Mentor Spotlight | July 2014
Department: Ph.D. student, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
Describe your research in a few sentences that we can all understand: I study the impacts of climate change on the physiology and phenology of trees. I am currently investigating how anomalously warm years affect the timing of when leaves emerge during spring.
Q: How did you first get interested in doing research?
A: I was a sophomore at the University of Central Arkansas when I got interested in doing research through what my home department (biology) referred to as chalk talks – other students doing research would explain their work using only a blackboard and a piece of chalk. I listened to a student present on her studies about how the erroneous binding of DNA with water and metals can lead to the development of cancer and other diseases. I remember being mesmerized by the research and thinking, “I want to be involved in this work!” I ended up doing research in that particular biochemistry lab, but I later became interested in other research projects across campus where the discipline of plant physiological ecology would eventually win my long-term research interests.
Q: What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they wouldn’t learn by just taking classes?
A: My students learn how difficult it can be to conduct research outside. Conducting research on plants in the field can be difficult because you are limited to the time that you can conduct research (spring, summer), we travel to the KU Field Station to do our work so we have to be well-prepared and make sure we have all the supplies and equipment we need for the day, and, being in Kansas, we often work in very hot conditions. My students gain a deeper appreciation for what it’s like to do research in the field in addition to learning techniques specific to the discipline of plant physiological ecology (e.g., measuring leaf gas exchange with an infra-red gas analyzer).
Q: What do you find to be the most exciting part of doing research? What makes this line of work meaningful and interesting to you?
A: I often envision myself as Sherlock Holmes, but instead of providing evidence on who committed a crime, I get to provide evidence to explain natural phenomena; that is very exciting to me! I think that publishing research that transforms the body of scientific literature is meaningful; however, my specific line of work, studying plants, makes my research most meaningful. I am in constant awe and inspired by the diversity of plant life that is a result of life changing over the eons, but global change is leading to the loss of many species, including the particular species of tree I study (white ash). I believe to know something is truly meaningful to you means also experiencing what it is like to lose that particular thing, and ecologists often experience loss in their line of work. The best way I know to prevent such loss is to understand the causes underlying it, and although I am not directly working in conservation, I’d like to think that my research will help conservationists preserve the complexity of flora in the US. I think that many researchers likely find their research meaningful or interesting for the same reason-- something personally resonates with them.
Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?
A: Try new things, and view your research through another disciplinary lens! For the past two years, I have been a trainee in the NSF IGERT C-CHANGE program at KU. This opportunity has allowed me to work with scholars outside of my discipline, making me think about the geological, social, and political factors of my research. This experience has had far-reaching implications and developed skill sets that I, otherwise, wouldn’t have obtained. In addition, this program afforded me the resources to take on an internship in the Executive Office of the President of the United States in the Office of Science and Technology Policy during spring, 2014 where I learned a lot about how scientific information is transformed into policies, and this is now a career path that I’m considering. I wouldn’t have had these experiences had I decided not to venture “outside.”
Q: For many students, doing research is the first time they have done work that routinely involves failure and the need to troubleshoot problems. Can you tell us about a time that your research didn’t go as expected? Have you developed any tricks or habits that help you to stay resilient in the face of obstacles?
A: During my time at KSU working on my master's degree, I was growing many clones of an invasive shrub in western Kansas (salt cedar). It was difficult to get these clones to grow – they preferred a certain mix of soil, nutrients, and water availability, and it took nearly a year to figure out this magical recipe. During that year, I couldn’t do any experimentation because I didn’t have any organisms to work with, which was very frustrating! I think to stay resilient when facing these obstacles, it’s important to experience the frustration and anger, but not become absorbed by these feelings, and then think logically about the issue at hand. I still remember some sage advice from one of my mentors at KSU, who said “take a day and be angry, and once your mind is clear, then think about how to move forward.” It is a fancier way of saying “be patient,” but to me it was more of an epiphany that frustration is an inherent part of research and that I needed to accept it, but not let it destroy my intelligence.
Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?
A: I am a huge fan of strategic board games! My favorite right now is a game called Pandemic where you work with, instead of against, other players to stop diseases from spreading across the world. I also love to bake, so I’m always attempting to make new recipes.