A Conversation with Tim Sheehan
In the fifth in a series of conversations between staff at the Conservation Biology Institute, Tim Sheehan, Ecological Modeler at CBI, shares with Ann Van Zee, Communications Specialist, about changing careers more than anyone he knows, a vision of a different kind of retirement, and the power of the everyday hero.
Describe your job in 5 words.
Computer modeling of ecological impacts.
That could mean a lot of things. There are two main avenues of what I do. They both involve a lot of computer programming, a lot of work on the computer and quite a bit of data analysis. The first is modeling vegetation under different climate change scenarios and across different regions. Most of the work I’ve done is on the conterminous United States- the lower 48. I’ve concentrated on the Northwest with some of my data analyses. The work has included modifying the code- adding some things, taking some out, fixing some bugs- getting historical and projected climate data, making sure that data aren’t corrupted and that they are in the right format. When the data are run, I look at what comes out the other end to understand the implications. Of course I make it sound like I do this all on my own, but I am part of a team that works together very closely on all aspects of the vegetation modeling.
The other main avenue I pursue is something called decision support modeling. That is taking inputs of many different types- for instance you might look at the number of roads through an area and the number of oil wells and mines in an area, the soils data from the area to determine how sensitive the area might be to change as well as projected climate change over the area- and running them through a system that does something called fuzzy logic modelling. Usually the results guide decisions about what areas are most intact or pristine and most at risk. That information can help land managers like people from the BLM, the Forest Service or the National Park Service make decisions about what areas need greater protection, what areas might be suitable for restoration, and what areas may be better suited for siting things like renewable energy- wind and solar plants.
What are 5 words that best describe you?
Creative, curious, impatient, driven, and educated.
I tend to be a creative problem solver and I can usually, given a goal and a certain set of tools- be that in the physical world or the software world- solve a problem. Sometimes I use baling wire and duct tape and other times I find something a little more elegant.
What led you to where you are in your career? Did you always want to be an ecological modeler?
I have changed careers more times than anyone I know. I delayed college for a year or so out of high school and I worked in a Kmart first in home improvement then in shoes. Then I went to school. I was a geologist for a while, then an independent computer consultant. I went back to school to get a degree in computer science. I was a scientific computer programmer for a while. Life shifted and I ended up working for financial institutions or trading institutions, including NASDAQ, for about 5 years. After that, a very short and unsuccessful career as a potter. I went back to school again and got a master’s degree in biology so I could work as an ecological modeler for an organization such as CBI. Did I always want to be an ecological modeler? No. Have I wanted to be an ecological modeler for quite a while? Yes.
Do you enjoy being so specialized after quite a few years of trying different things?
The cool thing about ecological modeling is that it is a specialty but it is also broad. You could do it and do very little computer programming work. You could do it and do only computer programming work. Or you could do it and have a foot in all kinds of different areas. I think that’s where I find myself. I know enough about computers to write the programs or help direct the writing of the programs so that they not only do what we want now and into the future- so that they will be robust. I am also always learning more about the science behind it and the results from other teams. I feel like I have the computer aspect pretty well wired. I still enjoy doing that, at least most of the time. And then I have the side of it which I think I will be learning for the rest of my life.
If you weren’t an ecological modeler, what would you want to be? Do you ever ask this question or do you feel you’ve already had a chance to explore other careers?
If I weren’t doing this, I would be doing this. I’m starting to reach the age where I have to think about retirement and I’ve decided “No”. If someone came along and said money was not an issue, I would certainly do this part time. I would work on the parts that interest me the most. But I would keep doing it. I would also do some pottery, and some writing, and build kayaks, and probably do some other wood working. I would spend a little more time hiking and kayaking. I’d probably travel a little more.
So your vision of retirement is not Florida with black shoes and white socks?
No, my vision of retirement is during the summer get up in the morning and go for a paddle. Then do some work during the day and go for a walk in the evening. In the winter, perhaps substitute working on the kayak or throwing a few pots, but also working on these projects.
What is your favorite aspect about your career?
In my career I’ve had the opportunity to work on a couple of big projects. When I was at Oak Ridge National Lab, I was on the team that bought and managed what was then the world’s most powerful computer. There’s something about being on a project that big, that hard, that involved, that involves so many people... I remember once it was all done and things were running I went up to the machine room. I had a program running on the computer- and I went up there for about 20 minutes and looked at it and reminded myself that I was part of this and here we have this machine that we were using to push science forward, push technology forward. And just to sit back and enjoy the fact that I helped get that there.
That’s one of the things that happens at CBI, too. We do some projects that are fairly involved. When the maps are put together and the report is written and the data is up and available for people to look at- just to know that I was a part of that project and helped move it forward and helped get it done. I don’t have a machine room to go look at the big machine in, but I do have the opportunity to peruse the data on the web. I know there are people out there using that data for good. It’s a big project and when it’s done, there is something to look at and the benefits of that will outlive the project. That’s probably deep down my favorite part of the work. It’s when the monolith gets out there and you know you helped put it out there.
It’s interesting to think that the data provided could affect a decision that could put into place actions that could affect generations.
We did these Rapid Ecological Assessments for the Bureau of Land Management. The two we worked on were the Colorado Plateau and the Sonoran Desert. I was thinking about the Colorado Plateau- I used to live in Colorado- and I spent a lot of time in some great places. I was thinking to myself this is going to influence what lands are preserved and how the lands are preserved. I was projecting into the future and thinking 100 years from now, a cougar may well walk across part of that area and have habitat in that area and maybe I helped that. Maybe there are going to be cougars where there wouldn’t have been, thanks to our work.
What has been the most fulfilling project or experience you have had in your career?
I don’t have one. I think it’s good not to have one. (Laughing) I don’t want to be a one hit wonder. I don’t want to feel like my life or career peaked when I was, if not 25, when I was 35.
We did a project at Oak Ridge where we linked our computer to a similarly sized computer at Sandia National Labs. We entered that into a competition at the annual Super-Computing Conference. There were 5 category awards. We won one of the more visible awards and we were told we almost won all 5. Career visibility wise, that was probably the most visible thing I was in on and I actually led that effort. When I look back on that thing I think, ‘Yeah, that was a good thing’. It certainly was a visible thing. Then I look at some of the things I have done here- I developed the decision support software we use. That decision support software is used for virtually every project we do now. Which is the bigger deal? And by whose standards? When I look back at the career I’ve had and hopefully later when I look back again, I’m not one to look at recognition as much as someone who looks at what good was hopefully done.
Do you have a conservation hero?
I don’t have one conservation hero. I know there are many leaders who stand out in the field of conservation but I think this may go with my attitude of is it visibility or quiet leadership or the front lines of who’s doing battle? I was in New Zealand this summer. About an hour or so by ferry from Auckland there is an island called Tiritiri Matangi. I’m going to ask, have you ever heard of it?
I have not.
You’ve heard of Aldo Leopold. You’ve heard of other people. But you haven’t heard of Tiritiri Matangi. The government owned this island. There was an agricultural leasehold on it that was running out in the late 70’s, early 80’s. So, a couple of conservationists asked for the island to do a reserve. New Zealand did not have predators and hence much of what evolved on these islands is very ill suited to stand up to predators. Rats and stoats, it turns out, are two of the worst things, so the kiwi population and tuatara population have plummeted as well as many other birds including the takahe. These two or three people asked to make this a reserve and apparently the government said “Sure, you’re on your own.” They planted almost 300,000 trees on this island that is only just a few square miles in size. The takahe bird was believed to be extinct until a small population was discovered on the South New Zealand Island. There is a breeding population on Tiritiri Matangi now such that it is more birds than the island can support. These birds, in a natural setting, are coming back and providing breeding pairs for other reserves. The tuatara is there. The kiwi is there. They monitor the island for rats and stoats and other invasives. They are saving one of the rarest animals on the face of the earth there and other endangered species like the wood pigeon. So there are a lot of conservation heroes and these include the people who start the large organizations but it also includes the people who quietly manage to get an island to turn into a reserve and then turn around to marshal the volunteer forces to repopulate the island with native vegetation and native species. And beyond that you have the foot soldiers who went out there and took their time to plant these trees and restore this island and the people who maintain the island and maintain the educational programs. They’re not heroes in the sense that they were the ones who made it happen but these are people who have limited time and limited resources and it’s important enough for them to volunteer. I don’t think there’s any one hero out there who did it by themselves. You have to give credit to everyone who planted a tree. Everyone who drew a map.
A lot of people, when answering the previous question, say their conservation hero is the person or writings of someone who steered them in this direction. When you were steering yourself towards a masters in biology, was that just a stirring within yourself that compelled you to go into this direction or were you being exposed to some type of experience or writing?
From a very young age, I was pretty aware of the losses we were experiencing in the natural world. It probably comes in part from growing up in a suburban area that got infilled. From a young age the worldview was that you have places where people live and places where nature lives and really it was just undeveloped land. Friends and I would go snake hunting and go to the pond to see if we could chase some frogs. It was a very direct vision of here’s someplace we used to walk through, catch snakes, see birds or there used to be some turtles there and now you turn around and it’s a discount store.
I know there were messages out there certainly that influenced me but it’s not like I read A Sand County Almanac and thought, “This is my calling.” I would’ve probably been at this a lot earlier had it been. To some extent, after my years at NASDAQ, I did something that I should have done many, many years earlier and should have done the first time I went to college. I gave myself permission to do this. I gave myself permission to not worry about money. I gave myself permission to put my passion first.
If you could be the most influential person in the world, what would you change?
If I could change one thing, I would change the way society approaches challenges. What I would want to do is force the debate to be honest and informed and to hold the feet of those making decisions to the fire such that when they consider the various sides of a debate, that they do so without an agenda, without a preconceived notion, and honestly considering the evidence. It has gotten to the point where everybody has an agenda and if you try to go into a political argument without an agenda, you are going to lose because the other side has such an intransigent position that if you don’t have an intransigent position then, y’know… “the definition of compromise is my way.” People don’t know the facts anymore. Those who produce facts that are counter to someone’s agenda are vilified, are called names, punished, they can lose their jobs for speaking the facts. There are limits placed on scientists and if you can’t have scientists being open, honest, and free you have lost the ability to make informed decisions.
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned in life? How did you learn them?
I may be slow but it seems like I’m still trying to figure out these things.
You don’t always have to do it yourself but you do have to make sure it gets done. I am the child of children of the depression. My Dad grew up certainly not well off. He was a very smart and creative man. He could do anything and by that I mean home improvement work, work on cars, build something. If something extraordinarily heavy had to move from Point A to Point B, it was going to get there safely and the solution was always simple and elegant. If you needed a cabinet in the garage, you built a cabinet in the garage. If you needed wallpaper, he was going to put the wallpaper in. He could frame the wall, put the electric in, put the plumbing in. I think I spent a lot of years thinking you had to do it yourself. This is kind of your identity- if this needs doing, you have to do it yourself. I think this also carried over into my work. Well, this needs doing, I need to write this program. I came to learn you can’t do it all yourself otherwise you’re going to be very limited by what you are going to achieve in the long term. But then comes the next lesson, you still have to be sure it gets done because not everyone has the work ethic or talent that you think they do. More often than not, it’s not a matter of work ethic or talent, but a matter of communication. Making sure it gets done is a matter of communicating not just at the beginning but on an ongoing basis.
If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?
I would say relax and slow down. If I could tell myself one thing now, it would be to relax and slow down.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever done?
A couple of things come to mind. When I was in my late teens and early 20’s, I did a lot of caving and rock climbing. Maybe that was a little daring. Once I did a climb that by today’s standards is laughable but we spent a night on a ledge on a cliff tied in. But really, the most daring thing I’ve ever done is fall in love. I mean, you talk about something where the risks are high as are the rewards. I would have to say, it’s that.
What do you enjoy most about working at CBI?
The people here. It’s a smart and interesting group of people. You look at how smart these people are in their jobs, which is pretty awe inspiring in itself, but then you ask what did you do over the weekend? And you have people like Ken who’s an expert kayaker. You look at Dominique who, as a vacation, bicycled 800 miles across France. You’ve got someone like Nik who sat down at one of these public pianos and it was like being at a concert. He also tap dances. It’s just really interesting to be around people like that. When you’re not talking about work, you’re talking about fascinating things that people not just know about, but do.
Yes, there’s not a lot of chit chat about the weather here.
No. There’s a lot about the climate, but not about the weather!