History of FRSES

Interview with Dan Binkley, first faculty advisor to FRSES and concieving member

with Elsie Denton, student director of FRSES committee
January 23, 2014

Elsie:

Jeri [Morgan] informs me that you have a great memory so hopefully you'll be able to answer some of my questions. We'll see if that is true. So, how did FRSES get started and how were you involved with it?

Dan:

All this goes back to some thing called the "Program in Ecological Studies", which was the first program in Ecology at CSU. And it was a recognition that ecologists are found all over the campus and that there ought to be some way to pull them together and to interact to benefit students. So back in the 80's they came up with The Program in Ecological Studies which was run through the graduate school. It was something like a minor you could get with a graduate program along with a major in zoology or something like that. Along with that the graduate school popped up some money so we could hire senior ecologist, the first one was John Wiens. And we also found a position for an academic coordinator, I think that was what we called the position, and that was Bea VanHorns, John's wife. So the wildlife department was able to cover the rest of her salary so we got both of them here. And that ran along for a while and it was so successfully that it seem that we should have a major opportunity for graduates, and that is how the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology launched. It officially launched in 1994. though the prep work for it took a couple of years because we'd never had a cross campus major before, although the campus has always been highly collaborated, and it has always been silo oriented. The idea that we could have a networked graduate degree was a new thing. So the people who were organizing it - like Dave Stiengraber, John Wiens and a bunch of other of us - spent a lot of time going around talking to department heads trying to lower concerns. We made it very clear that the majors would be accounted for in the university system in the department of the advisor even though the requirements were in the graduate program.

So anyway, 1994 was an exciting time to be launching this program and we had lots of discussion of what might comprise it. I'm pretty sure it was my idea to have [the] Front Range Ecology Program and I'm really sure that it was my idea to make it student run so that it wouldn't suck any time from faculty. And at the time, we had a half-time secretary and she certainly wouldn't have had the time to run it. So that was the launch of it. It was a way to highlight what students were doing. To give them some skills. Good posters, good presentations, that kind of stuff. And then a chance to bring in people not just from CSU but from up and down the Front Range.

E:
So it has been coordinated with the other schools throughout its entire existence.
D:
Yeah, and it's been a little more enthusiastic some years than others. We've had some professors sometimes at Boulder who were very engaged and shooed their students over here and others not so engaged. And sometimes we've had students from other colleges like Adams State or what is now Mesa State and we've had them come over as well. And occasionally we've had money to provide for some travel expenses or we've coordinated places for the students to stay while they were here. So there have been a variety of flavors over the years, but it has been consistently [outside of] CSU from the beginning.
E:
Very cool. Very cool.
D:
And maybe part of the inspiration is that there is a population biology group, it is not called GRUMBLE or GRUMPS it is something - Rocky Mountain biologist - I can't remember, I'm not sure what it was. There were some other things we tried to do to bring students together from other universities and that is probably where this idea originated.
E:
So who came up with the name “FRSES” and did we know it was going to be such a mouthful to say when we came up with it?
D:
“Fer-sees”... I don't know. GDPE I know had such a strange title because we wanted not to scare anybody. We knew it was going to be graduate students only and a lot of departments back then were really more concerned with undergraduates, so that helped. And then it was a degree program. So after the research money or indirect costs it was only education. So having that mouthful it was a way to try to ease the campus along in this new directions. “Fer-sees”, I don't know that we thought about the acronym as well as we might have. But the students today should certainly feel free to change it.
E:
Haha... I'm not sure they are going to, but definitely the first few weeks people are getting started with it people are like “Wait. What? What was the acronym again?”
D:
“Fer-sees” And GDPE is something I used to not be able to say quickly, but over the years it has started tripping off of my tongue lightly.
E:
Practice certainly helps. So how many students were involved at the very beginning? Do you have any idea?
D:
Yeah, our original ... I might have to look up records to be precise. Our original plan was to have 30 students majoring after five years and we pretty much had 30 students majoring in the first year. And The Front Range Ecology Symposium probably had 40 students in the first year because they weren't all GDPE majors. So it started off with a really large bang. Both for GPDE and the [FRSES] symposium.
E:
And how have you felt watching it grow through time? Has it become what you thought?
D:
Oh, it's been great. Especially, in the early days our student presentations were better than the average ones you'd see at professional meetings, and often better than other ones you'd see around campus from students and professors. So our students were really taking advantage of the opportunity to learn how to communicate effectively. And as time has gone on almost everybody has gotten better than they used to be. So it isn't so painful to sit through presentation at national meetings [anymore], but back in the day it was clearly an advanced stage for our students [compared] to competitors.
E:
Cool, have there always been keynote speakers? Or is that something that evolved with time?
D:
No, that is something that evolved. It sort of started out separately [with] the Distinguished Ecologist Series [course] in the spring. We used to bring in five speakers, and we used to sort of co-vary with them. And one of them would sort of be the keynote speaker, kind of by default. But then it kind of became a little more intentional as time went on. So it was more evolution rather than creation.
E:
Do you have any idea when it started, more or less?
D:
Oh I would guess roughly by 2000, but I'm not really sure.
E:
Sure, it is rough to remember dates, particularly if you don't have it recorded.
D:
Particularly when there have been so many years. Early on it was easy to remember, "oh that was three years ago", but not anymore.
E:
Do you have any idea of the names of the original students so I could contact them and get their perspective on where they are now?
D:
A good one to ask for early on would be Mariane Venton. She was our first student, the first one to graduate and she's been a distinguished alum for GDPE maybe five or six years again. She's over at Craton University in Nebraska. So Mariane would be a good one to check with and she could give you the names of some other ones you could contact too.
E:
Sounds good, and if she is with a university it shouldn't be to hard to find her contact info.
D:
It would be easy. And it would be really cool to get pictures of them then, and maybe where they are now so maybe if you want to mention names and have before and after pictures that would be cool.
E:
I'll have to check into that. And see what I can find. Do you know any professors [from] early on?
D:
There were a lot. Dave Stiengraber was the director of the Program in Ecological Studies and then for the first semester or so trying to get this launched, Then I started as director once it was fully launched. John Weins, our distinguished ecologist was really fundamental. Jim Detling had been helpful. He was the director of PDS before Stiengraber, and he is still around. He's retired, but he shows up in the hallway frequently. So those were some of the key players. But there others, there were a lot of them. Dennis Ojima from NREL back then, now he's in Ecosystem Science and Sustainability. He was very helpful. We had people outside of the campus faculty like Tom Stolgren and Jill Baron were both very helpful from the Park Service, although by then they might have been USGS ... yeah, they would have been. It was just about that transition time. Some from Entomology - Lube Yostad, Ward Wicker was a fellow in radiation biology who isn't there anymore. Chuck Moore was a fellow in CDCC and he was active from the beginning.
E:
And do you have any photos yourself, now that you've mentioned photos? From early on.
D:
You know that is the one thing I've discovered, is that when I was young I always took photos of landscapes or trees or soil pits and I'd always have people get out of the way. Now that I'm old, I really wish I'd gotten pictures of the people in front of the landscapes. So there are some floating around, but not many.
E:
Hard to find, yeah. Let's see. There are photo contests now as part of FRSES. What that part of it from the beginning or is that new?
D:
No that is new and it has probably been there about ten years. So it was definitely an innovation and some student thought that up, but I don't remember which one.
E:
That is pretty cool.
D:
It is, and some of the pictures over the years have been astounding. I don't know how you can choose the best out of those.
E:
Crowd sourcing I guess. That is how we pull it off. Now we have an elementary school class that has been involved. They've come at least the last three years and presented a poster. Has that been something that has always been involved? Bringing in young scientists, or potential scientists.
D:
No, and it's been kind of off and on. Some high schools I guess have been connected through the years, but I don't know when it became kind of a focal point as opposed to happenstance, where folks have thought about it. The folks up at NREL have had a series of K through 12 grants to try and improve science education in public schools, so sometimes, with some projects they are running they would try and have a cohort of high school students who would come and present. But I don't know of any kind of track record of information you could pull out on it.
E:
Yeah, that would be hard to pull out. Do you know if the original speeches were ever recorded? Were they archived anywhere?
D:
No, we didn't really start recording anything even, a couple of times we recorded something on 8 mm video tape when someone wasn't going to be present and they asked us to record it so they could see it, but until Jeri came along and started arranging thing so that they could be posted on the web we really didn't do anything systematic. It would have been cool if we had though.
E:
Yeah, that would have been a really neat legacy.
D:
To see what these ecologists who now are icons were saying 20 or 30 years ago.
E:
It could be a little bit of black mail potentially, depending upon what they said.
D:
What I really wish I'd kept, it wasn't quite, it was a little before GDPE started, but there was this fellow named Jered Harden - a biologist who claimed that we should have tough love with under developed poor countries. Maybe it is their fault that they are poor, maybe it's not, but we can't save everyone so let's... And if people get really sick, don't worry about them. The 'tragedy of the commons' was his idea. That if we have common areas people don't take care of them and it gets degraded. But when we brought him here he was a very sweet, grandfatherly fellow, walked with a couple of canes. And he was very sweet to talk to, but what he was spouting was so offensive to some of the students that it was a really interesting thing to have caught. And I did video tape it, but the last time I looked for the big old VHS tape I couldn't find it.
E:
No chance you'd be able to find it at this point?
D:
No.
E:
Too bad.
D:
We weren't really thinking about archiving so much then.
E:
No, it isn't really something you think about when you are starting a program. More when you are looking back thinking, "does anyone have anything?"
D:
You'd think we'd take pictures of these ecologists when they come, or pictures of the ecologists with the students standing around. Yeah, we didn't take pictures with the ecologists and the students. Because then years later people could pick themselves out of the picture and think"'yeah, there's Bob I hadn't thought about him in..." But we didn't do it.
E:
Pity.
D:
There is a lot else we were doing. So when you are doing many things what makes sense in retrospect, we didn't think about.
E:
Was it always around the same time of year?
D:
Yeah, February or March. And we always had a problem in GDPE that the Distinguished Ecologist Series was always in the spring. And we had five people most years back then, and they did three lectures each, not two, so that was a really full semester and we had the student ecology symposium then as well, because the students typically wouldn't have had as much to present in the fall as in the spring, so that was part of the reason we backed off to fewer speakers.
E:
What else was going on at the time that got juggled with FRSES.
D:

Part of it was the budget... and politics. The program had been in the graduate school and the graduate dean was the one officially in charge of it. And this new program was supposed to benefit the whole campus, but the colleges which were very focused on this silo idea didn't want the graduate school to have its own degree program that it administered. And so after it was approved by the state, there is a Colorado Commission on Higher education, the deans got together and told the provost that they don't want it in the grad school, so it is going to be officially housed in five departments but administered out of two colleges, which back then was Natural Sciences and Natural Resources. And so that made it all kind of awkward. And we were going to have a six month appointment for the director because it was going to be a lot of work, but they decided they could cut that back to three months because it wouldn't really be that much work would it? And we had only a [half-time] secretary, who had half an office. But then there were some interesting things, like the budget. No one quite knew where the budget was or where it would flow so it would sit over in the Natural Resource Department, because that is where I was when I was the director, but it was in a separate pot. So when people got raises, and back then we did, like 2% and 5% some years the separate pot wasn't part of the salary exercise, so the three month post was dropping back to 2.5 months to 2 months. And so we had to somehow get the university pay attention to, get it inflation adjusted, because we were having triple the students we originally had and our budget was going down and it had never started at the level it had originally been promised. So that was an issue.

The accounting of where the bodies go so that the colleges get credit for their adviser's work [was also an issue]. The computer system couldn't quite handle that. You could have a student that was in agricultural economics and that is where the body was, but if the student was in ecology where did the body go? Well it didn't go anywhere because the computer system didn't have a way [to] tally what was going on over there. And that actually took about twelve years to figure out. The other issue we had was that besides one or two classes, GDPE relied on the good will of departments to teach the courses we wanted. Even the core courses, back then we had a community ecology and an individual/population ecology class we kind of had to go begging to find someone to teach it. And if someone went on sabbatical we didn't have resources to pay someone to teach it. And generally there was a lot of good will from department heads and such, but we were never anyones' first priority.

E:
Certainly.
D:
So they always liked us and were happy to cooperate, but it was not easy to pull the teeth when we needed to. So there would be meetings when we'd get the deans and the provost together and he'd say “well you are going to have to solve this because it is a really important program” and they'd say, “yes we will”, but then a year later we still hadn't quite reached closure on some issues. So getting something that innovative up and running and have it become something that is normal and part of the background takes a while. It takes a lot of pushing and shoving and encouraging. It turned out well, but those are the kinds of things that were important in the early days.
E:
Sounds like it would have been a bit distracting...
D:
Yeah, and kind of fun.
E:
Speaking of funding. Where did the funding for FRSES come from originally? I know currently it gets about half of its funding from ASCSU and the rest of it is from departments. Is that how it worked out from the beginning?
D:
Yeah, the first years we would find a little bit of money here or there. Then some student started asking for money from departments, and that was nice. And it was some student along the way that started asking businesses for prize money, which was a clever idea. And I think it was after that that the ASCSU connection was developed. So, I think it all again kind of evolved thanks to student initiative and insight. We used to have another program called Colloquium and Life Sciences which was an ASCSU funded biology program. Again it was mostly student run where they would bring in one speaker a week for one semester a year and they had a travel budget and an entertainment budget, so it may have been some students involved with that who were also involved in “Fer-Sees” who thought of the ASCSU connection.
E:
Cool, and currently it is held at Lory Student Center. Has that always been its location or...?
D:
Yes, and originally we thought maybe we should move it around and that one year Boulder could host it, and one year maybe Wyoming and that it didn't have to be a CSU centered one, but no one else has ever stepped up and shown an interest, or maybe they didn't know they were invited.
E:
It would be a fair about of work if you didn't know you were waiting for it or responsible for it I guess. Can you think of any good stories related to the event you could share?
D:
Well the biggest change was power point. We started before there was power point. The first power point presentation I ever saw was at a “Fer-Sees” presentation, and I thought that was kind of astounding. What we used to do was prepare our pictures, then photograph them with ectochrome colored film then tell the film developers to use as special technique so that we'd get white on blue background instead of black on white. Then we showed up and showed our slides. And we had to do this weeks in advance so that you couldn't change anything later, you couldn't adapt anything. Projectors didn't always work, some slides might be in upside down. So one of the most interesting switches was going from 35mm film to powerpoint slides and then really emphasizing posters. In the old days you matted a little 8.5 by 11 piece of paper on cardboard then stuck these pieces of cardboard up on a poster, so the advent of printing out an entire poster was huge, so there has been a lot of technology that has changed.
E:
Yeah, I hadn't even thought about that. But that would have been a pretty miraculous transformation.
D:
Oh it was. And it really has changed what we've been able to do. But in terms of the student enthusiasm and what they get out of it, or how much work is involved.. That has been pretty consistent.
E:
Do you see the symposium getting any recognition as a good model for other universities or anything along those lines? Have you heard of anything like that?
D:
I haven't heard of anyone copying us, though it would be a good idea if they did. I'm a big advocate of student developed, organized, and run events. Because it think there is a lot to learn there, and a lot of benefit. There is a lot of work for the students who are engaged in it, but I really think they come away with an experience that is valuable to them. And then professors who write their reference letters can highlight that. That this student stepped up and did the work, so I think there are a lot of ways it benefits the students.
E:
For sure.
D:
But I haven't heard of anyone quite copying us. I wouldn't be surprised if they have.
E:
I guess we'll have to put more promotion out there telling them to copy us because we are so awesome right?
D:
The Distinguished Ecologist Series has been copied. I know Michigan Tech up in Hoten has one, where they bring in three speakers a year and they've been doing that for 12 years now. And that was a spin off from here where someone went up there and found some money and started it there.
E:
Did the [Distinguished] Ecologist Series start about the same time as GDPE?
D:
No, that started with the Program in Ecological Studies. Jeri keeps a master list of who we've invited over the years. I think that started in the early 80's, but it might have been the late seventies so when the grad school agreed to this minor-like program that they call Program in Ecological Studies, that is when they brought along the money to bring on John Weins and to fund the [Distinguished] Ecologist Series. So it was pretty special early on, and it was something the dean of the grad school liked and back then universities had discretionary money so he decided that was something to put money into.
E:
So, I don't know if you know, but is there a list some where of all the keynote speakers that have been brought into FRSES?
D:
I don't know that the record keeping was ever paid attention to, and until I threw out my assembled abstracts I would have had all that. Unless I gave them to Jeri and she doesn't know... they are hiding somewhere.
E:
Well, we couldn't find them when looking yesterday, so they are perhaps long lost to history at this point.
D:
I expect they are. Alas, I thought at first they might be history, but they just set on my shelf and I never looked at them, and nobody else did. And no one came along after 10 years or after 15 years like you did.
E:
I guess 20 is the magic number to look back.
D:
I guess it is. It has been a nice 20 years.
E:
Do you have an ideas where FRSES might be going? I know you aren't really involved with it these days, but... pie in the sky, what do you think could happen to it? Or is it just going to continue being an awesome, student led group?
D:
One thing that has never gotten going in GDPE that we'd originally planned was having some field oriented courses. We'd talked about having a program where we'd head west across ecosystems and talk to scientists who work on them, but also managers who work on them, and then the following year we'd have a trip where we'd head east, out onto the plains, and the riparian systems and do the same things. And we've never gotten around to doing that. But one thing we could do, if we did that would be to have the students come back each year and repeat some measurements and each year we could build up a long term series of measurements that were all done by GDPE students over the years. It by be good to put some thought into what sort of legacy could be created by current students that could then be followed up on be later students. It could be field measurements. It could be 'here are the ten most exciting ideas in ecology this year'. And never quite look at what people said last year, until you've done your year, and then you could chart over 20 or 30 years how these topics have ebbed and flowed in popularity.
E:
That would be an interesting thing to look at.
D:
Kind of a time capsule that no one gets to look at until they've contributed their input this year so that they couldn't be biased by what they said last year. There might be some things like that. Asking some long term questions just doesn't come easily, but ecologists should be sophisticated enough now days that they should be able to do that.
E:
If they are paying attention perhaps. In the early years were most students involved with FRSES?
D:
In terms of organizing it it tended to be one person who marshelled a group of helpers and then they started creating, not dossiers, but portfolios of what it took to organize it so that portfolio kind of evolved over the years. But to start with, one person was really kind of in charge and then it became more of a committee type thing. I'm not sure how they do it now. Is there one person officially leading it, or is it just totally dispersed through committee?
E:
There is an executive committee: a president, a vice-president and treasurer and a secretary and then they each kind of just organize their minions I guess!
D:
Yeah, that is a very elaborated structure and that is something, again, that evolved.
E:
Thank you for taking this time.
D:
No problem, and check back to see if there is any more I can help you with too. And if I find or stumble upon anything I'll let you know.