Aquatic ecologist Zeb Hogan travels around the world, striving to save critically endangered fish and the livelihood of people who share their habitats. Get to know the man behind the megafishes.
Q: What were you like as a kid?
Hogan: My brothers and I grew up in a city (Tempe, Arizona), but we had a big backyard with lots of trees. We spent our free time climbing trees and catching lizards. We each had our favorite place in the biggest tree and we worked out ways to climb from tree to tree to tree without ever touching the ground. My family went camping in the summer and we'd usually visit zoos and aquariums on our family vacations. My clearest memories as a child all have to do with animals and the outdoors. As I got older, I became fascinated with animal shows on public television and I'd wake up early to watch Wild, Wild World of Animals before the rest of the family got up.
Q: Do you have a hero?
Hogan: I know it'll sound like a cliché, but as a kid I loved hearing about Jacques Cousteau. My mom bought me one of his books and I read it over and over again. I also liked how in his early shows, he focused more on catching (and killing) fish, but as he got older (and other members of his family got involved in his work) they changed from wanting to catch the fish to trying to protect them. Nowadays my heroes are people who are obviously passionate about their work and those who are working, in their own way, to make the world a better place. Personally, I have a special feeling for anyone who loves rivers and aquatic life and I guess one role model is the late Ransom A. Myers, who was a dedicated biologist and conservationist. Honestly though, I am even more impressed by everyday people that I meet who show a love for animals and the environment. It's obvious that biologists will care about living things but what we really need is more non-biologists who take an interest in protecting our natural world. Kids are great in the sense that they have a love and a curiosity about animals and the outdoors that somehow we lose as adults.
Q: What do you daydream about?
Hogan: This summer I have been daydreaming a lot about my garden. I planted it a month ago. It has tomatoes, peppers, chilies, eggplant, herbs, cucumbers, watermelons, and pumpkin. It hasn't started producing vegetables yet. I find myself daydreaming about picking vegetables and also simple things, like which plants need water or which plants are sick. It's an obsession really.
Q: How did you get into your field of work?
Hogan: The simple answer to that question is: I've always done what I love, which led to where I am now. Whenever I've had choices, I've chosen the path that made me excited, that interested me more, or that piqued my curiosity. I'm hesitant to recommend that approach though, because there is hard work involved and not everything that I've ever done has been enjoyable. Plus, I probably would have benefited from a little more hard work in my life, if you know what I mean. (I'm a little lazy.) Still, in a world where it's difficult to know what to do or where life may take you, following your heart isn't a bad approach.
I followed a very typical path for an academic research scientist. I received a Bachelor's degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Arizona, participated in the Fulbright Program as an exchange student to Thailand, studied for a Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis in their Graduate Group in Ecology, and then continued as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. While not all students need to follow this exact path, it is important for all aspiring aquatic ecologists to receive good grades and have a relatively well-articulated idea of their research interests.
Q: What's a normal day like for you?
Hogan: It's hard to describe a typical day because every day is different. When I am in my office at the university, I spend my time reading and responding to emails, making plans, buying equipment, meeting with students, attending seminars, writing reports, submitting grants, and preparing scientific manuscripts.
When I am in the field, I spend almost all of my time on or near the water. In Southeast Asia, most of my field sites are near populated areas and I rely on fishers to help gather the information that I need. In Cambodia, I stay in Phnom Penh and usually go to the river twice a day (once in the morning and once in the evening). We own a small boat and take it along the river to meet with as many fishers as possible. If the fishers catch an endangered fish, we work with them to get the fish tagged and released back into the water. I also interview all the fishers that I meet to ask them about their catches and the abundance of endangered species. By evening, my team and I usually return to a hotel or guesthouse in a town or village on the riverside. In Mongolia, we work with recreational fishers to gather information about the ecology of the world's largest trout. In a typical day, we wake up at 7 a.m., go out on the river about 9 a.m., spend the day tagging and releasing fish, return to camp at 6 p.m., clean up, and eat. At night, we take care of work-related chores (charge batteries, enter data, fix equipment, make calls by satellite phone) and prepare for the next day. Working in Mongolia is especially interesting because we live in Mongolian yurts, eat traditional food, and rely on solar energy to power our equipment. Temperature can drop to zero degrees late in the season, so it is sometimes a challenge just to keep our equipment and ourselves in good condition.
Since the National Geographic Society funds most of my work, I also spend some of my time working with them to produce news stories or shows for television. I enjoy working with National Geographic because it gives me a chance to share my experiences with a large number of people that might not otherwise have the opportunity to learn about threatened fish and their habitats.
Q: What do you do for fun or to be silly?
Hogan: Mostly I do what everyone else does, hang out with their friends, watch movies, read, work in my garden, mountain bike, hike, and swim. I also spend a lot of my free time with activities semi-related to my work—helping other scientists with their projects, visiting aquariums, viewing fish at dams and fish ladders, fishing, watching other people fish, or just sitting by on the river bank and watching the world go by.
Q: If you were a fish, what kind would you want to be?
Hogan: The kind that people don't eat! Fish in most parts of the world have a tough life. Fish like the Mekong giant catfish, the Chinese paddlefish, and the Murray cod are in danger of extinction and have to deal with all kinds of challenges. They have to deal with water pollution, avoid being caught and eaten, navigate around dams and irrigation canals (often impossible), and find a mate. It's nearly impossible for them to survive. So…if I had to be a fish I'd like to be a giant Eurasian trout living in a remote area. The giant Eurasian trout live in the clear waters of northern Mongolia and can live over 50 years. The only downside is that they have to live under ice for half the year when the river is frozen. It would also be fun to be a giant grouper or even a great white shark, as long as there weren't any humans around to catch me.
Q: What's the best place you've ever traveled to?
Hogan: The Okavango Delta in Botswana. But you don't have to travel all the way across the world to see beautiful places. Some of my favorite spots are in the U.S.A.—the slot canyons of northern Arizona and southern Utah, the freshwater springs of central Florida, the Yuba River in California, the swimming holes around Eugene, Oregon, and the Hudson River in New York State are also wonderful.
Q: What's the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you that you can share with others?
Hogan: Terry Goddard, a former mayor of the city of Phoenix once told me, "You aren't pushing yourself hard enough or taking enough risks unless you fail 50 percent of the time." While I don't agree with him 100 percent, I like the saying, because it means it's okay to take risks, it's okay to fail. I think that those have been important lessons for me and remembering his words helps ease the pain that I feel when I'm not successful.
Q: Do you like to swim? What's your favorite swimming stroke?
Hogan: I love swimming! I love any kind of swimming and love to do it anywhere. I like free style swimming, breaststroke, and doggy paddling. I like to see how long I can hold my breath and I love to SCUBA dive. I love the water!