Name: Kristen Cecala
Website / Twitter Handle / Instagram:
Twitter - @CecalaKK
Instagram - @CecalaKK
Where do you work? Department of Biology, Sewanee: University of the South
Position: John D. MacArthur Assistant Professor
How did you get there?
I conducted a ton of undergraduate research at Davidson College. From there, I was fortunate to work for USGS ARMI for a summer before beginning a PhD program at the University of Georgia. My graduate work was supported by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship that I believe was awarded in part because of the extensive undergraduate research experiences I had. Focusing on research and developing teaching skills while at UGA helped me when I went on the job market looking for teaching-focused positions. I returned to Davidson College to complete a year-long postdoctoral experience where I supervised undergraduate students in research and taught a half teaching load. That professional experience in the context of a small liberal arts college was critical to getting a position at Sewanee. In terms of being on the job market, I applied for any and all positions and was fortunate that this position was available. Though I work with amphibians, it was important that I was able to market myself as using amphibians in the context of population and freshwater ecology. For a small liberal arts college, it is also important to thoughtfully articulate how undergraduates fit into your research program.
Was there any particular hardship that you had to overcome to work in your position?
I’ll mention two particular experiences that are related to being young and female in science.
In grad school, I spent a month setting up an experiment on private property that required me to be in the field tracking salamanders all night. While I had permission to work on site, the property manager set up game cameras at my transects and periodically parked me into the property so that I would have to go to his house to ask him to move his vehicle while making uncomfortable small talk. Despite that, it was an ideal study site, and I set up an experiment requiring constant monitoring overnight. As I was moving among my transects, I found evidence that someone else was currently following me without making their presence known. I immediately left the site, and when I returned in the morning, the experiment that I had planned and constructed was ruined. While I wish that this was an isolated incident, I suspect that many field biologists can recall similar scenarios or other encounters in the field that have made them uncomfortable. I now always make sure that my students know that their safety is more important than their data, and try to adhere to strict field safety protocols.
I was also unprepared for some of the challenges of being a new, young, and female faculty member. Students and even other faculty members questioned my expertise for my first few years. Besides harassment that I received from students as a TA, students can also fall into a trap of treating you more like a friend rather than someone who deserves respect. Navigating the line between being compassionate and empathetic with being firm and setting boundaries is difficult. It can also be hard the first few times your comments are ignored, talked over, or attributed to someone else. I think it is important to acknowledge those events and make sure that it doesn’t happen to others by taking the initiative to amplify the ideas and comments of others who are typically overlooked.
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 encourage students to be open to a diversity of opportunities. Students are capable of making their experience matter – don’t fall into the trap of thinking there is only one way to achieve a goal. A Sewanee student recently gave our first-years the advice “Don’t change to match this institution, change the institution to match you.” I love that advice because while some students may face more obstacles than others, you make your own experience. Whether you look for obstacles or opportunities for change can transform how you and others move through academia, and if we aren’t changing the system that was designed to benefit the few, we aren’t making the system better for all.
What’s your favorite herp?
Dusky salamanders are like potato chips – you can’t pick just one – especially when they all look alike!
Why are you an HL member?
I think it is really important to cultivate communities – especially once you begin to lead your own program. Small institutions like mine simply can’t support the diversity of ecologists as large institutions, and I miss having that community that challenges and encourages scholars to consider different perspectives and opportunities. Having peers to critique your work and commiserate with is good for me, and I enjoy the opportunity to interact with researchers who share my interests.
Is there a good caption for your attached photograph?
Photobombing Nazca Boobies in the Galapagos!