How WEC Works: H. Franklin Percival

Dr. Percival (center in  cover photo) is the retired leader of the CFWRU unit at the University of Florida.


What do you do?

I work hard at doing nothing: I’m retired!

I was the unit leader at the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at UF. I’m still involved to a degree. These units are all across the country. “Cooperative” means that they’re USGS people. In this case there are two, there have been three in this unit, that’s the usual number. They are paid by USGS. They are located at land grant universities, which provide space, clerical help, and courtesy appointments, which are really important.

And then there are state agency people involved. Ours, of course, is FWC. Graduate education, research, and technical assistance are the objectives of any of the units.

I’ve always liked to say that the character of the unit is comprised of the ecological character of the state. You would not be doing polar bear research in Florida, nor would they in Alaska be doing alligator research. You deal with where you are.

The cooperative character refers to the participating agencies. They are more or less cooperative. More than less, but you can reach places where somebody’s not happy with you, and you have to adjust.

Then there’s the character of the characters in the unit. There are a lot of things you can’t convince me to do, for example because I don’t have the skills for it.

A lot of the things these people do, as researchers, as teachers, are special. The unit as it’s comprised now, is going to operate very differently than the unit that my colleague Wiley Kitchens and I just retired from.

These new people do different things. They’re different people with different skills and interests, so it’ll be a different unit going forward.

That’s what I did.

What I do:

I volunteer for the Nature Coast Biological Station, which the department is invested in. That’s the main thing that I do that is still connected to the department. I don’t actively do research; I’m not going to actively write any paper.

There’s a little bit of interest from a handful of current students who would like me to teach the course that I used to teach in wildlife, called Administrative Techniques in Natural Resources. If they can muster interest and if Eric is amenable then I will do that. What we do as faculty in wildlife programs is we teach our students ecological theory, management, and statistics, along with other specialty academic disciplines. Then, when students go to work, they find that they get to do that, maybe, 25% of the time, and the rest is budgets, and finding money, and dealing with people and the press, and communicating with the public.

All these myriad of things, and we haven’t really taught them how to do that. I don’t teach these graduate students how to do that (it’s a graduate-level course), but I do warn them that it’s coming, so it won’t be a surprise.

And there are answers. You can get a lot of answers from an iPhone just by googling how to deal with a jerk boss, or an employee who’s not performing up to standards. There are answers to these things, which business people are trained for but we are not.

I subtitle the course, “The business of the business.”

I could do that, and I can be involved in other things. I stay in contact with the Unit, and I stay in contact with Eric, but I don’t know if that helps the department.

My connection with the Nature Coast Biological Station may be most of the connection that I have. I love the people there.

I also do volunteer stuff in the community, but that doesn’t affect the department.

When did you know you wanted to work in ecology? Is there an origin story?

Mine was hook and bullet. I grew up hunting and fishing with my father. Early in life, I raised a bunch of bird dogs. One of the puppies turned out really well because there were a couple old retired people who trained her.

Quail hunting was a big thing to me in junior high and high school. I had no clue there were anything beyond game wardens. My education was in South Carolina, first at USC for undergrad and then Clemson for my graduate work. Plant taxonomy was something I became really interested in, simply because there was a guy who was like a mother hen to the bunch of us who were undergraduate students. He took us under his wing, along with the graduate students he was connected with, so I learned more from him outside of class than I did inside.

One of Mark Twain’s characters said something like, “I try never to let my schooling interfere with my education.” That’s true.

With all due respect to the faculty here, they can’t teach you everything. The really important things come from outside the classroom, in the field.

Anyway, that guy taught me a lot. I didn’t know that wildlife was something you could get paid to do until the spring semester of my senior year. I was just lucky. I’ve had a really strong, long-running set of mentors, which I still have, and the luck to be in the right place at the right time.

My father always told us, “It’s not so important what you know, it’s who you know who knows somebody.” That’s good council, I think.

You have to know something, but you also have to get the doors open. That’s been important to me, and I try to pass it along to the students and biologists that I know.

What’s one word that describes how you work?

Cooperatively. I was really interested in team research. I could not lay claim to any particular species or habitat. The cooperative agreement for the Florida cooperative FWR unit says we have to focus on wetlands. That was easy—I came here interested in migratory birds, mainly waterfowl. I worked on those, I worked on alligators and a number of other wetland species. We always asked the same kinds of questions, whether it was an endangered or exploited species:

How many died? How many were born?

We worked on these questions, in all their little facets.

Invariably, it was team research. Either with other research scientists, or with the FWC, or faculty of other departments.

The days of one person acting alone and finding big answers are over.

When do you think science transitioned to being primarily team-based? Do you think it ever really was a solo effort?

It didn’t necessarily transition. There were team efforts before, but I think that in the past, discoveries were attributed to one person more often. You hear about things by Aldo Leopold, or Jonas Salk. You hear about the Salk vaccine for polio, but they all probably used other people and would probably say they didn’t do it all by themselves. We were more likely to attribute accomplishments to individuals.

I think there were more solo ventures in the past, too, though. I see a lot more interaction amongst our faculty on projects than I saw early on in my career. I think that’s a good thing.

Bobwhite quail. Credit Thurner Hof

Do you have a go-to tool? For example, other people have said sticky notes, binoculars, and hands.

Well, with team research, the right hand is helpful for shaking somebody else’s hand, and the left hand is important to put on someone else’s shoulder.

My go-to tool is always other people.

One time, FWC had a problem. It was not an ecological question that could be solved with statistics, it was a people question, I shook WEC Professor Susan Jacobson’s hand and she used her knowledge of human dimensions to answer their question.

If I have a population ecology question, I’ll go to Madan Oli and Jim Nichols, who are superstars in that field, for help.

The tool is in the intellect of collaborators.

With wetlands work, I loved airboats. They can take you places you wouldn’t normally be able to reach, and they could get you in a lot of trouble! They were exciting tools, and I love working in wetlands, no matter how I get there. I just get charged up.

What’s an unexpected experience you’ve had because of your work?

I did not know, early on in my education, how important people skills would be to me as a professional. That evolved. I was more prepared than I thought, though I’m not even prepared now. You can’t be good enough, but I was more prepared than I thought I would be because I heard things that my father said, and that my mentors said, from my high school football coach to this “mother hen” guy, my major adviser.

Those helped me to be a better collaborator, early on in my work

It was completely unexpected, I thought I was going to go off and work with beavers, or some other animal, and I had no clue about what I was really going to do.

I was probably more unprepared to do the ecological work, and it suddenly got very complex.

Was there a project or a moment when you realized you were going to start branching out and working primarily with other people?

I did my career backwards. My first job was in the Fish and Wildlife Service in DC. I was a staff person in what was then the Office of Wildlife Research. I was focusing on wetlands and migratory birds, and was connecting people to projects that needed administrative work.

I don’t know why they chose someone so green to be in that position, but it was the best thing in the world for me. What I learned about research, doing it myself in little projects, got magnified a hundred times.

When I was in graduate school at the University of South Carolina, I told all of my colleagues there were three things I would never do: I was never going to live in a big city, work behind a desk, or leave the South.

I killed all three of those ideas in one fell swoop with this DC job, but it was a magnificent experience.

It exposed me to the United States, some of Canada and a little bit of Mexico. The world opened up.

They sent me all over for meetings and to review field projects.

In Washington, I often had to brief the Director of Fish and Wildlife, who’d then use my words to brief the Secretary of the Interior. Of course, I had to get help to know what words to use. I’d get people who were out in the world doing research to help me develop my reports. I was just the go-between, but it magnified the number of contacts I had, and I still use them today.


How do you manage your time?

I don’t. Time management is really important. I did an OK job managing my time at work, but I liked people so much I could never be too good at it. I’d rather be here talking to you than writing some paper.

I always carried a pocket full of notes, and a calendar was important to me. I always like to be a little early to things.

If you’re not careful, meetings will eat you up. If you have a meeting, make sure it starts on time, ends on time, and have something to do at the end. If you don’t have a real purpose for the meeting, and you don’t kill it dead by the end, it hasn’t been effective.

That’s not to say there can’t be meetings where the purpose is to get to know someone better. I used breakfasts for this. I would meet someone for breakfast, and then have the rest of the day open afterwards.

Everyone has to come up with their own little tricks.

How do you balance work with your personal life?

I drew a pretty tight line. When I left work, I was headed home, when I left home I was headed to work. That may or may not always be the best way to do things, but it was good under my circumstances.

Now that I’m retired, I mix working and volunteering with my social life more often.

What do you do for fun?

Talk to you!

I volunteer, that’s fun. I like connecting with people.

I went hunting with an old friend last weekend in Georgia. I got to see his bird dogs work. We shot eight quail and missed a couple more. Marksmanship does not improve with age, as I had hoped. I still can’t hit the side of a barn from inside, but it’s fun!

Staying connected with the people here gives me access to the outside. Cameron Carter and I are going to go out in the Gulf in a few weeks to remove some lost crab traps, to raise awareness of the problem. That’s going to be fun.

Boat loaded down with recovered traps. Credit Dr. Percival, Victor Blanco (UF IFAS), and Tim Jones

Trap with bycatch. Credit Dr. Percival, Victor Blanco (UF IFAS), and Tim Jones

Trap with bycatch. Credit Dr. Percival, Victor Blanco (UF IFAS), and Tim Jones

What do you like about living in Gainesville?

I like the people and places. Over the years, it’s become home. I have two children here in town. I have a growing number of friends. I feel at home here, and at the Nature Coast Biological Station.

Gainesville has a great community.

There’s the Philips Center, and the Hippodrome, and the museums! There’s no place like DC or New York or Paris for museums, but we have enough right here!

Then there’s the natural resources, like Payne’s Prairie, and Orange Lake, and Lake Alice. There’s a lot to do in Gainesville, and it’s home.

In Closing

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

Susan Jacobson. Rob Fletcher. Peter Frederick.

I like the combination of WEC faculty now, like Bob McCleery, and Christina Romagosa. They do a really good job bringing students into the field for their classes.

A courtesy faculty member that would be interesting to me is Jim Nichols. He’s retired now. He’s at the zenith of all population ecologists in the world. He worked with one of Madan Oli’s students to develop the technique of using tiger stripes to identify individual tigers without having to capture and tag them.

His resume, if printed, would be a tome, but you would never know it by talking to him. He’s a very mild mannered, down-to-earth person.

There are so many good people here now.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell people?

This department is now the largest wildlife department in the country. There are really good people in this department, and it’s managed really well. I think Eric Hellgren is great, as was his predecessor. I landed in a honey hole here in 1981, but it’s grown so much since then. We had four mainline faculty members in 1981, now we fill up a large meeting room.

This is an outstanding department.


This interview by Rhett Barker, and lightly edited by Rhett Barker and Claire Williams for clarity.

Thanks to Dr. Percival for sitting down with us.

The concept for this interview is based on an interview series by the University of Washington called How UW Works, which is in turn based on a series called How I Workby LifeHacker magazine.