The Secrets to Prolific Publishing: Fish and Friendship

Isaac Wirgin and John Waldman (Credit: The Graduate Center, Isaac Wirgin/John Waldman)

Professor John Waldman (GC/Queens, Biology) has deep roots in what he calls “the watery world,” especially the watery world around New York. He grew up playing along Long Island Sound in the Bronx and now lives near the water on Long Island. He received his Ph.D. from The Graduate Center in 1986 and continues to see the beauty and promise — and the challenges — in the waters that surround our shores, from New York harbor to Jamaica Bay, and beyond.
Waldman calls himself an “aquatic conservation biologist” and has dedicated his career to studying, protecting, and reviving marine life. He is the author of several popular books and was recently awarded a SEED grant from the Advanced Science Research Center at The Graduate Center to support his work on means to remove hydroelectric dams on rivers while maintaining electricity production. Waldman has also penned numerous New York Times op-eds and published 100 academic articles on marine environmental science.
To date, nearly 50 of those articles have been co-authored with fellow Graduate Center alumnus and longtime friend Isaac (Ike) Wirgin (Ph.D. ’87, Biology), an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine at the New York University School of Medicine who focuses on molecular approaches to understanding fish population structure and contaminant effects in fish.
The Graduate Center recently asked Waldman and Wirgin how The Graduate Center planted the seeds of their friendship and scholarly collaboration.
Waldman: We did not take classes together, but we were both in the biology doctoral program and were both based at City College. We are both passionate anglers, and once we learned of each other’s interests in fishing and in the status of fish populations in the New York region, we became friends. This included occasional fishing trips together, locally, and even as far as Lake Ontario and Florida.
Wirgin: We both shared a love of fishes, and particularly striped bass, which at that time were near historic lows and resulted in a total coastwise moratorium in their harvest. At the time, the use of molecular tools to define the population structure of fishes and other organisms had just come on board, so my Ph.D. thesis focused on the use of mitochondrial DNA analysis to investigate the genetic population structure of striped bass.

Waldman: Early on we talked about means with which to identify particular populations of striped bass, which led to our co-authoring a review paper on that subject. Although I had worked on a classical morphology-based dissertation and Ike was pursuing molecular approaches to questions of fish biology, I quickly saw the power of his DNA-based methods and became intrigued, essentially becoming an external member of his lab. (I actually spent parts of two years in his lab doing bench work, but was not a natural at it; he termed me a “liability.”)
The Graduate Center: How did your collaboration grow from your time at The Graduate Center?
Waldman: That review paper led to many more, with my role including contributing to research ideas, proposal writing, data analysis, crafting of journal articles, and delivering talks. We each had our own separate areas of investigation too, but came together mainly (but not exclusively) on those river-sea migratory fish. I also included Ike in a 10-day EPA-funded fact-finding mission I made with a small group to the Dneiper River in Ukraine.
When (and slightly before) I finished my Ph.D., I worked for 20 years at the Hudson River Foundation. Conducting research and publishing is rarely accomplished at a foundation, but I managed through collaborations and independent initiatives to produce about 50 journal articles, plus a book titled Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor. This book led to an invitation to speak at Queens College in 1984, which then led to a remarkable offer of full professor with tenure in 2004. After finishing his Ph.D., Ike took a postdoctoral position at NYU Medical Center in Tuxedo, New York, which turned into a permanent position. Over that entire period I continued to collaborate with Ike.
Wirgin: Our articles emanate from molecular data that my lab generates, and both of us analyze. Most often funding agencies choose the species we research and write about based on what projects they are willing to support. We usually pick species and topics that are of interest to the management of fishing communities. Writing is a joint venture. John is a superb writer so having him on board is a big plus in terms of the quality of the manuscripts.
John often provides me with the more “big picture” importance and relevance of our studies than I might conjure up myself. My lab is and has always been very molecular-oriented, and he keeps me more grounded as to the management and evolutionary significance of our work.
Waldman: At this time we have published 47 papers together, have one in review, and two in progress. I believe this is highly unusual in that we never actually worked for the same organization and almost never under the same roof.
The Graduate Center: Do you two still fish together?
Wirgin: We both still fish, but very rarely together anymore. He has evolved into more of a shore-based fly fisherman, and I have maintained my interest in more mundane local ground fishing from my boat that I keep at a local marina. But we never stop talking fish and fishing!

Submitted on: JAN 6, 2020

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