This post was spurred by a recent post from Meghan Duffy over at Dynamic Ecology about the 3rd/4th year graduate funk. Basically, it’s that feeling you get when you’re farther-than-not through your graduate school career and realize that you’re not where you should be (whether that’s in terms of data, manuscripts, grants, etc.). While I agree that this is a very, very common occurrence, my “funk” came much sooner, and subsequently shaped the remainder of my graduate school career.
[As I began writing this point, I realized that there is a lot of necessary background to tell the story. So, I divided it up into three parts: 1) pre-grad school/acceptance, 2) grad school (that actual purpose of this post), 3) my 3rd/4th year funk (which lead me into policy)]
I always had a love for science, as is the case with many of us in the field. As an undergraduate, my initial passion was teaching; however, I soon discovered that I also wanted to be part of the group who made the discoveries that were being taught in the classroom, so my focus switched to a career in academia (which then switched to policy*). Instead of being an Ecology and Evolution major (yes, that’s my degree listed on my diploma, thanks Pitt!) with a Master’s in teaching, I decided that graduate school would be the route for me.**
As a freshman and sophomore, I took a few positions in various biomedical labs as a technician. The perk of these positions were that they paid. The drawback? They were boooooooooring. So my junior year I found a position in a plant community ecology lab. That summer, I worked at Pymantuning Laboratory of Ecology (PLE), and investigated host-parasite interactions in goldenrod, the effects of deer-overbrowing on plant community structure, and the effects of invasive species in wetlands. While the experience was more fulfilling than the biomedical positions, I quickly realized that I am not a plant person.
From here I realized that I wanted to work with animals. At the time, the only animal ecologist at Pitt was Rick Relyea, an amphibian ecologist who (then***) specialized in phenotypic plasticity and aquatic toxicology. I wanted to work with mammals, but I guess frogs would do. After spending two semesters staring through a microscope and measuring snail shells, I finally got out into the field. That summer at PLE is why I’m an ecologist. I quickly realized that amphibians were a great study system to answer a number of questions. Then I learned of their plight and the population declines and I became interested from a conservation angle as well. While I shifted to a disease-oriented lab for grad school, I was initially (and am still) interested in the effects of contamination on predator-prey relationships. Having the chance to work on numerous projects, as well as design and carry out my own, I was hooked.
Between undergraduate and grad school, I decided to take a year off to work full-time in a biomedical lab that was a carry over from undergrad. It paid well and gave me exposure to a number of techniques that I would never have learned otherwise. My employer knew it was a temporary position, so I had plenty of time and flexibility to apply to grad schools.
When I started my application process, I had a relatively narrow focus: labs that examined the effects of aquatic contamination (mainly pesticides) on amphibians. Looking back, this was silly and short-sighted. However, at Rick’s suggestion, I looked into Matt Parris at the University of Memphis who was studying something called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd. Turns out there was this disease that was ravaging amphibian populations around the world, to a much greater degree than contamination (that we know of). However, virtually no studies had examined potential interactions between Bd and contamination on amphibians. Merging my undergrad experience in ecotoxicology, with a lab that examined disease from lab to community contexts, I found an idea and niche that would prove extremely fruitful over the next 4.5 years of my life.
*This was/is a “soft” switch as I am currently contemplating my future role as a scientist.
**My father will never let me live down a comment I made as a junior in high school when, in reference to a friend’s brother who was in an advanced degree program, that I would never want to be in college for more than four years. Oops.
***He has since branched out to a number of topic areas in aquatic research.