|Delaney Laughlin, Honors student|
Today is the day that Delaney Laughlin defends her honors thesis! I have been working with her for about 2 years now to help her achieve this feat, and it has been a long and winding journey for both of us. I thought I would post about that journey and all the hard work she has put into getting to this moment. This post is:
-- partly for her, to remember how far she's come
-- partly for me, to reflect on the challenges, rewards, and lessons learned
-- partly for any readers, to demonstrate the reality of working with students one-on-one and to help future students and mentors learn from our experience
How it all began...
About 2 years ago, when I just started my postdoc at CSU, I got an email from my colleague Dale Broder saying that she had a bright and talented honors student just starting her junior year that was interested in doing independent research for an honors thesis. But since Dale was finishing soon she didn't have the resources for taking on such an endeavor. She also mentioned Delaney's interest in outreach and education, which would be a perfect fit for getting involved in some of the outreach work I was planning. With a recommendation like that, why would I say no! I was also flattered by the amount of trust Dale was putting in me by recommending that I work with such a good student, especially since she didn't know me well back then. I had worked with students in the past but not to this degree. I knew it would be a more substantial time commitment, but this opportunity with Delaney would let me stretch my mentoring legs a bit. If I wanted to be a tenure track professor one day, mentoring would be a large part of my job and I needed to know whether I would be good at it or not. I'm not sure Delaney really knew what she was getting into!
So I said yes to this opportunity and set up a meeting with Delaney.
Project 1: Competition between native and invasive fishes
In our meeting, I explained my role in Cameron Ghalambor's lab, what my research project is, the outreach work I planned, and how I thought I might be able to contribute to her thesis. I also asked her about her experiences, why she wanted to do a thesis, and what ideas she might have for a project. She mentioned her volunteer work with outreach and camps at the Denver Zoo, her interest in conservation and animal welfare issues, and her desire to do a research project. I suggested that we begin by having her contribute to my current work to learn more about my research methods, and try to think of a question within the relative bounds of my work but from more of a conservation angle. This was my way of giving her the reins, but keeping them at a reasonable length so that her work could fit in with what would require minimal additional IACUC approval and a study system I was familiar with (but still learning). I thought these boundaries would maximize our chances of completing the project. We also planned what we thought was a more than reasonable timeline given that this was September - finish the project by May, have it written up by September the next year, and defended by December in time for a winter graduation.
Over the next few weeks, Delaney, Cameron, and I discussed a project examining competition between invasive mosquitofish and native fish in Colorado. Delaney and I scoured the internet to find information and contacted Colorado Parks and Wildlife to obtain data on species distributions at sites they regularly sample. If we were going to look for invasive fish, we needed to know where others had found them first. This was my way of minimizing the time commitment for sample collections. We filled out their forms and within a day they sent us the data we were looking for. Our next step was to map all the sites with significant population sizes. Delaney learned how to sort excel files and worked with my labmate Maybellene Gamboa to learn GPS. She also had to complete animal care training to be added as personnel on my current IACUC protocol and we had to think about any amendments or additional protocols that needed to be submitted for work she wanted to do.
By this time, it was the end of our first semester together.
Winter break came and went, SICB 2015 came and went, my husband's visit from his job overseas came and went, and Delaney and I lost touch for a few months. By the time we were able to meet again, it was February and the end of her junior year was quickly approaching. I realized that our timeline was looking less and less reasonable. We hadn't even submitted for IACUC approval or field collection permits, much less collected fish to do the experiments with since many of the streams were frozen over! Plus, if she was going to do competition experiments examining growth rate, that means time, time, TIME! I had to have a very difficult conversation with her about the realities of the work and that I was concerned about not having enough time. I told her she should make a decision: 1) to continue with the project, 2) to think of a simpler, faster to complete project, 3) abandon a research project. She agreed that my concerns were reasonable and would take a few days to think about what she wanted to do.
LESSON #1: There's not as much time as you think, even for small projects.
Project 2: Complexity and performance in frogs
During that meeting I tried to seed her with ideas for alternative #2, switching to a simpler, faster project. I showed her the video above of a bullfrog capturing a suspended cricket. This was one of many videos I had collected during my PhD, but for some reason I could never find someone who wanted to use them. Since I already had video, maybe she could analyze it, and since bullfrogs are invasive, maybe there was still a way to work in the conservation aspect that she was interested in. Also, if she decided that she wanted a bigger sample size, we could order 1-2 frogs from online vendors. The only difficulty here would be IACUC approval since it would require a new protocol. But we could work with that if the rest of the project would be simpler. I sent her home with a digital file of papers, about 30, that I had collected when I was first interested in the frogs. She came back a few days later with a hypothesis. Here's how I summarized it to Cameron (because I had to break the news to him as well):
"In some parts of AZ, bullfrog invasions seem to be affecting a vulnerable species of leopard frog. There is a hypothesis about parasite release, but not much support for it. Delaney's hypothesis is that increased complexity of feeding behaviors (coordination among parts) leads to increased flexibility across environments, in turn leading to greater success rates. So her prediction is that bullfrogs are more successful across environments due to greater complexity of their feeding behaviors. Although leopard frogs likely also jump for prey, she predicts the coordination patterns will be different, affecting flexibility and success. To test this, she will use 2 bullfrogs and 2 northern leopard frogs (not the EXACT species, but can provide insight into the vulnerable one) ordered from a vendor, and film them capturing prey by jumping in water and on land without jumping. She will determine success rates from both environments and use the video to quantify timing of the different parts and their movements. Then, with correlations, she will look at which parts are coordinated and how strongly to determine complexity."
Seriously, this was ALL her! I was floored but also really excited because she was thinking the way I was about integration and had come up with what I thought was a pretty good idea! She had also thought it through to what data she would collect to test her idea!
LESSON #2: Students can blow your mind!
Although I was technically her thesis advisor, not Cameron, this would require use of Cameron's lab resources, so I wasn't sure how happy he would be about frogs in the guppy room. However, he was 100% supportive and we began writing the necessary protocols to get official approval. We had many detailed conversations with the campus vet, the IACUC liaison, Cameron, and other students using the research space. I forwarded Delaney my approved protocol for my guppy work and asked her to write out the sections requiring descriptions of the project, sample sizes, etc. We had it ready to submit in about 10 days, which I'm pretty sure is a record.
Meanwhile, Delaney was thinking ahead to what she was going to do after graduation (still hopefully in December) and applied to CSU's professional science Master's program. This program let her start her coursework before completing her Bachelor's, so that there is one year of overlap between the two programs. I was a bit concerned about what this would mean for her time, but if we could get the approval through and order frogs quickly, the filming shouldn't take much time at all given my past experience with these animals, and the bulk of her work should be done by the time the Master's would start.
|Delaney "filming" frogs feeding on land|
Well...it took 2 months to get approval. At this point it was May, so almost a full academic year since we started working together. But we were able to order what we needed from a vendor fairly quickly. They looked great and were eating well and Delaney was practicing using Cameron's high-speed camera to film them...but they wouldn't eat on camera. Typical research animal, right? Then they started to have health issues. We worked very closely with the campus vet and the vendor and tried everything we could think of, but ended up losing the frogs. This was very discouraging for Delaney because it looked like her thesis was crashing hard right in front of her. It was also pretty discouraging for me too because I had basically done this data collection before and didn't have any of these problems, so I was at a loss with ways I could help fix it. We had to have another serious talk about what to do next.
LESSON #3: Just because you expect it to work doesn't mean it will.
Our last resort was that maybe there was an issue with the vendor's stock, and that maybe the reason she was having a difficult time getting them to feed was because they were captive, unmotivated frogs. Perhaps wild-caught local frogs would be a better option? Delaney decided that, if this was a viable solution, she would work really hard to get specimens collected and data analyzed, and that although time was again getting tight (now July), she could still make our deadlines. She was even still thinking about trying to present her work at SICB2016 in January! So we decided to work with IACUC to apply for a few more individuals (another 2 months, September now, one full year since we started) and needed to contact CPW again for a scientific collection permit, especially for the leopard frogs since they are protected in Colorado (they essentially thanked us for removing bullfrogs!).
|The first frog Delaney caught|
Although late in the frog season now, we went out to several lakes in Fort Collins and tried our hand at frog collecting. We ended up getting 3 bullfrogs! For the leopard frogs, we called on another student, Travis Klee, whose parents live near Denver and have a large pond in their yard overflowing with leopard frogs. He went home one weekend with empty buckets and came back on Monday with 5 leopard frogs! Finally! We have wild, hopefully motivated, healthy, happy frogs!
Things were looking up again!
|One of the leopard frogs|
But...Delaney came in on nights and weekends and still couldn't get them to eat in front of her, despite her best training efforts. And then I broke the high-speed camera. To my credit, it was in heavy use and was about 10 yr. old. It finally just gave up. Not only was Delaney in trouble now, but so was my own research (which was having its own Murphy's law issues)! After a few weeks, I purchased a shiny new Edgertronic camera and had figured out how to use it. But by this time it was almost the end of the semester again and Delaney still wasn't getting the frogs to cooperate in front of her. This meant another tough decision: 1) continue with the project and push back graduation to spring, or 2) Change the project to a literature review to fulfill the thesis requirements.
Delaney decided to continue by pushing back graduation, taking an incomplete for her thesis course, converting her thesis to a literature review, and abandoning the idea of presenting at SICB. At this point she had also started her Master's program and it was clear that time was a serious constraint. So we had to have another tough conversation about the reality of getting videos from any of the frogs as well as her career goals and what tasks were or weren't most in line with that. She agreed with me that maybe it was best to call it here and abandon the research part of the thesis.
This was not an easy decision for either of us because the frogs were healthy and it meant either adoption or euthanasia because they couldn't be returned to the wild. This is how I ended up with Lil'Y the leopard frog (originally Lily when I thought it was a female, I have a bad track record for correctly sexing things) as a pet. Most of the frogs were donated to the vet school. This was probably my lowest point and I wondered whether a thesis was even still possible and whether she should drop it.
|Lil'Y (F.K.A. Lily)|
LESSON #3, again
Project 3: Outreach curricula for the Denver Zoo
Now you're thinking "What! Where did this come from?" I had mentioned to Delaney at one point that it would be great if her literature review/thesis was something that could be useful for her Master's coursework so she could essentially double dip. She apparently listened but it meant a slight, ok major, change to her thesis plan. I was under the impression that she was doing a literature review on competition and mechanics in frogs until just this past February (again, holidays, SICB, etc.). She approached me about changing her thesis to utilize work she had done in collaboration with the Denver Zoo during her time as a volunteer. This was also work that satisfied some of the requirements of coursework for her Master's. This sounded like a great idea for ensuring completion after all since the work was already done as was some of the writing.
My concern at this point was whether I was still the best advisor for her project. When I asked her this, she said the best thing a student could say - I don't want anyone else, I want to work with you.
LESSON #4: Your ability to make a difference is not proportional to the success of the project.
Again I didn't hear from Delaney for a while, presumably because she was busy writing, and that pretty much brings me to the past few weeks. As you can imagine, by this point I was kind of freaking out because I hadn't seen anything yet and we had only weeks left until it HAD to be done. She brought some paperwork by my office for me to sign with a very basic outline of her project, and this was the first I saw of anything more than just an email. I admit, she floored me again!
LESSON #2, again!
I could tell from the way it was written that this really was the project that was going to bring out the best in her. It was what she is passionate about and is clearly more in line with her goals than either of the other two projects proposed. Although I am fully aware that not everyone wants to be an academic, this hasn't really been my experience, so it was eye opening for me to see this so clearly in Delaney's writing. I always said I would support students who want to take other paths, but now I can talk the talk! And now I know what that really means.
LESSON #5: Just because you think something will be good for a student doesn't mean it is. Find their passion.
Delaney has done an excellent job so far putting together her thesis, as it turns out, with little help from me in the end except for suggestions on rearrangement of text and building a presentation. Not only did she build two curricula for zoo staff to implement during camps with young children (i.e. 4 years old!), but she wrote up a very thoughtful and well-worded introduction describing the role of education in conservation, an overview of pedagogic techniques, and the role of the Zoo in bridging these ideas. She will defend this work today and in 2 weeks she is off to Kenya to work with a Cheetah rescue to help develop conservation-oriented education programs. We've had some ups and downs, but I am really proud of all the work she has put in and where she has ended up with her thesis.
Thank you for letting me be a part of this!
LESSON #6: I can do this.