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Alumni Spotlight

In the Biodiversity Research Centre Alumni Spotlight you will find short interviews with recent graduates from the BRC. Learn more about their BRC experience and what they are up to now.

Interested in sharing your experiences on the Alumni Spotlight page? Contact Catherine Hoffman for more information.

Robin LeCraw

May 2015: Robin Le Craw, Ph.D.

Robin LeCraw was a PhD candidate with Diane Srivastava. At UBC, she studied the effects of spatial processes at multiple scales, from local colonization of patches to biogeographical shifts in community dynamics and function. Robin used a system of aquatic invertebrates contained in bromeliad rosettes (a tropical plant) in Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, and Brazil to examine the effects of spatial scale on predation and decomposition. Robin now works as an aquatic ecologist with the MMM Group Limited, an engineering and environmental consulting firm in Kitchener, ON. We reached out to Robin to hear about how her experiences at the BRC prepared her for her career in consulting.

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What are your responsibilities in your current position?

''I'm responsible for conducting aquatic ecosystem assessments and other wildlife surveys to develop environmental protection during projects from subdivision developments to highway construction and bridge repair.''

What advice do you have for people interested in pursuing consulting after school?

''Get as broad a base of experience as possible. Working with government, and private sectors especially, will give you more experience with the practicalities of environmental legislation and regulations than you'll likely learn in academia, and you'll learn how to work with a variety of interest groups. As a consultant you'll need to bridge input from government agencies, clients, and other consultants, and having a broad base of knowledge and experiences from which to draw is essential.''

What experiences from the Biodiversity Research Centre best prepared you for what you are doing now?

''Two aspects of my time in BRC have prepared me for this career in consulting. Building on my above advice, participating in the BRITE internship program twice gave me valuable experience working in two other fields - with the provincial government and an environmental NGO. These gave me experience working with people in different fields, and also knowledge of legislation and legal issues surrounding ecological conservation, and species at risk, which have been invaluable in my consulting role.

''Second, is the project management and collaboration experience I gained through my field program during my Ph.D. The transferable skills I gained from planning and coordinating several international field trips in conjunction with our colleagues in those countries are, I think, what got me this job. The ability to juggle several projects and manage timelines with several other staff and project managers is critical in consulting, and having the freedom and support to take on that project management during my Ph.D. was one of the most formative experiences I had at BRC.''

What, if anything, did you find challenging about moving into consulting from academia?

''Consulting is a very different beast, and there are some aspects I'm still getting used to. The collection of data is more focused on screening for sensitive aspects of the ecosystem, and there isn't a lot of need for quantitative data and statistical analyses. I miss the data and my R skills are getting a little rusty! However, there is a lot of interesting field work to be had, on a variety of project types around the province, and I still get to play outside!

I struggle sometimes with the ethical differences between working for the client, versus working for scientific advancement or for the sole purpose of ecological conservation. However, working in an applied field means that we are directly responsible for recommending and implementing measures to protect the ecosystem. We can have a more immediate impact on preserving ecosystem function, communities, and sensitive species.''

What does biodiversity mean to you?

''The amazing variety of life and their interconnections of which we are a part. The most wonder-inspiring aspect of the world.''

Any final thoughts on your time at the BRC?

''My experiences at BRC were very rewarding. There are opportunities to explore many aspects of science and biodiversity that can lead to any number of interesting career paths if you take advantage of them. I am still benefiting from my time there both in my professional life, and ongoing scientific partnerships and friendships.''

Thanks to Robin for sharing her experiences with us!

Robin LeCraw in the field

Leithen M'Gonigle

April 2015: Leithen M'Gonigle, Ph.D.

Leithen M'Gonigle was a PhD student from 2005-2011 at the Biodiversity Research Centre where he worked with Sally Otto. His work comprised two separate topics: 1) sexual selection and species co-existence (e.g., is it possible that sexual selection might enhance co-existence of species across space?) 2) antagonistic host-parasite co-evolution (can host-parasite interactions affect the long-term evolution of hosts or parasites in terms of other traits like mutation rate or is it just how "parasitic" they are?). We caught up with Leithen as he begins his transition to an assistant professor position at Florida State University.

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What was the best experience you had as part of the Biodiversity Research Centre?

 "I loved my whole experience there so much! I would have to say that the overall collegial atmosphere at UBC was really the highlight for me. As a student working largely on theoretical projects, I spent a lot of time on campus at my desk and it was so great to be surrounded by such a great group of students/post-docs/faculty. The amazing seminars, dinners with speakers, discussion groups, and parties really made it one of the best times of my entire academic career!"

What resource did you find to be the most valuable during your time? 

"I did a BRITE internship at the end of PhD with the Xerces Society in Portland and this was a very good eye opener for me. It also ended up getting me in the door with my post-doc advisor where I have spent the past few years, so that was definitely an amazing and formative experience for me."

What did you do right after finishing at UBC? What are you doing now?

"I headed down to UC Berkeley to do a post-doc with Claire Kremen. I'm currently in the process of transitioning from that position to a professor position at Florida State University."

What advice do you have for BRC students wishing to pursue a professor position?

"Stay at UBC as long as you can! It's such a great place and, the longer you spend there the more you'll get done before you head off to a post-doc! One thing that is also a bit shocking post-grad school is just how little time you suddenly have to learn new skills. So, my advice is to stay at UBC as long as possible and to learn as much as you can from as many people as possible while there! All those skills will be amazingly useful once you're out on your own."

What experiences or skills from your time at the BRC best prepared you for your current position? 

"I learned a lot as a graduate student in the BRC. Probably, most of all, was how to be part of a collaborative group. I learned an amazing amount from my peers at UBC - everything from computer coding to manuscript writing. In particular, I think my quantitative and programming skills really served me well as a post-doc - a little R goes a long way when you're suddenly working with real data, which is something I did for the first time as a post-doc."

What does biodiversity mean to you? 

"Biodiversity to me is simply the sum of all species in a given place. And the most interesting question, in my mind, is understanding both how this diversity came into existence and, even more than that, what forces enable it to persist."

Check out Leithen's website to learn more about his research!

Leithen M'Gonigle in the field

Roya Eshragh

February 2015: Roya Eshragh, M.Sc.

Roya Eshragh recently completed her Masters with Brian Leander here at the Biodiversity Research Center. Roya explored the fascinating evolution of dicyemids, a little known parasite of cephalopods. We were able to catch up with Roya while she is in Madagascar to hear about her adventures after graduate school.

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What projects have you been involved with after finishing your degree? 
"Since the BRC, I did some contract work for the British Columbia Conservation Association and taught as a sessional lecturer at UBC. Now I am the Senior Science Officer at ReefDoctor, a marine conservation NGO in southwest Madagascar."

What experiences or skills from your time at the BRC were most beneficial for your current position? 
"Learning how to set up projects, and how to adapt to unexpected situations was invaluable. Being surrounded by world-class scientists showed me how good science is done and now allows me to bring high standards of data collection and analysis to any project I undertake. In my current position, I am in charge of surveys and monitoring a bay ecosystem and can use my experience and what I was exposed to in the BRC to expand and perfect the science program."

What BRC resource did you find most valuable during your time in school? 
"Seminars were really useful to learn what the world of biology is doing, and what is considered good science. They showed aspects of ecology and evolution that I never would have contacted with my research alone."

What was the best experience you had as a part of the BRC? 
"I think I'm going to have to choose the huts skits (a yearly parody skit featuring a variety of faculty from the Department of Zoology). Both participating in and watching them were hilarious memories that always make me smile."

What advice do you have for current BRC members? 
"Make use of everything you possibly can. Never again in your life are you going to have such easy access to such an abundance of high quality lectures, friendly and helpful experts, an entire museum below you, and a melting pot of intelligent people with unique ideas and solutions."

What does biodiversity mean to you? 
"Biodiversity is what makes the world interesting. It's the interaction of all organisms fulfilling separate niches working together for a functioning ecosystem. When parts start to die and the niches go unfilled, the whole ecosystem suffers."

Ross Whippo

January 2015: Ross Whippo, M.Sc.

Ross Whippo studied the community ecology of near-shore marine habitats during his master's degree with Mary I. O'Connor at the Biodiversity Research Centre. Ross was interested in the assembly and persistence of invertebrate communities in seagrass meadows. He conducted subtidal surveys using SCUBA and tested the dispersal of several common seagrass-associated organisms in Barkley Sound, BC from the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. We chatted with Ross to hear about his adventures post graduate school and plans for the new year.

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What did you do after graduate school? 
"This past summer I had the chance to work with researchers from Simon Fraser University at the Hakai Institute on the Central Coast as a dive technician. I assisted them with kelp forest and seagrass ecological surveys and experiments aimed at determining the impact of repatriated sea otters to the region."

What is your current position? 
"Beginning this year, I was hired by the Smithsonian Institution in Maryland as a biologist for their new MarineGEO program. MarineGEO is a cross-discipline, long-term, global initiative that will employ standardized observations and experiments to build an open-source database of the world's near-shore marine biodiversity. The project will focus on exploring interactions between biological and environmental factors that shape marine ecosystems. My role is to coordinate research with scientists at partner institutions, conduct field work, and develop the methods that MarineGEO will employ at all their research sites."

What skills did you gain from your time at the BRC that are most beneficial to you now? 
"There are two specific skills (amongst many!) that I developed while at the BRC that have helped me immeasurably after graduation. First, the ability to communicate effectively with other scientists regardless of their area of study, whether I am explaining my own research on marine invertebrates to them, or they are explaining the "deep phylogeny of basal angiosperms" to me. Participating in seminars and taking the time to meet with visiting researchers cannot be overestimated as a sure way to make yourself fluent in the language of science. Second, the opportunity to hone my scientific diving skills at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre has made me a competitive job-seeker because it has given me a niche in the field of ecology. Whether you are good at GIS, molecular analyses, Bayesian models, or some specific field technique, I found it's important to make yourself an expert at something. Having a well developed methodological 'toolbox' is a very valuable asset."

What is the most valuable resource from the BRC? 
"The BRC's greatest asset will always be its people. I learned so much just by being open to those around me and taking an interest in the work of fellow researchers. The BRC really fosters a sense of collaborative learning that resulted in countless lunchtime discussions, spontaneous reading groups, and meetings with other labs. It's important not to miss those opportunities, sometimes the person working across the hall from you will have the answer to a particularly difficult research question you've been wrestling with."

What was the best experience you had as a part of the BRC? 
"The time I spent at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre (BMSC) both as a researcher and intern will stay with me forever. Collaborating with researchers from all over the country, exploring hidden worlds under the waves, and seeing some of the most stunning biodiversity our planet has to offer are not experiences I could easily forget. If you are ever given a chance to spend time on the outer coast, jump on it."

What advice do you have for current BRC members? 
"Be the first person to volunteer! I found that stepping up and giving my time and energy to others was the best way to accomplish all of my own goals. Whether those goals were personal or professional, making connections with colleagues and assisting on other projects gave me valuable insights that I never would have gotten otherwise. You never know where your next great idea will come from. Also, learn R. PIs love it when you can use R."

Finally, what does biodiversity mean to you? 
"Biodiversity means connections. Those hidden pathways that form a definitive (if complex) link between me and a diatom floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I can't imagine a more exciting and rewarding endeavor than bringing even a fraction of those connections to light."

Be sure to follow Ross on Twitter (@RossWhippo) as he will be tweeting the exciting research that MarineGEO is doing around the globe.

Ross Whippo in the field

Jessica lu

December 2014: Jessica Lu, M.Sc.

Jessica Lu got her masters degree in Botany (2013) while working in the BRC with Roy Turkington. Jessica studied plant community ecology and designed a field experiment carried out in SW China. Her experiment involved manipulating the quality and quantity of plant litter and measuring the response in soil nutrients and the detritivore community in subtropical rainforests. We caught up with Jessica to hear more about her experiences.

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Where do you currently work? 
"I currently am the Data Management Coordinator at Genome British Columbia. I work in the Research Programs group at Genome BC, where I curate the output metrics of all the projects that we fund, and maintain this data in an internal database."

What was the biggest accomplishment from your time at UBC? 
"I was heavily engaged in teaching and originally wanted to pursue a teaching career after graduate studies. I was a teaching assistant for a variety of courses, as well as participating in various workshops and courses in teaching (through UBC CTLT and the Biology department). Through that realm, I became interested in science communication and the importance of communicating good science to a wide range of audiences. I started to use Twitter (@JessMLu) and to engage with the scientific communication community at UBC, and met people who I otherwise wouldn't have interacted with. Lastly, I participated in a BRITE internship with Bioversity International in Rome, where I developed an interest in the policies around data management."

What experiences or skills from your time at the BRC best prepared you for your current position? 
"I am grateful that my supervisor encouraged me to go to a brand new system and helped me with experimental design and coming up with my own questions. I think that by having my own independent project, I learned to curate and organize my own data, and developed a strong attention to detail. More directly, the work I did during my BRITE internship, where I researched and documented research activities in crop genomics, gave me skills that pertain to my current job. One of my internship supervisors also acted as a reference during the interview process. I probably would not have been considered a candidate for my current position without having done the BRITE internship, let alone be selected."

What advice do you have for current BRC members? 
"Say yes to collaborations, opportunities, and generally, jump with your feet first and immerse yourself into the ecology/evolution/biodiversity community at UBC. You get out of it what you put in. Don't treat grad school as something you do from 9-5pm, a lot of networking and collaborations happen in random hallway conversations."

Finally, what does biodiversity mean to you? 
"To me, biodiversity represents the crazy and colourful natural world that exists all around us, and the plants and animals of all shapes and sizes, all trying to play a different role in the ecosystem."

Jessica Lu in the field