The trailblazing ecologist and co-founder of the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study sits down for a conversation about his life and career.
From humble beginnings growing up on a small farm in Indiana during the Great Depression, Gene E. Likens went on to build a storied career as one of the most pioneering ecologists of our time.
Along with F. Herbert Bormann, Noye Johnson, and Robert Pierce, Dr. Likens co-founded the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study. He is now president emeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies<—which he also founded—and holds faculty positions at the University of Connecticut, Yale, Cornell, Rutgers, and SUNY Albany.
Dr. Likens credits his success to “serendipity,” which he defines as “keeping your eyes, mind, and ears open, and when something interesting or important comes along you jump on it, grab it, and you run with it.”
The Hubbard Brook Research Foundation’s Clara Chaisson sat down with Dr. Likens in 2020 for a conversation about his life and career; how he transferred the skills he learned raising cattle and playing in the baseball rookie leagues to the scientific enterprise; and how the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study came to be. We released the interview in three parts during February 2021.
Listen to Dr. Likens in his own words by clicking here, or read a transcript of the interview below the play button.
You earned your bachelor’s degree in zoology from Manchester College, and you got both your master’s and your PhD in zoology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During that time, what were the questions that were interesting to you and how did you start to narrow your research interests?
During the time I was at Manchester College, the last two years I was playing baseball, as I was describing. I hadn’t planned to go on to graduate school; I was going to pursue the baseball or become a high school teacher.
I had a professor at Manchester, his name was Emerson Niswander, and he was constantly harassing me to go on to graduate school.
He’d say, “You’ve gotta go on to grad school!”
I’d say, “I don’t wanna go on to grad school.”
“You’ve gotta go on to grad school!”
This went on and on. And he said, “Well, take the graduate record exam [GRE], at least.” So I said ok, mostly just to get him off my back because then I still thought I was going to do baseball.
I drove to South Bend, Indiana, where Notre Dame is, to take the graduate record exam. That was a really awful experience to have to drive there and find where the exam was and then to take the exam. But I did well on the exam, and I applied to three places to go to graduate school. I applied to Indiana University, because one of my professors at Manchester College was from there, so he thought I should do that; I applied to Wisconsin, because a professor thought I should do that; and I applied to Cornell, because another professor thought I should do that.
I got accepted at Indiana University and University of Wisconsin, but I got turned down at Cornell. For no real reason, I just picked Wisconsin.
Going from Manchester College, which is a very small liberal arts school, to a very large university like the University of Wisconsin-Madison was a big cultural shock for me. I didn’t have any idea how things worked. I was very naïve. I remember arriving on campus, I had an appointment to meet with my major professor who had been assigned to me. His name was Arthur Hasler. I met with him, and I said, “I really don’t know what I want to do.”
He was a freshwater ecologist, or limnologist. He said, “Well, you should take my course. It’s called Conservation of Aquatic Resources. And you should take my journal club, and we’ll just see how things go from there.”
I thought, ok. I didn’t even know what he was talking about, really. So I walked out and I happened to see another graduate student that I recognized, and I said, “Professor Hasler just said I should take a journal club. What is a journal club?” I didn’t know. He said, “Oh, that’s where you read a paper and then you lead the discussion for the other graduate students.” I thought, well, ok, I can probably do that.
Hasler was a very kind man, and he didn’t assign me the task of doing one of the early discussions. He put me about middle in the semester. When it was my turn, I was frightened; I’d never done anything like that before. I didn’t know a lot of the people who were in the seminar class.
So I started, mentioning the topic I was talking about, and I said, “And the scientists have found that the data—”
That’s all I had said, and Hasler, who was sitting right in the front row, stopped me and he said, “No. It’s dah-ta.” An older graduate student who had been there several years spoke up and said, “No, doc. It’s not dah-ta, it’s day-ta,” agreeing with me. They proceeded to argue for probably ten minutes as I was standing up in front! Well, it allowed me to get my composure back and I figured, ok, if this is the way it’s gonna work, I can deal with this. And I went on and dealt with my topic. But little things like that in my career affected me.
Another one was, I was taking Hasler’s course in Conservation of Aquatic Resources, and I was sitting in the back—which is where I normally would sit, because I was shy and naïve—and he gave a talk about research he was doing. This was his lecture on fish, mostly in lakes in northern Wisconsin. I’d always liked to fish so I thought, wow, this is pretty “neat,” that was the word we used then, not “cool.”
After everybody cleared out of the class at the end, I went up front and I said, “Dr. Hasler, I really enjoyed your lecture today.” I said, “Can you really get paid for doing that kind of work?” He laughed at me, and said, “Well, yes you can,” and said, “I have a graduate student who’s going to northern Wisconsin this coming weekend. If you’d like to ride along and see what we actually are doing there, you’d be welcome.” I said, “Sure, I’d love to.” I did, and I got hooked.
That’s how I got focused on aquatic ecology, or limnology. It wasn’t a grand design that I had from high school, or undergraduate, or anywhere. It was just something that happened. I call that serendipity: keeping your eyes, mind, ears, open, and when something interesting or important comes along you jump on it, grab it, and you run with it. And my whole life has been dominated by serendipity.
After graduating with your PhD, you began teaching at Dartmouth.
I’ll have to tell you that story, too. Since we’re telling stories today…
I was in one of the most prominent biology buildings on the University of Wisconsin campus, called Birge Hall. EA Birge had been one of the earliest limnologists in North America, and he also had been president of the University of Wisconsin, so they named one of their buildings after him: Birge Hall. We were on the fourth floor, and I was in a room with I think five other graduate students, and then Dr. Hasler’s office was right across the hall.
One day, in the fall, there was a knock on the door and Hasler came in and he said, “I just had a call from a friend of mine at Dartmouth College. They’ve had a loss of a faculty member. They’re looking for somebody to teach a course in aquatic ecology this fall and wondered if any of you might be interested.” And he turned and walked out.
All six of us were in the office at that time, and we all looked at one another and said, “Where’s Dartmouth College?” Nobody knew. I had a <i>Webster’s Collegiate</i> <i>Dictionary</i> on the shelf above my desk, and I pulled it down, and in the back it lists all the colleges and universities. So I read, “Dartmouth College, founded, and the date…blah, blah, blah…men only.” The whole group laughed. “Men only?” What kind of a place is that, that there’s no women and only men? We literally didn’t know.
I was nearing the end of my graduate program. I was actually planning to defend in January, but I didn’t have any firm plans for what I was going to do from January till June, so I thought well, maybe I can teach for the fall semester and then graduate in the spring semester. That might work. That might be fun. So I told Hasler I’d be interested, and he called Dartmouth. That’s how I got my first job—very different from today, right? But that’s how I got my first job.
Driving out to New England was very interesting—very different landscape. Being a limnologist, the water quality was totally different. In Wisconsin you’re talking about hard water in lakes, mostly—water that’s rich in calcium and magnesium bicarbonates. In the northeast, there’s very little calcium and magnesium bicarbonates. The water is soft. All the kinds of chemical stuff that we would do on lakes in Wisconsin didn’t work, by and large, out here in the east. Something like a methyl orange alkalinity titration literally didn’t work well because the waters were too soft.
At any rate, I came to Dartmouth—that was 1961—and I taught the course in aquatic ecology, and I met Herb Bormann, he was a professor in the same department at that time. The department had been two separate departments: botany and zoology, and they had just joined to become a department of biological sciences, and the professors didn’t like one another at all. There was this real rift between botany and zoology, so it was very interesting to me that I was being courted by both sides to take a side: “Botany’s better!” “Zoology is better!”
I had just been introduced to the ecosystem concept through Eugene Odum’s second edition of his ecology textbook. It was one of the leading textbooks in the country, and that second edition was really focused on the ecosystem approach and concept. I was taken by that, I thought that was a really good approach for studying nature. One of the reasons I was so excited about it was I never could decide whether I liked plants or animals—or zoology or botany—better, and at the ecosystem level I didn’t have to. I could do both, and that interested me very much. To be a really good limnologist you have to do hydrology, and meteorology, and geology...it’s a system, so you have to understand it as a system. That was natural to me anyway as a limnologist. So I really liked the ecosystem concept.
I met Bormann, and we talked about this idea of starting something at Hubbard Brook. We visited here, we met with Bob Pierce. Herb had met him previously.
I’ve always had this love of sports, which we talked about. I went to a Dartmouth football game. Sitting at the football game, two rows down in front of me, was the back of this man’s head that just looked familiar to me. I didn’t know who he was, I didn’t recognize him, but he looked familiar.
So at halftime, I went up and I tapped him on the shoulder and I said, “I’m Gene Likens. I think I’ve met you somewhere, but I don’t know where.” I said, “I’ve just come here from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.” He said, “Oh! Well I’ve just come here from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, too. I just graduated in geology, so I’m in the geology department at Dartmouth.” We talked, and then later became best of friends. That was Noye Johnson, and Noye was one of my dearest friends. We’d probably been in graduate classes together, but never met until sitting at that football game at Dartmouth.
I told him—not at the football game, but later—what we were thinking about at Hubbard Brook. I told Bormann that I’d met this geologist, and that he might be interested. So that’s how we got Noye Johnson involved in the project.
That’s amazing. Another moment of serendipity.
Noye was kind of a hard rock geologist, but through the years I really literally converted him into becoming a limnologist. And he loved it, he just loved it. Noye was very smart, and he had a conceptual framework of thinking at the ecosystem level. He was very important to our team and provided that geologic component and, well, it was a great team.
Dartmouth had asked me to come back on the faculty, as an instructor—they don’t start anybody as an instructor anymore. That was the fall of 1963.
Bormann and I had written a proposal to the National Institutes of Health, NIH, for work at Hubbard Brook. We thought we could use the watershed ecosystem idea as a basis for getting funding from the NIH.
We had this metaphor that we were trying to sell, and that is that we could use the watershed as an ecosystem like a physician uses the human body. A physician would measure the chemistry of blood or urine, and if something was different or unusual then you go into the body and you try to figure out is it the lungs, or the kidneys, or the pancreas, or something that’s not functioning properly. Well, we measured the chemistry of stream water and if there were changes, then we could go into the system and see if it were the vegetation, or the soil microbial biology, or whatever, that was causing the changes.
The NIH turned our proposal down flat. They didn’t like it at all; I guess they thought it was dumb. We then rewrote it and sent it to the National Science Foundation, playing down the metaphor about the human system—although we still talked about it—and we were funded.
The funding was something like $65,000 for the first three years. That was not much money to start a big project like this, and as I recall we spent it all up in about two years and had to go back in for renewal. We were writing proposals constantly.
So that’s the way we got started.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Funding for this project was provided by a generous donation from Don and Gail Nelson.