Herpetologist Highlight: April

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Herpetologist Highlight

Name: Freya Rowland

Age: 34

Website / Twitter Handle / Instagram: @freshwaterfreya

Where do you work? I work for the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, and I am employed by the University of Michigan. My postdoc advisor, Dr. Craig Stow, is a NOAA employee, and I am based at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Position: I am a postdoctoral fellow.

How did you get there?

I did my undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin and was lucky enough to get involved in research at the Center for Limnology working with two (then) graduate students of Dr. Steve Carpenter, Drs. Oonsie Biggs and Amy Kamarainen. They allowed me to be part of a research project in its entirety. I helped plan sampling, prepped sample bottles, sampled lakes, enumerated zooplankton, and helped write the manuscript.

Immediately after graduation, I started a M.S. in the labs of Drs. Mike Vanni and María González. My master’s work examined how light and nutrient variation affects food chain efficiency, and I wanted to add in a benthic food chain. Dr. Michelle Boone was on my committee, and she recommended I use bullfrogs as my benthic consumer. I find it ironic that my interest in amphibians was sparked by the much-maligned bullfrog, but I spent hours watching the tadpoles swim and brainstorming future research ideas that would incorporate them.

I knew I wanted to get a Ph.D., but I decided to take some time away from academia to work in the real world. I spent three years working as an urban hydrologist at governmental agencies in Minneapolis and St. Paul. I sampled ponds, streams, lakes, and stormwater to determine pollutant loads being exported downstream. I enjoyed the applied nature of this work, but I realized that my interest in acquiring new skills and conducting research was driving me towards doctoral studies. I knew that Michelle had worked with Dr. Ray Semlitsch for her Ph.D., but I didn’t think I had much of a chance because I had zero amphibian ecology experience. Ray was the first person I emailed about Ph.D. positions, and I didn’t expect a reply. I was thrilled when he accepted me into his lab at the University of Missouri.

While at Missouri, I used pond ecosystems to ask some basic questions about food webs and subsidies. I explored bottom-up and top-down effects in ponds, I examined how leaf litter affects small aquatic ecosystems, and I looked at shifting food web interactions with increasing leaf litter inputs into ponds. I also had the good fortune of being part of a larger effort researching source-sink dynamics of pond-breeding salamanders on the Fort Leonard Wood military base in Missouri. Moreover, I was able to complete several side projects with graduate students and undergraduates in the Semlitsch lab during my time in Missouri.

As I was finishing my Ph.D. this past fall, I saw an advertisement for my current postdoc position. It is a great fit in many ways. For my job talk, I presented pond research that probably weirded out all of the Great Lakes scientists. My undergraduate and master’s work was in Limnology, and my Ph.D. was in a strong population and community ecology lab that emphasized quantitative skills — as a result, the jump from studying ponds to modeling harmful algal blooms (HABs) in Lake Erie and what determines their toxicity was less difficult than it might seem. I am still getting used to the massive scale of the Great Lakes, however, as that quite a bit different from ponds.

Was there any particular hardship that you had to overcome to work in your position?
In the summer before I started the third year of my Ph.D., my advisor Ray Semlitsch passed away unexpectedly. It was challenging not only because I lost a great mentor with an incredible knowledge of herpetology, population and community ecology, and all things Ambystoma, but also because he was so much fun to be around. Ray loved science, and you could go into his office totally despondent about the challenges of graduate school and emerge feeling excited about your research and where it could go. I miss talking with him about anything and everything.

Because I had already planned out all of my research, I decided to stay at the University of Missouri and finish my degree. It wasn’t easy, but I am grateful for the support of Tom Anderson, Britt Ousterhout, Jake Burkhart, Arianne Messerman (the other students still in the lab at the time), past Semlitsch students, Ray’s larger network, and the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri. There were so many people who reached out to those of us still in the lab to offer support. In particular, Drs. Ricardo Holdo (now at the University of Georgia), Manuel Leal, and Lori Eggert became important mentors to me. I am a broader and better scientist because of them.

What advice do you give to someone interested in your profession? What advice might you have for someone from an underrepresented group who is interested in entering your field?

I don’t know if I am far enough in my career to offer advice, but whenever I talk to undergraduates about pursuing scientific jobs I emphasize the importance of experience. Getting that first lab job is surprisingly difficult, and I know it frustrates a lot of undergraduates — I accepted a for-credit lab job before I got a paid position.

I would also stress the importance of finding a mentor (whether it be a graduate student or faculty member) who wants you to really engage in the science rather than just washing dishes or entering data. Look for someone who is willing to publish with you. I have had some fantastic undergraduates work with me, and two of them are first authors on papers. That sort of experience can help you determine whether you want to pursue a scientific career (because let’s face it: field work can be hard, data entry can be boring, and writing can be challenging), but it also puts you way ahead of the field if/when you apply to graduate school.

My third piece of advice is to go for it. If you want a Ph.D., give it your all. Ray used to compare academic careers to basketball: You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take, so just keep on shooting. The rejections of grants and papers can be tough. I spent a lot of time feeling unsure of myself and whether I was smart enough to make it, but I have never had a mentor who thought s/he was the smartest in the department. All of them decided to work their tails off and see how far it would take them. It has been a journey to get over myself and not be afraid to ask questions and fail occasionally (or a lot).

Universities are starting to recognize the hurdles faced by individuals from underrepresented backgrounds, and many of these institutions offer special scholarships and fellowships to support research endeavors. That being said, I think PIs need to specifically try to recruit people from diverse backgrounds to their labs; I suspect many people are not aware of the opportunities available to them, and PIs can act as a bridge and support applying for fellowships and grants.

Many societies have mentorship opportunities designed to offer support to individuals from underrepresented groups. For example, the Society for Freshwater Science has the Instars Program and the Ecological Society of America has SEEDS. There are also other opportunities like the EEB Mentor Match program run by Drs. Meghan Duffy and Terry McGlynn. These programs are a great way to connect with mentors from similar backgrounds — or at least someone who can empathize with your experience. I have had many mentors at every stage of my career and could not have made it without their advice and assistance.

What’s your favorite herp?

I consider myself an aquatic ecologist, so I am very fond of pond-breeding amphibians. As a Semlitsch lab graduate, I would be remiss to not name a salamander! I am going with the ringed salamander (Ambystoma annulatum). Not to sound too unscientific, but there is something majestic about their long bodies and bright yellow rings. I would add that the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) was an excellent study species for my dissertation. Their egg masses are easy to find and take weeks to hatch because of cool water temperatures in the spring, which made them perfect for a frazzled Ph.D. student.

Why are you an HL member? I am a member because of the numerous opportunities that the league gives graduate students. I was lucky to receive grant funding from the Herpetologists’ League, which made a difference in my research. The league is also an incredibly welcoming and supportive community.

Is there anything else you would like to add? Not that I can think of.

Is there a good caption for your attached photograph? Here I am holding a juvenile ringed salamander at the greenhouse where I completed many of my dissertation experiments.


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