Hope you noticed the not-so-subtle twist from our usual "Of Terms in Biology" to "Of Terms for Biologists." Indeed, Wanderjahre is certainly not a term in biology. It is, however, a term I hope many biologists-in-training will embrace and put into practice. I'll come forth and admit it; for me, it is a new term. A new term for a very old concept that, in retrospect, I wish I would have put into practice. Here's the story.
A couple of weeks ago, after writing a brief obituary to honor the life of E. O. Wilson, I was made aware – by Mechas, as quite often is the case – of an interview that Wilson gave to the Harvard Gazette in 2014. At one point the interviewer asks Wilson if he'd ever had second thoughts about choosing ants as his research subject. Not surprisingly, Wilson's answer is long. Within his answer, I was taken by his telling of his travels to Cuba, Mexico and then New Guinea and all other archipelagos of Melanesia, visiting tropical forests. "It was there that I collected ants and studied rainforests and thought about ecology and took long, sometimes solitary trips through the forests. I began to develop ideas about how ants had gotten into these distant places and how they'd evolved." He goes on to acknowledge that these years were his version of what Germans call Wanderjahre, the years of wandering. My favorite example of the benefits of Wanderjahre ? Charles Darwin. On December 27, 1831, Darwin – not quite 23 years old – boarded the HMS Beagle. The round-the-world trip ended nearly five years later, October 2, 1836. All along those years of wandering Darwin developed many of his ideas on evolution, so famously summarized in his 1837 "I think" sketch presenting an evolutionary tree.
Me? I sped out of high school to spend four straight years in college, worked in a lab every summer, applied to graduate school, went on to do a post-doc and a couple of years later got a job to lead a lab. Looking back, here's my recommendation to all biologists-in-training: take some Wanderjahre. And to educators around the world, encourage your students to do so. The way I see them, Wanderjahre are different from the now popular "gap year." The gap year – while certainly a worthy endeavor – tends to be a well-structured interval between finishing undergraduate training and starting a graduate program. Even the name "gap" gives a sense of a defined break in an otherwise preplanned direction. Wanderjahre feel so much more freeing, more open ended. A time to learn to think (and live) outside the box!