Unisexual Ambystoma

Unisexual Ambystoma

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Get to Know a Grad Student: Chris Thawley

Our last PhD student for "Get to Know a Grad Student" is Chris Thawley from Penn State University. Chris is currently a member of Dr. Tracy Langkilde's lab at PSU, but I met him while he was a Masters student at the University of Alabama with Dr. Leslie Rissler 
Chris Thawley in a shirt that was surely made by AND1.

Here is what Chris thinks about his grad school experience:

What kind of research do you do? Please give the scientific version and the non-scientist version.
Less-scientific version: Broadly, I study how species adapt when their environment (habitat, other species, climate) changes around them. Specifically, I investigate how a common lizard, the Eastern Fence Lizard, has adapted to the presence of an invasive species, the red imported fire ant. We already know that lizards in areas that have been invaded by fire ants for up to 70 years have chan
ged both their behaviors and morphology. I am currently studying how fire ants affect lizards, whether directly by killing/eating them, or indirectly, by changing their behaviors, diet, stress levels, etc. I hope to be able to construct mathematical models describing how the lizards change and to look at how these changes may be passed on to future lizard generations.

More-scientific version: My research is focused on evolutionary ecology and invasion ecology. I study how anthropogenic environmental change, including introductions of non-native species, imposes novel selective pressures on native species. A population’s ability to persist under these threats can depend on its capacity to adapt accordingly. However, responses to an altered fitness landscape may not be optimal across all environments or life stages. My work is a part of a broad research program to examine how fire ant presence can cause rapid adaptation in fence lizard populations. Specifically, I am examining how direct pressures, such as predation, and indirect pressures, including alterations in diet, behavior, stress, and immune function, may affect lizard populations differently based on historical association with fire ants and across ontogeny. Hopefully, studying the downstream effects of pressures imposed by invasive species can provide broader insights into the longer-term consequences of environmental change on community interactions and the persistence of biodiversity.

Why is what you study important?
Whew, well, my answer to this falls into three parts. 1) I think that capital-E ecology is important because we need to have an understanding of how our planet works. I believe that one of the main challenges of humanity in the next century is going to be figuring out how to support a growing human population with a reasonable standard of living while protecting the ways in which the Earth functions and preserving the natural heritage of the planet. To do this, we need to study ecology.

2) My specific fields of study, evolutionary ecology and invasion biology, are important pieces of what I described above. Because many natural environments are changing very rapidly, whether because of human development, climate change, invasive species, etc, species, communities, and whole ecosystems are being forced to adapt to this change on unprecedented scales. Learning how and even if these species can respond is a critical question that can shed light on past biology (how current biology developed) and future systems. Research in these fields can also help us answer some of the questions we'll need to solve the big questions (above) like how to effectively conserve nature in the face of increasing development.

3) I think my research is important because it's a pretty visible, charismatic, and fairly easily understandable example of how rapid change can result in rapid evolution. It's a great tool in education and outreach to have a system that uses cool animals (lizards), a species people love to hate (fire ants, even though they're cool too), and rapid evolution together; people ask really great questions about the research, and it opens a doorway to talking with them about many other scientific topics (I've had people with beers in hand ignore football games to talk to me about lizards/ants...pretty awesome). 

Capital-E ecology on Tatooine
What was your path to graduate school like?
My path to graduate school was the proverbial long-and-winding-road. After graduating from undergrad, I moved to California (with an aching in my heart) and worked as a postal clerk, busboy, and handyman. I later took up residence in Madrid, working illegally as an English teacher, taught middle school science at a small Quaker school outside of DC for a year, and did a year of service with AmeriCorps. At this point, I returned to the Ecology fold as a research tech in the herpetology lab at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center. From there, I went on to a Masters program in Biological Sciences at the University of Alabama, and then directly to my current doctoral program in Ecology at Penn State.

While this "career progression" was certainly the long way around, I feel that my years spent outside academia have been very valuable. I learned to be self-reliant (a trait I did not have during my undergraduate years). I gained a great deal of experience teaching a diversity of people, from small children to the elderly, and those with no background in the subject matter to relatively expert students. This has given me a passion for teaching, a desire and ability to reach a diverse audience, and an appreciation of the impact that good teaching can have. I also experienced several different modes in which conservation actually happens: as a volunteer, I often did the grunt work of conservation projects (removing invasive species with chainsaws, carrying stranded marine mammals, etc.) and helped coordinate conservation projects at the local government scale. As a research tech on a private ecological center, I participated in research outside of the typical academic framework. These experiences have given me a much broader view of what effective teaching and research can be.  

What do you enjoy doing in your free time? How do you feel about your work-life balance?
I feel like I am an incredibly stereotypical ecology grad student in how I spend my free time. I love reading, cooking, sampling great beers, being outside (hiking, taking pictures, herping), and complaining about being a grad student, all while wearing zip-off field pants, Columbia button-down shirts, and Vasque trailrunning shoes. I also nap when I can. 

Re-creation of Chris and other grad students just "hanging out"
I generally like my work-life balance. Of course there are times (right now) when the workload is very heavy, and 14 hr days become standard. However, I love the freedom I have as a grad student to set my own hours and do things as I see best (as long as the work gets done well). I also love having field work and a balance between being hot/cold, parched/soaked/muddy, and stuck in an office behind a computer. The freedom of schedule and the variety in the balance between my work and my life are one of the major attractions to working in my field.  

Describe a normal day in your life.
A normal day in my life depends greatly on whether I'm at school or in the field. If at school the day's start involves my alarm clock going off at 7:30, 15 minutes fumbling with the coffee grinder and boiling water, and a 10 min bike ride to my office. I spend my day answering (or deleting) the ludicrous numbers of emails I get, reading articles, doing homework (yes I still have classes...), and analyzing/writing/preparing to present the previous summer's research. I try to intersperse the day with fun and random tasks, like taking care of my lizards in the basement animal room, attending a friend's defense, or heading to a lunch seminar. In the evening, I chill, cook dinner, relax for a bit and then often head back to the lab to read or watch soccer while processing data or something. Some nights, I go to trivia with fellow grad students.

What are your career plans for the future?
I hope to be a professor at a smaller liberal arts school where both teaching and research are valued. 

What has surprised you about graduate school?
Hmmm, not much has surprised me. I guess I am sometimes surprised by how much my advisors trust me to operate independently and as an adult (I still don't feel like a grown-up all the time).  

What do you struggle with the most in graduate school?
When I started grad school, I struggled most with two things: The first was budgeting my time effectively. It was intimidating and a bit confusing to have a well-defined end goal (getting a degree and successful research) and very few definite waypoints. I think struggling through the whole research process for the first time was very valuable though; I learned how to educate myself, choose an area of research, define a project, get it funded, and see it through to completion. The second area of difficulty was adjusting my expectations about the breadth and depth of knowledge needed. In undergrad it was relatively easy to learn everything in a class and the edge of the necessary knowledge was neatly delineated by the bounds of textbooks, syllabi, and lab manuals. As a grad student feeling my way through my chosen field, there are so many different directions to go and rabbit holes to head down. I could spend my entire lifetime reading and still find just one more interesting paper to get excited about and read. Learning to make choices about what to learn and curate my own knowledge has been a challenge (and one I'm not entirely successful in), but the realization that I can't try to learn about everything interesting has been a hard fought one. 

This is the stock photo result when you search "excited scientist"

What has been the best moment of your career so far?
Nothing really pops out. I have vague recollections of late nights spent with R and seeing a p-value of 0.025 and running around the lab with my arms over my head.

How do you feel about the dynamic of research, teaching, and outreach in your career and in the future?
I really like the combination of research, teaching, and outreach as a grad student and in the future (as an aspiring professor). I see all three of these as complementary and intertwined. I don't know of another job in which a) you have the opportunity to do all three of these on a regular basis and b) in which they support each other so well. I see the combination of these three arenas as a key part of the push towards more integrative science and as critical to fostering scientific literacy and education in the United States (and heck, the rest of the world too).

Who are your academic role models?
I don't have a very interesting answer for this. I guess my previous advisors. And Mike Dorcas (whose lab I worked in as an undergrad). I'd arm-wrestle a Wookiee for his job. 

Dr. Mike Dorcas (pictured here) actually had to wrestle a burmese python for his current job, so the wookiee are-wrestling has precedent.

What advice do you have for other aspiring grad students in your field?
Don't go to grad school just because you don't have anything better to do.

Do go to grad school because a) you know what you want out of it, and you're going to get it no matter what or b) because you can't imagine there being anything else you want to do with the rest of your life. 

Thanks so much to Chris for giving some great answers to my questions. 

'til next time 

Friday, November 30, 2012

SciFund Round 3: Jenn Hellmann

The SciFund challenge, a crowd funding experiment for science, is once again going strong this year. Since this blog started with my own SciFund campaign, it is only fitting that I use it to promote some of the fascinating research done by other students.

This funding cycle, there are three other students in my department at Ohio State who are sharing their science with the world and looking for members of the public to participate with them. One of these students in Jenn Hellman
Jenn looking for fish in all the wrong places.
Jenn's research centers around social networks in animals. Particularly, she observes the behavior of African Cichlid fish to better understand the interactions between individuals and groups. Why is this important? These relationships are complex, and the effects of how animals interact in a social network has massive influences on their evolution and ecology. 

Jenn is planning to use donation to fund an expedition to Lake Tanganyika, in East Africa, where she will be able to observe these animals in the wild. 

As part of her campaign, Jenn answered some questions about what she does, why she does it, and what makes her tick:

Tell us about yourself, where you are from, and where you see yourself going.
I'm a second year graduate student at The Ohio State University. I'm originally from Philadelphia, and I did my undergraduate at Messiah College. I took a year off before graduate school to work with kids and to travel, but I came to graduate school last year and I love it. I love being paid to do research and teach, and working in an environment where everyone is here to learn. Because of that, I would love to be able to work as a faculty member at a university eventually. 

Graduate student multitasking at its best.
How did you get involved in your research project?
I came to graduate school knowing that I wanted to do fish behavior, but I didn't know much more than that. I actually got into social networking by reading some of primate literature for a class. The article talked about how certain individuals in the group are responsible for maintaining group stability, and when you remove those individuals, the group gets really aggressive. Later, I was reading some articles about intergroup movement in colonies, and it just struck me that social networking is probably really important in this species too. Since some individuals have many more opportunities to interact with their peers than others, that probably has pretty significant effects on the decisions that they make. 

Why is your research important to you? Why should others fund it?
I think that sociality in general is fascinating and relevant. So many different species, from ants to humans, have evolved extremely complex social systems. Exploring the benefits of social networking can help us compare social systems between species and help us understand why they are so different. Why do ants live in huge colonies with one queen and many helpers, versus fish that cooperatively breed, versus primates that raise their offspring in groups? In all of these types of organisms, their social system is key to their survival and without it, they would not be successful in their environment. 

Exploring social networking is one of the best ways to understand social systems.  It tells us a lot about species: how they find mates, how they maintain social stability, and which individuals are most important in a group. It helps us understand how evolutionary pressures have caused species to adapt a certain way of living, and we can use this information for many things, such as improving conservation plans, anticipating how species will react to disturbances, and tracking the spread of diseases.

Do you have a favorite story that came from working on your research project?
I've had to learn how to SCUBA dive for this trip. The first practice dive that we took as a research group, I was using someone else's equipment and so my BCD (the vest that controls your buoyancy) was too big and the weights around my waist were too heavy. I spent about twenty minutes bobbing up and down between the surface and the bottom of the lake before I got out and fixed it. It was not my best practice dive! 

Why did you decide to particpate in the SciFund Challenge?
The purpose of SciFund is two-fold. First and most importantly, I want people to understand how science applies to their lives. There are all types of research happening that people don't know about and may not care about. I hope that SciFund can at least show people what type of research is out there, and make people interested in it. I think a lot of people see science as this unapproachable and hard-to-understand topic, but it's not if it presented in an understandable way. Second, I want to raise money to help fund my field season to Africa. My research is much more suited for field work than laboratory work (because of space constraints in the lab), but it's expensive to travel to Africa and I need some help!

What was the most difficult aspect of building your SciFund Proposal? What was your favorite? 
The most difficult was definitely the video. I also had to sit outside in 30 degree weather filming without a coat for about an hour, and then couldn't use the footage because of all the background noise. I've never done a video before (ironically, my brother was a film and sound production major), and I'm just lucky that there are programs out there that can help anyone make a movie. The best part was figuring out how to explain my project to the more general population, because it gave me the opportunity to really think about how it is so related to what we see in human society, even though they are 'just' fish. 

Tell us something random. Something funny. Something borrowed. Something blue.
Something random... okay, well a 'Philly cheesesteak' is not actually a Philly cheesesteak unless you are in Philly. You can call it a cheesesteak, but they are definitely not the same and not as good. Anyone from Philly will tell you that!

If you would like to donate to Jenn's SciFund campaign (I did!), go here.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Get to Know a Grad Student: Juli Goldenberg

Next up for Get to Know a Grad Student: Juli Goldenberg, Masters student at San Diego State University
Juli in her native environment. She is demonstrating the extremely difficult "No-look pipette transfer".

What kind of research do you do? Please give the scientific version and the non-scientist version.

(science-y version)
The broad goal of my research is to improve coalescent-based methods of multilocus species tree inference and species delimitation. Specifically, my project focuses on elucidating the species limits and phylogenetic relationships within the Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) species complex - a wide-ranging group of rattlesnakes that currently contains three recognized species and nine subspecies.

(non-science-y version)
My research focuses on elucidating the evolutionary history of the widest-ranging group of venomous reptile in North America, the members of the Western Rattlesnake species complex. Using genetic data, I am trying to determine where the species limits lie within this group, and I will be using these new species groupings to reconstruct the species tree of the complex.
A western rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) found while night driving in Arizona this summer.

Why is what you study important?

Evolutionary biology lies at the root of every biological science. I love observing the genetics and population genetics that underlie speciation because it is here that we observe the union of micro- and macro-evolutionary processes. I never lose my sense of amazement while working at this fundamental intersection!

Also, rattlesnakes are definitely the coolest study taxon.

Looks rough.

What was your path to graduate school like?

I first found that I wanted to attend graduate school through an education abroad program through UC Berkeley. During the first semester of my junior year of college, I had the opportunity to attend a field-based marine biology and terrestrial ecology program in Queensland,Australia. After exploring Queensland from the outback to the Great Barrier Reef, I was hooked on pursuing biology as a career. Upon my return to Berkeley, I spent the remainder of my undergraduate tenure assisting in a herpetology and evolutionary genetics lab, which cemented my desire to study evolutionary biology.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time? How do you feel about your work-life balance?

My number one hobby is brewing beer. You can follow all of my homebrewing adventures at brewbunny.wordpress.com (yep, shameless plug for my blog). Aside from that, I love exploring the outdoors - especially the beautiful Southern California deserts.

I am lucky enough to be studying what I love, so striking a balance between work and free time is effortless. I never feel like my work is a chore.

If you touch your chin, you may contaminate DNA samples

Describe a normal day in your life.

A normal day for me usually consists of balancing lab work, reading, writing, various journal and lab meetings, seminars, helping out my fellow students as much as I can, and constant data analysis. In addition, twice a week I teach the night class for human anatomy. After work I usually have some sort of social activity set up, be it craft night, game night, or just grabbing a beer with some buddies.

What are your career plans for the future?

I’m currently in the last year of my masters at San DiegoState University. After I complete my degree, I plan to continue on to a PhD and eventually devote my career to evolutionary biology research, hopefully remaining in academia.

What has surprised you about graduate school?

I have been most surprised by how much I have learned that is not related directly to my research. I anticipated that my thesis would be central to my educational experiences during graduate school. Rather, I have learned more from coursework, teaching, seminars, and my fellow students than from anything else. This eye-opening and integrative perspective has dramatically changed my outlook on biology.

What do you struggle with the most in graduate school?

It was very difficult to find a balance among all of the seemingly disparate tasks required by graduate school. The first semester was definitely the most difficult for me because of this. Once I got settled in to graduate school, though, the work became a lot more fun.
What has been the best moment of your career so far?

The best moment of my career so far has definitely been giving my first oral presentation at a major international meeting. This past summer, I had the opportunity to present my research at the World Congress of Herpetology in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Although I was absolutely terrified at first, I ended up feeling so proud of my research, and the collaborative networking that resulted from the presentation was invaluable to my project.

How do you feel about the dynamic of research, teaching, and outreach in your career and in the future?

Integration of research, teaching, and outreach is essential to furthering any scientific field. Because of this, I have consistently maintained a volunteer relationship with natural history museums throughout my academic career, having volunteered at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley during my undergraduate education, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco during my “year off”, and now the San Diego Natural History Museum. Research cannot persist without maintained public education and community outreach.

 Who are your academic role models?
Dr. Stephen J. Gould with his pet stegosaurus (credit: famousscientists.org)

What advice do you have for other aspiring grad students in your field?

If you are interested in pursuing a career in evolutionary biology, I think that the two most important steps you can take are talking to researchers currently involved in evolutionary research, and chronologically reading the “classics” of evolutionary thought (which is an incredibly fun pursuit!).

Thanks Juli! Next time we will have Chris Thawley, PhD student at Penn State University.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Get to Know a Grad Student: Kyle Weichert

Kyle contemplating science with field assistant
The second installation of the Get to Know a Grad Student series is Kyle Weichert. Kyle is a Master of Science student at California Polytechnic State University in Dr. Emily Taylor's lab. I've never met Kyle in person, but have talked to several reliable sources that say he's a swell guy. Good enough for me, and lucky you for getting to hear his point of view.

Here is what Kyle thinks about being a grad student:

What research do you do? Scientific and non-scientist versions, please. 
I am studying the physiological factors that affect the Western fence lizards’ (Sceloporus occidentalis) ability to kill the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. This bacterium is responsible for causing Lyme disease in humans. By combining the blood plasma of fence lizards with a culture of B. burgdorferi and counting the bacterial cells that die in response, I can quantify the lizards’ innate immune abilities. I am comparing this response across males and females, coastal and inland lizards, and fall vs spring samples.

Obtaining blood from a fence lizard
For non-scientists, I am researching what makes some individual lizards better at killing bacterial infections than others. The bacterial infection I am studying causes Lyme disease in humans. Learning more about this can give us a better understanding of the vectors and potential risks of contracting the disease.

Why is what you study important? 

My research incorporates techniques across multiple disciplines of biology, containing elements of herpetology, physiology, immunology, and bacteriology. The results of this experiment will be of interest herpetologists, immunologists, and disease ecologists alike.

My specific line of inquiry will elucidate the physiological factors that affect the western fence lizard’s ability to effectively kill the bacterium responsible for Lyme disease. This research will contribute to the overall body of knowledge regarding the spread of this vector-born disease. My research will also identify specific factors that lead to a reduced immune function in lizards.

What was your path to graduate school like? 

I worked with Dr. Emily Taylor for the last year of my Bachelors degree, studying the natural history of rattlesnakes by radio-tracking them. I enjoyed that experience very much and when graduation time came, Emily suggested I stay at Cal Poly and work with in her lab on a Master’s degree. At the time, I was ready to spend some time away from school and get some work experience, but I always intended to come back. I worked at a few different biology jobs over several years. I decided to go back to school when it became apparent that the job I had worked for the last 3 years had no room for upward growth. At that point I contacted Emily again, and emailed a handful of other Master’s advisors. Emily had some great ideas for new projects. So, I bought her a few drinks and asked if she had room in her lab for me. (Rob: for most potential advisors, buying drinks may not be the best strategy, but your mileage may vary)

Photo by Walter Siegmund

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?How do you feel about your work-life balance? 
I’m lucky that I have found a field that I do both for work and fun. I enjoy nature and the outdoors very much. In my free time, I enjoy bird watching, herping, hiking, insect collecting, and gardening. Also, I’ve played the guitar for many years, and still enjoy doing that when I have the time.
As far as the work-life balance goes, it’s tough. I have much less free time than I did when I was out of school. But, the time I spend on school feels worth the effort. I’m lucky because my wife is very understanding of the time and effort I am investing in my education! 

Describe a normal day in your life. 
I usually wake up around 7am, get up take the dog out to use the yard. While he does that, I make coffee and my lunch for the day. My wife and I live about 30 minutes from campus, so I usually don’t get there until about 9 am, but that depends on when I have class, or teaching, or research. On a typical day I have anywhere from zero to 4 hours of class. After that, I work in my office and hold office hours for about four or five hours per day. I teach about 9 hours per week, and that takes 2-3 hours of grading and prep time per week. Some days I work in the lab to try to get some thesis work done. About 6pm to 8pm I return home and work from there for another 3-4 hours after dinner. Most days I spend about 12-15 hours working on teaching, classes, and research. 

What are your career plans for the future? 
After completing my Master’s Degree, I plan to go on and pursue a PhD. The overarching goal is to become a professor of biology. My favorite part of academia is teaching, so I would definitely like to end up at a school that is teaching oriented. 

What has surprised you about graduate school? 
I have been most surprised by the amount I learned in such a short time. When I first started graduate school I was amazed by the amount the professors knew about their subject. The information stored in their brains seemed inexhaustible. But now I understand how it is possible. I have learned more in just one year of graduate school than I learned in the whole of my undergraduate career. I was also not prepared for the crazy hours I have to keep.

Kyle and his wife, Audrey, often work as a research team.
What do you struggle with the most in graduate school? 
The thing I struggle with most in graduate school is keeping everything balanced. The life of a graduate student can be quite a juggling act. I have to balance teaching, research, classes (and grades!), as well as my personal life. Of those, the one I struggle most with is the research. I find that I often don’t know what I’m doing in the lab. But, from that, I end up learning more.

What has been the best moment of your career so far? 
Well, I have not necessarily had a prestigious or particularly impressive career so far, but I would have to say that earning some research money from a grant proposal to the Chicago Herpetological Society was a high point so far. Another moment that sticks out is presenting my undergrad research in a poster at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists conference in St. Louis. 

How do you feel about the dynamic of research, teaching, and outreach in your career and in the future? 
So far, I absolutely love teaching and outreach opportunities. They are my favorite part of the whole graduate school experience. The research, for me, has been laborious, especially to fit into the schedule. I am starting to understand, however, that the research is a fundamental part of the science. It is through the research that I learn the most, and can do my best teaching. For example, I have four undergrads working with me on my research, and it’s been fantastic being able to teach them skills, etiquette, and scientific responsibility.

Kyle and others out in the field. Looks pretty rough.
Who are your academic role models? 
Without a doubt, one of my biggest role models is my advisor, Dr. Emily Taylor. She seems to be able to balance all of the facets of higher education extremely well. Not only is she a fantastic teacher, she is also involved in other programs and aspects of the department. Another role model of mine is my former lab mate, Tony Frazier. He has an amazing knack for asking the best scientific questions about anything. And lastly, a coworker of mine: Jason Dart. Jason is one of the best naturalists I have ever met. He has incredible knowledge of virtually every group of organisms one could observe in California. 

What advice do you have for other aspiring grad students in your field? 
My advice for aspiring grad students is to keep saying “yes” to all opportunities and inquiries that come their way, even when they are busy. It is through all those extra tasks that one learns the most and builds important relationships with their colleagues. Find ways to get more involved with others’ research and help them with tough questions. This helps make one well-rounded.

I'd like to thank Kyle for taking the time to answer my questions. Next week: Juli Goldenberg from San Diego State University. Til' then.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Get To Know a (Future) Grad Student: Cyndi Carter

I know, blog posts have been rolling in a little farther and farther apart.

But hark!

I have indeed been cooking some new things up between my work hours. One of these new projects is going to be called "Get To Know a Grad Student", and is born from a simple idea: we grad students seem to learn the most from each other. I thought it would be interesting to profile some folks from my small corner of science so everyone out there, scientist or not, can get some perspective on the interesting diversity of scientists out there: who they are, what they do, and maybe some insight into what life during the grad school process is about.

Over the next few months, I am asking people I know from different steps in their career to answer some of my questions. Additionally, we will be talking to scientists from different levels of their careers, including:
-An undergraduate who is currently applying to graduate schools
-Two Masters grad students at different types of Universities
-Three PhD graduate students at different levels and different types of Universities
-Two Post-docs
-Two University faculty

First up is Cyndi Carter, an undergraduate at the University of Georgia. I met Cyndi this summer while at the Southwest Research Station. When I met her, she was somewhere in the process of finding and applying to graduate schools. At UGA, Cyndi has been heavily involved in undergraduate research and was using her summer to both volunteer at the research station and attend the World Congress of Herpetology. I was curious to see how Cyndi was progressing, and she was nice enough to answer my questions.

What kind of career path do you imagine for yourself? 
Being involved in education is definitely high on my list of priorities. Sometimes I think I'd like to teach & do research at a university, but I’m open to a lot of things. 

What sort of research do you want to do in the future? 
I'm really infatuated with two things right now, 1. Gila Monsters and 2. Impacts of anthropogenic factors on population ecology. If I could do research involving both I'd be thrilled, but at this I'm more interested in working on a project with a great question. I’d also like to incorporate public outreach into whatever I do. I think one of the biggest issues in science is the lack of accessibility. There’s a limit on how much anyone can care about an issue they aren’t aware of or can’t understand.

Tell us your process for finding graduate schools/advisors. 
I'm in the middle of that process now, & it's definitely challenging. I started by talking to my mentors about what things they thought were important to consider & how to navigate the process. One of the first hurtles I encountered was trying to nail down a specific idea what kind of research I wanted to do without having the opportunity to try everything. However, I also realized that I couldn’t make decisions about potential graduate advisors without being able to judge if our interests were compatible. I did some soul searching & decided that I'd like to look at how anthropogenic factors influence the population dynamics, behavior, & spatial ecology of reptiles. This is a subject that fascinates me and also a group of animals I love. Using that as my jumping off point I looked into who was doing similar work, & I'm currently sending out emails to potential advisors. This is the scariest part because you have to catch their attention in a single email & make them feel like you’re worth their time without seeming presumptuous. Right now as an undergrad I don't really know all the rules, but I’m trying not to let that get in my way.

What about your undergrad has best prepared your for finding grad schools/advisors? 
I think going to meetings like SEPARC, ASB, and World Congress have given me a lot of exposure to different people and projects, which has really helped me get my bearings. Know what's out there helps to demystify the process. It’s also allowed me meet some amazing people. Earlier this fall at World Congress I had the opportunity to sit down with Dan Beck, who wrote what is essentially the Heloderma bible. I have no words to describe how amazing that was.
Cyndi (left) with Dr. Whit Gibbons (right) and indigo snake (center, duh
What resource has been the most helpful during your grad school search? 
The one resource that has been most helpful to me is the network of connections I've developed during my time as an undergrad. I really don't think there's a good substitute for personal advice, and it's nice to have different people's perspectives (professors, grad students, fellow undergrads, etc). 

What has been the most formative scientific experience for you during your time at UGA? 
I would definitely say designing my own independent research project. Going through this process has taught me a lot about logistic things like applying for funding & designing a protocol, but I think the most useful lesson has been learning to temper ambition with realistic expectations. Limited resources have definitely put my problem solving skills to the test.

Cyndi and her UGA mentor, Dr. John Maerz at the World Congress of Herpetology, August 2012.
What has been the biggest challenge during this process? 
Probably getting things off the ground initially. I only had limited experience in experimental design before starting my own project & there was definitely a learning curve. Another big obstacle for me was learning to reassess & change course when things weren't working out as planned. It's hard not to look at your project like it's your baby, especially when you've invested so much in it, but you have to be able to adapt.
What do you look forward to the most about graduate school? 
I'm excited about starting a new project. There are so many different things I could do, and right now, because I haven't made any major decisions yet, the opportunities are still endless! I'm also excited about working with new people and living in a new place.

Who are your academic role models? 
My two mentors, Joe Mendelson and John Maerz have been profoundly influential on me. Functioning independently of one another, they have each made unique and valuable contributions to my education. They are both phenomenal researchers with great brains, but are also very different in a lot of ways. They each have unique perspectives and approaches to problem solving, the combination of which has taught me a lot. Nothing has made a more meaningful contribution to my education than these two individuals, for whom I have deep respect and immeasurable gratitude. 

What do you do in your free time? 
What's free time? I currently spend most of my free time worrying about graduate school.

Once again, I'd like to thank Cyndi for answering my questions and wish her good luck.

Next week, we'll have Kyle Weichert, M.S. student at California Polytechnic University!