Paine's views on experimental ecology rapidly percolated through the field, and attracted waves of eager students. “It was a pioneering stage in the field,” says Menge. “We felt that we were really the first ones to be doing these sorts of experiments.” Tatoosh gave them a place to experiment, and most of Paine's protégés have done tours on its weather-beaten terrain. They camped in garage-sized buildings, abandoned from the island's days as a coastguard outpost. There was no running water and, until a decade ago, no electricity. “It was a brutal environment, and I was out there suffering with them,” says Paine. He kept the atmosphere spartan, splashing out only on heavy-duty clothing and boots — the “Paine lab uniform”.
Unlike many principal investigators, who dole out predefined projects to new recruits, Paine encouraged freedom and individuality. “He was hands-off until it was necessary to be hands-on,” says Menge. Students walked to disparate corners of the island to explore their own passions. One tagged larval rockfish; another studied barnacle dynamics. In the evenings, the group traded data over campfires. “You'd have a day of working the shoreline, you'd trudge back up to the island, and he invariably asked: What did you learn today?” says Tim Wootton from the University of Chicago, Illinois, who studied under Paine in the 1980s. Paine set a high intellectual bar, and was gruff and challenging. “He's very brusque and abrupt, and he kind of scowls a lot,” says Lubchenco. But he also encouraged irreverence and mischief — he once signed the name of one his students, Peter Kareiva, on Christmas cards full of lascivious limericks and posted them to the world's top ecologists.
Paine treated his students as peers, supporting their endeavors without directing them. (Smith had treated Paine the same way.) When they published, he kept his name off their papers unless he had had a heavy hands-on role in the research — an ethos that seems unthinkable today. “It hurt him a bit,” says Kareiva, now one of Paine's closest friends and chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, an environmental organization based in Arlington, Virginia. “His presence in the literature would be ten-fold if he hadn't done that.” Harley adds: “If Bob Paine were reborn into the system as a junior professor right now, he would turn out excellent graduate students but I don't know how many grants he'd get.”
Soon, Paine's students were growing up and embarking on careers of their own. Few have spawned as rich a legacy as Jane Lubchenco and Bruce Menge. They met as graduate students in Paine's lab in 1969, married two years later and began a partnership that has generated more than 31 students and 19 postdocs. After the pair left Paine's lab, they took his experimental approach to the US east coast; she focused on plants and herbivores, while he concentrated on predators. By enclosing, excluding and removing species at different points along the New England shore, they showed that fierce waves can keep predators such as starfish at bay, allowing mussels to dominate. But in sheltered areas, predators kept mussels under control, allowing Irish moss (Chondrus crispus), a type of red alga, to take over. The work revealed how the environment can control interactions between species.
After divvying up the New England food web between them, Lubchenco and Menge also split a tenure-track faculty position when they returned west to Oregon State University in 1976. This move, unprecedented at the time, allowed them to further their careers while spending time with their growing family. (One of their children, Duncan Menge, accompanied the Paine clan on field trips and this year is setting up his own ecology lab at Columbia University in New York — a blood child of the academic family.)