In an effort showcase and amplify the voices of early career researchers in ecology, evolution, and behavior, we are sharing their stories, in their own words.

Dr. Bob Week

Post-doctoral Researcher, Michigan State University

Can you give us the rundown on your ECR journey thus far, from what type of undergraduate institution you went to, to your current position?

My journey into science began at Clark Community College in Vancouver, Washington. I had developed an anxious curiosity for mathematics and electronics, but was undecided about my career path. So I focused on my passions, taking coursework in mathematics, physics and electrical engineering. I enjoyed the smaller class sizes at the community college and the relationships I developed with the faculty. Towards the end of my time at Clark I decided to pursue a bachelors in electrical engineering at the University of Idaho. I chose Idaho for its smaller size (hoping to retain a similar experience to the community college) and because its electrical engineering program was (and I am sure still is) well respected. However, I was caught off-guard by my interests in mathematics and a growing interest in how mathematics can be applied to understand biological pattern formation. At the time the University of Idaho had a program for Undergraduate research in Biology and Mathematics (UBM). I inquired about an open position and the organizer introduced me to Professor Scott Nuismer, a mathematical evolutionary ecologist studying coevolutionary theory. Scott and I really enjoyed working together and I became fascinated by the world of mathematical evolutionary ecology.

The experience I gained from working with Professor Nuismer inspired me to switch from electrical engineering to traditional mathematics during my final year. My only regret is not taking any biology during my undergraduate education. In the last steps towards gaining my bachelors, Scott asked if I would be interested in pursuing a PhD with him in the Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (BCB) program at the University of Idaho. I was honored to be given such an opportunity and my family was awestruck (I am the first to pursue graduate school in my family). The five years that followed were as challenging as they were rewarding. I enjoyed the breadth of coursework required (including courses from biology, computer science and statistics), but also the flexibility for crafting a unique education. In particular, I was able to get credit for taking several graduate-level mathematics courses, which continue to serve as the foundation for my research. The BCB program is also unique in that it requires a lab-rotation. For my lab rotation I spent three weeks gaining experience working with pollination ecologists at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), hosted by Professor Paul CaraDonna.

Aside from learning how to set up a transect, take field observations of pollinators and estimate percent cover, I also had the opportunity to engage with a wonderful community of ecologists and explore the incredible landscape of the Elk Mountains. Returning to Idaho, my attention switched back to math. One of the projects I hoped to include as a dissertation chapter involved relating the processes of random genetic drift and demographic stochasticity in the context of quantitative traits. The approach I settled on naturally lead to stochastic partial differential equations, an unfortunately technical topic. However, Professor Steve Krone, a mathematical geneticist at the University of Idaho, happened to have expertise in this area. I am indebted to Steve for the countless hours spent discussing this material, ultimately empowering me to investigate evolutionary ecology from a perspective I deeply enjoy.

After successfully defending my dissertation in June 2020, I applied for a postdoctoral research position with Professor Gideon Bradburd at Michigan State University, which I saw advertised on the Twitter. Gideon hired me and I started work remotely in October 2020. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated complications have waylaid my move to Michigan. In spite of this, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time as a ‘ghostdoc’ in the Department of Integrative Biology at MSU and I am excited to be there in person soon.

Can you tell us a bit about your research?

My research involves developing mathematical and computational models of evolutionary and ecological processes. In particular, I focus on coevolution between pairs of interacting species and coevolution among sets of species in an ecological community. I develop these models for two different purposes (statistical inference and exploration) and the nature of the model (complexity, analytical tractability, etc) is tailored to its purpose. My ultimate goal is to develop models that form the back-bone of statistical methods capable of utilizing phenotypic or genotypic data to measure coevolution in the wild. In particular, my undergraduate work with Scott Nuismer lead to a paper in Ecology Letters introducing a maximum likelihood approach to infer parameters of a coevolutionary model from spatially structured trait data. However, I have also used models to explore new phenomena and processes that may not be tractable to study using  experiments conducted in a laboratory or measurements taken in the field. For example, in a recent contribution to The American Naturalist, I developed a model that predicts the outcome of coevolutionary arms races between a pair of mutualists, discovering that mutualism can be maintained depending on the phenotypic interface mediating the interaction. Currently, my work with Professor Gideon Bradburd at Michigan State University focuses on understanding patterns of genetic diversity resulting from coevolution between a pair of interacting species distributed continuously in space. Our goal is to identify the spatial signature of coevolution on genomic data in order to inform the development of future coevolutionary methods.

What sparked your interest in your field of study?

My initial interests in biological pattern formation were sparked by video feedback loops. By pointing a camera at a monitor and running the output of the camera to the monitor, one can achieve some curiously organic forms. This inspired me to think about developmental biology, but once I realized evolutionary ecology is biological pattern formation on a larger scale all the enthusiasm transferred. During my time at Clark Community College, Professor John Mitchell would give me mini-lectures on differential geometry which I found incredibly inspiring for pursuing higher math. However, it was my PhD adviser Scott Nuismer who taught me how to think like a biologist and inspired me to pursue a career in mathematical evolutionary ecology.

Outside of research, do you have other scientific interests you are pursuing, like teaching, policy work, or outreach? How do you find opportunities to develop those skills and interests?

Outside of research, I enjoy outreach and teaching. For outreach I have used my skills in generative art to create interactive projections that simulate ecological and evolutionary processes. Typically, I set up the projections at community art events with a controller so that attendees can change model parameters (such as effective population size and strength of selection) in real time. Engaging with local communities in this fashion is very rewarding. These sorts of opportunities can often be found by chatting with local artists at events or with curators of local galleries. For teaching I enjoyed tutoring mathematics at Clark Community College. I found the job by asking the faculty I had taken courses from if there were any openings. The mathematics tutoring center was a big room with whiteboards on each wall and a set of desks for students. Whenever a student raised their hand we tutors would do our best to help regardless of the topic. The most rewarding aspect of the job was not teaching math per se, but giving students the tools and space they needed to experience the discovery of mathematical results and succeed in their coursework. Helping students overcome their fear of math and pursue higher education was a very moving experience.

What is one piece of advice would you give to a starting graduate student?

It is never too early to develop work-life balance. Finding balance is a skill and I wish had started developing that skill when I started graduate school.

What hobbies or activities do you enjoy outside of science?

Outside of science I enjoy spending time with my little corgi (Lola), hiking (especially near Mt. St. Helens), making techno on synthesizers, riding bikes (I used to race in a velodrome), drinking a good pilsner and being around people.

Dr. Samreen Siddiqui

Post-doctoral Scholar, Oregon State University

Can you give us the rundown on your ECR journey thus far, from what type of undergraduate institution you went to, to your current position?

I got my undergraduate from GBPUAT, Pantnagar, India, and landed in the UK for my first MS degree in Aquatic Ecosystem Management. From there I spent a few years working professionally.  Since a 1 year taught MS was not acceptable to enter into a PhD, I needed to redo a MS in biology with focus on ecotoxicology from Valdosta State University, GA. From there I met my PhD advisor at a SETAC Conference and joined Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi (TAMUCC) for my terminal degree. I graduated with my son last summer and am now working as a postdoctoral scholar at Oregon State University.

Can you tell us a bit about your research?

I work with aquatic organisms to study the potential concerns from contaminants of emerging concern including heavy metals, pesticides, pharmaceutical compounds, PFAS compounds and most recently from microplastics including tire wear particles.

What sparked your interest in your field of study?

During the final year of my undergraduate degree, one of the professors in the veterinary college, Dr. AH Ahmed, introduced me to this topic. He is my inspiration. Now that I am working with experts in this field and looking into the topic more closely, it boosts this interest every day.

Outside of research, do you have other scientific interests you are pursuing, like teaching, policy work, or outreach? How do you find opportunities to develop those skills and interests?

Yes, I am interested in teaching and taking my work to policy making and outreach. Outreach is the ultimate goal when it comes to ocean conservation. Every person plays an important role in making it a better place to live. Opportunities are rare, but they are there, one just needs to be very active in searching. One great place to look for them is in scientific societies pages.

How do you approach attending conferences? Do you tend to go to the same one each year or a mix? 

I enjoy attending conferences, as it gives you a real sense of science in practice. I attend a mix and have gone to several different ones in the past, but some conferences like the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) is a must, since it is my core field.

What is one piece of advice you would give to an early graduate student? 

Always look at science from deep root problem and connect with other scientists working on the area of your thesis/dissertation. It keeps you updated with the ongoing research and current need of science. Attend conferences and present your work whenever possible, since discussing it with other people will help you tailor your work and find answers to many important questions.

Juliano Morimoto, DPhil (Oxon.) FLS FRES FRSA

Research Fellow, University of Aberdeen

Can you give us the rundown on your ECR journey thus far, from what type of undergraduate institution you went to, to your current position?

I started my journey in my home country, Brazil. After completing my basic education in public schools (which in Latin America, are of ever-declining quality), I was miraculously admitted to a public University in 2009, at the age 17, thanks to the social quota system. That was when I started my academic journey in my BSc in Biological Sciences at the Federal University of Paraná. During my first year, I was discriminated in the University and in the society in two ways: by being Latino mixed race and by having benefited from the social quota. In fact, I was denied student housing simply because I came from a low-middle income class family and a few of my classmates told me I did not deserve to be at the University. In addition to this, during my first years of University, I faced several adversities (both financial and emotional) which were difficult to overcome. For example, one of the professors in the course admitted (at the end of the semester) that she “tried to humiliate me in front of the class to prove I wasn’t worth to be there, and did everything she could to give me low grades”. But in 2010, I met my first ‘angel’ – Prof Elaine Benelli – who took me under her wings, mentored me, and gave me not only an undergraduate stipend (which helped with living), but also connected me to her international collaborators in the field of Structural Biology. Despite not speaking English well (in fact, I did not speak at all English until the age of 15), Prof Benelli encouraged me to apply for an international undergraduate scholarship in 2012, to visit my second angel: Dr Silvia Onesti in Trieste. Dr Onesti hosted me and gave me the opportunity to complete my monography in her group (equivalent to an Honours thesis) at the Synchrotron in Trieste, Italy. That was my first international trip – an international trip I never thought it would be possible for me. 

While in Trieste, I met my third angel: Ms Erica Vaccari – from whom I was renting a room. By destiny, she was a fully qualified English teacher, with a HE degree in the UK. She kindly gave me books to improve my (poor) English, which I studied daily. Up to that point though, I had never written more than 200 words of text in the foreign language. That had to change when I decided to change fields and apply for a PhD in Zoology. Where? Well…Oxford. Because why not?

And so, I did and went on to meet some of the most wonderful people, including my (very patient) supervisors Dr Stuart Wigby and Prof Tom Pizzari, as well as friends (graduate students, fly lab ‘mates’, and Heather Green and family). I must admit that my supervisors were (and are) the best, because it must have been really difficult to deal with my writing! But anyways, could this be any better? It could. I also met Bob May (yes, the Bob May), who for absolutely no obligation provided mentorship and advice (Thank you for everything, Bob).

Things started to look better for me, and I was awarded a visiting scholarship to visit Prof Stephen Simpson’s lab downunder. This was a big deal for me: since I was 6 years-old, I dreamed about visiting Australia. But due to my humble beginnings and lack of proper English, I never thought that would happen – until it did.  I must admit, I cried when I found out I was going. And so, I went and discovered Australia was indeed, a dream. A dream that I wasn’t ready to let it go. I went back to Oxford, completed my PhD in Zoology in 2016, and found a different academic position in Australia. Albeit not under Prof Simpson’s supervision and not directly within my field of research, I was determined to take any opportunity to move to Australia for good – that was my one-way ticket! Or was it?

It turns out, reality hit me in the face. I experienced extreme forms of work bullying and harassment, demeaning jokes, and a physical threat, which led me to decision to resign. This meant that, after resignation, I had 60 days to find another job to sponsor my visa or else I would have to leave Australia, unemployed, and with a badly affected mental health. That was when Prof Phil Taylor, Dr Fleur Ponton, and Dr Toni Chapman (and Macquarie University) took on the ‘challenge’, and offered me a job. I am very thankful to them for all the support and mentorship, and as well as the academic independence that I was given – which was in hindsight exactly what I needed to recover from the trauma of being bullied (trust me, the side-effects lasted for years, and almost drove me away from academia altogether). I remained in my position for 2.5 years, while trying every possible route to obtain a permanent residency in Australia. Thanks to the politics in Australia though, this did not happen, which meant that I would have to either find another job in Australia to renew my visa, or leave. I decided on the latter, and left the dream behind (full disclosure, until today I can’t see images of the Sydney Opera house without feeling sad and nostalgic…).

But my new opportunity was just perfect – and in many ways, a dream. In 2020, I started a tenure-track position at the University of Aberdeen (UK) where I am now a Research Fellow (equivalent to Lecturer/Assistant Professor). I lead my research group, and our mission is to give people opportunities to achieve their dreams. I have full support of my colleagues, School and the University, which gives me the ideal foundation to flourish in my academic career. Looking back, where I am now still feels unimaginable. From where I started, it seems like an impossible path. But here I am, telling you this story, so that hopefully you can find strength and hope in your own path.

Can you tell us a bit about your research?

My core research contributions so far have been on nutritional ecology in insects. However, my group’s research is broad, spanning from entomology through to dentistry. In the group, we are attracted to good ideas, and do not limit ourselves to disciplines. The purpose of my group’s existence is to be a platform through which people can pursue their questions, no matter which ‘disciplines’ it may be.

Is there a person or people who inspired you to pursue either graduate school or research?

I was lucky to have an older sister (11 years older) who is a scientist. When I was 7 years old, she had just started her undergraduate and when I was 16, she defended her PhD. She practiced her presentation with me as an audience, and without knowing, I was perhaps one of the very few 16 years-old that new about Langmuir-Blodgett films and Tunnelling microscopy! So yes, my sister inspired me to be a scientist.

What has been especially rewarding for you as an ECR?

To me, the most rewarding part of my job (being an ECR or not) is to help people become their best, to give them opportunities, and to watch them flourish. I had the opportunity to give back to my community, through my outreach projects. In my outreach project, we visited and spoke to more than 500 students from public schools with the lowest performance in the Brazilian National exam. But that didn’t mean anything. They were curious, intelligent, and inspired to tap into their potential. Some even decided to apply to a University after our visit, one of their teachers told us. Isn’t that what is important? To me, there is nothing more rewarding to me than to giving people opportunities to chase their dreams, even if with a simple chat and career advice. 

What is one piece of advice would you give to a starting graduate student?

Find mentors that truly care for you and your success. Your mentors don’t need to be big-shots in the field – someone that cares for you is worth more than 1,000 Nature papers.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Perhaps in an uncommon way, my career (and life) was and still is primarily influenced by women. My inspiration to become a scientist, my ‘academic crush’ (i.e., Marie Curie), the majority of my mentors – both from the past and contemporary – are women. I just wanted to share this to say that, no matter what people think, being inspired and mentored by women can take you to your dreams and beyond!