UW Department of Biology E-News
Summer 2013  |  Return to issue home

An idea that spawned a legacy

By Natalie Hisdahl

Bob Paine
Emeritus Professor of Biology Bob Paine with a pile of Pisaster ochraceus, a common starfish

In the mid-1960’s, Emeritus Professor Robert Paine introduced a revolutionary concept that changed how people thought about ecosystems and the interactions among species. It was in Makah Bay, Washington, that Paine developed the keystone species concept: the idea that apex predators drive the diversity in an ecosystem. Before Paine’s experiments, scientists believed that each species had equal bearing on the functioning of a habitat.  He showed that when a common starfish (Pisaster ochraceus) was removed from its natural coastal range, its prey - mussels and barnacles - were free to proliferate and push out other organisms like algae and snails. This cascade effect first observed by Paine helped explain the importance of other keystone species such as killer whales, sea otters and lions in maintaining species richness in various ecosystems. 

To say the least, Paine has had a very successful career as a researcher and adviser. During our conversation (transcript can be read below), he said that his students contributed to his success and he has always had considerable gratitude for them.  After working closely with students for many years, it was a natural next step for Paine to establish the Experimental and Field Ecology Fund in 2000 to support graduate students who conduct research in nature. Since its creation, the endowment has funded 27 graduate students who investigate pressing (and fascinating!) ecological questions. In fact, scroll down to read an interview with graduate student Susan Waters, a two-time recipient of the award and co-founder of the Urban Pollination Project.

Supporting students in the biology department has been one of Paine’s priorities throughout his four decades as a professor – he mentored dozens of scholars, and many now lead their own labs and consider their experiences with him formative.  To learn more about Paine’s influence on ecology and his expansive academic lineage, check out this recent Nature article. If you would like to make a contribution to the Robert T. Paine Experimental and Field Ecology Fund, visit www.giving.uw.edu/paine or call (206) 685-2185.

Bob Paine
When did you first become interested in biology? 
All my early childhood memories involve biology. I remember sitting in the dirt driveway when I was around two-and-a-half years old and watching ants – I was utterly fascinated with nature from a very young age. 

Why did you decide to establish an endowment in biology?
I was well supported by National Science Foundation grants, and I’ve always been supportive of students in the department. I have a lot of gratitude for students; they were part of my success. I spent a lot of time in the field with them, and encouraged them to pursue their passions. Establishing a fund would provide them with freedom and independence to pursue what they wanted to do in the field.

What’s been your greatest satisfaction since the inception of the award in 2000?
When a student comes in and personally thanks me, and says, “I got this done.” It’s wonderful to see the pleasure of success they radiate, and it amply reinforces the existence of this endowment.

What advice would you give to others who are interested in giving to UW Biology?
Endowments shouldn’t be too specific, but instead general enough to allow for the evolution of whatever dark corner of science they want to support. Those benefitting will make very good use of the funds.

Bob Paine
Graduate student Susan Waters at work in the Botany Greenhouse

Susan Waters
Can you tell me about your background and interests?
I always loved science and the outdoors as a kid, and I studied ecology as an undergraduate at Hampshire College.  I love to teach, and after I graduated I decided to become a biology teacher.  I enjoyed teaching tremendously, but the more I taught, the more I wanted to know, and ultimately, I decided to apply to grad school.  

What did the experimental and field ecology award allow you to do? 
The EFE award allowed me to pursue my research in pollination ecology at Glacial Heritage prairie, in Littlerock, WA.  It was especially important to me because most of my adviser's work takes place at another site, so I didn't have the benefit of the infrastructure that she created at that site (transportation with others from the lab, housing, shared materials and equipment).  The award enabled me to get my research started from scratch.

You’ve received multiple awards as a member the department, including this award twice and the Kathryn Hahn Writing Fellowship. How have these awards impacted your graduate career?
My grad career would have been really hard to complete without the generous support I've gotten.  When I started my graduate studies in the department, my kids were two and five, so balancing work and home has always been very challenging.  The Hahn fellowship was invaluable for me because it allowed me to have some breathing space for a quarter so that I could work on my dissertation.

If you could sum up your experience as a student in the department in one sentence, what would it be?
I am profoundly grateful for the support I've received.  The awards I've gotten helped make research and graduate school logistically and financially possible for me, and also provided me encouragement by giving me a vote of confidence in my research.

More information
Bob Paine: rtpaine@uw.edu
Susan Waters: smwaters@uw.edu
To make a gift to the fund: www.giving.uw.edu/paine

Interviews were condensed.

Summer 2013  |  Return to issue home