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Feb. 26, 2014

William Taylor: Mentoring helps others reach their dreams

Feb. 26, 2014

William Taylor is an MSU AgBioResearch scientist and a University Distinguished Professor of global fisheries systems in the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability. He is an internationally recognized expert in Great Lakes fisheries ecology, population dynamics, governance and management. He also works on the integration of environmental policy and management from a local to global perspective and is helping to plan an international conference on global inland fisheries sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to be held in Rome in January 2015.

In 1979 I was a professor at the University of Missouri and I wasn’t looking for a new position. However, at a teaching improvement conference at Purdue University I heard that MSU wanted a new faculty member with expertise in quantitative fisheries ecology and management, which is my area of research. After some debate, I put in an application and was invited to the MSU campus for an interview.

When I came for that visit I found Michigan to be, for a fisheries person, a state with great potential. Everything that exists in the world of fisheries is somewhere present in the state of Michigan—either in the rivers and lakes or in commercial or recreational fisheries—and the Great Lakes are like oceans. In addition to the resources, there also were many issues, including international issues with Canada. I had never visited Michigan before then and all of a sudden, I realized Michigan had everything that a fisheries person could wish for in a microcosm in the Great Lakes basin.

I found the then chair of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Niles Kevern, to be innovative and supportive. More importantly, MSU wanted to make a difference in the field I was interested in and was willing to use innovation to make the department programs stronger.

In the end, it was an easy choice. I came to MSU in February 1980, and I have no regrets. I have been able to pursue many areas of fisheries research, including work on inland fisheries management and sustainable fisheries worldwide. I also have been actively involved in several fisheries organizations, including the American Fisheries Society where I served as president, and more recently with the FAO in planning an international inland fisheries sustainability conference.  

However, what I love is being a mentor. More than any awards or titles that I have received, the thing I am most proud of is being a mentor. I am really curious about how people live to their potential and how I can help people, especially students, live their dreams. 

There are a number of things that I believe make a good mentor. I look at everyone as individuals. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. I don’t see failure as failing, but rather not having the abilities to know how to do what you are trying to accomplish.

It’s important for a mentor to look at individual strengths. Everyone is different. People cannot conform to what you think they should be. I look at them as individuals and try to help them figure out an acceptable course for professional development.

I often tell students to strategize in order to figure out what they want to do and then build their own networks. It’s important to have a network of people with whom to share successes and struggles.

The reason I love mentoring is the human interaction. I like to talk about ideas and strategize about the future, about how to make a difference in society.  I firmly believe that the mentor is being mentored by the mentee. The process is not a one-way street. The mentee teaches the mentor. I am still learning. Life is about learning and, in turn, you become better and smarter.

I feel so strongly about the value of mentoring that with the help of two former MSU students, I put together a book with vignettes about mentoring from 70 people involved in fisheries. The official title is “Future of Fisheries: Perspectives for Emerging Professionals,” to be published by the American Fisheries Society Press this summer.

More about the mentoring philosophy of Professor Taylor and other MSU AgBioResearch scientists is available in the fall/winter 2012 Futures magazine.

Photo by Kurt Stepnitz