This May will represent my 3rd full year as an Assistant Professor at Christian Brothers University, a small liberal arts university in Memphis Tennessee. During my tenure as a doctoral student at the University of Memphis I knew that I wanted to be at such a school (although my preference was to have master’s students—that’s another post). That said, I jumped at the opportunity to apply after delaying graduation for one year to find a job. I had the luxury of doing so, since my wife has a very mobile career. Once I received an offer, I accepted and then the real work began. I was in a very ideal situation career-wise. I was only moving < 2miles down the road and did not have to switch systems from which my doctoral work focused on…Mississippi River islands. Or did I?
Once I accepted the offer from CBU, my first priority was to determine the feasibility of getting adjunct status at the University of Memphis to utilize the field station without going through the bureaucracy of always getting permission. Adjunct status was attained relatively easy and being asked to serve on two grad-student committees helped as well. My focus then shifted to “Do I want to continue working on islands in the Mississippi River?” The answer to this is, HELL YES!…….But, I remembered the 3 months of work just to simply determine island elevation manually, then and only then was I able to measure plant cover and richness data. Furthermore, two years of this work is needed for publication in almost any journal. I am very willing to put this time into collecting the data, but who will help me? Undergraduates, who at my university are not willing to commit to a weekend let alone 3 months over the summer, I think not? I was fortunate to have two wonderful advisors who were able to go with me on these river adventures. Furthermore, the notion that I am responsible for someone’s life on the mighty Mississippi River is daunting. I am a new father, which likely contributes to the trepidation of taking undergrads out on the river, where many things can happen. For instance, I remember collecting plant samples in November (yes, here in Memphis plants are still identifiable in November) and the boat motor died 100 meters from shore, what do you do in a situation such as this….The West Virginian in me said swim. Bad idea! But nonetheless I made it. Since it was just me and another lab mate I felt this was the ‘best option’. With a boat-load of undergrads, probably not.
So the feasibility of conducting any long-term river sampling is out of the question for right now. But what if I set up long-term monitoring studies with manipulations? Would this work for my classes? Could I get undergraduate involvement? YEP! I have two long-term projects now up and running. One project, “The Trillium Project” was initiated by colleagues back in the 90’s and handed it down to my ‘old’ advisor then was handed down to me. Therefore, we have > 12 years of data on this population of Trillium. I utilize students in my spring courses placing ‘mandatory’ field trips in the syllabus to collect data. Another project is the Microstegium project, which Shane (co-contributor on this blog) so graciously helped with all of last summer. So who will help collect these data…..Undergrads. I teach a pre-summer course called “Ecological Census Techniques” so they will be my data collectors for this project.
So my key to maintaining research productivity (my definition of productivity here is at least two publications per year—I know for others it is much, much greater) was to take an already familiar system (the field station) and utilize it to the fullest potential. Also, piggybacking on other systems is great as well. Helping Shane with chytrid samples on amphibians worked well, resulting in two publications for one of my research students. Also, Shane and I have a grant pending that will examine the effects of pesticides and other agrochemicals on ranavirus prevalence in chelonids. So they key to research productivity at a small university is to be creative, which has been discussed at other blogs as well, and to keep you mind open to any possible research adventures that may come your way.