Godfrey Hewitt, Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at the University of East Anglia, passed away yesterday. To sum up the sentiments from those who knew him, Godfrey was a brilliant scientist, an unparalleled mentor and a genuinely lovely man. Anybody interested in population genetics, phylogeography or speciation will be familiar with his work. For those that aren’t, Roger Butlin wrote an excellent summary of Godfrey’s academic achievements when he won the Molecular Ecology prize in 2005. To understand how good a mentor he was, you need only to have met him. But if you haven’t, this piece sums it up pretty well.
I knew Godfrey for the last five years of his life; I did my PhD at UEA, and Godfrey’s office was a couple of doors down from ours. Whenever he came in (which he did whenever he was well enough) he would drop by for a chat before starting work. Sometimes he would talk to us for ten minutes, sometimes for an hour. No matter how busy we were we didn’t mind. We often chatted about evolution, but also about human biology, the history of science, natural history, ancient human civilisations, politics and Godfrey’s dog Zeke (who enjoyed our “meetings” more than anyone). Godfrey knew a lot about a lot of things, but it was his attitude, towards science and life in general, that was truly inspirational. Here I’d like to share a couple of things that Godfrey has taught me.
Talk more, listen more
Shortly after beginning my PhD I went to my first conference – the annual population genetics group meeting – in Liverpool. Godfrey was the only other attendee from UEA, and I didn’t know much about about him at this point. However, I quickly learned that Godfrey was the population genetics equivalent of a rock star. Several PhD students, on realising that I knew him, asked if I’d arrange for him to chat to them. This puzzled me, as I had not yet experienced the attitude that some eminent scientists can have at conferences (I guess the word is “aloof”). “Just go and talk to him”, I would say. And with Godfrey, perhaps more than any other senior scientist I have met, this was easy. He was engaging, charming and interested. Even if, like me, when trying to describe your research in a couple of sentences you lost the ability to for coherent syllables, Godfrey would be encouraging.
I’m sure that Godfrey’s ability to engage with people was a key factor in his success. He knew exactly what his skills were, and that these could in effect be broadened through collaboration. This can be seen throughout his career – from his early work on hybrid zones with Nick Barton, to a recent comment in Science on “northern refugia”, which he co-wrote with palaeoclimatologists and pollen biologists. As was often the case, when it comes to collaboration, Godfrey put it best himself:
“There are some sharks around, but people who are very aggressive and personally ambitious miss the point: they don’t influence others to do things, they don’t have the combined effects of lots of people working together.”
Don’t worry about status
I think that a major reason that Godfrey was so approachable was that he never held an air of superiority. He always appeared as happy talking to a first year PhD student as he was to a senior professor. It may not seem much, but this attitude is not as common as you might think amongst professors of Godfrey’s standing. I guess it is very easy to let success go to your head. Faculty can look down on post-docs, post-docs on PhD students. Even among PhD students, I have heard condescending remarks towards undergraduates. Godfrey was a perfect example of how you can achieve personal success while also showing the highest level of respect to those around you.
Godfrey’s lack of concern for status was reflected in his attitude towards publishing. He bemoaned the obsession with impact factors, and referred to Nature as a “comic”. (“Science is a bit better though”, he would say). Instead, Godfrey preferred to send his manuscripts to journals with a history of publishing good quality science, insisting that if the work was important, people would pick up on it. This was certainly the case with his own research – two of his most highly cited articles (currently at 2044 and 1428 citations) were published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society (impact factor 2.193).
It is frighteningly easy to subconsciously develop a sneering attitude in academia – towards colleagues “lower down” on the academic ladder than you, towards scientists at less renowned institutions, or towards research published in the less glamorous journals. If I can even remotely emulate Godfrey’s approach, I will feel that I have achieved something that a sky-high h-index never could.
We will miss Godfrey terribly. But more than anything (and I think I also speak for my PhD office mates too here), I feel lucky to have known him, and extremely privileged to have been able to spend so much time talking to such an intelligent, thoughtful and generous man.