Ross Crozier 1943-2009

The sudden death of Ross Crozier on the 12th of November was heralded largely by a slow ripple of email, phone calls and Facebook messages across the globe. I found out from an email that started with a short but singularly complete sentence:

Terrible news.

It is sobering to think that I knew Ross for nearly 20 years, first as a superannuated and vaguely disreputable PhD candidate and then after graduation as a regular collaborator. It is difficult to think of a time before Ross, before his invaluable mentorship, advice and tutelage. It is difficult to think of a time after.

Others have listed Ross' accomplishments and awards, his many contributions across science, in conservation biology, evolutionary genetics and sociobiology. But to focus only on conventional landmarks of a successful academic career would be a mistake. Ross' life is most keenly seen in the countless students, junior scientists and colleagues that he taught, coached and befriended.

He was never more at home then when surrounded by young students and postdocs, excitedly talking about their research and science. Rather than hold court, he acted more as a ringleader or co-conspirator, allowing even the least experienced or knowledgeable to have a word or play their part. If you made a particularly careless mistake or said something stupid - too often in my case - he might just raise his eyebrows and say "Hmm. Well.", a phrase that only in retrospect translated as I think you might want to examine your theory there. When the inevitable and demoralising failures occurred - overly-critical reviews of papers, unsuccessful job applications, unfunded grants - he would counsel resting for a few days to lick our wounds before returning to the fray. When the victories came, he joined you in celebrating.

His knowledge was voluminous. When when starting a new project, rather than doing the background research it was often easier to ask Ross what he knew. I recall passing an early draft of my thesis before him. After a single glance, he advised that a reference was probably incorrect. I think it was published in 1981 not 1982. And the authors initial was E, not F. You should look at that. He professed a love for classic science fiction (Asimov and Heinlein, I pointed him in the direction of William Gibson and Greg Egan without any luck) and a late rediscovery of Johnny Cash and country music. But Ross's main pastime was science and emails would arrive from him that were written on a Sunday morning or late on a weekend night. I've just had a thought ...

Despite his passion, his demeanour was not that of the obsessive. Owner of a relentlessly even temper, he leavened it with a dry and playful humour. His move from urban Melbourne to the tropical and provincial James Cook University spurred more dry commentary, with me a supposedly sympathetic respondent as an ex-Queenslander. One email discussing a paper in progress ended: Help, our couch is growing fungus! * Another time, he mused, "When we moved up here, people warned us that everything shuts at 7.30, you can't buy *The Australian, and nobody wears black. Well, that's untrue. The paper shop at the airport stocks The Australian." Once, he attended an open day for prospective undergraduates. One eager - and perhaps confused - candidate buttonholed Ross and told him how she has gotten interested in biology through "watching The X-Files". Ross was polite but curious, returning home to search for and watch a random episode of the show. The next day he ranted about "this worm-man creature created by radiation, that slithered out of pipes and infected people by biting them" before throwing up his hands up in perplexed delight.

Ross took a chance when he took me on as a student. He stood by by me when no others would He borne my complaints and anxieties with equamity. By my reckoning, one of the last things he must have done was write a job reference for me. We met in person for the last time last year in Bonn. Always the prototypical nerdy entomology-wonk, he stood out among the sharply dressed European scientists in suits, wearing an old short-sleeved workshirt with too many pens stuffed in the pocket. When he saw me, his face split into a wide grin as he grabbed for and shook my hand in joy. I owe him. I am one of many.

66 years is old and arguably elderly, but Ross' behaviour and energy was neither. It was a rare week that was without at least one email from Ross. Often I would find 2, 3 or even 4 emails from him, each adding another thought or idea. At the time of his death, we had two papers in progress together. And I was just one of many, one of the far-flung web of collaborators that he kept up a steady conversation with, a steady pulse of research. I fear this lead me and others into the silent assumption that there would always be more, always more ideas, more incisive critiques, more advice. We owe, I owe, and it was my delusion there would be more time in which to repay, at least in some small part, the great debt I owe him.

I walk within his shadow. I always will.

-James Cook University: Leading scientist dies

-Alex Wild: Ross Crozier is gone

-Roberto A. Keller: Ross Crozier, pioneer in the study of genetics of social insects

-The Age (Melbourne): Top tropical biologist shone light on insects