The title of this blog represents one of the choices that I have had to make when building my research program in a small university with only undergraduate research students. I think that decision is required for ecologists at all universities, but perhaps a discussion on my approach will be beneficial to readers trying to decide on an approach.
Moving on from my graduate studies.
When completing my PhD, I worked with a single species of bird in a single population. Completing field work during the breeding season for that species required relocating from my home institution in Memphis to a field station in Florida for the entire Spring semester. Fortunately, although I was working with only one population, I pursued a dissertation research project that was integrative; incorporating endocrinology, immunology, parental behavior, and disease ecology to answer multiple ecological questions within that species. This was certainly an excellent study system, as is any system with over 20 years of continuous data.
When I began my career at Millikin, completing entire semesters of field work in a different state was not an option given that this is primarily a teaching university and I am needed in the classroom. Therefore, when establishing a research program, I entertained a couple of options. Option 1, work to establish my own study population of banded and territory-mapped birds of a single species near this university in order to work with a different species and expand on the studies I competed during my graduate studies (an area of research that is far from ‘dried up’), or Option 2, use the multiple skills and techniques at my disposal and my general expertise in ecophysiology and ecoimmunology to take a more diverse approach, pursuing projects in multiple vertebrate taxa, allowing opportunity, student interests, collaborator interests, and necessarily, logistical considerations, to drive my research program.
My take on Option 1.
Many individuals have excellent success using Option 1 (obviously applicable for more than just birds as I have referenced here in my example) and those who are successful using that model must be incredibly creative with experimental design. The ability to continually come up with new questions in an extremely well-studied system is a testament to that creativity and persistence. Further, well established study systems seem to often earn more respect from reviewers of grant proposals – as many of us know all too well that by the time you add enough data to a proposal to be granted the funding, the grants sometimes feel like reimbursement for the work you have already done. In addition, individuals who succeed in this type of program are also gifted at demonstrating to undergraduate students the value of basic research as well as the great value in a very deep understanding of a system.
I chose Option 2.
There are a number of reasons why this approach was best for me. First, I find that I enjoy the potential and challenge of pursuing something new and this approach also demands that I remain question driven and not strongly taxa driven. It is obviously possible to remain question-driven in a long-term study of a single species, too, and I completely understand the appeal of working with a single species or an exclusive group of similar organisms, after all, that was how I cut my teeth on research. However, I quickly realized that the pursuit of a variety of questions in multiple vertebrates made my lab more appealing to a larger number of students at this university. As explained in a previous blog post, I have only undergraduate students in the biology major here and they all complete a research project before graduating, yet among those majors, there are very different career goals. This ranges from a few students interested in conservation to those interested in academia to those interested in human health care (the majority fall into that third category). As students in my lab discuss the (sometimes substantial) ways in which their projects differ and also discover the similarities, they gain a strong appreciation for the value of comparative biology.
Building a research program in this fashion has greatly facilitated collaboration among the faculty members at my current university and I as well as with individuals from outside this university. In just over three years, I have taught students how to collect and analyze samples from multiple species of birds, amphibians, and small mammals – sometimes fusing my area of expertise with that of other faculty members in our department – with physiology or immunology based questions at the crux of each of those projects. Should the opportunity to pursue ecophysiological questions in fish and reptiles arise, I will give that a try as well. On a related note, I have also found that having strong statistical analysis abilities often leads to collaboration in experimental design and analysis.
Overall, taking this intentional approach to building my research program has required a different strategy than that with which I was familiar from my experience prior to joining Millikin’s faculty, but I am pleased with what we have accomplished in my lab in 3 years and look forward to future projects.