I met my doctoral adviser, the late Olle Pellmyr, in the arrivals area of Pullman-Moscow Airport — not much more than a lobby and a gate next to a runway surrounded by wheat fields — a couple miles west of the Idaho-Washington state line. Olle was tall, with a quiet voice and a sandy brown beard streaked with gray. That day he was probably wearing his field biologist’s uniform: fleece jacket over a plaid button-down and sandals over wooly socks. He had driven out from town to pick me up himself.
It was the first time I’d set foot west of the Rockies. I’d been interning with a land conservancy in Pittsburgh, thinking about graduate school in biology. The weird pollination mutualism of yuccas and yucca moths piqued my interest: Yuccas attract moths that lay eggs in yucca flowers and then deliberately pack pollen into place to fertilize the flowers, producing fruit containing seeds for newly hatched moth larvae to eat. The plants effectively offer the moths food for the next generation, and the moths’ pollination work produces more seeds than their larvae eat, so it works out for both parties.
So I’d written to Olle — the world’s best-known yucca expert, who lived in a state I’d never visited. And he said yes, he was looking for a new graduate student. He paid to fly me out for an interview and a campus tour, and offered me a graduate assistantship by the end of it.
More than a dozen years later I’m an assistant professor, recruiting graduate students of my own, and what strikes me about that meeting is what a risk Olle took on me. I had good grades and GRE scores, but I was also just some kid from Pennsylvania with a degree from a minuscule liberal-arts college. Most of what I knew about the current state of evolutionary biology I owed to having read a great deal of Stephen Jay Gould in the year after graduation.
How on earth did Olle, who passed away last December, decide I was a good bet for five or six years of his time, attention, and grant funding?
It’s hard to believe my early performance in graduate school could have allayed any lingering doubts about me that he might have had. For most of my first semester I mispronounced his name to his face, until a postdoc in the lab finally took me aside for some coaching on Swedish vowels. I made an abortive attempt on a dissertation project with a species Olle had never studied, a wild geranium that sprouted well enough in the greenhouse but then died inexplicably (to me) before it was any use for research. My probability theory class was a near-death (well, near-C-grade) experience.
Yet Olle gave me that assistantship, and apart from regular nudges about important milestones — How was the greenhouse today? Did I think I’d have that analysis done for the conference in June? — he gave me space and resources to make mistakes and recover from them. While I struggled with probability theory, I had other work to do on the lab’s projects and, after my geraniums bought the farm, some of that other work formed a new core for my dissertation.
There are multiple theories of mutually beneficial interactions like one between the yucca and its moths, which explain how two different species can meet and trade services — pollination for seeds — without anything like the negotiations that humans use to manage such transactions. One theory that makes a lot of sense to me is that the yucca offers a carefully calibrated set of conditions: A moth can have some seeds for its offspring only if it provides enough pollen to produce many more seeds than those offspring will eat.
Maybe that’s something of a solution as I recruit my own graduate students and figure out what kind of adviser I want to be: Offer students the space, resources, and guidance they need to complete a degree, and in return, they must put in the work. But the details of that model — how much space, how many resources, how closely should I guide the work — I’m going to have to figure out as I go.
I spent two days in Idaho for that first visit. I met the folks in Olle’s lab, had breakfast with other faculty members, had dinner and beers with graduate students and postdocs, sat in on a journal club meeting — fairly standard campus-interview stuff.
The second day, though, Olle picked me up at my hotel and, after a stop at the co-op for lunch supplies, drove us up into the mountains. We followed logging roads up into the forest, then parked, and got out to hike farther uphill under a canopy of pines and Douglas fir.
Eventually we came to a stretch of land growing with coral bells, compact rosettes of leaves framing long upright stalks lined with tiny flowers. Fluttering around them, and perched on the flowering stalks, were small drab moths closely related to the ones that serve yuccas. Olle produced a collecting vial, coaxed a moth from a coral bell stalk into it, and gave it to me for a close look.
I don’t remember what I said in response to that, or what came to mind as I watched the moth flutter in the vial. I expect that, as I had been for most of the visit, I was suspended between excitement at interacting with actual working scientists and desperation to prove I deserved to join them.
In hindsight, I think that moment was no more a test than any other single thing I did or said during those two days in northern Idaho. From Olle’s perspective, what was more important was spending the time with me — figuring out if we could talk and work together comfortably, and confirming that I was excited about science, particularly the science that Olle wanted to do.
Eventually we hiked down the mountain and drove back to town. The moth went into the deep-freeze for future genetic analysis. And I was launched on a scientific career.