Mentor Spotlight | March 2020
Department: Environmental Studies/Ecology & Evolutionary Biology/Kansas Biological Survey
Describe your research/creative scholarship in a few sentences that we can all understand: My field is aquatic ecosystem ecology: I study how nutrients and energy move within and among aquatic ecosystems, like streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands. I’m really interested in how human activities (e.g., farming) have altered natural patterns and processes, and how we can restore those processes in degraded systems. My lab group does both fieldwork (playing outside, in the water, sometimes with boats) and lab work (playing with fun instruments that measure the chemistry of the environment) to study human impacts on aquatic ecosystems.
Q: How did you first get interested in doing research or creative work?
A: I am a first-generation college graduate, which means neither of my parents went to college. So, when I arrived at college, I had very little understanding of what research was or how I could get involved. I started like so many of us do – I had an amazing mentor. My first-year college chemistry professor saw more in me than I did in myself and really started me on my path to working on aquatic ecosystem ecology. My first job in research was sampling streams – something I still train students on in my lab. He paid me to do that my first summer after undergrad – after a bit of disbelief that you could be paid to do such a thing, I never went back to a “regular” job!
Q: What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they wouldn’t learn by just taking classes?
A: Doing research in a lab or in the field is inherently different than doing a “lab” for a class, or even a field trip. Class labs or trips tend towards the “show and tell” – understandable since instructors have limited time, so we have to be pretty sure the concept we’re teaching can be demonstrated. In contrast, in research, we are doing the work because we *don’t* know the answer. This really helps students get comfortable with the concepts of forming scientific questions from knowledge gaps, hypothesis testing, and uncertainty, in addition to teaching skills like problem-solving, critical analysis, and communication. Students get mentored on a different level than we are able to do in a classroom setting – and that gives an important window into how new knowledge is generated and how academia works. For good measure, I asked the current students in my lab what they learned that they didn’t get exposure to in classes/labs. In addition to the stuff I mentioned above, for many in my lab, starting research as an undergrad opens doors to graduate school options, which are important for building a career as a scientist (and grad school is often paid in the sciences).
Q: What do you find to be the most exciting part of doing research or creative work? What makes this line of work meaningful and interesting to you?
A: I love that I get to follow my curiosity – I get to ask questions and find answers. I love the freedom and flexibility of academic science – I can ask almost any question I want, as long as it’s relevant to my overall research program. I love the creativity in science – many times, we have to “invent” a sampling scheme, protocol, or sometimes even an instrument or tool. The curiosity, creativity, and freedom of research keep me engaged, even through the monotonous parts of the job. My work is meaningful because I am helping understand our environment and generating knowledge that can aid in the management of difficult environmental issues.
Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?
A: Find someone willing to invest in you as a mentor and a community to support you as you develop and grow. Scientific research can be difficult to navigate without someone to explain how and why certain things are done – a good mentor helps you open doors, but more importantly, is a sounding board to help you develop a sense of what you want to do in the field. Being a scientist also involves a lot of failure – experiments don’t work, papers are rejected, the list of examples is long – but you will always need a supportive community of other students to help you when you need an extra set of hands-on an experiment or when you need a listening ear.
Q: For many students, doing research or a larger creative project is the first time they have done work that routinely involves setbacks and the need to troubleshoot problems. Can you tell us about a time that your research didn’t go as expected? Or about any tricks or habits that you’ve developed to help you stay resilient in the face of obstacles?
A:I love this question! I have a story I share with most undergrads: As an undergrad researcher, I had an experiment where we were adding nutrients to a small stream with a big 20-liter bottle that was sitting on a camping chair, slowly dripping the nutrients into the water. This experiment was called into the authorities – twice! – as a hazardous waste spill and as a meth lab. My advisor got both phone calls and managed to mitigate the situations – and he still wrote me letters for grad school. The point is that all mentors have “been there” – we’ve had things go awry or experiments fail. The most important part is to get comfortable talking about it – you can only really get help when you can be open about your experience.
Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?
A: I enjoy traveling, exploring new places, cooking and reading. We have a small camper, so we like to get away from the never-ending to-do lists and explore around Kansas (when it’s not raining all the time like this year). I have been to every state and am now working on getting back to them all, this time with my partner (Terry Loecke; Environmental Studies) and our 4.5-year-old twins. It’s really fun seeing the world anew through your kids’ eyes – they are intensely curious, energetic and full of questions – that is, natural scientists. A lot of my “off-work” time is spent answering their questions and exploring their world.