Seeing the Mind of God, One Mathematical Model at a Time
By Melanie Dabovich
We’ve all heard the phrase “Just do the math.”
For Michael Hoff, Aquatic Invasive Species Program Coordinator and Fish Biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he not only did the math, but mastered the subject. He has used it to formulate complex modeling of population dynamics of fishes and birds and in describing ecosystem structure and function.
Yet Hoff, whose scientific findings and accomplishments are rivaled only by his modesty, says the secret to his success is simply that he “gets some things [in mathematics] that few people get.”
“My expertise lies in how I use complicated mathematics and modeling; using mathematics to understand ecological structure, function and management,” Hoff says with a fast, purposeful voice that quickly breaks into a chuckle. “It sounds too grandiose. I have a weak will and a weak mind so I lean on mathematics.”
Self-effacing words from a man who has more than 34 years of experience in fisheries management, aquatic research and aquatic ecology in the Great Lakes area.
Hoff, 60, of Bloomington, Minnesota, has also developed scientific mechanisms used by the Service, including the habitat improvement devices for fishery managers and methods to conduct nonnative species risk assessments that can be used to support decisions for regulatory and non-regulatory approaches to minimizing risk of unwanted species invasion.
In addition to delivering more than 100 professional presentations and authoring or coauthoring more than 100 scientific reports and publications, Hoff lectured at University of Wisconsin and University of Minnesota courses and teaches two mini-courses at the School of Environmental Studies, a high school magnet, in Apple Valley, Minnesota.
Hoff, who grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, attributes his super-human work ethic to his father, Norbert.
“My father was a German who basically was a very hard worker and had a strong land ethic. He introduced me to nature—my earliest memories are of fishing and being around my father in the outdoors,” Hoff says. “I’m also from a big family, and learned about competition from sitting at the dinner table. There were many meals and morsels fought over.”
With an interest in natural resources during his high school years, Hoff enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point as a forestry major. Hoff found the curriculum “a little too mundane” and switched to biology, wildlife management and fisheries management—a triple major. In his final year as an undergrad, he began studies in fisheries management in order to earn his degree. It was during a fisheries lecture that Hoff had his “real world” wake up call.
“I walked in that first afternoon and there were about 40 students in class when the professor scans the room and says, ‘You know there are not enough jobs in the United States for you folks in this class,’” Hoff says. “Right then, I had my moment. I told myself ‘I am going to make it. I will do what it takes and make a career.’ I knew how hard it was doing to be. Survival was something I dedicated myself to, and I’m happy to say I was able to survive.”
Hoff did more than merely survive—he thrived.
After earning his Master’s degree in biology from Tennessee Technological University in 1977, Hoff worked as a Fishery Research Biologist from 1979 to 1991 and Fishery Research Supervisory Biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from 1987 to 1991. He then became a Research Fisheries Biologist for the Service in Ashland, Wisconsin, from 1991-2002. In July 2002, Hoff was hired in his current “trifecta” position as Aquatic Invasive Species Program Coordinator, Fishery Biologist, and Ecosystem Biologist/Fish Passage Coordinator in the Service’s Midwest Regional Office.
While Hoff’s father was his main inspiration early in life, further in his career Hoff gained mental scientific stimulus and gleaned ideas from other notable “fathers:” the father of wildlife management, Aldo Leopold, and the father of modern physics, Albert Einstein.
It is Hoff’s admiration and study of Einstein’s theories that led him to discover the deep and intrinsic connection between mathematics and ecology in his own research. Such epiphanies took on a spiritual-like quality for Hoff.
“Einstein said his goal was to look into the mind of God, and he used mathematics to do it,” says Hoff, excitedly. “I was born in the summer of my 40th year when I attempted to look into the mind of God using a complex mathematical approach to ecosystems when I realized, ‘ah ha, there is order,’ whether it be fishes in ecosystems or birds in habitats. It comes down to understanding that order and using mathematics to reveal that order. God doesn’t roll dice with the universe.
“I really had a transcendental moment when I realized it’s a matter of understanding connections—figuring out what is most strongly connected and how they interrelate,” he continues, confessing he has an Einstein poster collection given to him by colleagues, proudly displayed in one of his offices, and now at home. “It keeps me humble and to think about how ecosystems, like the universe, are structured and ordered. With this information, we will be able to better manage and restore using an ecosystem approach.”
Hoff’s formulations of complex statistical approaches were mainly applied to analyze fish ecosystems and communities, yet Hoff realized the approach was applicable to more than creatures with scales. Hoff also found application for his analysis when looking at bird community structure.
“There are a lot of similarities when looking at birds. Since the common denominator is statistics and mathematics, it was not at all that hard to do. The most important components involve understanding ecosystems and population dynamics,” Hoff says. “I guess you could say I’ve seen the bird’s eye view and the fish’s eye view of things.”
With an overriding scientific goal to manage and restore species, the drastic rise of invasive species has shifted Hoff’s priorities to nonnative species management. Species invasion is the greatest world-wide natural resource problem, he says. He recently co-edited and authored two chapters in a book, Invasive Asian Carps in North America.
“The risk of species imported has to be addressed; we are not winning the battle against invasives. We are just chasing them around,” he says. “To win the battle and the war against invasive species, we must better protect the biosecurity of our borders.”
Hoff has developed various tools to conduct non-native species risk assessments that can be used to support decisions for regulatory and non-regulatory approaches to minimize risk of species invasion. The most impressive component of Hoff’s risk assessment is response time: he says he has cut down the time needed to conduct a risk assessment from years to mere minutes.
“I developed an approach for risk assessments that is the best in the world at this time,” Hoff says frankly. “The assessment used to take two years. Now, I can do the same thing in two minutes and prepare a report in a couple hours. Natural resources agencies and industry can use my approach to guide sustainable species importation from a non-regulatory standpoint.”
Under Hoff’s direction, the Great Lakes Initiative program has resulted in more species risk assessments than have ever been conducted in the history of the world.
Not being the type to hoard his knowledge or research discoveries, Hoff enjoys inspiring the up-and-coming generation of students and future scientists with engaging courses and lectures.
“I truly enjoy teaching. But to be brutally honest, I was in a car years ago traveling with my boss at the time and he asked me ‘Mike, who was your best teacher?’ My best teacher was also the poorest lecturer.” Hoff says. “My best teacher taught me to learn on my own, and that is the most valuable lesson I learned from any teacher. I knew then—and know now—that I know so very little about science, mathematics, and statistics. However, when I need to know something, I have continually found ways to learn on my own.
“I really don’t know much, but that hasn’t stopped me from learning,” he continues.
It’s hard to imagine Hoff finding some down time, but he does manage to set the office and computer aside and enjoy outdoor activities with his wife, Kate, and daughter, Hannah.
“I’m also a runner, and I like to bike, kayak, windsurf, read, and watch the Green Bay Packers. I’m very much human,” Hoff quips with a laugh.
With so much more work to be done in the realm of biosecurity, Hoff seems to baulk at the mere mention of retirement—and of celebrating his accomplishments.
“I know virtually nothing. I can’t be overconfident because of how little I really know,” Hoff says. “It’s a matter of just being real. Because, oh gosh, there are some really smart people out there.”
Melanie Dabovich has more than 15 years of experience in communications, working as a national news reporter, agricultural writer, and public relations professional. She currently works as an Executive Assistant for the Service’s Southwest Region Fisheries Division in Albuquerque, New Mexico.