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Science & Tech

Q&A: Dr. Charles Krebs on a lifetime of science

  • Oct 27, 2014
  • 523 words
  • 3 minutes
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For over fifty-five years, Dr. Charles Krebs has studied diverse mammal populations in the north. Among his groundbreaking achievements: he showed how a rodent-proof fence could impact the population increase of field mice; this fence effect was later dubbed the Krebs effect. In recognition of his life-long dedication to science, The W. Garfield Weston Foundation just awarded him with the Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research. Following the announcement, Dr. Charles Krebs talked with Canadian Geographic on the phone from his home on Mayne Island, BC, about what it’s like to win the largest award of its kind.

On winning the award
I think the Weston Foundation needs to have high marks for their support of northern research; I’m very honoured to get this prize. It’s nice to know that when you’re doing a lot of work it’s recognized. But science is a collaborative activity and I look back and see all the students and colleagues I worked with that helped me along the way.

On the allure of the North
The north is fascinating in terms of plants and animals and general ecology, but also has this other exploration element. That stuff always fascinated me when I was a kid.

On career
If you think of one’s career in life, it’s produced by a series of seemingly random encounters. You get hooked on things. If I look back 50 odd years, I can see myself thinking: ‘oh, I’ll solve this problem in five or so years’ and now it’s 50 years later, and you realize it’s such a complicated thing question to try and answer. But of course ecology is complicated.

On proudest moment
I’d say I’d be proudest of the Krebs effect. It just blew us all away. Inside the fence the [mice] population quadrupled and ate all the grass. And then they all starved to death. This is something you’d never see in the real world, but we all we did was cut off movement. How does that lead to a social system where they eat themselves out of house and home? It also brings up the issue of scale. What would happen if you made the fenced area bigger? At what point would you have a big enough world that you wouldn’t see this exchange?

On making the case for basic research
If someone asks me if my work has economic benefit I say absolutely none. And then they ask ‘well why are you doing it’ and I say that we need to understand the world we live in. It enriches our lives.

On advice for future scientists
Fall in love with your science. Follow your nose and there’s jobs. I think science is an incredible calling. It’s a global calling. When you’re doing research you’re finding things out that people will be reading for years. We’re trying to understand the world and hopefully that understanding will help improve our lives.

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