J-1 Research Scholar
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Department of Fisheries & Wildlife
Similar to the group of fishes John researches called lampreys, he entered a new territory when he came to the U.S. “Most people I speak with here are generally interested in what took me from Scotland to here and I honestly don’t think I have a good story. I think I’ve just bumbled along really. I like fish I guess! That’s my answer. Fish brought me here”, John states.
When was your first time in the U.S.?
First time I came to the US was also the first time I came to MSU. I arrived here in May 2014, so just coming up on three years.
What is your field of specialization?
When I was in the UK I was working on a group of fishes known as lampreys. Some of them are parasites that feed on the body fluids (e.g., blood) of other fishes. That’s what I did my PhD on at University of Glasgow, and then I worked as a postdoc in the area for a year before a job was advertised here with MSU. Here I’m studying other lamprey species in partnership with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and others. The GLFC is an international organization (Canada and the US) and they share responsibility for the fishery in each of the five great lakes. At some point around 1920 a species of lamprey (sea lamprey, Petromyzon marinus) made it above Niagara Falls, which they never previously could. When they gained access to the upper Great Lakes, they became a very severe economic and ecological pest. They contributed to the decline of several fisheries and caused exponential declines in a number of fish (which) caused changes to the food web.I’ve been working at MSU in close collaboration with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to use natural chemicals (repellents and attractants) that the fish produce to manipulate how these fish migrate up streams and rivers in order to improve their control.
What got you interested in this field?
When I was younger I wanted to be a zoologist, so I was always interested in animal biology. I completed a Zoology degree at University of Glasgow and then a Master’s degree on sharks and skates, working on their embryology. I ended up studying lampreys for my PhD because they were really old fish,and i liked weird species. Because very few people study lampreys I quickly became integrated into that community.
Can you tell us a bit about your unique perspective and background, and how it has helped you to become a researcher?
I have a deep passion for evolution. That was something I was interested in as a zoologist. When I was young we used to get encyclopedias (like actually physical books – we didn’t have Wikipedia back then!). The book always started with the oldest fish, and that always captured my attention the most. My perspective is that I want to know what are the most fundamental things we can learn about these animals that we can then apply to real world problems, such as controlling invasive species or protecting endangered ones.
Coming from Scotland, where we are very much a working class group of people, – we work hard for what we get. (This instilled) a unique attitude in me to work harder to get what I needed. My parents aren’t academics, for example. But what I got from them was a work ethic and a desire to achieve something that would make a difference in the world, no matter the scale. People here in Michigan use the fishery in the Great Lakes as sustenance as well as recreation and business. If those fish populations were to go away then that’s a real problem for people let alone for the fish themselves.
What are some of your experiences so far as a J-1 scholar?
People have this idea that Scotland is a lot harsher than Michigan in the winters. I mean there’s a lot more mountains, but it never gets as cold and it never gets as warm so it’s always just windy and rainy. It’s kind of like Seattle. So the weather here is fascinating to me. I’ve interacted a lot with locals in Lansing and around Michigan while working and living here. I live in south Lansing, that’s kind of what I’m used to in Glasgow. Glasgow is always portrayed in movies/TV as this sort of rough place but I just don’t see that about south Lansing. The people are very nice, and always generous and positive. When you’ve been in a place long enough I think you can fail to see what’s attractive about it so this place is different for me. People often ask me “why would you come to Michigan or Lansing?” “Why would you want to go to Detroit?” I find Michigan fascinating because it’s exotic to me, and it has a rich history that I’m interested in. Most people I speak with here are generally interested in what took me from Scotland to here and I honestly don’t think I have a good story. I think I’ve just bumbled along really. I like fish I guess! That’s my answer. Fish brought me here.
What’s your favorite cultural activity to do in Michigan and the U.S.?
The beer! Is that wrong to suggest? The craft beer culture has been phenomenal. I really enjoyed that a lot since I came here, which isn’t surprising as a Scottish person.
The exposure to the natural resources that you all [Michiganders] have as well; I’ve been able to go out fishing quite a lot. But really this sports culture you guys have, and going to the college football games. I think it’s ridiculous the Spartan stadium here holds more people than the professional football team I supported back in Glasgow! It [football] is very family oriented here; very different from football hooliganism in the UK and in Europe. I love to see women and children be involved in everything and nobody’s drunk.
I’ve also traveled about quite a bit. I’ve been out to the west coast and I’ve been to the east coast for work. I (also) went to New Orleans. I got married last winter so we went there for our honeymoon. The U.S. alone is so vast that there’s such huge cultural differences between any one of these states. The midwest can be similar somewhat, but if you go far enough you get very different people, which is nice.
What have you learned during your time as a J-1 scholar?
I’ve always wanted to be at a research institute. I have a genuine passion for conducting research and thanks to my mentor (Mike Wagner) I now have a greater appreciation of what it’s like to do that from scratch. Having an idea is easy and it’s cheap. You can probably have 100 ideas per day – but it’s very different to take that idea and flesh it out and then write a proposal and have the proposal accepted.
My dad is a “joiner”. He’s an electrician, a plumber, a carpenter. We call them joiners. He’s a really handy guy. That was the work ethic I got from him. He was always like, “I can’t believe you’re going to go to a university and being paid to think!” That is essentially what I do, which is an obscene luxury. I don’t take that for granted. At least (I) don’t have to go out in the winter and chop pieces of wood as a job. (This has) given me (the) desire to keep succeeding and hope that eventually I will become a faculty member, as opposed to those people who perhaps failed to see the woods for the trees and think it’s too hard, too tough, and drop out. You learn a lot coming in as a J-1 scholar, because to be honest nobody trains you to be a postdoc. Nobody says this is what it’s going to be like. Everything becomes a learning curve.
What does cultural exchange mean to you?
[It means] taking up a culture rather than just experiencing it; actually embracing it and making it a part of what you do. I think a lot of people come here to Michigan and they don’t like to integrate. I know a lot of people who have come to Lansing from outside and constantly complain about it. Those are people who fail to integrate, who fail to have an exchange of cultures and they basically seek their culture elsewhere. I encourage J-1 scholars and other people from outside of the US in particular to integrate as much as possible with the local area here and other people that work in their department. It can be useful to try to get to know as many people as possible, because being a postdoc can be isolating especially when you come from abroad and you don’t have friends or family and you have to make all these new connections.