Faculty voice:

Richard Lenski: You gotta know when to hold ‘em

June 7, 2017

Richard Lenski is an MSU John Hannah Distinguished Professor of microbial ecology and an evolutionary biologist. He holds joint appointments in the Departments of Integrative Biology and Microbiology and Molecular Genetics in the College of Natural Science, and the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He is also a founding member of the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action and an MSU AgBioResearch scientist. Called “the man who bottled evolution” by Science for his long-term experiment (running now for 30 years) in bacterial evolution, he recently spoke at the Doctoral Hooding Ceremony at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he received his doctorate in 1982. The following are excerpts from his speech.

Let me begin by congratulating all of the new Ph.D.s and recipients of other doctoral degrees. Each of you climbed a mountain that no one before you had ever climbed. That’s what made it a doctorate — your original research leading to new knowledge.

My remarks today are about constancy versus change, and about luck versus skill. They turn out to be core themes in the research I do, and they also have a lot to do with life, including the decisions we make in our professional careers.

Of course, there have also been a lot of changes since I was a student. Music, for example. When we went to the bar, we had these awesome communal listening devices, called jukeboxes. You didn’t even need headphones to hear the music.

Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” was hot then — and it’s still a great song if you’ve got a party tonight! Cross-over country music was big, too.

Kenny Rogers had a hit called “The Gambler”, about advice from an old poker player. You’ve probably heard it. It goes like this:

“You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”

Of course, the song is about life, using poker as a metaphor. Just as in our careers and lives, poker requires making decisions in the face of uncertainty.

As a kid, I loved being outdoors, hiking and playing sports. But I wasn’t a naturalist; I didn’t know very much about any particular group of animals or plants. At least partly because of that lack of familiarity with organisms in the wild, my first efforts at doing ecological research were failures.

Let me give one example, because it’s kind of funny — at least in hindsight. I tried to do a field experiment using praying mantises. I reared batches of them in the lab from egg cases, and then released them on small plots with two treatments. I had painstakingly cleared the vegetation around each plot by hand to keep the mantises where I put them. Well, the next time I went to see how they were doing, I couldn’t find a single one! Maybe some birds were watching me when I released the mantises, wondering: “What is this crazy guy doing?” before gobbling them up. I have no idea what happened, but that experiment was a total bust.

With hindsight, I was lucky that this project failed right away. The treatment effect I was looking for would probably not have given a significant outcome, even if the mantises had stayed put. So even failures can sometimes be valuable, by keeping us from wasting time — and by forcing us to change direction.

Maybe some of you had failed projects, too, before you found your bearings. It’s a normal part of science and scholarship, though it’s upsetting when it happens.

I’ve been lucky in life. I was born to parents who nurtured me. I was born in a nation dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And like those of you receiving your degrees today, I was fortunate to get a superb education here at Carolina.

Thanks to your Carolina education, and the hard work that brought you here today, you have a prepared mind. You will encounter many uncertainties, probably some obstacles, and hopefully some terrific opportunities as the cards of life are dealt to you.

Play them well: Know when to hold them, know when to fold them. And sometimes you won’t really know what to do, so you’ll just have to give it your best shot.

Thank you, and congratulations again to all of you receiving your doctoral degrees today.

Read the entire speech at Spartan Ideas