Looking for a new graduate student!

I’m looking for a new graduate student! See below. To start communication, send me your CV and GRE scores, and tell me why you’re interested in graduate work in the lab.

An opportunity exists at the University of Dayton (UD) for graduate-level training related to questions at the interface of community and ecosystem ecology utilizing insect communities. The student will be based at UD (although, there may be a substantial field component in grasslands in Texas) and will work in the laboratory of Dr. Chelse Prather.  I am seeking a motivated student who is eager to perform the arduous tasks associated with ecological field research and chemical analyses in the lab, the careful work of experimentation, and who has an eagerness to learn and implement complex statistical analyses.  Potential students must be excited to work with insects and have substantial fieldwork experience. Students must be able to work well in potentially inclement conditions (e.g., hot summers with many biting insects), and work well with others in the field. Other desirable qualities include: familiarity with sampling grassland vegetation and insects, insect identification, rearing insects, laboratory feeding trials with insects, and laboratory chemical analyses.  I would be open to applications from potential Masters or PhD level students.

I am currently working on two major projects in my lab: 1) an NSF-funded large-scale manipulation to determine the role of micronutrients in structuring herbivore communities in grasslands, and 2) a USDA-funded mesocosm experiment (in collaboration with Dr. Angela Laws and others) to determine if herbivore diversity affects grassland functioning. These projects are both located in Texas, and could provide an excellent framework for an intellectually curious student to develop independent, interesting complementary projects.

The student will be initially supported by a teaching assistantship through the Department of Biology at UD.  The assistantship is associated with a stipend of ~$20,000/year; however, a portion of this comes in the form of a University summer fellowship which is awarded through a competitive process. The assistantship also comes with 100% tuition remission. Support is guaranteed for the life of the project pending satisfactory performance.

UD is the largest private University in the state of Ohio, and is consistently award winning for both academic programs and scholarship http://www.udayton.edu/awards_and_rankings.php.  Enrollment is ~11,000 with approximately 3,000 graduate students.

Interested individuals are encouraged to view the following web sites:

Dr. Prather’s Lab Pages: https://chelseprather.wordpress.com UD Department of Biology: http://biology.udayton.edu

University of Dayton: http://www.udayton.edu

University of Houston’s Coastal Center (where field work is located): http://www.eih.uh.edu

 

Why I’m coming out to students as a survivor of sexual assault: A follow-up.

It’s been a little over a semester since I first put information and resources regarding sexual misconduct in my syllabus, and, when discussing this on the first day of class, came out to my students as a survivor of sexual assault. Did the statement in my syllabus and my disclosure to the students have any effect on them? All I have is anecdotal evidence but I’ll share a few of those anecdotes here.

Students actually dealing with sexual misconduct: A student ended up dropping my course just before the official withdrawal date. The student stayed and talked to me outside of the last class attended, and said they were having lots of problems with anxiety that was mainly due to being raped during the first few weeks of classes. Before I even brought up the fact that I needed to disclose this as a mandatory reporter, the student showed me evidence that contact had already been made with the Title IX office. I’m not sure whether or not the student had done so because of the information on the syllabus….it hardly seemed like the time to ask, “So was the information I provided you on the syllabus helpful with this?” However, just the outright admission that this incident had already been reported this told me that the student had listened on the first day and knew I was a mandatory reporter. Whether or not my information helped, though, was beside the point; the student was getting help from the right resources on campus, and that’s all that matters to me.

An unanticipated consequence: About a month into the course, a female student came to talk to me about the fact that she was not doing well in here other biology course, which was her first biology course in college with a lab. We talked about strategies that she could use to prepare better for each class, and how to study better for exams. I also asked if she was adjusting well to college: she launched into a personal story about why her transition was rather hard. She told me that she felt comfortable telling me her story because my disclosure on the first day of the course. We talked about ways that she may be a better student while facing some tough situations at home—mainly I gave her the information for campus resources that could help her do so. She also asked if I would be willing to be a female role model for her during her time at this university. I told her, of course! Come talk to me anytime; everyone needs good role models for particular facets of their life with whom they can toss around ideas, or ask for advice once in a while. The student came and talked to me during office hours for a few minutes almost every week. She eventually decided that, with my assurance that it was okay to visit other departments, a biology degree wasn’t for her and dropped the major. A few other students mentioned overtly to me that my admission on the first day of class made them feel more comfortable with me—these were all female students. The unanticipated consequence was that some female students felt more comfortable with me, and they stated such.

To sum up, I know this isn’t the tact everyone who has been through similar situations would take, nor am I saying they should take this tact. However, I think for my particular circumstances there were some positive outcomes of my 30 second admission to students in class. I guess the counter-argument could also be made: maybe making myself so vulnerable to students on the first day of the course could have negative outcomes for the classroom dynamic as well. I did not consciously perceive anything I would consider to be a negative outcome. I will say that with the 2 senior seminars I am teaching this semester, I put this information in my syllabi, but I did not make this same admission for various reasons. I haven’t thought much about what I will do in the future–I will likely evaluate this on class-by-class basis. Regardless, thinking about this before classes and consciously deciding how to deal with it ahead of time has made me deeply consider my role as a faculty member in dealing with and preventing sexual misconduct on campus.

My main point in writing a hope that anyone reading this thinks a little more deeply about the role that each of us may have in dealing with sexual misconduct on campuses. Whether it be having a list of resources ready to give to students that may come to you in this type of situation, thinking about how you will respond to a student who brings up this type of issue with you (especially if you are a mandatory reporter), or directly putting this information on your syllabus, this type of proactive thinking may help a student (or more than 1 student!) over the course of your career. And that, to me, is worth at least a little forethought on the topic.

Research from an undergrad perspective: Annie Rudasill

As part of a series that I have been doing on this blog (see here and here), I asked an undergrad that has been working in my lab for about 2 years, Annie Rudasill, to write a blog post about what research in my lab has been like for her. If you are interested in doing research as an undergrad, I hope you get something out of her post!

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Working in a research lab as an undergrad is a unique experience anywhere, but it’s especially exciting at a university with no graduate students. Don’t get me wrong – the graduate students from other schools I’ve met have all been really nice, and I hope to be a graduate student myself soon – but working in a lab with no graduate students gives you a sense of freedom and power you don’t get when you have another student looking over your shoulder. I’m free to do my own research and I’m allowed to guide my own project and use whatever tools I deem necessary. I get experience I wouldn’t get elsewhere. There’s no one around to make me weigh out x-number of soil samples or to tell me to wash the dishes. There’s no middleman between me and my advisor. Of course I still have to do chores at the end of the day, but it’s they’re my chores. The best part, though, is getting invaluable experiences that are not only preparing me for my future career, but are allowing me to make new friends and learn new things about the science that I love.

 

Annie hard at work doing feeding trials in the lab.
Annie hard at work doing feeding trials in the lab.

When I first transferred to Radford University, I was brand new to biology. I was previously a music major, then an English major, and then an “I have no idea what I want to do with my life” general studies major. When I was nearing the end of my associate’s degree I just happened to take a general biology course that I loved. In an unrelated series of events, I overcame my fear of spiders and insects that same semester, which I had been deathly afraid of my entire life. When applying to local schools to pursue my bachelor’s degree, I took these two life-changing events and ran with them. I enrolled as a biology major with a focus in environmental biology, and sought to do research with any faculty that might get me close to creepy-crawlies. Coincidentally, Dr. Prather was my professor for freshman-level ecology, worked with grasshoppers, and was looking for students to join her lab.

 

Some of the grasses and Annie grew for her feeding trials.
Some of the grasses and Annie grew for her feeding trials.

Being in Dr. Prather’s lab has been radically different from what I originally imagined working in a lab would be like. It’s not just an advisor meeting with students for a few hours a week. It’s an open exchange of ideas, it’s the sharing of techniques and best practices, and it’s driving each other to think about problems from new perspectives. It’s a special niche within a relatively large department that makes you feel like you have people to go to when you need to vent. Most importantly to me, it’s a close-knit group of badass women literally playing with bugs and dirt. What could be better? Since the start, I’ve been out in the field catching and identifying insects and spiders. I’ve mastered the art of leading discussions on scientific papers. I’ve learned how to write grant proposals and CVs, and of course, I’ve carried out my own research, which is arguably the most valuable thing I’ve done as an undergrad.

 

Annie's plants growing with different levels of micronutrients in the soil.
Annie’s plants growing with different levels of micronutrients in the soil.

My undergraduate research project tested to see if grasshoppers could detect the presence of micronutrients in grass, and to see if they had preferential feeding that would suggest that some of the micronutrients could be a limiting factor for grasshopper abundance. In terms of ecological research practices, I certainly covered the basics. I wrote a grant proposal and got funded. I put in a ton of time in the field: catching grasshoppers, digging up native soil, growing grass, potting grass, adding nutrients to grass and so on. I also spent a lot of time in the lab weighing out micronutrients, identifying grasshoppers, and running feeding trials. I made graphs and ran statistics. I got some useable data. I got some not-so-useable data. I presented my findings to parents, faculty and my fellow students. There’s no doubt it was a stressful experience at times. I’m an environmental biologist; I’m not huge into coming into the lab only to see that my plants or, even worse, my grasshoppers had died. When fall came on too quickly and the grasshoppers I needed for the feeding trials started disappearing, it almost felt as if all my hard work had been a waste. But of course, it wasn’t. I walked away with a ton of experience, some really cool data about plant growth in response to micronutrient fertilizer, as well as the respect of my peers. It was awesome, and it never would have happened if I hadn’t been a part of Dr. Prather’s lab.

 

Mason jars with Annie's feeding trials.
Mason jars with Annie’s feeding trials.

At the end of the day, doing undergraduate research is a must for anyone interested in a career in the biological sciences. It’s incredibly rewarding, not just in terms of learning techniques but in terms of friendships and mentors and just having a good time. Maybe that’s a little nerdy to say, but it’s true. Sure, you have to put in a lot of hard work when you do ecological research, but some of my best memories as an undergrad come from my lab group. I’ll never forget going out in the field for the first time and seeing beautiful spider webs strung up between tall blades of grass, something I never would have thought to look for before, or tearing apart damp bark with my own hands to look for what might be hiding inside. I’ll never forget discussing papers and projects over our end-of-semester picnic, or feeding baby wolf spiders while discussing the latest department drama with my peers. Mostly, I’ll never forget how appreciative I am of such a fun and intelligent team of people to work with. Going forward in the hunt for graduate school, my standards are set pretty high. It’s going to be hard to find a group as awesome as my current one, but at least now I know what I’m looking for.

The Prather Lab is moving to UD and looking for a graduate student!

Starting in August of this year, Dr. Prather will be starting a position as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Dayton in Ohio. I will be looking for a graduate student to start when I begin at UD (Graduate student position announcement). Please contact me with any questions!

Experimental plots can be seen on google earth

The experimental plots for our NSF grant can now be seen on google earth. We’re getting ready to start spreading fertilizer soon!

The experiment surrounded by the rest of the University of Houston's Coastal Center.
The experiment surrounded by the rest of the University of Houston’s Coastal Center.
The experiment. Each square is a 30x30m plot that will receive some combination of micronutrients (Ca, K or Na) and / or macronutrients (N and P) this spring.
The experiment. Each square is a 30x30m plot that will receive some combination of micronutrients (Ca, K or Na) and / or macronutrients (N and P) this spring.

Spring Semester: Laboratory grasshopper colonies, teaching with Wikipedia, and a distributed class

Spring semester is off to a fun start here in the Prather lab.

I’m teaching 2 advanced seminars in biology: Insects and Society and Grassland Ecology. The Insects and Society course is a Wikipedia-based course that has several wikipedia assignments, and we have a course Wikipedia page. The students will start training on Wikipedia this week and will start editing Wikipedia themselves in the upcoming weeks. Towards the send of the semester, they’ll write their own wikipedia page! Wikipedia-based assignments are new to me, so I’m excited to see how things go. The Grassland Ecology course is a distributed class, meaning that it’s taught at multiple places at the same time (Radford University and the University of Houston). As I mentioned in the previous post, we’ve lined up a lot of great speakers from all over the nation for the students this semester, so I’m very excited about that as well.

The Biology Department recently moved into a new building, the Center for the Sciences, so we have been busy moving the lab over the winter break and early this semester. We have a brand new (and much better!) home for the grasshopper colony that Marisa and I started for her project this past semester. We’ve also started growing our own plant material to feed the grasshoppers in the lab.

Marisa feeding grasshoppers in the lab.
Marisa feeding grasshoppers in the lab.

Marisa will post an update on her project soon, but we’ve had some awesome parasitoid surprises from these wild-caught grasshoppers. Earlier this week, two tachinid fly pupa were in the bottom of a cage, along with a dead 2nd instar grasshopper nymph. We’re trying to rear them to adulthood to identify the species. It’s always amazing that infected individuals seem to show few symptoms before the enormous larva crawl out of their small bodies. In this case, these two larva must have feasted on almost all of the grasshopper’s body before emerging (see pictures below). Fun way (for us at least!) to start the semester.

Please keep an eye out for posts from undergrads soon talking about their research experiences in the lab.

Grassland Ecology Seminars at Radford

 

Interested in grassland ecology (but not enrolled in my grassland ecology course)?

For one of the senior seminars that I’m teaching this semester in the Biology Department at Radford (BIO 460), I’m teaching a course in grassland ecology. The course is a distributed class (the same class taught at the same time here and at the University of Houston), and is in collaboration with Dr. Steve Pennings and Dr. Angela Laws who are at UH. Some weeks for the first hour of the course, we are having expert speakers from all over the nation talk to the students remotely about their research or conservation work in grasslands. I’d be happy to have faculty or students from outside the class come and listen to these talks. These talks are on Wednesdays from 3-4pm in Young Hall, Room 213.We have some big names in the grassland world, some young scientists doing awesome grassland work, and some folks doing really interesting and innovative conservation work. Please come if you are interested! Contact me (cprather@radford.edu) if you’d like any more information! The schedule is below:
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End of the fall 2015 semester

The Prather Lab has been busy this past semester. Here are some highlights:

  • Zach Pillis is graduating from RU with his BS in Environmental Biology. We will miss Zach, but we know he’s moving on to bigger and better things!
  • As part of our NSF grant’s broader impacts, we will be updating publicly available information about common grasshopper species at our field site. Starting this endeavor, Jalynn Best started a wikipedia page for Orphulella speciosa this semester. Dr. Prather had never used wikipedia, so Jalynn figured out for herself how to create and edit pages–no small feat!
  • Marisa Dameron wrote and was awarded a Scholar-Citizen in Action grant entitled “Do grasshoppers respond to neighbors experiencing fear by altering their body chemistry?” She began this research this semester, catching grasshoppers and wolf spiders, and rearing them in the lab. She will conduct this experiment in the spring semester.
  • Megan Collier did bulk density, soil moisture, root content, root moisture, and pH measurements on lots of soil samples from Texas! She will continue this next semester, and has already been finding some interesting relationships between moisture content of the root and soil and arthropod abundance.
  • Annie Rudasill conducted feeding trials with grasshoppers to measure their feeding on plants that had been grown with different levels of calcium.
  • Annie also reviewed her first paper in conjunction with Dr. Prather. How many undergrads out there are reviewing papers? Pretty exciting.
  • Annie is also starting to look at data for a meta-analysis reviewing the effects of POOP on plant growth and nutrient cycling in soils.
  • We found an egg of a dipteran in the frass of an acridid nymph. To our knowledge, no egg parasites have been observed in grasshopper poop like this before.
  • Dr. Prather taught 3 sections of a class that was new to her, a freshmen seminar in biology. She used a book new to her “The Story of the Human Body“. She’s also preparing to teach Insects and Society and Grassland Ecology next semester.

We are looking forward to another fun and productive semester this spring!

Southern Plains and Prairie Conference talk

I was recently invited to speak at the Southern Plains and Prairies conference in Houston, Texas. This meeting is a wonderful gathering of a few scientists, restorationist, conservationist, prairie enthusiasts, and private landowners all talking about issues in Southern prairies. If you’ve got 30 minutes to spare and are interested in the work in my lab, the conference puts all the talks online, and here’s mine. Enjoy!

Why I’m coming out to students as a survivor of sexual assault

This year, I put something on my syllabus for a biology class  that I never thought I would–a statement about sexual assault. Why? A simple Facebook post to this article by a colleague got me thinking about doing this. There is anecdotal evidence that making such a statement on a syllabus could provide valuable resources to potential victims of sexual assault, and to let potential perpetrators know that more people are watching. Many faculty believe that professors may play an important role in discussions about sexual assault on college campuses (and have written about this from a more informed perspective, and more eloquent way, than I ever could).

In the past few years, I have had many students disclose that they were victims of sexual assaults. MANY. Some have told me this to explain why they were struggling in my class. Some have told me this to explain why they were being treated for depression or anxiety. Some just wanted to talk. I don’t know why these students confided in me, but I’m glad that they felt comfortable enough with me to do so. This confidence, however, is of course not limited to just me. A very informal survey at colleagues across different institutions yielded very mixed results: some had never experienced this, and some had up to 4 disclosures of sexual assault in 1 semester. What this did tell me is that lots of students disclose sexual assaults to lots of faculty, and in the case of myself and my colleagues, faculty that had no formal training in counseling or really how to deal with these situations.

Recent Title IX laws in the state of my institution as of July 1st of this year now legally require that faculty report disclosures like this to the institution’s Title IX office, regardless of whether the student wants this. Lots of faculty, object to this for many reasons, including: reporting should be a choice the victims have; this mandated reporting may re-victimize the students; it violates what’s always been an important level of trust in the professor-student relationship, and the list goes on.

I’m teaching 3 sections of a freshman seminar in biology this semester. Freshman are the most vulnerable to sexual assaults, and they are the population that I’ve heard disclosures from most in the past. For this reason, I felt that it was extremely important that I tell them what the new laws are for mandated reporting by faculty, and that I give them resources to help if they or someone they knew needed it. I put a short statement about what sexual misconduct is, confidential resources that one can report to on and off campus, and described that laws now mandate that faculty members are now mandated to report disclosures of sexual misconduct. But I decided to take it a step further than that.

I directly addressed this statement about sexual assault when going over the syllabus at our first class meeting. I told the students that sexual assault is a huge problem on college campuses. I told them that I know firsthand because when I moved to college, I was raped even before classes began. I told them I was not telling them this to scare them, but so that they knew this was not just something that happened to other people or other people’s friends. I told them I was telling them this because there should be no shame in being a victim of rape because people who are raped did not do anything to deserve being raped. I told them this because if they or a friend were in this situation and they happened to remember this discussion, they might also remember that resources available to them were listed on the syllabus.

In every section, when I first said I wanted to spend a minute talking about sexual assault, I could tell that lots of the students were only half paying attention. However, when I made my disclosure to them, I could tell every student in the room was fully attentive. No one said a word or asked anything. I spent only about 2 minutes of class time talking about this, and moved on to the class schedule.

Will this have any positive outcome? I have no idea, and I probably never will know. It did seem to get their attention. If it helps even one person who is suffering to get help, to have the confidence to report their perpetrator, or makes a potential perpetrator think twice before committing a violent act, then taking two minutes of class time to discuss this with my freshman and my feeling a little uncomfortable telling them such a personal piece of information is definitely worth it. Since this is such an important issue to our student populations, I decided to write this blog post so that other faculty might think about their role in these issues on their campuses. Again, if it makes even one of you rethink your voice in these discussions, I think it’s worth spending my time to write this post, and the uncomfortable feelings I have had with regards to posting this for public consumption.

 

*I have posted a follow-up to this here.*