Toby Holda joined INHS on April 25 as a large river fisheries ecologist. During his undergraduate studies, he worked with the Kaskaskia Biology Station and other INHS staff as an intern and an undergraduate researcher. Last spring, Toby returned to INHS as an aquatic field technician sampling fish communities with the Illinois River Biological Station (IRBS). Before transitioning to his current role this April, Toby spent some of his time at IRBS engaged in academic writing projects related to the predation of silver carp by native fishes in the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.
What is your background before coming to work at the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS)?
Most immediately, I earned my Master's degree from Cornell University studying mysid shrimp ecology in the Great Lakes. I had originally decided to pursue a Ph.D. but transitioned away from that to focus on fish as a technician at the Illinois River Biological Station (IRBS) before moving up into my current position as a large river fisheries ecologist. Prior to that, I earned my undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois in natural resources and environmental sciences and have generally spent most of my life’s education and employment moving in the fisheries/aquatics research and fieldwork direction.
What are you looking forward to the most in your new role at INHS?
Getting to continue sampling fish in the field, especially the long toothy fishes (gars, bowfin, etc.). I’m also looking forward to continuing working with the folks at IRBS and to the opportunity to continue developing research skills like writing and analysis.
How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?
I remember being interested with I was five or six years old, but I was probably interested before that. I don’t know exactly what sparked my interest, but I suppose I was always curious and tried to work out in my head how things worked or why things were the way they were.
What drew you to study fishes?
I don’t remember what drew me to study fish, but I am told I was drawn to fish since I first saw a fish tank at a dentist’s office. I remember always being fascinated by life underwater, including catching and raising some invertebrates in my younger days. I always liked to go fishing or read about going fishing and have always enjoyed watching and handling fish in small aquaria or in the wild. That said, I remember saying I didn’t want to grow up and work in a cubicle but wanted to grow up and work outside.
What are common misconceptions about your career?
During my time on the Great Lakes, I noticed people tended to think a population isn’t worth monitoring unless it’s threatened or invasive. I'd say I was monitoring mysid shrimp in the Great Lakes and people would ask, “Why? Are they invasive, or are they going extinct?”
No and no. However, you cannot know if a population becomes threatened unless you are monitoring it before it gets to that point. So they are important to keep track of anyway.
“Why? Do people eat them?”
No, but the fish do and they help keep our Great Lakes ecosystems healthy.
In the past year, I’ve told people I work at IRBS with INHS, and they think: A) that I work for the state Dept. of Natural Resources rather than the university, and B) that my job goal is to manage fish populations (i.e., remove bigheaded carps) rather than to understand their ecology.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?
I don’t know about others, but I wish that I had understood that ‘research’ has at least as much (if not far more) to do with reading books and papers and literature than it has to do with collecting data from field studies or experiments. I suppose Dorothy Ann from the Magic School Bus always said, “according to my research,” in reference to the reading she had done, but when I heard, ‘research,’ I always envisioned experimental trials or maybe field collections, but certainly not reading, thinking, synthesizing, and writing. I’ve had to adjust to that – and part of that has meant finding a place where I could have a heavy fieldwork component even if I was also doing research reading and writing.
What do you wish more people understood about science or being a scientist?
I wish more people really knew how important philosophy is to science. You have to have a common-sense philosophical outlook to go about scientific inquiry. Many people seem to think you can study something scientifically without having first brought a philosophical outlook to the table, or even that scientifically-deduced conclusions can be the foundation for a fundamental philosophical outlook. While there is of course some interplay, the ultimate foundation for anything we conclude according to the scientific method depends on the (common-sense) philosophical assumption that our perceptions of the world are accurate observations about a real world that actually exists as it appears to exist (rather than being mere phantoms of our imagination à la The Matrix).
My point is not to argue for people to adhere to the assumption that they can trust their eyes and ears (I think most people do), but rather to argue for people to genuinely acknowledge in their intellectual thought life that such an assumption is a philosophical position and is a prerequisite for the thing we call scientific inquiry. Yes, philosophy matters to science; that is why its highest-ranking individuals are called doctors of philosophy.
What advice would you give to future scientists?
Don’t worry about a career title (“scientist”) and the type of person it makes you think of. Worry instead about what each job actually involves. Something may sound cool and prestigious from the outside, but from the inside, you may find you don’t actually like the day-to-day work of it. Try a few different things out early via volunteer opportunities, job shadowing, or temporary positions. You will find out what each job actually involves, and will be equipped to pursue the job(s) that you find you actually love to do. Then, pursue what you like with all you’ve got. If you work hard at it, chances are that you’ll help others and enjoy your life along the way. And if you get started on something you like and do well at it, folks who already do that job (or something similar) will notice you and you’ll be on their radar when opportunities open up.