Advice: Your grad school inquiry email better relate directly to the person you’re emailing

Photo of three people looking at a long table full of marine specimens
Approaching prospective faculty advisers can feel daunting (and random). But it doesn’t have to. (Image ©2018, BGMerkle)

I field a fair number of grad student inquiry emails.

I say no to every inquiry email I receive.

For most of these prospective students, I wouldn’t be the right adviser anyway: they write me with interest in animal behavior, reproductive physiology, and wildlife biology to name a few. These emails are fairly straightforward to reply to. I don’t do that kind of science.

The trickier ones are the emails from people who clearly took time to read my bio/webpage on our department website. These folks tend to be interested in intersections of the same things I am.

Their inquiries are harder to decline, in part because I know there aren’t that many grad school opportunities at these intersections. And, in part because it would be so fun (and yes, hard work!) to jam out with a lab full of people working together on these topics.

In every case, though, I say no.

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Sketching Tip: Sketching Techniques Toolkit

Student practicing simplifying a complex image into essential line work (at a Sketching for Scientists workshop I taught at Harvard Forest)

I teach numerous Sketching for Scientists workshops each semester, for faculty, students, and science/science-allied professionals beyond academia. Each time, we do a lively, evidence-based crash course in habits of mind and foundational drawing techniques. I keep the focus tightly on integrating drawing with doing and sharing science, and for faculty, there is an additional coaching element where I help them think through curricular planning that can make grading feasible and productive and convincingly convey the value and utility of drawing for learning science.

Each time I run these workshops, I share a list of the techniques we’ve discussed, as a memory aid.

Here’s that list, in case it’s also helpful for you!

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Canadian Science Publishing interviews me about creative ways of doing science communication and sharing science

I was invited to serve as the People’s Choice Judge for Canadian Science Publishing*’s 2021 Visualizing Science contest (which you can enter now!). In the course of launching the contest, CSP interviewed me about my take on creative approaches to visualizing science and doing science communication.

Here are the cliff notes:

  1. I came to a career scicomm in a round-about way, only to later discover I had been doing scicomm most of my career.
  2. My “creativity+scicomm” soap box centers around 3 principles: (1) Creativity can be practiced and enhanced. (2) Cross-training is essential. (3) Few innovations happen overnight or solo. 
  3. Despite the constraints and our conditioning in academia, we must ground our science communication and public engagement efforts in what our audience or target stakeholders value. “No amount of beautiful art or accessible color palette […] will salvage a visual communication effort that is developed in an echo chamber.”
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Article: Using collages & surveys to understand public opinion about managing agricultural landscapes

Screenshot of article - displays two collages created by cutting out images of cows, chickens, pigs, trees, buildings, fields, and wind turbines.
Screenshot of article

I was fascinated and delighted to join a group of researchers who used art (collages made by community members) to better understand what citizens in the United Kingdom want agricultural landscapes to look like post-Brexit. The published article clarifies that Brits want to look at bucolic landscapes, but perceive renewable energy infrastructure as more environmentally friendly than livestock on the landscape.

I initially joined the research team to bring an arts perspective to the writing of the manuscript. As I dug in, I came to see the research approach as broadly useful. Here are a few excerpts from a UW press release about the study that effectively sum up my take:

I see it having a lot of relevance for us in Wyoming and North America broadly, as it uses a mixed-methods approach to better understand what citizens actually want to see on the landscape. We are deep into these kinds of discussions in Wyoming right now, so these kinds of public consultation studies can be valuable for us, too.

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IMPACT project receives UWyo Grand Challenges funding

Screenshot of press release linked to in main text of this blog post.
Screenshot of UWyo press release

The University of Wyoming’s Grand Challenges initiative recently announced the winners of the first round of funding from this major university initiative. I am delighted to report that a project I am leading was one of the five projects selected. This press release provides a brief overview of all five projects.

In short, our project is about enhancing transdisciplinary capacity at the university, because the problems of today (and the challenges of the future) cannot be solved by a single discipline. Through “IMPACT — Innovative Methods to develop Adaptive Capacity through Transdisciplinarity,” we aim to transform UW’s approach to research, and enhance public trust in research and information. We’re taking a cross-cutting, institutionally empowered, transdisciplinary approach in which science, technology, engineering, mathematics, arts, humanities and social sciences are equal partners.

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