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

First off, the lab is quite full right now. I am the advisor or co-advisor of two doctoral students at Univ. of Wyoming (where I was faculty until about 2 years ago), and 4 doctoral students at CU Boulder. Given that this is already a lot of responsibility, I will likely take at most one new student next year (to start in Fall 2015).

Students in our lab work on a wide variety of topics, and in general 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.

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, but 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 and plant animal interactions. 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.

So, that is the general scoop. If you are interested, please read the interests of people in the lab. Then, let me know what your interests are, what research experiences you have, and what questions you have about the lab. Please note that since I will probably take only one student next year, I am likely to tell most people who write that they should not apply, as there is no point in wasting your time and money if the fit doesn’t seem quite promising.

I'll look forward to hearing from you.