Les Kaufman

Les is an evolutionary ecologist specializing in the biology and conservation of aquatic ecosystems. He has special expertise in coral reef biology, the evolution and ecology of tropical great lakes fishes, and ecosystem-based management of marine resources.  He is a professor of Biology at Boston University who earned his PhD at Johns Hopkins University in 1980.

  1. In 2 sentences, explain your work with the HWHF?

HWHF has been instrumental in the creation and stewardship of a national park near Miami, Florida: the Biscayne National Park. I am providing science support for better stewardship of the park, including information relevant to a proposed marine reserve within the Park boundaries. I think that BNP is a very important place, strategically located for climate resilience, biodiversity protection, and human enjoyment.

  1. Describe what your organization does best

Teach and do research, I should hope! I’m at Boston University. Within BU I work in the Biology Department as a regular professor in the BU Marine Program. However, I also lead a science and policy program called “Coupled Human and Natural Systems”, which is based in an on-campus think tank called the “Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future.” When working overseas, I collaborate a lot with an NGO called Conservation International.

  1. What’s the best part of your day?

Honestly? When I’m home with my wife, Jackie, who is a psychology professor at BU. Also being with my son, who is living in Denver right now. But I really dig my work and am basically doing it almost all the time. My favorite is field work under water or in the jungle.

  1. What are you currently working on?

Well, I am trying to understand how society and the rest of the ecosystem interacts.   What is different about an ecological landscape- especially coastal- when there’s an “intelligent” species (in this case, us) tinkering with the knobs and the buttons? To get there I am doing field research and computational modeling in four study areas, comparatively. These are: south Florida and the Caribbean (Belize, Cuba and Jamaica), the Great Lakes region of the Nile Basin in east Africa, the lower Mekong with a focus on the Tonle Sap (Cambodia’s Great Lake), and coastal New England, particularly the southern Gulf of Maine and Stellwagen Bank. Over the last 10 years I’ve also been working a lot in coastal Brazil. So I spend some time in the water or the forest, some at my computer, and a lot teaching and writing. In my laboratory, my students and I are doing experimental work on how reef corals respond to climate change and local stressors, like pollution or overfishing.

  1. When did you know you wanted to be a(n) _____________?

Marine biologist? Certainly a scientist from age 3, fish expert from 12, marine biologist from 16.

  1. What piece of advice would you give someone looking to break into this field?

Learn natural history because nobody else is likely to teach it to you. The rest of the advice is just the usual- do well in math, study hard, etc. etc.

  1. What do you read for fun?

Science fiction, especially hard science fiction. My favorite author recently put my research team’s computer models into his latest novel! We had not known each other or even corresponded until after that happened. The book is “Aurora” by Kim Stanley Robinson.

  1. Are you a Windows or Apple person?

Apple. Please.

  1. What’s one thing you can’t work without?

A window or being outdoors. Coffee helps, too.

  1. Who do you admire and why?

Hmm. I admire a lot of people, anyone who tries to operate by reason and compassion. Among them at this moment, President Obama and Jane Goodall.

  1. What’s the most interesting place you have ever been (for work)?


  1. What’s the most interesting thing you have ever done?

Well, the word “interesting” can be interpreted many different ways. But probably living underwater would win out.

  1. What’s the farthest you’ve ever traveled for your work?

Farthest is the other side of the world, fairly frequently, Most remote are the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, and maybe less so, the Central Cardamoms Protected Area in Cambodia, and the Makarere Field Station in the Kibale Forest of Uganda.

  1. What accomplishment are you most proud of?

That’s a hard one because it’s nearly impossible to live up to one’s own expectations. But for the record, I’m pleased with the several very large projects I have conceived and run at the science-policy interface: the Lake Victoria Research Team, the Marine Management Area Science program, and our current CHANS studies in the four places mentioned above.

  1. What do you hope to accomplish in the future?

I want to write one or more books that clearly convey the strong rational basis for optimism concerning our four great existential crises: overpopulation, climate change, mass extinction, and gross inequity.

  1. What’s your favorite activity outside of work?

I like fly fishing (actually any fishing), music, birdwatching, hiking, and being with friends. All of which are not clearly outside of work, in my book.

  1. If you were on an island and could only bring three things – what would they be?

That is not exactly a hypothetical, so much as a recurrent situation. Aside from toothbrush, etc., I bring stuff to read, my binoculars for birdwatching which I am virtually never without, and my computer or notebook so I can write.   At times a musical instrument is more important than the computer, but that would be four things. The best thing to bring is somebody you love, but to make that work you suddenly find yourself way outside of “three things” territory.

  1. How do you define success and how do you measure it?

This is tough. I think of success as doing the best you can to move an immovable problem toward solution.   The bar can’t be set at actually succeeding, because such problems do not get entirely solved in one lifetime. If you can do your best at understanding and repairing the world, and have balanced this with a life rich in love and caring, then you are successful in my book. Not such an easy mark to reach or maintain, either.

  1. Who were the most important people to help you create success in your life and what did they do for/with you?

Parents, mentors, and lovers…not necessarily in that order. Oh, and doctors…who I owe big time for still being here. I’m a Dana Farber Cancer Institute poster child.

  1. If you could do something as a career other than what you are doing now (no limits) what would it be?


  1. What are your top 3 favorite movies of all time?

Being There, Paint Your Wagon, and The Usual Suspects.   Ask me tomorrow and it would probably be a different list.

  1. What are you doing now that will make a positive difference for future generations?

All the above, though there is a difference between making a positive difference and positively making a difference. The second is often impossible to gauge save in retrospect.

  1. What question did we not ask but should ask the next person?

Are you happy that the Cubs just won the World Series? (I am).