Notes to Prospective Graduate Students
I welcome students who share my interest in the interface of theory, modeling, and empirical ecology. My goals as an advisor are to encourage high standards, independence and a supportive attitude towards peers. From my advisor, Simon Levin, I learned by example that treating science as a team sport (with only one team) is more fun and ultimately more productive than "playing to win". I aim to pass that attitude on to my students. I try to be both supportive and demanding, in terms of course preparation, level of effort and quality of work. I look for students who want to tackle important questions and donít mind working hard to acquire skills and get results.††
If you apply, I and the Admissions Committee(s) will look for evidence of your quantitative skills, especially good grades in undergraduate math, statistics, physics, or computer science (e.g. linear algebra, probability, differential equations, statistical theory, numerical analysis). If you discovered theoretical ecology late and havenít taken many quantitative course, that is not an insurmountable obstacle, but youíll have to do catch-up coursework and we will look very closely at reference letters attesting to your progress towards becoming a theoretical ecologist. †
I ask my students to define their own research problems, so that you donít wind up finishing your PhD and postdoc years with no experience at self-directed research. Grant-supported students typically do half their thesis on self-developed projects. It helps to pick a project where I can give you well-informed advice and help, but beyond that itís up to you. I am not much interested in understanding or predicting the effects of climate change. We already know that climate change is real and vitally important. The important questions are how we might reduce it or minimize its consequences. If you have ideas on how theoretical ecology can help with those, Iíll be happy to work with you on them. †††
Nonacademic careers are often viewed as a fallback for weaker students. I find this incomprehensible. Non-academics do most of the real work of environmental management, planning, and conservation.† If that's where you want to be, I'll do my best to help you get there.
I am in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, but I can advise grad students in three fields: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Applied Mathematics, and Computational Biology. Choosing between these is mainly a function of practical issues (admissions, funding, where you want to work after you graduate). E&EB has the advantage of few course requirements, but the Applied Math and Computational Biology requirements should not be a burden if you want to be a well-prepared theoretical ecologist. You can only apply to one field (and then transfer to one other if you are denied admission), so before you apply please contact me to discuss which Field would be best for you. †Admission is determined by the Admissions Committee for each field, not individual faculty. So even if you and I both want you to join my research group, the committee may not admit you.
Anyone planning to be a theoretical ecologist needs a solid grounding in quantitative methods, including mathematics and statistics. For that reason, students working with me typically face course requirements beyond those required by their graduate field. This is for your own good and I will be happy to explain why. Without the right foundation, the enormous literature in theoretical mathematics and statistics will forever be a closed book to you. My advisees should expect to spend one year (and possibly two) concentrating on coursework, followed by your "A" (admission to candidacy) exam. For consistency, all my students follow EEB's timeline for progress towards their degree, which you can find here.
Questions? Iím happy to email or talk on the phone with prospective students. Usually itís best to start with an email. Let me know what interests you, and why you think it would be a good idea for us to work together.
Here are some research topics of current and past students:
∑ Optimal sampling effort for detecting and managing invasive species spread
∑ Within-species variation in plant defenses against herbivores
∑ Spatial and temporal dynamics of monarch butterfly populations
∑ Effects of commuting patterns on disease spread in cities
∑ Design of effective trap-cropping systems for low- or no-pesticide pest control
∑ Understanding rapid evolution in predator-prey interactions using fast-slow systems theory
∑ How density-dependent costs of defense affect predator-prey coevolution
∑ Maintenance of communication systems with incomplete honesty
∑ Evolution of energy allocation strategies in fluctuating environments
∑ Accuracy of stochastic matrix models for population viability analysis
∑ Comparing strategies for controlling insect agricultural pests using genetic engineering
This is where some of my past PhD students are now:
∑ Matt Holden, University of Queensland Center for Excellence in Environmental Decisions: postdoc.
∑ Ben Dalziel, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Oregon State: Assistant Professor.
∑ Michael Cortez, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Utah State University: Assistant Professor.
∑ Paul Hurtado, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Nevada Reno: Assistant Professor.
∑ Virginia Pasour, US Army Research Office, Durham NC: Program Director for Mathematical Biology
∑ Jonathan Rowell, Department of Mathematics, UNC-Greensboro: Assistant Professor.
∑ Paul Schliekelman, Department of Statistics, University of Georgia: Associate Professor.
∑ John Fieberg, University of Minnesota, Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology: Assistant Professor.
∑ Kyle Shertzer, NOAA Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research, Beaufort NC: Fisheries Biometrician
∑ Michael Easterling, Scientific & Social Systems, Research Triangle Park NC: Biomathematician
∑ Georgiy Bobashev, Research Triangle Institute, Research Triangle Park NC: Senior Data Scientist
∑ Barbara Bailey, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, San Diego State University: Associate Professor.
∑ George Hess, Department of Forestry, North Carolina State University: Professor
∑ Steven Peck, Department of Integrative Biology, Brigham Young University: Associate Professor.