A heartfelt tribute to Terry Wheeler, researcher, teacher, scientist

Christopher Buddle, Dean of Students, reflects on the life of Prof. Terry Wheeler, who died of cancer this summer at age 57.
Terry Wheeler was an Associate Professor, Department of Natural Resource Sciences and the Director of the Lyman Entomological Museum.

By Christopher Buddle

I wanted to share with you some perspectives about Terry Wheeler in light of how I knew him best, as a fellow scientist.

I remember the first time I saw Terry – I was a graduate student attending one of my first Entomological Society of Canada’s annual conferences. He was standing in a hotel bar, with all his graduate students. He had just started his position at McGill and was glowing with pride. He was excited to be there, with his students, and thrilled to be Director of the Lyman Entomological Museum at Macdonald Campus, thrilled to be working as an insect taxonomist, and thrilled to be at a conference sharing his love of the discipline. I was inspired.

The next time I met Terry was when he was sitting in a seminar room as a member of my hiring committee. I gave a job talk about the arthropods inhabiting dead wood. He put up his hand, and in a somewhat sardonic tone said “um, right, so you have done a nice job about showing the importance of dead wood to spiders and beetles but have entirely missed the most important taxon: the Diptera [flies].”

Yes Terry, I forgot about the flies. Never again will I make that mistake! After the talk, we walked to dinner together and Terry and I had a deep and meaningful discussion about flies in dead wood and the dynamics of food-webs in forests. He made a point of telling me he really liked my talk, but also wanted me to be sure to consider my science in a more holistic manner. And he was right. He also showed incredible depth of knowledge about spiders, and trees, and lichen, and on and on.

Terry and I worked very closely together for about 15 years, whether on curriculum development, running a journal club, co-supervising graduate students, doing field work, teaching together, or writing successful grant applications together.

We didn’t always get along. It’s no secret that he and I had very different approaches to our science. He viewed things through a lens of taxonomy and systematics; I viewed things through the lens of ecology. But we had the same research goals, which were fundamentally about describing and understanding nature. I respected him immensely for the way he caused me to be better at my science, and to always ground ecology in good taxonomy – learning about the natural world means knowing the names and stories of the species we study. He did this for many, many people: he was an educator in the truest sense of the word; he was selfless with his knowledge, and he argued with a rare passion and a clarity of thought. He didn’t mince words, called a spade a spade. (He also didn’t have much of a fondness when it came to University Administration – I’m sure all of you and Terry appreciate the irony of me, as a Dean, giving this speech).

And Terry was so at home in his office at the Lyman Museum. He loved the specimens and he loved the stories that the specimen labels revealed.  It was his academic home and a memory cemented in my mind was the way he looked up from a computer screen or microscope to say hello to whoever entered the Lyman, whether an elementary school group, a grad student, a fellow prof, or a colleague from Ottawa.

Terry was a scientist who gracefully straddled the beauty and elegance of “old school” natural history and taxonomy with the “new school” of DNA barcoding and ecological modelling. He observed nature with a keen eye and a breadth and depth of knowledge that was spectacular. He wrote papers in a traditional journals, and wrote Haiku, blog posts and Tweets which captured the imagination of many and which inspired countless people to become better scientists, and better people. He showed a vulnerability through social media, and talked openly about imposter syndrome, about what it means to fight against aggressive cancer, and why lentil soup makes life worth living.

As an academic colleague in my Department, I knew Terry very well. As an entomological collaborator, I knew Terry very well. As a person, I knew him less well. It is a regret that I will carry with me, and some of you may share a similar regret. We pass in the halls, maybe write papers together, maybe share a beer in a dingy hotel in Yellowknife, or share a Scotch after a day of field work. We talk science, watch flies, beetles, spiders or ants; or maybe even the boring “macro-fauna”. Our lives collide in space and time; overlap between the stacks of insect cabinets, or across a board room. We email back and forth, have arguments, but we always think we will have more time to get to know each other better.

Time is not always our friend.

But let’s not dwell on regret because Terry’s Tweets, blog posts, scientific papers tell us who he is and he will continue to teach us things for decades to come. So, I will work to trade in my regrets for gratitude. This is a celebration of life, and we can all be immensely grateful for the time we spent with Terry.

I last saw Terry when members of McGill’s senior administration came to Macdonald campus back in the spring, and several of us toured the Lyman to talk about ways we can think about a sustainable future for natural history collections at Macdonald Campus. Terry leaned across the insect cabinets, and talked briefly but poignantly about the value of entomological collections. Despite his health he was advocating for biodiversity science. He made an impact.

One of Terry’s biggest worries was ensuring that the Lyman and his graduate students would be well looked after. My colleague George McCourt visited Terry just before he died, and passed a message on to Terry – “don’t worry, we will all care for your students and the collection”. I can imagine the smile across his face, and I am sure it brought him some comfort. I pledge to you that we will indeed keep his legacy alive and well here at Mac campus, and entomology science will continue to thrive at McGill.

Christopher Buddle is Dean of Students. This is adapted from a talk he gave at a recent memorial at Macdonald Campus for Prof. Terry Wheeler, who died of cancer this summer at age 57.