A long lasting influence, by Luis Fernando Chaves

A long lasting influence
I first met Dick Levins through his writings.  When I was a master’s degree student at Universidad Central de Venezuela, we were required by Diego Rodríguez to read the “Strategy of model building” in a mathematical ecology class.  After reading it, I somehow felt satisfied by knowing that a “Harvard” professor, who had given much thought to the matter, reached the conclusion that no model was broadly definitive, a feeling I had at that time and that somehow I still have when reading papers that claim definitive answers. Diego also encouraged us to read “The Dialectical Biologist” to become good ecologists, which is one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received, and which I now echo to any student that seems to be willing to push the boundaries of traditional inquire.  Back in the time, I was touched by the sincerity about the role of knowledge and scientists in society, and began to understand that my lack of satisfaction with some aspects of science was not an eccentricity. At that time, 2002, I also read IIkka Hanski’s metapopulation book, and I was struck by a line in the preface where he says “Although I never met Richard Levins, his writings have had a lasting influence on me”, an assertion that becomes more than clear after reading that book. Nevertheless, that phrase left me wondering, if it was the case that Dick Levins was one of those persons that look down upon others, as was (and still is) the case of most “scientific celebrities” I have met. So after, defeating my own fear of doing a stupid thing, I met Dick online. I wrote an email to Dick and got even more impressed by his humility and honored by receiving a draft, I never imagined anybody cared about what i could think, and being asked if there was a respectable journal where he could get the draft published in Venezuela.  After that email, I read for the first time “Evolution in changing environments” and began to think about the meaning of many things I saw when sampling kissing bugs and sand flies, something nowadays i also do with mosquitoes.  I also was deeply impressed by the clear approach to think about nature and mathematics, and also by the condensed way to deliver the ideas, which seems and feels like reading a series of perfect haikus.
In 2004, while doing graduate study at the University of Michigan, I continued reading Dick’s writings, where sometimes sharing them with great friends from NWA‘H’EG (New World Agriculture ‘Health’ and Ecology group).  At the time, I was impressed by Dick’s interpretation of Schmalhausen’s work into Schmalhausen’s law, thinking that if we follow more closely those things that are more variable around a common state, not far from it, we can better understand how organisms cope with change in a broad sense. Then, I finally had opportunity to meet Dick in person while I was at Michigan; then later, I got to meet Dick three times while I was a postdoc in Emory.  In each meeting, I think, we discussed many important issues.  It was usually a 1 hour conversation that will keep me thinking for 6 months …
In the first meeting, Dick spoke about the need to end colonialism in the Caribbean, a theoretical issue until I got to meet Mariel Dalmi and learnt how her uncle, “the brightest person in the family”, committed suicide after going to the Vietnam war and how this was a major drama for a family whose loved one died in somebody’s else war. A death that still gets bitter tears from his siblings and that brings melancholy to a loved person when she remembers her grandmother and her sadness for her lost loved son, the uncle she did not enjoy. Also a different view on how the beauty of a bird emerges from its two wings and the ability to fly, as only birds can enjoy.(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_TioYcCEPI)
In the second meeting, Dick mentioned the need to really think about asking myself “what do I want to do?”, and how having long term goals is a powerful motivation to cope with immediate problems.  This time, Dick also taught me how to express observations about poverty affecting disease transmission, highlighting that it was not a political conviction, as I was told by several people, but a material fact.
In our third meeting, we spoke about the need to understand that not everybody is a comrade, and that any change requires some degree of community with others.   For this, I keep thinking about Rosa Luxembourg saying that “Freedom is always the freedom of the one that thinks differently” which is something to fight for, but that we also need to understand when dealing with those that are not our friends.
I personally think I would have never tried many things I have done, had I never met Dick. From taking Uriel Kitron’s challenge to become a “vector modeler” by doing “mosquito stuff in the field”, a truly dialectical approach to study insects vectors of disease; to going places in Asia, Central America and Africa, meeting many people and thinking more and more about the meaning of freedom to think differently, I can only think on how these things have been possible, in part, by the inspiration from Dick and others, who do everything following “deep feelings of love” like the true revolutionaries of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Since the last time I met Dick, in 2010, there have been a few email exchanges and moments of joy when reading new things written by Dick.  In synthesis, I think Dick has been a long lasting influence and a constant source of inspiration.
Luis Fernando