Ecologist Spotlight: Kate Laskowski

Welcome to the Ecologist Spotlight column!

We seek out ecologists with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to highlight their work and share their stories and experiences. Thank you to Dr. Kate Laskowski for participating in our column this week! If you would like to be featured, or would like to nominate someone, please contact us today.

Kate Laskowski. (Credit: David Ausserhofer.)

Please state your current affiliation:

Kate: Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology & Inland Fisheries in Berlin Germany

Tell us about yourself and your current area of research.

Kate: I’m a behavioral ecologist that is broadly interested in the causes and consequences of individual behavioral variation. Right now, I am working mostly on the ’causes’ side. In particular I am curious how developmental processes shape the emergence of individual behavioral variation. This line of research really took off after I got my hands on this really cool fish – the Amazon molly. It’s a naturally clonal fish meaning that all offspring from a single brood are genetically identical. It’s the ultimate twin study allowing me to exactly pinpoint when and why certain environmental cues set individuals down different developmental trajectories. I focus a lot on how social interactions and the dynamics of different social pressures may mediate this process.

How might studying the social interactions of fish help to inform behavior in other species?

Kate: Essentially every sexually reproducing species has to interact with a conspecific at least once in their life, so social interactions are ubiquitous and often necessary for fitness. This means animals are constantly being exposed to new individuals and they have to make decisions about their own behavior based on the behavior of their partners. The social environment and who you are interacting with can completely change the costs and benefits of certain behaviors. So it’s really so dynamic!  The species that I work on, the Amazon molly, shows many common social behaviors – they prefer to be with their buddies, they form pretty strong dominance hierarchies and they compete with each other for access to resources. And so the patterns of social interactions and social behaviors that I see in my fish, I think are quite common across the animal kingdom.

Kate working in the lab. (Credit: David Ausserhofer.)

Do the fish in my tank at home really have individual personalities or am I just anthropomorphizing their reactions?

Kate: I would bet your fish do have personalities! But to be fair, using the term ‘personality’ with animals can seem to be confusing for some people – researchers who study human personality use the term to these innatue and unmeasureable patterns of behavior, emotion and thought. But for folks that study animal ‘personalities’, we generally try to just focus only on measurable behavioral traits. So for us, a ‘personality’ (or behavioral type) is simply a characteristic and predictable way of behaving. So if you watch your fish for long enough and you find yourself being able to predict how they will behave or respond, then it’s safe to say they have a personality.

What led you to pursue a position in Germany?

Kate: I’m an American and did my PhD with Alison Bell at the University of Illinois. Most of my dissertation work was focused on testing theories developed by this German scientist, Max Wolf. So when it turned out that he advertised a postdoc position right as I was getting ready to graduate, it seemed crazy not to apply. Living overseas for some period of time had always been a dream of mine, but honestly, Germany was never on my radar. But lo and behold, I got the job and decided to make the leap! Germany is really progressive with its views on basic research and they are pouring money into science funding (especially in comparison to the US). Since my initial postdoc I’ve been able to get my own independent funding allowing me to set up my own group and hopefully I will continue here for what looks like the foreseeable future. Not to mention, the quality of life in Berlin is incredible so it would be very tough to leave indeed!

What first interested you in ecology?

Credit: David Bierbach.

Kate: I think like a lot of ecologists, I spent a lot of time outside as a kid. Both my parents are themselves in science and are avid birdwatchers and canoers. Our childhood vacations would be these epic canoe trips in the Adirondacks that when we weren’t carrying our packs and canoes between lakes, we were stopped looking for some bird my parents wanted to see. I always complained at the time that this was far too much work for a ‘real’ vacation but now, I realize how important these trips were for getting me interested in understanding how the natural world works. I even like birdwatching myself now. Just don’t tell my parents.

What has inspired you in your career?

Kate: Mentoring and collaborations. I think it’s funny how the classic stereotype of a scientist is some hermit who locks herself away to work on a problem in isolation, when modern scientists are really the exact opposite – it’s all about working with other people and building a network. I’ve had some really incredible mentors: my undergrad advisor, Jeff Leips was the first one who got me interested in research, my PhD supervisor Alison Bell really taught me how to think carefully about my questions and hypotheses and now I have a number of mentors at my current institute (Max Wolf, Thomas Mehner, Jens Krause) who really push me to think outside the box. I also have a network of collaborations with other early career researchers that help keep me motivated and excited. I love being able to think deeply about a problem with a group of other researchers. That’s where you make the biggest leaps, is in the back and forth conversations that challenge you to evaluate why you think the way you do. And now finally that I am becoming a mentor myself, I think I get just as much out the experience as my students. Having to teach topics to students really forces you to break it down in your head and I always learn something new from it.

Tell us about one of your favorite research moments.

Kate: My favorite research moments are the small ones – where you first draw out your experimental design on the whiteboard.  Or when you get the dataset ready for analysis and see your first results. When you’re chatting with someone at a conference and they mention something and it makes you go ‘huh, I never thought of it that way’. Having a student come up to you and say ‘I’ve been thinking about something…’

Who is someone that you have never met but whose research you have always admired?

Kate: Well I have met him now a few times, but before I did (and still now) I always found Neil Metcalfe‘s work to be incredible thoughtful in how he designs and tests his hypotheses.

What is a challenge that you faced as a student, young professional, or early faculty member and how did you work through it?

Credit: Chris Monk.

Kate: Ha, so many! I once had an entire field season’s worth of data get deleted. The AC in my fish room broke once and nearly all my fish died. Though probably the biggest challenge was the initial move and set-up in Berlin. Moving labs is always tough, but doing it in a different country that speaks a different language adds a whole other layer of complexity. When I first moved to Berlin, I was immediately offered the chance to go work at our big experimental lake north of the city to collect some data on behavior in wild pike and let me ‘get my feet wet’ so to speak. The only problem was that I didn’t speak any German at the time, and the technicians who were there to help us at this remote field station didn’t really speak English and so it ended up being the biggest and most intense game of charades in my life. That whole field season was a trial by fire but I learned so much. Mostly about my own abilities to make decisions on the fly and come up with back-up plans. I had to be patient and learn to let go (a bit) of my need to have complete control over everything. And it really hammered home the importance and value of clear and simple communication.

When you become discouraged by a challenging research problem or unexpected issue, how do you stay motivated?

Kate: I normally walk away from it for a bit. Maybe just a few days but I try to let some time pass so that I can get out of frustration mode and into problem solving mode. The key for me is to always break down a big problem into little baby problems. Baby problems are easy to fix and let your brain work on the big problem in the background.

What do you do in your “off” time?

Kate: I live in Berlin which I think is maybe the coolest city in the world so I spend a lot of time exploring the city. I also run and bike a lot. And I’m constantly knitting. I need to move somewhere colder so I have more excuses to knit.

If you met a 10 year old who was interested in ecology, what would you say to encourage them?

Kate: Learn to always ask ‘why’ or ‘how’. Enjoy the time you spend outside and watching animals because at the end of the day that’s the biggest reason we’re all in this career in the first place.

Scene: *You walk into a local coffee shop* What do you order?

Kate: Most coffee shops here in Berlin use coffee machines, but I really just like regular filter coffee with a bit of milk.