Interview with Simon Levin, August 11, 2015

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


Simon Levin was the president of the Ecological Society of America from 1990-1991 and a professor at Princeton University. He has also taught at Cornell University and the University of Maryland. In this interview he talks about the highlights of his career, such as studying patch dynamics with Robert Paine at the University of Washington and his involvement with the ESA’s Ecological Applications journal.

Interview notes

Simon grew up in Baltimore and spent his summer outdoors, camping, and thinking about forest fires, but his intellectual strength was in mathematics.  He got his Ph.D. in math, but wanted to apply mathematics.  He went to Berkeley on an NSF post-doc, and eventually landed at Cornell as an assistant professor with the hope that he would bridge math and biology.  He was connected with Lamont Cole and Richard Root.  He thought about doing something in the conservation/natural resources program at Cornell, but gravitated toward the ecologists in Ecology and Systematics (David Pimentel, Gene Likens, Paul Feeney, and others).  Simon was doing more theoretical ecology then, like Lotka-Volterra theory, than he is now.  Within a year he had a joint appointment with ecology and systematics.  He felt very fortunate to have been able to work with these ecologists.  He did research with several of them.  Dick Root was very helpful.  

His father was a very practical man, a pharmacist.  Math was not enough for Simon.  He spent his summer as a counselor, taking kids on canoe trips in Canada.  He learned a lot from national parks.  He took his wife and kids on camping trips too.  He notes clearcut areas in Washington.  He read books on environmental issues, such as Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, and he became interested in environmental problems. 

His bachelors degree was in math at Johns Hopkins and his Ph.D. was in math from the University of Maryland. 

Milestones during his career

Simon landed at Cornell as an assistant professor in 1965. His early work was in competitive exclusion. He got tenure at Cornell and did a sabbatical with Robert Paine at the University of Washington.  Evening seminars were held with Tommy Edmondson, limnologist, and his group.  How did species avoid exclusion?  He became interested in spatially structured populations and patch dynamics.  Simon did the modeling.  Gordon Orians was also there at the time.  Simon was at Cornell from 1965 to 1992.

Simon has a written biography. One autobiography was published as the preface for Gary Barrett’s book on the history of landscape ecology.

A second sabbatical was at the University of British Columbia, at the invitation of Donald Ludwig.  There he also worked with Buzz Hollings.

Simon moved his appointment from mathematics to the Department of Ecology and Systematics when he returned from his first sabbatical in 1974 after being asked to be the chair.  He wanted to surround himself with other ecologists, not mathematicians.  Simon organized a meeting in 1975 in Alta, Utah for mathematicians and scientists interested in ecology. Among those attending were George Woodwell, George Innis, Orie Loucks, Jerry Franklin, Dick Levins, Tom Odum, Herb Bormann, and Gene Likens.  

At Cornell he became director of an EPA-funded ecosystems research center, working closely with Gene Likens. Simon did it because it was a natural transition for him, applying math to environmental problems. He had a great advisory committee including Schindler.  He had to look at a whole new set of issues, which fit his paradigm for success, one he continued for much of his career.  This time, the focus was on ecotoxicology.  

Later, Simon became involved with Consolidated Edison and water quality issues on the Hudson River. This led to the establishment of the Hudson River Foundation which funds research and is still going today 35 years later.  So he was becoming applied, in the sense that he was applying concepts.  He became less likely to publish papers in mathematical journals; applied ecology was the audience/the leverage that he wanted. 

He next became interested in economics from an ecological perspective, and around the time that he moved to Princeton University in 1992.  He thought that, “if we were going to have an impact on the discipline, it would be necessary to work with people who were at the core of the discipline.”  [not verbatim]  He was invited to become head of applied mathematics at the University of Washington, but turned it down because he thought of himself as an ecologist now.

Over the years, Simon was involved with two notable organizations: the Santa Fe Institute and the Bayer Institute of Environmental Economics.  Leading economists were involved; the purpose was to bring together ecologists and economists, so that they learned to talk to each other.  Each year they still get together to write a paper.   Simon came to think that about ecological systems as economic systems, and also that you can’t solve environmental problems without considering economics.  During the interview he discusses briefly the relevance of evolution to the economics of ecological/biological systems.  His paper at the Baltimore meeting was on this topic.   

His most successful paper was on pattern and scale in 1992, based on his MacArthur Lecture.  Bob O’Neil had a big influence on his thinking about hierarchy. Bob would say that ecosystems don’t exist, which got Simon thinking about problems of scale.  Whittaker also influenced his thinking.

Simon always liked to talk with people who saw things differently than he did.  Hutchinson’s students were all quite different.  Hutchinson basically gave his students free reign to do what they wanted for their dissertations, an approach that Simon has adopted.  Simon’s students tend to have a stronger background in applied mathematics. 

His first ecology student was Jim Runkle, who focused on patch dynamics and tree falls, and later Peter Kareiva who he co-advised with Dick Root.  Whittaker suggested that Runkle work with Simon and Root suggested that Kareiva work with him because they both wanted to apply mathematics to ecology.  In general, now the mathematical background of ecology students is much better.   One of his students, Allen Hasting, has been heavily involved with ESA. 

How has ecology changed over the years? 

Ecology has become more quantitative, influenced by Bob May, E. C. Pielou, and others, and less insular as it is more multidisciplinary, including policy, economics. There is also more focus on landscape issues, scaling up from ecosystems. And there is more focus on climate change and global issues. Evolutionary biology is being incorporated more with various aspects of ecology; they are learning to talk to each other.

Simon thinks recent meetings are much broader than in the past, with many more young people involved now.

Sustainable Biosphere Initiative represented a major shift in 1985 [ERROR: the year was 1990, not 1985 as stated in the interview].

Publication of Ecological Applications, for which Simon was the first editor.

He remembers that Dick Root was worried about ESA moving too much toward societal issues; Simon mentions how TNC split off because some ESA members thought there was too much advocacy.

Development of Ecological Applications as a journal 

It was a great experience for him.  He invited lots of people to be on the editorial board and he can’t think of anyone who turned him down.  ESA provided him with some money for an assistant, and his wife Carol took on the task (she retired from being a teacher).  

He decided to start off with a series of “high level” special issues.  The new journal did well; there was need and there was no problem getting manuscript submissions.

ESA membership grew.  Snowbird Resort was too small as the society became larger.

Development of ESA’s Public Affairs Office

Simon worked closely with the public affairs office when Marge Holland was the director. He promoted the Sustainable Biosphere Initiative and talked with Al Gore. It was costly in the beginning, as Duncan Patten told them. But, Simon feels good about the Public Affairs Office.

Regrets regarding ESA meetings

Simon notes that there are no longer past-president's addresses anymore, which was an opportunity for the leadership to become philosophical. Also, he says the awards ceremony seems to be at unusual times each year.

ESA in the future

Simon says there are lots of young people stepping forward. He recalls that there was a good turnout at the president’s forum this year, which he was glad to see, as it’s good to find ways for the old guys to be involved with ESA and interacting with young ecologists.

There is a trend toward the meetings being dominated by the interface between ecology and society, which is good, he thinks, but he thinks basic research sessions should remain a conspicuous part of the meetings.  He thinks that AAAS meetings have become entirely policy oriented; he wouldn’t want ESA meetings to be that way.






Oral History Item Type Metadata


60 minutes


Simon Levin and Dennis Knight, “Interview with Simon Levin, August 11, 2015,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed June 8, 2023,