Unisexual Ambystoma

Unisexual Ambystoma

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.

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