes in every ecosystem and habitat in Florida, from Florida’s highest point in Walton County to the deepest reefs west of the Dry Tortugas.  Sometimes it takes many years for these outcomes to be realized, so please never give up. The recent actions taken by the FWC to establish a closure at the multi-species fish spawning aggregation site near Western Dry Rocks in the Keys typifies every aspect of how we at FWRI, if patient and persistent, influence conservation actions. The management action occurred in 2021, but the seeds were planted many years before.  Nearly 20 years of science led to this decision. Some was directed at spawning aggregations and some became important in the most unexpected way. It took our administrative staff providing cogent advice to hasten the ability to do our mission. It took the dedication of the field teams to work long days often many miles offshore. It took building knowledge through the commitment of our scientists to publish in journals and it took our editorial staff making the product better. It took developing partnerships with our communications staff to improve our public facing documents. It took a long consistent and committed relationship with our colleagues at DMFM where we collectively tried different ideas over the years.  Just at that moment we thought we would only have limited success; we rediscovered a snapper life history paper by Jim Colvocoresses and Luiz Barbieri. That paper provided the information that was put into the context of Western Dry Rocks; and the knowledge imparted resulted in the best possible conservation action.  I encourage each and every one of you to spend a few minutes reflecting on what you do for FWRI and how your actions contribute to our mission.

Everyone needs a mentor and Bill Lyons was mine. I have no doubt that few of you have ever heard of him, but for those that know him – I have no doubt that your memories of Bill are as striking as mine. I vividly remember my interview with him for a Biological Scientist II position in the Florida Keys, an exotic place in my mind. I arrived at Building C in the fall of 1980 and was interviewed in a small room in the back of the Administration area. The office of Karen Steidinger, who was our leader at the time, was right around the corner.  Now, I was wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt and shh, don’t tell the staff at SFRL, flip flops. Don’t ask what I was thinking, and I do not necessarily recommend it, but I think that was the key to getting that job. I have often wondered if he walked into Karen’s office and said I just interviewed the most unprofessionally dressed applicant ever, but hey, he will fit in down in the Keys. Bill taught me how to be a critical thinker. Without that, I would not have been successful in my career. And of course, the proper use of three words; “while, whereas, and although” were beaten into my brain. All you science writers, check out these words, and when you write “while” think of Bill because you just know he is about to tell you in his own inimitable way that you should have used “whereas” or “although”. Thank you Bill for taking me on, trusting in a very young man to be a lab manager, and for your unwavering support for many years.

Finally, there are many people to thank after 40 years. In this limited space I can only mention a few. First, to my fellow ILT, past and present, thank you. We have all worked hard to develop the FWRI culture, from those that travelled the State during the early FWC years to all you have done in the past couple of years. I shall especially miss our retreats where we have solved the woes of the world. And, I offer my special thanks to all the many people that have served with me in the Florida Keys. You all have made my life better. And to Alejandro, Bill, Bob, and Tom: we have spent more than thirty years together. You have been the bedrock of the lab. I cannot imagine working all this time with anyone but you. And finally, I return to my boss, Gil McRae. Gil, this is not an Eddie Haskell moment. Your support and often wise counsel for me and all of us has made FWRI the best place to work that I can possibly think of. Thank you and thank you to everyone at FWRI!

Director Message

Virtual Hands and Real Communication

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

Technology has a way of changing the way we do things on a fundamental level, especially how we communicate.  Videoconferencing, which became a necessity early on in the pandemic, has now become part of how we do business.  Software advances and ease of use have made tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom everyday tools for many of us.  New standards of communication have followed tied to the way these tools work.  Most of us have come to realize that videoconferencing is best treated as an all or nothing situation.  It simply doesn’t work well to have a number of folks in person and others participating remotely.  This realization has created a sense of equity that is a positive development in my opinion.  If a few participants are remote, then everyone goes remote even if they are just down the hall from each other.  As the only FWC Division Director not in Tallahassee (and often the only remote participant) I have spent untold hours on polycom meetings and have experienced the downsides of that approach firsthand.  Much like increased telework, and substantially because of it, these new videoconferencing solutions are going to be a big part of how we conduct business for the foreseeable future.

These videoconferencing tools also affect the fundamental dynamics of group communication.  Significant cues that can determine the tenor of a discussion, such as the nature of the room, the seating arrangement and even the relative physical size or appearance of those in attendance are absent or lessened on the computer screen.  Common meeting decorum, such as one person speaking at a time, is baked into these tools through a combination of the unmute button and raising virtual hands.  There are positives and negatives here.  The conscious process of raising your virtual hand and then unmuting to speak might discourage input from those who are more tentative or shy about being in the virtual spotlight.  Also, discussions can sometimes seem like a series of unconnected monologues, but a good facilitator can keep the conversation on track.  On the positive side, once someone has the virtual floor, they are much less likely to be interrupted than during in-person meetings.  This fact is not insignificant, because interrupting a speaker is one of the most common unconscious biases in our society.

Several studies have documented that men are much more likely to interrupt women speaking than they are other men.  A 2014 study out of George Washington University found that men were 33% more likely to interrupt women than they interrupt other men.  Our most esteemed institutions are not immune to this bias.  In fact, some of the most definitive data regarding this bias comes from the Supreme Court, where oral discussion is part of the fabric of our democracy.  Since Justice O’Connor’s appointment as the first female Justice in 1981, women justices are much more likely to be interrupted by male justices than the inverse.  A 2017 study found that the justices interrupted most often were all women.  In response to this the Supreme Court has recently adopted new rules governing oral arguments aimed at preventing male justices and attorneys from interrupting female justices when they are speaking.

Of course, this approach to organizing group discussion is not new.  Many cultures have used variations of the “talking stick” in an attempt to communicate more effectively by minimizing unproductive interruptions.  While these tools (real or virtual) can help, they certainly do not ensure productive communication.  Attempts to use talking sticks in groups of congressional representatives resulted in the replacement of the stick with a rubber ball since at times they threw the stick at each other.  In William Goldings 1954 allegorical novel, Lord of the Flies, the talking stick takes the form of a conch.  The chubby young boy, Piggy, who symbolizes intellectualism and rationalism, found the conch when a group of boys were marooned on an island and blew it to gather the groups together.  Subsequently, the conch was used as a talking stick to organize discussion among the boys.  However, in the end when Piggy attempts to assert the privilege of holding the conch to make a point, one of the boys in the group, Roger (a closet sociopath who symbolizes evil), pushes a large rock down a hill destroying the conch and killing Piggy in the process.

There are advantages to these new tools, some of which will help us grow as an organization, but it is up to us to keep in mind the goal is productive and inclusive communication and continually work to make that a foundation of our operations.

Director Message

Fostering a Leadership Culture

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

We all have our own concept of what it means to be a leader.  If you ask people to name a great leader, they will often list political or social figures who led large groups of people pushing for fundamental change.  What we often overlook is that great leaders are all around us and it has very little to do with professional stature or position.  Leadership is more a state of mind than an accounting of the size or influence of the group being lead.  All of us have the capacity to be creative leaders in our work roles at FWC.  While it is not often framed out explicitly, fostering and encouraging the development and recognition of creative leadership attributes at all levels of our organization is fundamental to our success.

There are a few key elements of a leadership culture that merit further discussion.

  • Ownership.  When we take ownership in something, we have a personal stake in ensuring that a problem is dealt with, a task is completed, or a conflict is resolved.  We all have a sense of ownership relative to our individual work responsibilities or projects. But taking ownership in a leadership sense is more than that.  Often during our workday, we are approached with issues or questions for which we do not have an answer or that may not be directly related to our line of work.  The inquiry may come from the public, a coworker, or a colleague from another agency.  It is very easy to dismiss the question with responses like “You are asking the wrong person”, or “that is not my job”.  These types of answers reflect a localized sense of ownership.  Truly successful organizations have taken the sense of ownership at the task or project level and translated it to a larger level in which all staff feel that they are important contributors to the organization’s mission.  In these organizations, “I don’t know but I will find out” or “Let me help you find your answer” replace the responses listed above.
  • Self – awareness.  There are two aspects to this quality that contribute to one’s leadership potential.  First, good leaders have an ability to step outside the constraints of their own perspective and see themselves and their organization from other’s perspective.  I think all of us have periodically re-adjusted our thinking on an issue after re-examining it from someone else’s perspective. It sounds simple, but too often we are unaware of our personal and organizational biases that cloud our perspective on an issue.  Good leaders have a knack for knowing when to step back, drop these biases, and approach an issue or problem from a different standpoint.  They critically evaluate their position or a particular request from the standpoint of others and make sure they buy their own argument.  This step can greatly enhance their success rate and help refine requests that are not well thought out.  Secondly, good leaders are keenly aware of the context within which they and their coworkers operate.  A good leader does not let themselves become uninformed about the structure or workings of the business or agency they work within.  Remaining continually up to date and informed is not extra work for those operating within a culture of leadership, it is part of their day-to-day workload and ingrained in their thinking.  Much like we tend to be isolated in our thinking due to our own biased perspective, organizations often become islands unto themselves because the people that sustain the organization develop biases borne out of a tendency to look inward rather than outward.
  • Optimism. Good leaders set the tone for those around them.  The ability to remain positive and upbeat even in the face of multiple challenges is often the difference between an effective response to the challenge and a knee-jerk reaction which only compounds the problem.  There is a strong connection between optimism and self-confidence.  People with strong leadership skills tend to be more secure and self-confident in their abilities.  This does not mean they are arrogant, rather they are aware of their strengths and limitations and carry with them a self assurance that not only tells them what skills they need to bring to bear to address an issue, but (often more importantly) also when to seek outside help on a problem.

Successful organizations build these leadership qualities at every level – you do not have to run a large group to be a leader among your co-workers.  I know that I often struggle with these competencies myself, but I continually remind myself that the key to successful leadership has little to do with authority bestowed on a position from above and much more to do with an individual’s behavior.  By cultivating leadership behaviors and promoting a “culture of leadership” we can leverage the influence of leaders at all levels to build a stronger, more effective FWC.

Director Message

Keeping Pace

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

“Time don’t fly it bounds and leaps…”  John Prine “Storm Windows” Asylum Records (1980)*

Time is a weird thing.  Most of us view time as one of the few constants in our lives – something that works the same for everyone, everywhere on our planet.  But time can be defined only by progression or change – hands on a clock, the movement of the sun and moon, a car speeding down the road.  If all this change stopped happening – would time still exist?  I have no idea and I hope I never find out.  Whatever time is, we know that it is not necessarily constant.  Einstein’s theory of relativity tells us that time is intertwined with space and can speed up and slow down due to the observer’s speed and changing gravitational fields.  The prevailing theory of the big bang beginning of our universe tells us that time did not exist prior to the big bang and some theoretical physicists theorize that time will move backwards if the universe stops expanding and contracts upon itself.  Of course, we can ignore these technicalities as we live our lives – unless you are waiting for your number to be called at the DMV, where time seems to slow for everyone.  Our relationship with time is complex and is as much a psychological phenomenon as a fundamental property of the universe. Nothing has brought this fact home more than the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early in the pandemic, it was common for conversations to occur that referenced how many weeks or months the specific actions associated with the pandemic (work from home, masks, quarantine, etc.) had been in place often with the caveat – “ it feels like a year”.  Our perception of time feels longer when filled with less routine activities and our activities during the pandemic have been anything but routine.  We have lost many of the temporal landmarks that used to schedule and condition our lives.  Not only work schedules, but recurring social activities or events, visits with family and many other cues we formerly used to keep track of time have all been disrupted.  For many of us the loss of these cues has made it difficult to track which day (or even month) it is which creates anxiety.  Also, our collective anxiety over the duration of the pandemic and its effects can cause our perception of time to be longer than it is. 

If time has a psychological component, is there something we can do to adjust to make pandemic-time more bearable?  It seems there is.  First, many of us have realized during the pandemic that the high degree of programming and scheduling that characterized our lives pre-pandemic may have had counter productive effects and are looking to make changes going forward.  Because many of these time-structured commitments went away with the pandemic, we all had an opportunity to read, stream movies or TV, play games, do puzzles and countless other activities that do not have a definitive start, stop or duration time.  All these activities are psychologically healthy because they sever our mental connection with time and remove the anxiety that comes with the need to do something at a certain time and finish it at a certain time.  Losing track of time almost always has a positive connotation.

Much of our time-based anxiety is our own doing.  While defining time as days (one rotation of the earth), months (completion of the full sequence of lunar phases) and year (a full orbit of the earth around the sun) have some physical basis, it is not an exact science.  While an earth day is about 24 hours on average, most days are more or less long – about 7 seconds shorter in January and 7 seconds longer in July.  The moon orbits the earth once about every 27 days.  It also takes about the same amount of time to rotate once on its axis which is why we never see the “dark side of the moon”.  Our planet takes 365.25 days to make one orbit of the sun, which is why we need a leap year every four years to synch up to reality.  Over very long periods of time, all of these time durations (day, month and year) change slightly.  So even these seemingly rock-solid definitions of day, month and year need to be adjusted to adapt to human perceptions.

With weeks, hours, minutes, and seconds there are no astronomical guideposts.  These are completely human inventions – largely agreed upon ways to split up time, but still arbitrary.  We have a seven-day week because the ancient Babylonians, a very influential market-based culture, could only see seven major bodies in the heavens (sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) in the 6th century BC.  The names for our days of the week come from these seven heavenly bodies.  It was also convenient for them to schedule market days about 4 times a month.  The ancient Egyptians defined a 12-hour daytime, 12-hour nighttime period for a day.  The number 12 held special meaning perhaps because it is the lowest number evenly divisible by the first four non-zero numbers.  Similarly, the Babylonians used a base 60 numbering system (called sexagesimal) for time, measuring angles, and geographic coordinates. Our 60-minute hours and 60 second minutes, 360-degree circle, and latitude/longitude system is based on those decisions made 5000 years ago.  For much of its history the Roman Empire observed an 8-day week, tied to market cycles, and daytime hours were divided by 12  to define an “hour” (the length of which of course changed during the year).  Prior to the advent of railroads in the U.S. (and the necessity to schedule trains) locals kept their own time, which differed from city to city.

It may be that we define time more than it defines us.  What is certainly true is that we can control our perception of time, and its affect on our health and mental well-being.  The pandemic has taught us important lessons about time that are worth taking note of.

*John Prine was one of America’s foremost singer/songwriters who died from complications of COVID-19 in April 2020, age 73

Director Message

Bad Times and Breakthroughs

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

As 2020 recedes in our collective rear-view mirrors at a leaden pace, we start to look ahead to better times and grasp at remnants of normality wherever we can find them.  Our world has been laid heavy with a fog made up of grief, fear, confrontation, anxiety, and uncertainty frequently illuminated by resilience, community, adaptability, and creativity.  Many things will be different post-pandemic, but it remains to be seen whether the innumerable effects of this unprecedented global event trend toward constructive rather than destructive.  One area where this is not in question is the realm of scientific discovery, where multiple historical advances were made over the last year.

The first vaccines to roll out to the public for COVID-19 were mRNA (messenger RNA) vaccines.  You might recall that mRNA is the molecule that transmits information to cells to make specific types of proteins.  Proteins are often called the building blocks of life since they are required for structure, function and regulation of each and every organ, tissue, and cell of the body.  The COVID-19 vaccine contains synthetic mRNA that enters human cells and instructs them to make the “spike protein” characteristic of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.  The human body recognizes this spike protein as an invader and produces antibodies against it; its these antibodies that will recognize and destroy the SARS-Co-2 virus and destroy it before it can cause illness.  There are several fundamental problems that have previously limited the use of mRNA vaccines, the most significant of which were finding a delivery mechanism for mRNA so the body would not see it as an invader and overcoming the inherent instability of the mRNA molecule itself (this is why the vaccines have to kept in ultracold conditions).  Massive government funding allowed drug companies to overcome these challenges, and in a bit of international cooperation that does not get enough attention, Chinese researchers sequenced the SARS-CoV-2 genome in a matter of a few days and published it online on January 5, 2020.  It was this single act of scientific communication that allowed the rapid development of test kits and mRNA-based vaccines for COVID-19.  Within weeks, scientists were able to synthesize the mRNA vaccine and begin testing it on animals.  MRNA COVID-19 vaccines were deemed safe and effective for use in humans within 11 months of the discovery of the virus – far faster than any other vaccine had been developed before.  The mRNA technology, which essentially enlists the power of the human immune system to target diseases via the production of specific proteins, has phenomenal potential for developing vaccines for certain types of cancer and diseases caused by the lack of a specific protein, such as cystic fibrosis.

In a related development involving the building blocks of life, researchers from Google’s DeepMind Artificial Intelligence Network made a huge leap in understanding one of biology’s biggest challenges: How does a protein, made up of a sequence of 20 or less amino acids, take on the 3d structure that determines the effect that protein will have in living organisms?  This is not at all a trivial question, since the shape of proteins is fundamental to how they affect the body.  Human diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as well as chronic wasting disease in wildlife are tied to misshapen proteins in some way. DeepMind’s program, called AlphaFold, outperformed dozens of teams in a biennial protein-structure prediction challenge called CASP, short for Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction.  The year 2020 marks the first time the competition’s benchmarks have been met and the implications for medical science will be profound and long lasting.

Speaking of computing, Google (and apparently some Chinese companies) claimed to have achieved “quantum supremacy” in late 2019 and 2020.  Quantum supremacy refers to the ability of a quantum computer to achieve a task classical computers cannot.  Unlike the bits we are used to in classical computing which can only be in a single state (0 or 1), quantum computers use “qubits” which can be 0’s, 1’s, or both simultaneously.  If two qubits are linked through a quantum effect known as entanglement, they can perform up to four calculations simultaneously.  Note that even Einstein was troubled by quantum entanglement (the ability of separated objects to share a condition or state ) which he dismissed  as “spooky action at a distance.”  But it turns out quantum entanglement is real and quantum computing is on the cusp of changing computer science dramatically.  In its paper, Google claims its quantum computer carried out a specific calculation that is beyond the practical capabilities of classical computers and that the fastest classical supercomputer would have taken 10,000 years to complete the same calculation.  In an interesting parallel with mRNA vaccines, quantum computers can only operate at extremely low temperatures (close to absolute zero or -460 degrees Fahrenheit) to prevent the qubits from interacting with the computer’s environment.

While the pain of 2020 will remain very real for some time, it is comforting to know that even in times of extreme trial, science has a way of breaking through.

Director Message

Leadership

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

As I write this, we are about to undergo an election that will determine our government leaders for (at least) the next few years.  We all have our own concept of what it means to be a leader.  If you ask people to name a great leader, they will often list political or social figures who led large groups of people pushing for fundamental change at a large scale.  What we often overlook is that great leaders are all around us and it has very little to do with professional stature or one’s position in an organization.  Leadership is more a state of mind than a title tied to a certain level of responsibility. This is particularly true in organizations like FWC and FWRI where our mode of operation is typically collaborative, rather than strictly hierarchal.

In organizations like ours, our success depends on every team member developing their capacity to be good leaders.  In this way, we create a culture of leadership by fostering and encouraging the development and recognition of leadership attributes at all levels of our organization. While the work we do varies widely, from a leadership perspective there are some key concepts, attitudes and behaviors that define successful leaders at every level:

  • Ownership.  When we take ownership in something, we have a personal stake in ensuring that a problem is dealt with, a task is completed, or a conflict is resolved.  We all have a sense of ownership relative to our individual work responsibilities or projects but taking ownership in a leadership sense is more than that.  Often during our workday, we are approached with issues or questions for which we do not have an answer or that may not be directly related to our line of work.  The inquiry may come from the public, a coworker, or a colleague from another agency.  It is very easy to dismiss the question with responses like “You are asking the wrong person”, or “that is not my job”.  These types of answers reflect a localized sense of ownership.  Truly successful organizations have taken the sense of ownership at the task or project level and translated it to a larger level in which all staff feel that they are important contributors to the organization’s mission.  In these organizations, “I don’t know but I will find out” or “Let me help you find your answer” replace the responses listed above.  In large organizations, particularly in government service where the profit motive does not apply, it is very easy to stop caring.  True leaders show the ability to fight through these doldrums and maintain their commitment to quality work and a sense of share mission.
  • Self – awareness.  There are two aspects to this quality that contribute to one’s leadership potential – both falling under a set of attributes sometimes referred to as Emotional Intelligence.  First, good leaders have an ability to step outside the constraints of their own thinking and see themselves and their organization from other’s perspective.  Most of us have periodically re-adjusted our thinking on an issue after re-examining it from someone else’s perspective. It sounds simple, but too often we are unaware of our personal and organizational biases that shape our perspective on an issue.  Good leaders have a knack for knowing when to step back, drop these biases, and approach an issue or problem from a different angle.  One way to think about this is to make sure you “buy your own argument” – assume the role of those you are trying to convince on an issue and critique yourself.  This step can greatly enhance your success rate and help refine requests that are not well thought out.  Secondly, good leaders are keenly aware of the context within which they and their coworkers operate.  A leader cannot succeed remaining uninformed about the structure or workings of the business or agency they work within.  Remaining continually up to date and informed is not extra work for those operating within a culture of leadership, it is part of their day-to-day workload and ingrained in their thinking.  Much like we tend to be isolated in our thinking due to our own biased perspective, organizations often become islands unto themselves because the people that sustain the organization develop biases borne out of a tendency to look inward rather than outward.  Don’t wait for information to come to you – seek it out.
  • Optimism. – Good leaders set the tone for those around them.  The ability to remain positive and upbeat even in the face of multiple challenges is often the difference between an effective response and a knee-jerk reaction which only compounds the problem.  There is a strong connection between optimism and self-confidence.  People with strong leadership skills tend to be more secure and self-confident in their abilities.  This does not mean they are arrogant, rather they are aware of their strengths and limitations and carry with them a self-assurance that not only tells them what skills they need to bring to bear to address an issue, but (and much more importantly) also when to seek outside help on a problem.
  • Open communication. In a collaborative organization like ours, the quality of one’s work, and the quality of decision-making, is linked to open communication.  In an unhealthy organization, information is horded and only shared when it is advantageous to do so.  This leads to poor decisions, since quality decisions depend on up to date, accurate information.  A supervisor who constrains who can communicate with whom and on what subjects is unlikely to be successful and fosters resentment within their group.  Simply put  decisions should be made at a level (or by a person) with the best information available to make that decision – and communicating openly helps ensure that this happens.

Successful organizations build these leadership qualities at every level – you do not have to lead a large group to be a leader among your co-workers.  I know that I often struggle with these competencies myself, but I continually remind myself that the key to successful leadership has little to do with authority bestowed on a position from above and much more to do with an individual’s personal commitment and character.  By cultivating leadership behaviors and promoting a culture of leadership we can leverage the influence of leaders at all levels to build a stronger, more effective organization.

Director Message

The Power of One

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

Our world is made up of systems with individual interacting parts.  Ecological, biological, chemical, physical, social and economic systems determine pretty much everything that happens within, around and to us.  Much of the history of science has been concerned with defining fundamental units that make up systems and determining how they interact to produce various outcomes. 

Classical evolutionary theory tells us that the individual is the agent of natural selection.  Those individuals that are best adapted to survive and reproduce pass heritable traits down to their offspring.  But individuals do not evolve biologically during their lifetime.  The population of which they are a part evolves over time due to the differential contributions of individuals with high value inheritable traits.  That is how we get new species and how the tree of life on earth came to be.  Of course, the individuals within a population aren’t aware of these processes, they are simply doing their best to survive and reproduce – but by doing so they are the engines of evolution at the population level.  The changes only become apparent as new species become distinguishable from their ancestors in some way.

When we model fish and wildlife populations, we rarely have information that distinguishes individuals other than basic measures such as age (or more often age class), size, sex and reproductive status.  We know there is individual variation that is important to capture and that some individuals contribute disproportionately to future generations based on their unique individual characteristics.  For many fish species, older and larger females produce not only more eggs but eggs of higher quality.  For many animals physical or behavioral traits such as large size or specific plumage, or the ability to dance well (think sandhill cranes) can be the difference makers.  From an analytical perspective, it is quite simple to model populations at the individual level (individual based models or IBMs) but we rarely have the data to create these types of models.

Similarly, classical economic theory, first synthesized by the Scotsman Adam Smith in the late 18th century, describes a self-regulating system where competition, supply and demand and individual self-interest keep things in check.  This free market perspective (colloquially known as the “invisible hand”) was embraced by our founding fathers and is fundamental to our system of government.  What is often not appreciated is that classical economic theory assumes that individuals act in a way that optimizes economic utility – a measure of value or satisfaction that one gets from a product or service.  In other words, it assumes that people make choices in unbiased, rational ways.  Common sense tells us this is not the case, but this assumption has driven economic theory for more than two centuries.  In the last few decades, economists have realized the profound interactions that occur as psychology and economics work together to determine the choices individuals make.  Very few decisions are truly unbiased, they are affected by messages received from peer groups, advertising or perception of quality or luxury.  Most of us can cite a purchase we made that wasn’t necessarily an item we needed (or maybe even wanted) but it was a “good deal”.  The University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler is a pioneer in linking psychology and economic theory and was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 2017 for his work.

The examples cited above, in which choices at the individual level determine emergent properties of large complex systems such as biological populations or economies, are directly relevant to the social challenges, we face today.  The COVID-19 virus is highly transmissible between individuals and the spread of the disease is driven by human behavior and individual choice.  While we are hopeful that regulatory actions, guidelines relative to large gatherings and the unprecedented effort to develop vaccines pay off in the long run, the infection rate (along with the deaths) will only come down if individuals make the choice to adopt safe practices such as avoiding large groups, regular hand washing and wearing face coverings when social distancing is not possible. 

The United States’ complex history with race relations is not unique among nations of the world, but our relatively young country has progressed and regressed on these issues.  Starting with the 3/5 clause in our constitution, which ultimately allowed white supremacy to maintain a foothold in the south, and moving through the horrors of slavery, the unfulfilled promise of post-Civil War reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and fits and starts associated with the civil rights movement, we are left with the current reality consisting of significant social, educational and economic disparity.  But no one is born with racist beliefs.  These are learned behaviors and perspectives and therefore can be changed if one has the courage to stand up for the greater good.  It is important to note that the concept of race itself has little meaning scientifically.  To draw arbitrary lines along the continuum of existing human genetic diversity makes little sense.   In fact, the genetic diversity among the entire human population on earth (0.1%) is less than that of chimpanzees (1.2%) which means two things:  our ancestral human population was at one time reduced to a very small number and we are all much closer than we realize.

It is easy to become quickly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges with large systematic problems such as COVID-19, a wounded economy, and fractured race relations but these issues are “systems” in the broad sense, and fundamental change can occur as the result of choices made at the individual level.  We each have the power to affect positive change, if we have the courage to do so.