About the department:
UAB is an internationally renowned research university and academic medical center. The Biology Department is one of the oldest departments on campus and consists of ~25 full time faculty members, 50 graduate students, and 1,000 undergraduate majors. It’s perhaps surprising that a university in north-central Alabama has a contingent of marine and polar biologists, including, now, three marine phycologists! About the research program:
The core of my research is centered on the evolution of sex. If an organism undergoes sexual reproduction, then it passes through a cycle of haploid and diploid stages. We tend to think of ‘normal’ as being a diploid (or diplontic) life cycle, like us. However, if you look across eukaryotes, there are many, many different ways of alternating between haploid and diploid stages. Yet, though there is theoretical support for this variation, namely the evolutionary stability of haplodiplontic life cycles, we do not have a great deal of empirical work on these predictions. We focus on algal and invertebrate models with which we study the mechanisms that underlie the maintenance of life cycle and mating system variation. We can be found anywhere from making natural history observations to utilizing –omics approaches, and anywhere in between, to test hypotheses on the evolution of sex. Being a New Faculty Member What has been the biggest challenge as a new PI so far?
Time management. I was fortunate that during my first year at UAB, I had a reduced teaching load. This let me focus on getting my lab renovated and up and running. But, my third semester as a new PI, I was a bit too ambitious. I was teaching a cross-listed undergraduate/graduate evolution course (my first proper lecture), mentoring undergrads and a new post-doc, doing some large scale field work on both coasts of the US, organizing Darwin Day, writing two large grants, and running a large phenotyping experiment. I was stretched a bit too thin, but as time wore on during the semester, I started to become more proficient at being efficient. There were (and are) starts and stops of course, but I try to carve out some ‘down time,’ thus, making work time (on whatever task) more efficient. I’m still learning how to balance all my new responsibilities with my personal life, but it is getting easier. What has been the biggest surprise so far about being a new PI?
The freedom. While time management (and learning to say ‘no’) has been a struggle and a constant learning curve, deciding what I want to do when, where, and how is pretty amazing. I guess this really isn’t a surprise, but I admit I have really enjoyed deciding what I want to do when, where, and how, and then doing it! I also admit to walking into my lab sometimes and just looking around with a contented sigh.
I guess one other surprising thing is being treated differently by students. I had a large amount of field work in September 2017, and at the last minute, I realized I hadn’t exchanged cell phone numbers with the PhD student I was about to meet in an airport for the first time. I sent him my number so we could find each other. He later told me that he didn’t feel he could ask for a professor’s personal cell phone number. It never occurred to me that someone wouldn’t ask for my cell phone number just because I was now a professor! How have you prepared to be a PI?
I have watched, listened, and learned. I’ve asked a lot of advice from a lot of different people anywhere along the academic career trajectory. I’ve not been shy about seeking their opinions. Some of the advice, I discarded, and for some of that discarded advice, wish I hadn’t. Other advice, I implemented and am grateful. UAB is really supportive of new faculty. I have a faculty mentor with whom I meet once per week. He is a font of knowledge and advice that has been incredibly helpful and made this transition to principal investigator much easier than it would have otherwise been. I sincerely hope that I am able to emulate my faculty mentor one day to another new faculty member. How do you/will you approach mentoring new lab members?
I have had some really fantastic experiences. I’ve also been in situations that were less than noteworthy and ones I’d never want to happen in my lab. I also know what has worked for me, and what doesn’t work for me. I am trying to give students and post-docs in my lab the latitude to figure that out a bit for themselves. If work is getting done, then I haven’t been too bothered about trying to fit everyone in the same mold (i.e., working 9-5). I’m still learning how to mentor effectively, but I feel that being a supportive presence and coming to their aid when they falter has worked so far. I think the first few people through my lab will learn with me as we move along. Are you recruiting? If so, how do you/ will you choose new lab members?
Yes, I am slowly building my lab as I feel really strongly about my lab’s philosophy. I think it is important to get the right personalities working together so the lab has a culture that continues as it matures. I have been lucky enough to work with some fantastic international teams and labs and want my lab to reflect the same ethos that was core to those good working relationships. Some of the other new PI’s highlighted by SSE have spoken of kindness, and I second that. Kindness and honesty go a really long way. It makes collaboration and work fun, even when it is stressful. For undergrads, I ask them to come work in the lab and get to know us (and us them) for a semester. So far, we’ve done a few paper discussions with the interested undergrad which doesn’t require a huge time commitment from either party. Then, if they are still interested, we commit to something more formal, either paid or through course credit. For grad students (both MS and PhD), I request students contact me with their CV and a brief proposal of how they see their research fitting into my lab, UAB’s graduate program, and evolutionary ecology more broadly. I become sincerely interested in an articulate student that is persistent, coming to me with ideas. I try to email everyone who emails me back, even the budding marine biologists that want to work in my lab and study dolphins (we don’t study cetaceans!). If a grad student is serious, then, I invite them out to Birmingham to see the campus and get to know my lab and their future fellow grad students and other lab/department members. I have not advertised any PhD or post-doc positions yet, but I think fit is a really important component. Fit is a two-way street. I first let interested lab members know what they can expect of me, then what I expect of them. Everything is clear at the outset. I’m hoping this lets us keep the dynamic, positive, kind atmosphere that the lab has going indefinitely. SSE Membership When and why did you become a SSE member? / What does becoming a SSE member mean to you or your career?
I had been a member of ESEB when I was a student in Europe. However, I didn’t become a member of SSE until 2016 when I attended my first Evolution meeting. Since joining, I have been lucky enough to receive a Small Grant for Local and Regional Outreach Promoting the Understanding of Evolutionary Biology. I’ve also made many new contacts in the field of evolutionary biology that I might not otherwise have had the opportunity to initiate. Do you have a funny story to share from an Evolution Meeting?
I don’t know if this is funny, but at the meeting in Portland in 2017, I was pretty excited to have been invited to give a talk in a session on mating systems (I get really excited about mating systems). Due to other field work and meetings, I hadn’t planned on attending the Portland meeting, but after the invitation, I combined Evolution with some opportunistic field work. My parents flew up and met me to drive out to the Washington coast. We had a microscope, an herbarium press, and other odds and ends in a minivan. Overnight, near the convention center and in a supposedly secure hotel parking lot, some charming fellow decided to relieve us of our possessions. All caught on CCTV, but, alas, nothing to do. After the anger subsided, we could just barely see the humor in the situation. I have imagined the guy cracking open the Pelican case and seeing the Leica EZ4. I imagine him bitterly disappointed that he committed a felony for a classroom ‘scope, pressed seaweed, and used Falcon tubes. When was your first Evolution Meeting, and how did it affect your career?
I had been a member of ESEB and attended ESEB meetings as I was a PhD student in Europe, but only attended my first Evolution Meeting in Texas in 2016. I gave a talk about work we’d done on mating system variation during an invasion of a red seaweed. I noticed this general audience was nodding along with me, even though I was talking about haplodiplontic life cycles! It was the first time I’d given a talk at a non-phycological meeting that I’d gotten that kind of reception. I rode that high all the way to UAB a few weeks later! Besides research, how do you promote science?
Since 2014, I have been fortunate enough to be a contributor to the blog The Molecular Ecologist
). It has changed how I approach my research and disseminating results. I have also written for other society newsletters and publications. As a new PI at UAB, my colleagues supported me developing a Science Communication course. The course has been successful so far. Past Sci Comm students have won presentation awards at conferences and society grants in aid of research. However, my #NewPI commitments have severely limited my TME writing. Do you teach evolution? What is the hardest concept to teach?
Yes, I was hired as an evolutionary biologist, though I see myself as an evolutionary ecologist. I teach a cross-listed course on evolution for junior/senior undergraduates, undergraduate capstone students, MS students, and PhD students. This is a challenging course to teach as there are essentially four types of enrolled students. How do I keep it interesting for the PhD students, but not too advanced for the undergrads? How do I effectively incorporate active learning? In general, I find the students really struggle with phylogenies and Hardy Weinberg. I’ve adapted the course to have many more hands-on activities with these two components than any other in the course. I implemented these changes this past spring, and scores were much higher on assessments and exams! Do you teach evolution? What concept blows students’ minds?
Phylogenetics. Once they get it, they are a bit in awe. We talk about cetacean evolution and then viral evolution in the same lecture … the time scales that produce trees that look similar, until they realize the difference in time (millions of years vs. several months) always blows their minds. Are you involved in evolution outreach? Tell us about it.
Yes, along with two grad students at UAB, we were awarded a Small Grant for Local and Regional Outreach Promoting the Understanding of Evolutionary Biology. We are going to go to the Cahaba River and teach people about the evolutionary ecology of freshwater ecosystems. My lab is starting to work on freshwater red algae, in collaboration with Morgan Vis at Ohio University, and this will be an excellent way for us to branch out of the marine realm, and teach people about the freshwater diversity in their own backyard.
In addition, I have been a contributor to The Molecular Ecologist
since 2014. I have been able to write about anything and everything during this time! I have also been fortunate enough to use my position as a contributor to help my Sci Comm students publish blog posts on TME
. Tips and Advice Do you have a favorite science podcast or blog?
This is a totally biased opinion, but The Molecular Ecologist
. I love reading my fellow contributors’ posts! What book should every evolutionary biologist read?
“Size and Cycle: an essay on the structure of biology” by John Tyler Bonner – this is a definite must-read for every biologist, let alone every evolutionary biologist. I admit I only read this recently, but it changed my view point. Bonner takes the view that the life cycle is the central unit of biology. As such, evolution becomes the alternation of life cycles through time. Genetics is, then, the inheritance mechanism between cycles (I take the liberty of saying mating systems here as well). Finally, development is the series of changes in structure that take place during one life cycle.
“Plant Speciation” by Verne Grant – this is a bit more of a book I think every phycologist should read. I hope that evolutionary ecology will become more mainstream in phycology. Mike Guiry recommended I read this book about plant speciation in the context of seaweed speciation, and it has been eye opening. What one piece of advice would you give to a starting graduate student?
Take time to stop and look around. Take time to take it all in because as trite and cliché as it is to say, it all disappears so quickly. I think one of the dirty little secrets of academia is that just about the time you get really good at conducting research, you get a job that includes managing people (and their emotions), writing grant after grant after grant, teaching, and a myriad of other service activities. Don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt that I have the best job in the world. But, my biggest regret from my PhD is being so focused on getting 5 publishable units, that I didn’t fully enjoy being in France (thanks to a comment made by a professor at my graduation as I left to begin my PhD … if I didn’t have 5 publishable units from my European PhD, I’d be hard-pressed to land a post-doc let alone a job in the US. Helpful advice, but at the time I accepted my position at UAB, I only had 3 publications from my European PhD). Don’t get me wrong, I saw a lot and experienced some pretty amazing things, but I wish I’d stopped a little bit more, taken a deep breath, and looked around. So, stop and take a deep breath. Then, look around. What one piece of advice would you give to a postdoc?
Probably similar to a starting graduate student. There is not a ‘one size fits all’ academic career. My CV wasn’t what I was told I would need to get a job, or a job at an R1. I have focused on doing good work, and publishing in my society journals. This hasn’t led me astray. I’ve listened to my gut and then hoped for the best. I knew at the end of the day, that if this didn’t work out, at least I’d be happy with myself and my accomplishments. Outside the lab How was your first faculty meeting?
I got there with maybe 5 minutes to spare and was the first one. I sat in the middle thinking people would fill in the front, but alas I was at the front. The chair called on me for something I can’t remember now and I felt like I was the new kid in the 6th grade all over again. Did you ever have something go wrong in a talk?
I gave an invited symposium talk last year at the International Phycological Congress in Sczezcin, Poland. It was August and hot, so the windows were opened in the classrooms where the sessions were held. During my 20-minute slot, a dump truck was collecting refuse from the dumpsters outside. It was loud and continued along all 5 dumpsters (as least I think there were 5) along the alleyway behind the building. What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I like to be at home. Since arriving at UAB, I have traveled a lot for conferences, seminars, and field work. Thus, right now in my free time, I like to be at home doing anything from reading to staring out into the yard on a lazy afternoon.