SFYou: Get the buzz on Professor Mark L. Winston

Image courtesy of Sarah Murray.

By Kelly Chia, Peak Associate

Name: Mark L. Winston

Pronouns: He/him/his

Departmental Affiliation: Biological Sciences and the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue

Hometown: South Euclid, Ohio

Current Occupation: Professor and Senior Fellow

Fun Fact: Mark was once the president of the Douglas County, Kansas Western Swing Association

Professor Mark L. Winston has had a lengthy education and career in the work of bee pollination. It has led to being the director of SFU’s Centre for Dialogue for the past 12 years, and now as the new non-fiction Writer-in-Residence for the SFU Library. I sat down with Winston for an interview to talk about his career, effective environmental communication, and the role of mentorship in his new position.

We first talked about how the issues that Winston studied at the beginning of his career compared to the issues that were being studied in the field today. For Winston, who had taken two very distinct career paths, this was a complex question. 

“As an entomologist, I’ve always studied bees. The questions today are considerably more complex because bees are dying. There’s urgency in figuring out why bees are dying, there’s been a lot more work investigating the impact of the environment on bees. When I first started out, they were much more interested in bees themselves and their social behaviour [ . . . ] looking at things like how bees communicate to looking at [their] environmental impact,” Winston explained. 

I asked Winston what made him start studying bees and work in bee pollination. He chuckled.  “I’m always interested in how younger people today look at work! In my experience, a lot of what we end up doing in our lives is coincidence. A lot of it is inspired by things that may have nothing to do with what we end up doing.” To answer the question, he first started studying bees because he wanted to be a tropical biologist.

“Y’know, I wanted to wear khaki clothes and start exploring the jungle [ . . . ] the trees, and the birds, and the snakes, and all that’s living in the wild in South America,” he said, eliciting a chuckle. The thought sent me straight to Indiana Jones, which did sound pretty fun. “I applied for PhD research at the University of Kansas where they have a good entomology department that often sends students down to the tropics. I had determined that insects were of interest to me because I had taken some courses in entomology as an undergraduate. When I got to Kansas, my supervisor said, ‘Oh, guess what? I just got a grant to study killer bees in South America!’ I heard South America and thought, ‘Great, I’m writing about bees, but hey, I’m in the tropics!’” 

His first time studying bees was a little harrowing. “Knowing nothing about bees, I was mostly terrified. I heard they stung,” I chuckled again. “The first time I entered a hive, time just slowed down for me. I took off my helm, and I took off my gloves, and I was just fascinated by these complex social organisms and how they operate with each other, and run society, and collaborate. That was a moment that I can still reach back and experience,” he says fondly. 

There was something really comforting listening to Winston talk about something that has driven such a large part of his career as a coincidence. Evidently, he ended up falling in love with them, but he had not always known that he was going to study them.

We then talked more about how to effectively communicate urgent environmental issues like the declining bee population without coming off as too alarmist. In essence, Winston explained that it’s best to focus on multiple factors rather than one key impact so as to not oversimplify the issue. 

“In my writing, I really try to focus on interactive synergy: not just one thing, but a complex set of factors. You have to bring in multiple elements. It’s really easy to write about one thing, I could write about pesticides and how they’re killing bees. It would probably be fairly simple, but it’s not the story —  the story is one of a thousand little cuts, and moving points where the whole ecosystem surrounding bees is causing it.”

These days, Winston focuses more on editing and helping other writers find their voice. Winston has published quite a few books himself, receiving the Governor General award in 2015 for his book, Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive. For him, book writing is an engaging process.

“I can see a book in all of its dimensions when I’m writing. It’ll take a year, or two, or three when I’m really immersed in it, but when you’re writing a book, no matter what else you’re doing, the book is always in the back of your mind.” 

I asked if it’s difficult to balance the ideas of other writers as they develop their ideas. Winston presented me with four principles that he uses to judge writing, emphasizing that it needs to make an impact most of all. 

“All writing benefits from four things: brevity, getting to the point, clarity — which is really knowing what you want to say, from knowing your own voice and not trying to sound like someone else — and the ultimate arbitrator of writing, which is impact.

Everybody has a different voice, it is quite easy to tell one writer from another. But the key issue is: is your writing doing what you’d hope it would do? Does it have an impact, make you feel something, change your mind?” 

After more than a decade of work in the Centre for Dialogue, Winston comes into his position as the Non-Fiction Writer-in-Residence, and as a mentor, with eloquence and empathy. 

In mentioning his role as a mentor, Winston was very much impacted by the mentors in his life. In particular, he spoke about one memory when he was an undergraduate student, where he mused that he probably had the lowest grade point average of any faculty member he had ever known. 

“I knocked on the door of a faculty member I had never met, and it turned out that she was one of the most famous biologists of the 20th century! At the time, I had a lot of hair, a big beard, overalls, and a transcript that looked like I was barely making it in school. For whatever reason, she took me seriously. She sat me down for two to three hours, and she told me about her research and old books from her shelf about what she was studying, and she offered me a job! That changed my life. I’ve never forgotten the impact that a person can have on other people.” 

Thinking about the way Winston was changing people’s lives now by helping them make their impact through their writing was very warming. I expressed that I had some difficulty picturing the impact of my own work, and it was relieving to hear him express similar sentiments. 

“The impact of what any of us do is so hard to measure. I would think it’s fair to say that there’s more awareness of issues due to the writing I’ve done. I’ve seen some examples of things getting better, but it’s not just due to my voice — it has taken a cacophony of many voices to move the needle. As I get older, I’ve become more comfortable with the idea that it’s very unusual for any one of us to change the world.

To answer that another way, if I’ve had much impact, it’s through my students — research students, students that I’ve taught in Semester in Dialogue, and I see those students going out in the world and doing things in a different way.”

Winston had a message for students experiencing the impacts of remote learning and living in a pandemic:

 “In human history, there’s always been periods like this —  horrible wars, famines, pandemics, and volcanoes, and terrible natural disasters. In that sense, it’s not new to the world, but it’s new in our time. This is the worst I’ve seen the world . . . [but] we get through this by supporting each other. That’s never changed. Be kind is the take home response, that’s what we gotta do.”

For more information on upcoming workshops with Mark L. Winston, visit the events page of the SFU library website.