Universiteit Leiden

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Following your passion at 66

‘No choice is forever’, states Tracy Evans. ‘You can change your mind and go in a different direction when the circumstances change.’ When Tracy was 60 years old, she felt the need for a change herself. It lead to her earning a PhD degree six years later.

Learning how to Skype

Tracy lives in near Springfield, Illinois, USA and therefore the interview takes place by Skype. ‘Skype was something I had to learn when I started my PhD. And, I was told I needed to get a mobile phone if I was to do research in the field by myself.’ According to Tracy, learning new things was one of the challenges of starting a PhD at a later age. ‘It is more difficult to learn new things, but that is also the best part, because you still do get to learn new things!’

Career story

Tracy considered doing a PhD earlier, but it was impractical. She had to make money and take care of her children. This didn’t fit with getting a PhD, which is very time intensive. She therefore started her career with a master’s degree in audiology. ‘But when my children left home,  I found myself longing to be outside, not is a soundproof room in the hospital basement.’ At 40 years old, Tracy made her first big change and got a second master’s degree in zoology, followed by a job as a naturalist at a state park. ‘With this job, I could experience the joy of being outdoors that I had felt as a child.’ But over time, Tracy’s job changed and the time in the field disappeared.

Mowing and wildfires

When the opportunity of a research sabbatical at Leiden University came along, Tracy, then 60 years old, decided to make the leap. At the end of the project, she was offered a PhD position in Leiden. She would do the research back at home, with support and instruction from the Netherlands. Tracy studied the impact of nature management, like mowing, on invertebrate populations. However, during the project, nature showed she cannot always be managed. ‘In the middle of my study there was a wildfire. It burned down my whole study site.’ Just as in her career, she had to change plans. ‘I lost the initial experiment and had to come up with something new. This is why I changed focus from mowing to response to fire. It was taking what happened and making the best of it’. Tracy used the data from before the fire and compared it with the data after, to see how nature recovered. That became the first paper.

Tracy Evans in the field

But why?

What about the why question? ‘Yes, I get that question a lot. However, in Leiden there were more people who were 65+ and even retired. It wasn’t about career any more, but about following your passion in depth. Their research was often totally unrelated to their career, but only to their interest. You are doing it for the fun of it, not because you have to. Furthermore, they liked the intellectual stimulation and the fact that they could contribute to society.’

Staying sharp

For Tracy, the best thing about her PhD was the mental stimulation. ‘Like working on my observational skills. It makes me pay attention, it keeps me sharp. I am still reading scientific papers. I want to age well, but you have to work at it do that. It is not something that comes without work.’ The answer to whether Tracy is going to continue doing research is clear: ‘I am submitting a paper on fireflies today! I am using data from a citizen science project recording firefly observations led by a science museum in Boston.’ And she has more on her bucket list. ‘I would love to be part of a team doing research on invertebrates in the Arctic.’

Changing directions

To young people at a moment of choice, Tracy wants to say that no choice is forever. ‘You can change your mind and go in a different direction when the circumstances change. Each decision I made was the right one for me at the time. But when they were no longer right, I changed direction. No career decision has to be final.’

Tracy in Science

Tracy wrote a small article about her career path for Working life a column in Science about interesting career stories. Read Tracy’s complete article here:

Tracy Evans in Science: Heed the call to change

Tracy's promotion

Tracy's thesis was called: Management Implications for Invertebrate Assemblages in the Midwest American Agricultural Landscape. Her promoters were Geert de Snoo and Kees Musters (CML).

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