Hasta la proxima, Kevin

As Kevin moves on to snowier pastures, I want to offer a different perspective on his contributions to DSN and the world of science.  In his soul-baring farewell piece, Kevin talks about feeling like a failure because of struggles at grad school and problems with work life and how both of these things negatively affected his relationship with his family.  I want to say that Kevin has been in many senses an outrageous success; it all depends on how you measure things.  I loathe the scientific system we have, which for whatever reason (most of them trite) does its best to reduce a scientist’s contributions to numbers – how many papers? how many first authored?  what impact factor? what’s your H-index?  I loathe it because it does almost nothing to place value on the less tangible contributions that people can make.  To community, to inspiration, to friendship and collegiality. I want to give a couple of anecdotes and then circle back to why I regard Kevin as truly successful. At this point I need to stress that I only have this opportunity to speak from the DSN platform because Kevin and Craig gave it to me, so there’s a measure of professional impact right there.

Bill Font was one of my PhD thesis examiners back in 1998.  Now, Bill works at a small, non-PhD granting school in Louisiana.  Bill does not have a massive NSF funded group overflowing with post-docs and grad students.  Bill publishes, to be sure, but he’s not one of those nauseating uberauthor folks who crank out dozens and dozens of papers every year.  What Bill does have is a legacy of former students who are almost omnipresent in the field of Parasitology.  Bill is a superb teacher and mentor and has been recognised as such by the American Society of Parasitologists, not because of some calculated index score, but because so many people in the society can cite interactions with Bill as being formative to their careers.  Although technically not one of Bill’s students, I count myself among their number because the guidance and feedback he gave me during my dissertation phase has stuck  with me ever since and been a constant source of confidence.  I’m only sorry Kevin didn’t have a Bill on his committee.

A second anecdote: Last week at Science Online I was standing in line to get lunch when a nice young fella sidled up and said “Oh you’re Al Dove, I’ve been wanting to meet you!”.  Flattery will get you anywhere (incidentally so will beer, cheese, smoked ham, and swedish fish, but I digress), so we sat to eat lunch together.  I fully expected him to launch into something about science communication and our efforts at DSN, but no.  Instead, he said something like “your research on parasite ecology determined the direction of my dissertation studies in plant pathology!”.  I was flabbergasted.  Aside from the fact that those studies seem to be receding in my mental rear view mirror without having made that much impact on the field, it was the suggestion that something I did and thought affected someone else’s thinking, someone I’d never even met.  I can honestly say that on a personal level that one comment over lunch is worth more to me than all the citations I have on Web of Science (not that there’s that many of those!).  But how do I measure that? How would I tell a tenure committe? a search committee?  I have no idea, but I’m awfully glad I met the guy because he totally made my day.  (by the way, if you’re reading this, please shoot me an email as I left without getting your contact details!)

Which brings me back to Kevin.  As you go on to the next phase, Kevin, I want you to take these two things with you.  One, that your contributions to hard science were real and enduring.  Among other things, you described species never before seen, and no-one can take those away from you, no matter how much lumping and splitting ensues!  Don’t ever let anyone tell you taxonomy doesn’t count, either; it is the very underpinning of all biology. Two, that your contributions to science go beyond the glib measurements we’ve reduced scientists to these days, not least because of your outstanding efforts at DSN and 95%.  Like Bill, you have a legacy of folks out there who were touched by your writing and ideas, many (perhaps most) of whom you’ve never met and never will, unless you’re lucky enough to stand next to them in a lunchline at a conference somewhere.  But they’re out there, make no mistake; just look at the graph of page views in Craig’s post and know that for a fact, those dots are people, lots and lots of people.  I hope that these two ideas can be a source of confidence for your future successes with the Prison Brewery.  Oh, and make me a nice black IPA.  I love those.

Cheers mate!

One Reply to “Hasta la proxima, Kevin”

  1. Thanks for writing this Alistair. I completely agree, and it’s something that annoys me on a daily basis as an ECR. We’re constantly judged by the ‘impact’ of our research, measured by crappy dissemination metrics (even altmetrics doesn’t come close – sorry folks!), and pay total disregard to the personal, societal, or cultural, you know, actual changes you make. That’s real impact. You can’t measure it, but you know it’s there.

    I don’t know Kevin, but wish him all the best in the future, and hope that he can see the fingerprint he’s left on people! And I hope also that more people talking about this kinda thing will initiate a culture shift in academia whereby we’re judged on the differences we’ve made, not which journal we’ve been published in etc.

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