From the onset of this course it was made clear to us that its primary goal was to enable us to identify connections. The course topics spanned coexistence theory, life history theory, kin selection, natural selection, and sexual selection (to name a few) and our in-house and in-field lectures covered an equally diverse array of organisms. How are these theories united? How can we use concepts from one field to address questions in another? How can we integrate genomics with trait variation with species distributions? Essentially, how can our questions and methods replicate the same scaling up of complexity that we witness in nature? This course immersed us into highly complex systems, both physically and intellectually, and therefore provided the perfect environment to begin developing creative questions.
But as we now wrap up our studies, I can see that the connections we made in this course far exceeded those of an environmental nature (and I think this may have been an unspoken goal): We established connections within the scientific community.
Across biological disciplines, the scientific community is changing in the same direction: fields are getting too crowded, and competition is increasing at any accelerating rate. As many of my mentors have told me again and again, “we make too many PhDs”. We’re constantly confronted with the dogma that, through replacement, each PhD advisor will have only one PhD student that obtains a tenured faculty position. We have H-indices to quantify our scientific impact, an increasing quantity of articles that we’ll never have time to read, and the future of funding often appears grim. To put it bluntly, the competitive atmosphere of biology is scary.
In addition to generating novel questions and publishing elegant science, establishing connections within the community is critical. By connecting with members of the scientific community you increase your chances of success. One positive meeting may generate a collaboration, or give you an advocate on a search committee, or lead to a great postdoc opportunity.
This course has awarded us a tremendous opportunity to meet exceptional scientists in a low-stress environment. Most grad students meet researchers during the hustle and bustle of conferences, when everyone is struggling to combat psychological exhaustion with a never-ending drip of caffeine. We met researchers during non-chalant walks through the forest and followed up with casual conversations over dinner. Instead of the conference-style blitzkrieg of 30 talks in two days, we enjoyed 30 talks in three weeks, with time to digest and discuss the questions that really struck us. I feel fortunate to have met and connected with so many scientists on this trip, and to have been so warmly welcomed into the STRI community. I am sure this course will jump-start our careers in more ways than we could have expected.
-Tara E. Stewart-