Prospective students letter

Below is my generic information letter to prospective students - hopefully it will give some sense of my work and the lab. But first a fair description of our lab:

'But I don't want to go among mad people,' said Alice.
'Oh you can't help that,' said the cat.
'We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.'
'How do you know I'm mad?' asked Alice.
'You must be,' said the cat, 'or you wouldn't have come.'

Lewis Carroll, 1865

(I note that one of the students in the lab, not I, decided that this was an excellent quote to put on our website)

First off, the lab is quite full right now, and I do not anticipate taking any new students next year (to start in Fall 2018). As a side note, when I do consider students, I have generally taken PhD, not MS students, although that is not a firm rule.

Students in our lab work on a wide variety of topics, and with almost no exceptions they do research of their own that is not directly connected to any of my primary research areas: from disease ecology to prediction of regional scale conservation impacts of energy development, and from raptor-rodent interactions to how range limits are formed for African plants. In addition, most students in the lab also have side projects: these range from field work on rare plants to modeling studies – sometimes these side projects are with me and/or other students or researchers. The bottom line is that while I try to interact a lot with my students about their dissertation work, I also strongly encourage each of them to have their own 'research identity' that is Not mine, as it is important for their future - it's also just more fun that way.

One upshot of this independence is that I look for prospective students how have had research experience beyond that gathered in their undergraduate work. I generally want to take someone who has an absolute minimum of 1 year (and preferably more) of work after their undergraduate degree that has strengthened their Research and Field Ecology experiences. I find that this is extremely helpful for students when they are trying to craft their own research directions when starting graduate school.

The one true common denominator in what I look for and try to instill in students is a mathematical/modeling approach to ecological questions. While my students don't have to come in with a strong math background, they have to come with commitment and interest in gaining these skills. I expect that they will take enough math of various kinds to understand and do modeling in addition to field work in their research. I am no great shakes at mathematical ecology, but I can help my students learn how to use a more quantitative approach to better design and understand ecological systems. I should note that everyone in the lab is a field biologist; we use modeling approaches to get more out of our data, but neither I nor my students are theoreticians. However I should also add that people in the lab do spend a lot of time taking mathematical course work in grad school – that is an added burden for people working in my lab and it is one that is not negotiable, as I feel it is an important long term benefit.

Ah, what else do people ask? My own future research directions include a combination of population modeling, for both demographic work on rare species (plants and vertebrates) and more basic ecological questions, and also other field work on plant populations, plant animal interactions, and community ecology. My current field research is concentrated on two systems. First, arctic and alpine plant population dynamics, including life history patterns and the determinants of range limits. Second, how spatial structure (created by termites) shapes community and population dynamics in an African savanna system. However, I have many odd and tangential interests within and outside these fields (like how gophers shape ecological landscapes, lichen population ecology, stochastic population dynamics, and endangered species recovery planning). Also, funding: When a student is taken into the ENVS program, there is not a guarantee of funding past the first year. Nonetheless, I feel that part of my responsibility to my students is working with them to have funding throughout their time in graduate school. This funding comes in multiple forms, including fellowship moneys, TAships, and research assistantships from grants that I have. Also, I strongly encourage anyone applying to the program to apply for an NSF graduate fellowship and an EPA STAR; if you get one of these, you have three years of very good funding that you can use anywhere you decide to go to grad school.

Best Regards,

Dan Doak