Unisexual Ambystoma

Unisexual Ambystoma

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!