10 Questions with Professor Bobbi Low

Originally published: 
May, 2017

Pictured right: Professor Bobbi Low eating a whichety grub (the larvae of a moth in Central Australia), traditionally found by Arunta women. Said Prof. Low, "On a recent trip in March, no one else would try them!"

Professor Bobbi Low works in evolutionary and behavioral ecology, studying resource control and reproductive success in vertebrates (including humans). She integrates evolutionary theory and resource management, studies resources and reproductive variance, and reproductive and resource tradeoffs for modern women.

In 1972, she became the first full-time female faculty member at the School of Natural Resources.

1. Evolutionary psychology suggests sex differences in natural resource use. Men tend to be risk prone and short-term while women are risk averse and take the long term approach when it comes to natural resource use. Research supports this hypothesis. How would you suggest we take these findings and convert them into policies that take a gender approach to conservation? How we do we get policy makers to include evolutionary psychology into natural resource and conservation policies? - Clive Lipchin, PhD 2003

Clive raises an interesting point. I’m reminded of a couple of studies in which individual men and women were shown pictures that they were asked to rank as: "This is a good place" or "this is not." Men were relatively insensitive to smoke coming out of smokestacks in the background. Women were not. Men were relatively insensitive to litter on the beach. Women were not. And there are data that show that in order to live in a really pristine environment, women will sacrifice financial incentives.

And because we are mammals, women face trade-offs that most men don't. So if you have an infant, even if you have a nanny, you still have to do something about the fact that we evolved to nurse babies. Maybe, like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, you have a nursery next to your CEO office, or maybe you don't work as much.

But I think what you try to do is get women into positions where the way women tend to work is a plus not a minus.

Clive is in Israel, and I remember an older project there (though I don't know its fate). It was a group of Israeli and Palestinian women that were meeting specifically about water conflicts, borders, and boundaries. They established considerable rapport, and moved toward cooperation. Perhaps employing personal connection and this sort of “little underlying bias” towards protecting the environment can be useful.

2. What was your experience starting out in academia like? - Shannon Bouton, MS 2002, PhD 2005

I had colleagues walk with me down the hall saying things like, "It's going to be interesting to see how everyone deals with you." And one day, after I had just moved down to this space in my little office, there was a knock on the door and this guy stuck his head in. He was from the University of Wisconsin, and he'd been here to give a forestry lecture. He looked at me for a second, cocked his head, and said, "I heard they hired a woman," and left.

I think conditions for academic women are much better now, but any woman who assumes that you can just sort of “not worry about it” is going to be disappointed.

3. You famously wrote a book (which I read and loved) called Why Sex Matters. With scientific fact under assault - from climate change deniers and advocates of "clean" coal, to name just a couple - we need a book called Why Science Matters! What would you say to people, especially elected public officials, who reject science in order to justify economic policies that wreak havoc on the environment and human health? - Diane MacEachern, BA 1974, MS 1977

Researchers are very split on the question of whether scientists should get involved with advocacy. Some say, “Look how politics has invaded science. We need to speak up.” Others say, “Yes, but we need not to be political ourselves.” And that is really, really tough. All I can do is say, “Here are the facts.” But apparently we are living in a post-fact, post-truth, world. I read a piece from Fox last week about how data really don’t matter.

The New York Times did a great piece recently on how science improves your everyday life. You need science to know what to wear based on a weather forecast. You need science so those raw oysters don’t make you sick, and you need it to survive diseases. You need science to prevent you from drinking deadly algae in your water.

Our lives are supported by a centuries-old network of improving knowledge, and scientific endeavor underlies so much that makes our lives happy, pleasant, and doable. Recognizing that should be part of the basic training of policy makers.

And I must add that Diane write a cool book called The Big Green Purse about how women, through their purchasing power, can influence manufacturers toward better environmental behavior!

4. There has been a recent push to increase the number of women being hired into senior research-level positions, and as a result more women have joined the ranks due to a number of diversity initiatives. Yet many barriers still exist that influence whether or not women are successful in these positions and if they are awarded equally for those successes as their male counterparts. Do you have any advice or words of wisdom you can impart to women that are currently in these positions or are striving to obtain these positions in the future? - Courtney Murdock, BS 2002, PhD 2009

I think the first, in the context of “do as I say, not as I do,” is: learn to say no. Be strategic. Pick your battles. Figure out what will help you professionally, what it will or won't cost you personally, and then be very self-interested about it, because your male colleagues already are.

Most of us—at least those of us who are older and hadn't watched other women hit glass ceilings—made the mistake of doing spurious tasks, saying, "Oh, that sounds like fun,” and "OK, I'll do that!" When you do that your time gets frittered away, you get discouraged, you burn out, and you don't have much to show for it. You can avoid that by saying no. I did not, but you can.

In addition to learning to say no, you should be willing to speak up when things are not right.

5. You were on the faculty when I was an undergrad many, many years ago. Since then, SNRE has undergone several transformations and will shortly change names again. What do think have been the most positive changes for the school and what have been the most difficult? – E. Scott Harrington, BS 1984, MUP 1986

Wow, what a question! Yes, the school has changed its name, its focus, and the thrust of its research and teaching a number of times since I came.  Each time we all faced, and will face, the “opportunity or challenge” dilemma. Much thought has gone into the upcoming transition, and I know those working on it are acutely aware that the devil is always in the details, but also that there is great resilience.

I do have two concerns, places where I think we need to wrestle with the devil in the details. First, I think it important not to see further decreases in ecology (both research and requirements) to make way for ever more social science (I publish in both ecology/life history, and in demography, anthropology, and psychology). For example, any policy effort to conserve a species needs an in-depth understanding of the biology and ecology of that species  plant or animal. Past failures demonstrate that clearly.

Second, at the moment, I think the effort to expand the number of UM faculty affiliated with SEAS will require considerable support to catalyze interactions among them—for example, some shared space. It will be really interesting to see the transition, and I hope we can make it smooth and effective.

6. What is your greatest talent?

I think I am genetically incapable of answering that.

7. What is the most adventurous thing you’ve ever done?

It may be ziplining seven stories up in a temperate rain forest in New Zealand (though it was actually really safe, it was a kick!). That was a couple of weeks ago. My son calls me the Indiana Jones of Moms.

8. What is your favorite outdoor activity?

I am a swimmer, and now I swim laps in a pool. But up until I had several operations, I swam in North Lake, a very clean lake close to our home.

9. What is the greatest piece of advice someone has given you?

When I was preparing to go to graduate school, my informal undergrad advisor said, “When you get there, don't ask if it's OK to go on the field trip, or whatever. Just show up ready.”

And he was right. Don’t ask, just show up ready.

10. Who is your biggest hero?

Charles Darwin. Everything I do is driven by basic evolutionary theory. Darwin had the most amazing insights, and he did some of the smartest stuff I can imagine doing. And when he hit something he couldn't figure out—for example, the sterility of worker honeybees, which seems to contradict the theory of reproduction as essential—he said, “I must leave this for the future to solve.” So he knew when to say, “I don't think we know enough to solve that yet.” Most people can’t do that. They let their egos get in the way.

When I came to Michigan in ’72, thinking about evolution and behavior was just heating up. People were taking the basics, going beyond and figuring things out. People like Don Tinkle, Dick Alexander, and a little later, Richard Wrangham. And Bill Hamilton was here. Oh my gosh. He's my other huge hero. He figured out what we now call “kin selection,” which is part of the solution to the honeybees, but also to all kinds of other questions. He had a talent for generating hypotheses that sounded wacky, but proved to be true—things like the role of parasites in sexual selection.

Bonus Questions:

11. What is the most used app on your phone?

Email and The New York Times. My husband, Carl, plays Scrabble online with his son. When we wake up, I bring Carl's coffee, and while he tries to beat his son at scrabble, I catch up on The New York Times, and check my email to see what I can delete.

12. What did you want to be when you were a kid?

When I was a kid I wanted to be a veterinarian because I was interested in “fixing,” and I thought people were too obnoxious, but dogs were not so bad.

But by the time I was 14, I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I have no idea why. It was very weird. 

Second photo: Professor Low ziplining in a New Zealand rainforest, 2017.