Moments with Russ

One of my undergraduate thesis advisors passed away in late October after a yearlong battle with cancer. I wrote this six-part entry to honor his research accomplishments and to thank him for being my teacher.

I.

The first time I met Russ, a triceratops almost made me late.

It was 2004, the fall of my junior year, and I was somewhere in D.C. trying to find the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Making my way down a private road, I suddenly came upon an enormous statue parked in the trees. No sign, no explanation. Just your average dinosaur. I stared, then hurried off to find the MBC a few hundreds yards away. Perhaps Russ and the others had passed it so often they no longer considered it a landmark. I like to think it was their way of saying hello.

A few months earlier, I had decided to embark on my senior thesis at Maryland. I don’t know if “decided” is the right word. Instead, I had allowed myself to be propelled, through that strange mix of encouragement and pressure in college, along the conveyor belt of undergraduate research. Ahead lay the vague defaults of grad school and professorship. Some reasons for this path were that I loved birds and bird-related work (good) and I was afraid and ignorant of other options (bad). But I think the larger incentive was that I was just hoping to belong somewhere, to that circle of academia inhabited by my parents and teachers, and so I wanted in on research for so long that I never really questioned why. The day I scrolled down the list of Maryland faculty, I found an adjunct professor who studied tropical birds. An email led to the MBC, which led to Russ.

I entered the double-wide trailer and was immediately intimidated by him. First, this was back when I still regarded professors as mystical beings. For eight months I called him Dr. Greenberg until someone in the field told me to stop it already. Second, his mannerisms were inscrutable to me. He was a tall, thin man with a hooked nose and a calm, bearded mouth. He favored baseball caps and old conference shirts under long-sleeved flannels. He was sparing with his words and facial expressions. I never actually heard him laugh. Instead, he would huff softly out his nose and fire back something quiet and clever. He was a master at deadpanning.

I didn’t know it then, but he was also a total rock star. He’d gotten his Ph.D. at Berkeley with a cohort I call the League of Extraordinary Ornithologists. His early work looked at all the things about a group of migratory birds called warblers. Gradually, while postdoc-ing with a Smithsonian researcher (the professor who’d referred him to me, in fact), the warblers turned to sparrows and the focus turned to neophobia, or fear of novel objects.

He found that habitat specialists were more afraid than habitat generalists of approaching unknown objects, potentially explaining why some species stay put while others expand their ranges. Two decades later, his work helped spark the field of animal “personalities,” or behavioral syndromes. (I know this literature because in 2007, I stumbled on his papers while picking the same topic for my Florida internship project. Upon realizing it was the same Russ Greenberg, my reaction was “Huh. Figures.”)

While continuing at the Smithsonian, he also moved into conservation and outreach. He’s the guy who brought us shade-grown coffee, which prevents clearcutting and habitat loss for wintering birds. He co-wrote one of the earliest papers about the threats facing migratory birds. Congress under George Bush Sr. approved funding to establish the Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo. He was appointed director. He founded International Migratory Bird Day and a huge educational initiative spanning two continents.

But to me, he will always be the person who introduced me to Web of Science. It’s our Google of journals, and it’s a classic moment in researcher initiation. I have thought of him every time I witness an undergrad learn about citations.

Since I had already done birdsong analysis with a Maryland postdoc, Russ suggested my project could compare the songs of a bird called the swamp sparrow. People knew that the coastal subspecies looked and sounded different from the inland subspecies. My project would ask: Were their songs systematically different, like dialects? And did they respond differently to their own vs. to foreign dialects? Bernie, the postdoc, agree to be my co-mentor. And we were off.

II.

It was May of junior year, my first day in the field. Russ had picked me up before dawn and was driving me to the Delaware tidal marsh. We crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and reached the site as the sun rose.

I was a total rookie. I had never seen or heard a swamp sparrow. I put my waders on backward. I didn’t realize the marsh was mushy and nearly fell in. I didn’t own binoculars and had to borrow his. I didn’t have a hat and got sunburned. Russ was cool with it all. He got me oriented and showed me how to watch and listen. I saw his head swivel whenever he heard a female chip, revealing the location of her nest.

Russ’s grad student Brian was also there, doing surveys for his own project, and Bernie had come out too, to teach me how to record songs and run playback experiments. I was astonished to see the experiments actually worked. We played songs on a male’s territory and watched him turn into a feathered ball of fury, spitting out songs and ricocheting off dead cattails in search of the intruder.

At the end of the day, Russ and Brian and I were standing in the marsh. Russ asked Brian, “Should we tell her about the deer flies and the greenheads?”

“What are greenheads?” I asked, dewy-eyed.

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This is a greenhead. They ignore DEET and their mouthparts slice your skin.

Brian looked at me like I was a lost baby animal. Russ said: “Mallards.”

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On the way back, Russ said he wanted to show me something and detoured to the Delaware Bay. We got out of the car and saw a combination of these pictures:

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(copyright Lukas Musher 2013)

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In front of us were piles of horseshoe crabs in all stages of reproduction, surrounded by little brown birds jackhammering the ground with their bills. It was a migration stopover site, teeming with shorebirds that had left southern Argentina a few weeks ago. They were flying nine thousand miles north, to the Arctic Circle, for the breeding season. Delaware was one of their final pit stops, and it happened to host one of the finest sources of fuel: the fatty eggs of the horseshoe crabs, which had come ashore to spawn. The timing was uncanny, and nobody knew how the birds did it. They called to each other against the crashing waves.

What I remember most, though, is Russ standing next to me and pointing out, one by one, all the species before us. I didn’t know yet that shorebird ID is so hard it routinely brings birders to their knees. (Especially during migration, when everything is a crazy mix of winter and breeding plumage, you basically want to burn your field guide and go home.) But Russ made it look effortless. Beyond identification, he also told me that increased crab harvesting for bait and pharmaceuticals was leading to a plunge in shorebird survival. Fortunately, there would soon be a moratorium on collecting. Finally, he asked if I knew that horseshoe crab blood was blue. As we headed home, I thought about how cool it was to hang out with someone in his element, who could decipher the scene in front of him and share with others what he saw.

We went out to the field once more. I spent my 21st birthday wearing waders while sober. (Not much has changed since then.) One week later, the semester ended and I drove out to start the official field season. It was my first solo road trip. With me were my first cell phone, my first digital camera, my first set of field clothes, and $500 of recording equipment purchased with my first grant. I liked it so much I’ve spent every summer in the field since then.

III.

As senior year began, I transcribed hours of tapes, went to class and thought about my future. Grad school was enough of an uncertainty that I chose to delay applications and focus on work. Every few months, I took the Metro from campus to D.C. to discuss my progress with Russ. I loved the mile-long walk to the MBC over the Duke Ellington Bridge, past dignified townhouses and around a playground filled with dust-bathing house sparrows. Near Thanksgiving I surfaced from the Metro to find the city covered with the first snowfall of the season. When spring came, the tree trunks dampened to rich black against a riot of green. I heard my first red-eyed vireo outside the center. Always the triceratops was there, guarding the little road to the double-wide trailer.

Russ and Bernie helped big-time with data analysis and drafts. They attended my poster session in March and my defense in May. (They passed me, which was nice.) Russ offered me a post-graduation job working with the Delaware crew and was gracious when I opted for something new in Maine. In October, he helped me prep for my first talk at my first conference. There I met his vast network of colleagues, including those for a project he was launching on a threatened species called the rusty blackbird. At his talk, he pitched his latest book, a hefty volume he’d co-edited on migration, by telling us to “go to Amazon and buy one for all your friends.”

When I finalized my plans, Bernie and Russ wrote recommendations for my applications to grad schools and internships. At the time, I was nuts over the prospect of working with the professor who is my current advisor. Russ broke from his usual reticence to suggest that I consider factors beyond the advisor, reminding me that people did things like move or pass away and that I should ensure other resources would help me succeed. I wondered if he was speaking from experience, and, for the first time, what his life was like before I knew him.

I went on my interviews. When I was at Miami in December, I caught a glimpse of Russ’s letter sticking out of my admissions file. In his last sentence, he had called me a winner.

IV.

After my senior thesis was published in the second year of grad school, I mostly kept in touch with Russ over Facebook. Soon after he joined, he invited me to a group called “Fans of the Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrow.” The posts were hilarious and weird.

A primer on our favorite sparrow:

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And one of his many digs at the zoo’s attention hogs:

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We saw each other in August 2012 at a major bird conference. I went to his talk on yet another new research program linking bill size and climate. One of his papers that described how sparrow bills enlarge during the breeding season was later mentioned during “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live.” You can only hope your results will be broadcast to seven million people.

And then it was September 2013, and we were back across the Bay Bridge at Washington College in Maryland.

V.

I found out about Russ’s illness at a one-day conference held to celebrate his work and 60th birthday. Several attendees had been generously given lodging at an old field house. As the place filled on Sunday night, I overheard odd phrases, gingerly spoken. The first time I feigned knowledge; the second time I felt uneasy. I pulled aside a friend I’d just made. We went upstairs and she told me about the cancer.

Being blindsided was hard. It was nobody’s fault. I had been out of the loop, and Facebook doesn’t tell you these things. The meeting was cast under an entirely different light. All I could think of was how to keep my composure the next day.

But the wonderful thing about a scientific meeting is the instinctive focus on research. As we entered the spacious faculty lounge, decked out like an awards banquet, our minds were distracted in just the right way. Of course the focus was punctured at times for everyone. The excitement over ideas, though, helped dim the emotional noise. (It didn’t hurt that the meeting had begun with four hours of birdwatching.)

What I will never forget was the sense of kinship in the room. It was amazing to see Russ’s scientific family returning to him for one final rally. Everyone from the MBC was there. The League of Extraordinary Ornithologists had flown in from Charlottesville, Berkeley, Ithaca. (They flashed photos of their shaggy-haired graduate days on the screen.) The emcee was one of the most famous names in cooperative breeding. Coworkers from Alaska, Indiana and Maine had arrived. Colleagues in Central America sent their regrets and greetings. A lot of speakers had independently come up with the phrase “What Would Russ Do?” in their talks. Close to 80 people showed up that day: professors, industry folks, federal scientists, postdocs and grad students, all of us counting Russ as our friend.

Wearing a Cal Bears cap, long-sleeved flannel and a Galápagos finch shirt from his field trip this summer, Russ was flanked by his wife, Judy, and his son in the front row. He got up twice, once to thank his own mentors and again to thank the meeting organizers. During breaks, he received a steady line of people who sat and talked with him. When I told him that I automatically flip to the citations every time I see a “Greenberg” reference, he said, “You might have missed my work in computer science.”

The meeting ended with a banquet under a gazebo overlooking the chilly Chester River. For a while it felt like the closing of a normal conference, where we caught up with old colleagues over food and drinks. But the poignancy returned, sharply, when Russ and his family got up to go back to their hotel. How do you hug someone knowing there won’t be a next time? What do you say when, literally, this is it?

I fumbled my moment and blurted something about research updates. I watched one of the oldest attendees, a 78-year-old man, depart from the embrace with his eyes full of tears. I watched Russ descend the stairs into the night. And then, all of us wielding our marvelous ability to compartmentalize, we went back to the party.

In the words of Samuel Beckett, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

GS
(photo by N. Diggs)

VI.

In the days after the meeting, I found the CaringBridge site that Judy created after Russ’s diagnosis last November. Her thoughtful entries detailed Russ’s condition, their rebounds and obstacles, and all the papers and grants accepted while he was in treatment. One post featured a photo of them on their wedding day, beaming next to the man and woman who had married them. Upon closer inspection, I realized I’d had an entire conversation with the couple while waiting for dinner. I felt like Harry Potter learning the true connections between the adults in his life. What other milestones had been shared among the people in that room?

I did manage to see Russ once more. The reasons were selfish—I didn’t want the conference to be the last time I saw him. I couldn’t bear the thought of letting more time slip away, not when so much already had. I felt guilty it took an illness to get back in touch. I felt worse admitting my tendency was to take teachers, even the most influential, for granted. In the time that was left, I wanted him to know how much he mattered to me.

Ray, the postdoc who had organized the conference, helped arrange the visit to Russ and Judy’s home. Russ was pretty sleepy that day and I wasn’t the most articulate, but we had good moments anyway. I dropped off a letter from a friend who’d also worked with him. I recounted the time he told me greenheads were mallards. (He said, “I’ve changed the protocol.”) When it came time to leave, I looked at him looking at me as I went out the door.

Shortly after that, Russ entered a hospice facility for a brief stay. He bounced back and went home, but soon he returned to the facility for professional care. I was in my office when I got the call from Ray.

==

The night I returned from the conference, I read a New Yorker article about the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn DOMA. One of the last lines read, “To give someone a really beautiful death is the greatest gift.” Perhaps the main source of comfort is that we were able to give Russ that gift. The conference was gratitude at its deepest. We thanked him for being.

The other comfort is that Russ is still mentoring me. Thinking of his productivity motivates me through this final stretch of grad school; thinking of his generosity encourages me to keep paying it forward. Thinking of his life leads me to the answer, at last, of why I do research: for the joy of discovery, and of sharing it, and of making my way down forested private roads.

I’ll let Russ close this post with one of his own, in the spirit of the approaching season. Love to a researcher who cared about his work. Love to a teacher who cared about the people he worked with. Let my words and my science be my way of saying goodbye.

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One response to “Moments with Russ

  1. I’ll remember those days in the Delaware Swamp with Russ as the most fun. We always knew that we would learn a lot on those days.

    I found out about his death the day that I lived out one of my teenage dreams, to have my name printed in Behavioral Ecology (why do they use the American spelling?). Not only that but in a cover article. Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrows are the last bird I’ve worked on, making our season with Russ my last field season.

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