Episode Twenty Nine | Working on a dream (job)

Listen to Episode 29:

A freshwater ecologist tasked with making his research more accessible discovers an unlikely muse in Bruce Springsteen. A medical ethnobotanist seeks new cures for super bugs in the natural world after her own near-death brush with a bacterial infection. This week, stories about the noble pursuit of knowledge—and how that often leads to some surprising discoveries about ourselves.

Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

Working on a dream (job) A disciple of science and Springsteen discovers he was born to pun

An extended audio version of this story can be heard on Episode 29 of Work in Progress, Slack’s podcast about the meaning and identity we find in work.

Freshwater ecologist Ian J. Winfield studies lake fish such as char and carp — not exactly the sort of climate change-adjacent topic that gets much media attention. He also happens to be a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. “Scientists are humans, so this kind of interest in things other than science is not unusual,” he jokes.

It makes sense that a scholar with a serious profession would have high-minded listening habits. But Winfield became an unlikely hype man for The Boss and took many in the scientific community by surprise when he started penning editorials laced with Springsteen lyrics for an academic journal.

For example, his 2016 editorial for the journal Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems opens with lyrics from the 1980 Springsteen song, “Two Hearts.” In the piece, Winfield urges collaboration between freshwater fish conservationists and fisheries managers — the joining of two disciplines, or as the song says, “Two hearts, girl, get the job done.”

“The editorial is supposed to be something a bit thought provoking, not just a normal scientific paper,” Winfield explains. Plus, he wanted to make environmental research more interesting and widely accessible. By incorporating Springsteen references into his scholarly writing and fishy tweets, he’s done just that.

For nearly 30 years, Winfield has been using methods such as hydroacoustics to study fish habitats in Windermere, England’s largest natural lake, about halfway between Liverpool and Edinburgh, Scotland. Winfield notes there is a wide, useful variety of freshwater fish species to study, including arctic char and the carp-like rut. “We have a real cross-section of fish species and communities, and that helps [with looking at] the early impacts of climate change,” he says.

Ian Winfield at Windermere / Photo credit Lily Ames

Winfield has been a Bruce Springsteen fan for even longer than he’s been researching freshwater ecosystems. The son of a railway man, he grew up in a small, seaside England town with a deep-sea port favored by North Sea fishermen. In the 1970s, during disputes over fishing rights in the North Atlantic, his hometown economy took a dive.

As he climbed the academic ranks and moved to Sweden and Northern Ireland during the 1980s, Winfield discovered a musician speaking directly to the small-town, flagging industry woes he’d witnessed. He fell in love with the way the rock legend used music to address substantive topics like the disconnect between people’s desire to live large versus the hardscrabble reality many face — far headier subjects than typical boy-meets-girl pop songs.

“His universality is in its specificity,” Winfield says of Springsteen. “He paints very detailed pictures of his life, but they’re addressing the same general things that you’re addressing in your life.”

As a scientist, Winfield observes parallels between his research and what Springsteen’s music often addresses.

“Dealing with climate change is very similar to dealing with the loss of the steel industry in your town,” says Winfield. “It’s something that is bigger than the individual and their immediate family, but it’s going to affect the family level at some stage in the future.”

He adds, “Life as an environmental scientist, you have to cope with uncertainty.”

In addition to planning for unpredictable results, another part of being a researcher is publishing. Scientific papers are data-driven documents that must conform to specific parameters. With opinion pieces, one has more leeway.

A photograph of a warm sandy coastline. Ian Winfield operating the hydroacoustics system at Windermere / Image courtesy of Ian Winfield

Winfield can’t remember which Springsteen lyric he first employed in an editorial — ”maybe one making specific reference to catfish” — but he’s pleased his experiment yielded such positive results. “The practical application of a lot of science is getting the word out.”

Relating Springsteen lyrics to hard science became Winfield’s calling card for writers wanting to interview him about his work. “[Journalists] want enthusiasm, they want excitement, they want tension, they want to build jeopardy. Scientists are not tremendously good at doing that.” By slipping Springsteen into those conversations, he found a way to amuse himself as well as entice reporters and readers.

Ian Winfield escorting Prince Charles at the World Fisheries Congress in Edinburgh, May 2012 / Image courtesy of Ian Winfield

There’s only one environment where Winfield won’t consider listening to Springsteen: when he’s out surveying and enjoying the lake district. “I’ve never put things in my ears when I’m out in the natural environment,” he says solemnly. “I don’t think I would do that.”

Work in Progress story produced by Lily Ames.

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