Tis the season to send those anxiety-producing emails out to your science heroes!
I've gotten a lot of questions recently about the best way to reach out to potential advisors, so I thought it might be helpful to publicly post the advice I've been giving out here.
Building rapport with a potential advisor is key, at least in the field of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. What does rapport mean? Basically you want to have a few conversation going with someone, which allows you to get a sense of each other and how compatible your research interests are. If a faculty member is interested in you as a student, this greatly increases your chances of being accepted to their department's grad program. It is pretty rare to come across a program where you don't need to have a faculty member willing to vouch for you during the application review process.
First thing's first: how do you find a potential advisor? I recommend starting your search several months before application/fellowship deadlines (so for most grad school deadlines, ideally in the summer or early fall). There are lots of ways to go about this, including contacting authors of papers you find interesting; networking at conferences and on social media (both with potential advisors, and with graduate students/postdocs/faculty who may have recommendations for good advisors for you); and attending seminar series that include invited external faculty. I highly recommend signing up to meet with invited seminar speakers - this is a great way to network, and I have several friends who have found PhD or postdoc advisors this way!
Once you've found a few people you'd be interested in working with, check out their website. Often, faculty will state on their website whether they are accepting/have funding for graduate students or postdocs, whether they have expectations for their labmembers, and how they prefer to be contacted (usually by email).
Okay, now you're ready to send those "cold emails." I had to learn the hard way what works and what doesn't, and I've gotten advice myself from people ranging from other graduate students/postdocs and my grad school mentors. I'm not proclaiming to be an expert, and each context will be different, but in general this is what has worked well for me:
Send a brief email, at least a couple of months before the application (or fellowship) deadline. These email should be no more than 3 very short paragraphs (2-3 sentences each). I recommend attaching your CV to the email. Here is an example structure for a cold email:
If you know someone who knows them, ask that person to reach out on your behalf. For instance, if your current advisor or a professor you know has worked with them in the past, or if you have a friend in their lab, ask them to send a heads up email. Something like "My student (or friend) is interested in working with you and will be reaching out" can be really helpful.
If you don't hear back, follow up 1-2 weeks later. And again 1-2 weeks after that. Academics are extremely busy under normal circumstances, and much more now as many are conducting online (or hybrid online/F2F) courses for the first time, in addition to managing all of the new issues that have arisen due to the pandemic. Don't take a lack of response personally, and follow up at least two times before throwing in the towel. This is also why you want to start reaching out well in advance of any deadlines.
If you still don't hear back, consider reaching out to a student or postdoc in their lab, if you haven't yet. You can send a similar cold email as above, potentially just including the first paragraph, not attaching your CV, and asking if they are aware of whether the faculty member is accepting students/postdocs, what it's like to work with the faculty member, and what is the best way to reach the faculty member.
Sidenote: When I was reaching out to faculty for grad school, I straight up didn't ever get a response from a few of them. Sometimes you just won't. This is why it's good to have a list of maybe 5-6 people you are reaching out to, to increase the odds of finding people that you can connect with.
If/when they respond, set an appointment for a call, and arrive prepared. Be sure you are prepared with at least a few ideas of potential projects, based on the research that their lab has been doing recently. Also arrive with a few questions, such as "What do you see as the future direction of your lab?" "Which research questions do you currently find most interesting?" "Would you be willing to look over my application materials? How far in advance would you like me to send them to you?" If you are interested in teaching as a graduate student, you can ask them about what types of classes their students have taught before. Importantly, you don't need to know all the answers! These meetings are generally pretty casual conversations, not formal job interviews or "tests" of your knowledge. That said, if they ask you a question you don't know the answer to, it is much better to say "I don't know" than to guess or make up an answer.
Ask them if you can reach out to their students. This is a great litmus test - if someone is willing to put you in touch with their students, that usually means that they have good relationships with their students. (More on this in a future post on how to choose an advisor).
I hope this is helpful! Fall is an exciting time of year, full of hope for a new academic year with new teaching and research opportunities. Give yourself permission to spend time thinking about what you'd like to see happen in your career as a grad student or postdoc, and to feel excitement about what could be on your horizon. If you have other tips or questions, feel free to comment below or reach out to me via email or twitter.
As disease researchers, our ears perk up when we hear about a wildlife disease-related decline. Where did it happen and why? How many species were affected? Is there a chance that the disease will continue to spread?
These are of course very important questions to address. We need to move quickly when a decline is happening if we want to prevent a large amount of damage to wildlife and ecosystems. If we let wildlife disease run wild, it could lead to local extinctions or irreversible effects on ecosystems. But is researching declines the best way to prevent future ones?
Amphibian chytridiomycosis is a skin disease caused by the fungal pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). Dramatic chytridiomycosis-related declines were reported from around the world starting in the late 1990s. Bd researchers have paid a lot of attention to certain areas that saw the largest declines: Australia, Central America, and the Sierra Nevada region of California. In these areas, Bd drove some frog species to the brink of extinction. The loss of frogs has huge impacts on ecosystems, because frogs serve many keystone functions: they connect nutrient cycles, stabilize the food chain, and keep the ecosystem healthy.
Researchers began to ask why these regions were so susceptible to disease, and where else we might see similar declines. A massive effort began of tracking Bd around the world. Luckily, detecting Bd is pretty easy and non-invasive: you only have to run a cotton swab over a frog’s stomach, hands, feet, and legs to collect skin cells, then the frog can be released. Back in the lab, you test the swab to see if it contains Bd’s DNA. The ease of detecting Bd has led to wide-spread surveillance efforts. As a result, we now know where Bd is: virtually everywhere!
Even though the fungus is more or less everywhere we look, the research community is still very focused on places declines have happened: Australia, Central America, and California. But is this the best strategy? Maybe we can actually learn more by focusing on Bd cold spots, or places where Bd exists but declines are not happening. The key point here is that the presence of a pathogen does not equal the presence of disease.
The goal of my postdoctoral research is to figure out why some frog populations are able to resist chytridiomycosis in the presence of Bd. A very interesting but confusing pattern that has come out of widespread Bd surveillance is that some populations within a single species appear to be very susceptible (they get very sick and maybe even die) while other ones seem to be resistant (they don’t usually get sick and they survive). By studying California frog populations that vary in their susceptibility to Bd, I hope to identify natural variation that can help frogs fight off and survive future Bd infections. For example, if there is a gene or a set of genes that allow frogs to survive, we could use these genes to screen wild populations and set priorities for where to focus our disease prevention efforts.
By studying disease cold spots, we may actually learn more about why disease happens (or doesn’t happen) in the first place. This makes me wonder if other fields could also change the way they ask research questions to really get the information they want. Can you think of any examples? Let me know in the comments below!
Conservation can sometimes seem like an amorphous, nebulous, unattainable goal. One school of thought believes the goal of conservationists is to restore abused land to primary forest. They argue this is the best and fastest way to see results. This may be fast on a per site basis, but land conversion can be slow and--especially if you're just a few people-- it’s hard to get it to catch on around the world. Another school of thought (spearheaded by Ivette Perfecto, John Vandermeer, and colleagues) believes that we need a grander paradigm shift if conservation is going to happen on a global scale. Instead of presenting human land use as essentially at odds with conservation (viewing conservation success as nature at its most pristine), these conservationists argue that humans can be part of nature if we change the way we use land. Specifically, we need to change agricultural practices on a large scale, and especially in the tropics, if we wish to conserve biodiversity. This latter school of thought is based on both theory and empirical research that show that rustic forms of agriculture, such as shade coffee and cabruca cacao, can actually maintain nearly equal levels of [animal] biodiversity compared with pristine forest.
My first three dissertation chapters are focused on the intersection of landscape modification (habitat fragmentation) with disease susceptibility. The underlying hypothesis that I am attempting to test is that as populations become fragmented, they become more susceptible to disease. After attending meetings of the New World Agriculture and Ecology Group (NWAEG) as well as a few joint lab meetings of the Perfecto and Vandermeer ("Perfectomeer") research groups at U. Michigan, I started to wonder about the true usability of this research in conservation. I became interested in not just looking at fragmentation as a binary variable (fragmented versus not), but in examining the effects on wildlife of different types of habitat modification (rustic landuse vs. intensive agriculture vs. pristine forest). So I decided to go to the epicenter of rustic farming and cacao capital of Brazil: Bahia.
[Read more on the James Lab Brazil blog]