Blogging will not be the same

Today was supposed to be a good day.

The results of a study that my former colleagues and I have worked on for one and a half year (the study itself), plus about one more year (for writing the manuscript) have been published in Nature Communications. It was a great pleasure co-leading this piece with my friend and colleague Emilia Hannula. Over the past weeks I also worked on a ‘Behind the Paper‘ blog post for the Nature Community, that would accompany the paper, which also went live today.

And yet, today doesn’t feel like a good day. It feels pretty awful.

When I opened Twitter to share some of the work associated with the above-mentioned work, the first thing on my feed was the sad news that professor Simon Leather – entomologist, ecologist, and fellow blogging enthusiast – had passed away.

I have never met Simon in person, but yet he was an inspiration to me throughout my academic career.

I first bumped into Simon in 2014, when I was studying virus transmission by aphid vectors for a master’s project at the time. In my challenge to keep aphids on plants, I landed on his blog, in which aphids often prominently featured. It turned out to be a source of wisdom, and great writing. His post on clip cages was a great read for me at the time, and one I have re-read several times over the years as clip cages came to play a more prominent role in my life. Since then, I have often checked back in with the blog.

Obviously, Simon was also very active on Twitter as @Entoprof, and I have followed him there for years. I liked his mix of entomology, general passion for nature, life in academia, brexit rants, and morning views. To this day I still read many of the material he shared, or posted on his pick and mix blogs.

During my PhD, I continued studying insects, including aphids. In a similar fashion to how I bumped into his blog via Google, I also found his work in the academic literature search engines. Obviously, there was the classic Awmack & Leather from 2002, that I have referenced quite a few times. But obviously there are many others. In all his years in the game he did not sit still. I was always amazed to read about the diversity of his past work, which I often also found via his blog.

It was also Simon who asked me to review my first paper, I think in 2017. I was in the first half of my PhD at the time. I was very honoured to be asked to do this. This established entomology blogger professor found my name and selected me to review a paper? A nobody like me? Why?

In 2019, I worked on a short editorial piece for Nature Ecology and Evolution about insect declines with one of my PhD supervisors, Jeff Harvey. Given Simon’s advocacy for insects and their importance through the years, it made a lot of sense that he was also part of the long list of co-authors. And so it went that I co-authored my first paper with him.

But it was actually earlier this year that Simon and I engaged most often. I decided somewhere in January 2021 to start this daily blog adventure. Although readership has never been through the roof, Simon has been there as a reader from early on, maybe even from day one, and a regular commenter on some of the stories. I’m not sure how he found me, and I will never know. A day without Simon’s ‘like’ on WordPress, was almost strange, and felt like there was something missing. He regularly shared my posts on his Twitter, which obviously has brought in some additional readers. The fact that I still write the blog today is, no doubt, partly so because he supported my writing through his network. It will be strange for a while to post, without receiving a notification for his stamp of approval…

This year, Simon and I also wrote together on a specific part of a paper we currently work on with many others. His optimism and praise for my academic writing really was motivating for an early career researcher like me, and it was a pleasure working with him on this. It has not been submitted yet, but soon will be, and I’m proud that our combined writing will someday be part of his legacy.

More or less at the same time early this year, Simon asked me on the editorial board of Annals of Applied Biology. This is my first (and only) editorial role, which also felt as an opportunity at this stage of my career. We had a pleasant Skype conversation in which Simon instructed me briefly on the general process that he applies in his role as an editor. What struck me was his boyish optimism and his overall positive attitude. He told me we would one day – after all this covid mess is over – have dinner at an AAB meeting. Sadly that never happened, and never will.

It feels strange to feel sad about the death of someone you have never met in person. Yet, through all his publications and posts online, and the various interactions I have had with @Entoprof, sleather2012, or via email, this man has had such a positive impact on me personally, and he has taught me a lot through the things he shared with the world via his platforms. I wish I could’ve learned from him just a little longer. Judging from my own experiences and the stream of messages echoing similar sentiments that clouded my Twitter feed today, I think that it is safe to say the world lost a great entomologist, teacher and above all a good human being.

Thanks for all that you shared with the world Simon. I certainly won’t forget the roundabouts!

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of one but almost two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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