Prospective Students

A letter to prospective lab members

Dear Prospective Student,

Thank you for your interest in our lab. I would like to discuss our mutual interests more personally, but first I thought I’d show my hand a bit so you could see whether this particular game is for you. I am excited about integrating functional genomics and physiology to understand the evolution and ecological distributions of organisms in nature.  I am interested in basic science questions, such as “how does genome regulation enable physiological resilience/plasticity in stressful environment, and how do genomes and genome regulation evolve in different species and habitats?”  At the applied science end of things I am interested in using genomics tools to diagnose environmental problems.  If these topics spin your propeller as well, then we’re off to a great start!

What are you interested in?  Are you genuinely interested in evolutionary and ecological physiology and genomics? Genome-scale tools are revolutionizing the biological sciences, and it is a very exciting time to be training as a biologist.  However, application of these tools is demanding of practitioners, requiring sophisticated statistics and computational skills, mastery of a diverse and specialized literature, as well as the creativity and drive to come up with cool ideas, clever experiments, and in-depth data analyses.  If this excites you, then we are making progress here.

Why do you want a graduate degree?  Employment in the basic sciences, particularly at research universities, is highly competitive. Fewer than half of new Ph.D.’s obtain academic positions of the sort for which universities have traditionally trained graduate students. On the other hand, opportunities for biologists outside of traditional academia (in government, industry, NGOs, and the like) are growing. So you have to ask yourself: What sort of position, specifically, do I ultimately want, and what skills must I acquire to excel at that position?  Your thoughts about this are likely to evolve while in grad school, as mine did, and I can help you with this, but it is good to have formulated a long vision before making a commitment to grad school.

Now I’ll answer a few questions for you.

What would I expect of you?  Graduate education is fundamentally about becoming an independent scientist. This means knowing the background in your field (and as much as possible in related fields), being aware of emerging ideas and approaches, generating interesting yet answerable questions about how life works, and sharing your findings with the larger scientific community. You also must know how to make convincing arguments to funding agencies to provide the financial support for these activities. Similarly, you must also be able to convince your Aunt Ruth at the Thanksgiving dinner table that what you are doing is worthwhile – science in this country is, after all, a socialized endeavor, so we are ultimately answerable to the taxpayer, the general public.  All of these things require self-motivation and organization.

To succeed, then, I would expect you to read broadly in the current literature, attend (and present at) scientific meetings and departmental seminars, and devote yourself to learning the analyses and laboratory techniques that are the tools of this trade. You should also develop a broad knowledge of the ecology, physiology, and evolutionary history of the organisms that you would be working on. Most importantly, I will expect you to hone your oral and written communications skills. You get professional credit for having mastered these skills by writing successful proposals and publishing papers in high-quality journals, so I would expect you to pursue these ends soon and often. Finally, the operative unit of selection here is neither just you nor just me, but the lab as a whole, so I will expect you to contribute to cultivating positive lab mojo.

I am flexible in my mentoring style, but beginning students are usually assigned to an existing project for the first year or two.  This for two reasons: 1) to serve as a training device for new students, and 2) to aid in fulfilling ongoing grant obligations.  But from Day 1 I expect new students to be forming their own research ideas, so that in later years, they can contribute in unique ways to research in the lab, and to the science in general.  Students may choose to stay working on the project to which they were assigned.  If so, then I expect them to contribute new and novel ideas and approaches.  Alternatively, students may create and choose projects that are outside of the specific objectives of a grant, but still within the spirit and scientific scope of that funded project.  Alternatively, students may design and choose a project that is outside the scope of funded projects, in which case they are expected to have secured their own funding.

What can I offer you?  I have broad interests and experiences in applying genetic and genomic techniques to examine how closely related organisms evolve in different environments, and how they respond differently to variable stressors in those environments. Complementary interests include ecotoxicology and conservation genetics. I wear many hats, and I strongly encourage truly interdisciplinary training of my students. It is important to me to train outstanding biologists, and I will make the time needed to offer you all I can to make you the best independent scientist you can be. Finally, the biggest thing I can offer you is freedom. If we have common interests, then you will be able to formulate your own questions and approaches. I impose few limitations on projects though I strongly emphasize the integration of ecological, evolutionary, physiological, and genomic approaches and perspectives to the questions you address.

What can UC Davis offer you?  The UC Davis graduate programs in Ecology and Environmental Sciences consistently rank among the top in the world, and the University regularly attracts top scientists from around the world to present seminars.  Your exposure to cutting-edge science here would be hard to beat.  I am a member of the Population Biology Graduate Group, the Graduate Group in Ecology which has many areas of emphasis including Ecological Genomics, Physiological Ecology, Marine Ecology, and Ecotoxicology, and a member of the Pharmacology and Toxicology Graduate Group, the Integrative Genetics and Genomics Graduate Group, and the new Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute.  I have students from different groups, and all groups offer outstanding training where you have access to a diverse group of world-class biology faculty.  The department-independent structure of the UC Davis graduate programs facilitates cross-disciplinary interactions.  This is good for students since you can organize a very diverse and robust dissertation committee, and you can choose from a wide variety of excellent courses to firm up your training in a diversity of specialties.   We have excellent infrastructure for genetics and genomics research, which in addition to equipment in our lab includes access to the world-class UC Davis Genome Center.

Are we a good fit?  Between this letter and the rest of the webpage, you probably have some idea of what working here would be like. But impressions in written words are never the same as back-and-forth interactions. So if you’re still interested, and believe you would be a strong candidate, please contact me. When you do, please include your CV and information about your experiences and interests (questions, animals, techniques). Furthermore, you should feel free to contact current students and staff to ask questions about life in the lab.

Additional reading:  I love these complementary letters by Ray Huey and Stephen Stearns about graduate school.

Once again, thanks for your interest and all the best in your future endeavors!

Andrew Whitehead

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