3 min read

In only so many words...

There are many ways that we should be growing and changing as young biologists in grad school. We all know what I mean by that i.e. the development of an ability to think critically and synthesize large amounts of technical information, the ability to cultivate ideas and to develop our own novel contributions to scientific research in our respective disciplines. One of the important outcomes of becoming a PhD in evolutionary biology is the development of one’s own research program. Frequently, e.g. in applications, we are asked to describe our research interests in only so many (x#) words. This happened to me when I arrived at my current institution (BYU) and I wrote something about the degree I had previously worked on and then some vague statements about what I hoped to do in my dissertation work.  Today, however, I am further along down the Path to the PhD, so I felt I could give a little more interesting and specific reply when the same task was asked of me by LinkedIn. This is what I wrote:

“My research primarily focuses on the evolutionary and ecological diversification, maintenance and spread of tropical biodiversity. Specifically, I am interested in drawing links between micro- and macro-evolutionary patterns of genetic, morphological, and ecological differentiation between individuals, populations, and species to test evolutionary hypotheses.

My dissertation research is elucidating the patterns and processes influencing Central American freshwater fish biodiversity and distributions using an integrative comparative phylogeography approach. By combining information on molecular population genetics and phylogeny, landscape-level processes and barriers, and ecological traits, I am testing for shared biogeography among several species of freshwater fishes distributed in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. This allows testing relative contributions of history versus ecology imprinting on species demographies. This work also points to causal factors likely responsible for initiating population divergence, historical population dynamics, and community assembly. It also has important implications for aquatic biodiversity conservation in the lower Central American region. One particularly novel aspect of my approach is that I join basic toxicological assays to generate information on physiological constraints to inform phylogeography-based statistical tests of patterns of hierarchical genetic variation and biogeographic hypotheses (e.g. dispersal and vicariance, different spatial-genetic scenarios through time).

I am also conducting research into the life history evolution and molecular and morphological systematics (e.g. alpha taxonomy) of subtropical New World freshwater fishes. By merging life history data with phylogeography, I hope to improve our understanding of contributions of morphological constraints and historical constraints versus physiological constraints on fish design and life history.”

Of course I wanted to write more!!! I was tempted to write about specific methods or projects (e.g. dissertation chapters).  But there is a lot of value in being able to say what you need to say in only so many words…a thing I learned during my Master’s and that I am still trying to apply. Now you know a little about me. Perhaps this helps you. Perhaps you have a comment on how I can improve this; if so, please leave it. But you should see several key points: I didn’t mention my organismal focus in the first paragraph (in order to keep things broad at the start), I went from broad to specific and listed my main project and its significance, and then I closed with a shorter statement about my ‘side’ project interests and general interests that carried over from my Master’s. Good luck to each of us as we try and hone our research program as well as these types of statements, and ourselves even, in grad school.

Cheers, ~ J