Getting to Know FWI: An Interview with Dr. Gordon Holtgrieve
Dr. Gordon Holtgrieve is an Assistant Professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and a member of the FWI steering committee at the University of Washington. Here, he sits down with graduate student Thiago Couto to discuss his experience working with large, multidisciplinary research groups and why an open mind is often critical for success in freshwater research.
TC: What is the value of a multidisciplinary group of researchers for the success of projects like INFEWS?
GH: There is no way to run a project like INFEWS without having a multidisciplinary group. In our case, it was key to put together very specific people. Everyone brings something important to the table.
TC: Based on your experience with INFEWS, how important is the FWI?
GH: Huge, because it’s essential to have the right team together to conceptualize and run these projects. They rarely flow by just coming up with an idea and then accumulating people to execute them. It works better as a back and forth process of a priori thinking within a group, which takes time and requires open minds. UW provides an amazing opportunity to build these links, because if you need something, there is probably someone around that does it pretty well.
TC: What are the main challenges of working in INFEWS?
GH: First, people’s schedules. For example, I sent out a poll to try to get all the UW-PIs together at the same room. Even with a month in advance, there were exactly zero hours that everyone was available. We are way too busy. The second one is funding. The overall project is $2.5 million, but this amount is not even close to what we need. We are underfunded by about 50%, which means that everyone is making sacrifices.
TC: Is communication among such a diverse group a problem?
GH: Cross disciplinary communication is not exactly a problem in our case. Everyone knows enough to be literate about the other’s work. Let’s say that I know enough about hydrology to be dangerous, and they know enough about fish to be dangerous. However, it requires some time to learn the language of the other disciplines. The problem is that time slips away as you move in your career. That’s why graduate students will play a key role in the FWI. Students will have the opportunity to expand their expertise about freshwater sciences as they interact with each other. As a result, they will also bring interesting perspectives to their departments.
“Graduate students have a key role to play in FWI.”
TC: What motivated you to start working in the Mekong and what are the challenges of doing research overseas?
GH: I had the opportunity to go to the Mekong to help my wife with her post-doc research early in my Ph.D. We spent a month and a half in Southeast Asia, which was an opportunity to see how important fisheries and freshwater ecology can be to people. This experience was my motivation to go back.
The biggest problem is not being able to be there more than a few weeks a year. This limits the science that I can do and makes it hard to manage relationships with locals. It’s not my country; I’m a guest over there. There is a long history in that part of the world of outsiders essentially taking over, including western scientists that arrive, collect data and disappear without leaving any kind of benefit. I have to make sure that what I do has benefits to people.
You can find more about Gordon’s research and his lab here.