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