Andy MacKinnon in his early twenties

Science Profile: Andy MacKinnon

17 March, 2013, Mairead MacKinnon

Every year in the spring time Andy MacKinnon kills and eats the first mosquito he sees so that other mosquitoes will smell it on his breath and stay away, this is according to his eldest son James.

Hopefully this trick works, as Andy spends eight months of the year outdoors. Mr MacKinnon is a botanist, ecologist, naturalist, guitarist, singer, writer, and researcher to name just a few of his roles.

With his degrees in botany from the University of British Columbia, Mr MacKinnon is a Research Ecologist for the Coast Forest Region, British Columbia Forest Service where he does ecosystem classification and mapping for British Columbia’s coast.

Mr MacKinnon’s studies focused on seaweeds and mushrooms so it’s no wonder his research interests include British Columbia’s native plants, lichens and fungi; structure and composition of old-growth forests; ecosystem processes and their relationships to climate; and ecosystem conservation.

But Mr MacKinnon is not only interested in Canadian plants. In 2009 he came to Tasmania to talk with local scientists and foresters about land use planning and ‘variable retention’ logging.

“Variable retention” Andy says, “means cutting some trees and leaving others, and there’s lots of research underway in British Columbia and Tassie [Tasmania] about how different patterns (how much you leave and how it’s arranged) affect different groups of species – plants, birds, beetles, spiders, fungi etc.”.

Born precisely at midnight, Andy MacKinnon has two dates on his hospital birth certificate. He grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia with three siblings, and was first in his class from grade one through seven. Growing up he had various jobs in construction, and even worked as a funeral director for a few months. He recalls one time he had to scatter cremated ashes of a man in Lost Lagoon (Stanley Park, Vancouver). “As we were scattering the ashes” he says “the ducks were eating them, and other ducks were gathering, so the Minister didn’t know whether to stop or not. Of course, funeral directors aren’t allowed to laugh, but that one was difficult!”

Winning hearts

Andy MacKinnon is a musician who enjoys singing and playing guitar. He was asked to play in a friends band in high school, and realised this was a great way to meet lots of young women. “Guitars are magical that way. That was how it started. So I guess I’ve been playing for about 40 years now. I’ve played in duets in the pubs up north, I played for a year with a bluegrass quartet with the excellent title “Four Crying Out Loud”, and I still play a number of times each year with excellent local musicians.”

Andy MacKinnon’s day starts off at 4:30am, when he does most of his work. The hardest thing for Andy is “finding enough time for everything – field work, writing, reading the literature. How do I address that? As best I can. But it would certainly be easier if days had, say, 30 hours each.”

Andy MacKinnon in his early twenties

Andy MacKinnon in his early twenties

When asked about the most critical problems faced by people in the field in Canada, Andy responded, “Research, it’s always funding. For our research projects, we need to secure funding, and it’s very difficult to find these days. Our current federal government in Canada is not supportive of science or scientists, and the provincial government is not much better. Also, like a lot of professions here, most researchers are old, like me. So I’ve been working with two intelligent young women over the past five years, so I can retire (one of these years!) with the research in good hands.”

Ken Lertzman has been a colleague, fan and friend of Andy MacKinnon for 30 years. Mr Lertzman recalls a story when he and Andy were working together on the Ministry of Forests’ “Old Growth Strategy” Task Force in the early 90’s and Andy was Chair of the Old Growth Ecology and Inventory Committee. “Some of the committees did not get along so well,” Lertzman says “many people came to us and told us they would have quit the whole thing in disgust if it hadn’t been for our music in the evenings.  Andy’s encyclopaedic knowledge of songs, irrepressible sense of humour, and willingness to be silly and have fun, despite the seriousness of the situation, was an important part of the glue and social capital that made the whole thing work.”

Mr MacKinnon’s work experience and projects have been plentiful.

From 1982 to 1988 he worked as a field ecologist for the British Columbia Forest Service, Prince George Region. In 1988 Andy applied for a job in Victoria for the British Columbia Forest Service.

He admits “I applied for the job in Victoria primarily because I knew that if they wanted to interview me, that they’d fly me to Victoria, and I was getting married in Vancouver in the same month and was broke, so it would be like a free flight to my wedding.” Mr MacKinnon was married in 1987 to Mairi MacKinnon and moved to Victoria in 1988. Since then he has worked as a naturalist at Lynn Canyon Ecology Centre, taught six week field courses for the University of Victoria at Bamfield and three week field courses for the University of British Columbia on Haida Gwaii. He also works as a naturalist once a year aboard the tall ship Maple Leaf.

Mr MacKinnon flirted with the idea of a PhD, and was even enrolled for a year in 2010, but decided that it just wasn’t for him. When asked about his current and future projects Mr MacKinnon says “right now I’m finishing up some field sampling near Harrison Lake, British Columbia, so I’m wet and cold (but otherwise happy!). I have a new book (the sixth) on alpine plants of Western North America scheduled for release in March 2013.” Mr MacKinnon also has numerous scientific publications in review or in press and he says “more stuff is being written these days than any time in the last decade.”

Why does Mr MacKinnon like what he does?

“I’m always learning new things” he says. “Always challenging myself. I like to write, and I’m doing lots of writing. And I get to spend eight months/year outside in some of the most beautiful country in the world. Who wouldn’t like that job?”

What is your favourite place in the world?

Perhaps Metchosin, British Columbia (where Mr MacKinnon lives). Argentina’s pretty sweet also.

What is your favourite Book?

Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey or anything by Tom Robbins

What is your favourite Movie?

King of Hearts

Who is your favourite scientist and why?

The physicist Richard Feynman, who is a great thinker and very funny.

What are you listening to at the moment?

Right now I’m listening to Deep Dark Woods and Angus & Julia Stone

Did you have any family in the science field growing up?

My Uncle Cam Coady, who was a doctor and opened a series of laboratories that analysed samples from hospitals.


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