Visit Mentors' Round Table to read our interviews of women in the fields of science and health. These are women of varying levels of experience and backgrounds, brought to the table to answer your questions about everything from work-life balance to financial management. Read on, be inspired, and leave them (and us!) a comment!
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Ecologists study the relationships of living things to their environment and with each other, and examine the effects of a wide range of factors such as population size, rainfall, temperature, forest fires and major construction projects.
Ecologists usually specialize in one or more of the following biological areas: botany, marine biology, microbiology, soil science, toxicology, zoology or related disciplines concerned with conservation of the environment. Often working as part of multi-disciplinary teams, ecologists conduct research studies into problems such as the effects of dam construction, mining, logging and recreational use on natural habitats, the management of fish, wildlife and forestry resources, the development of biological control strategies to combat pest insects and weeds, and the effects of pollutants discharged into the air by factories or vehicles on natural vegetation and wildlife.
What is your career?
I'm an ecologist who researches the interactions between insects and plants, and application to pest control in agriculture.
Where are you in your career?
I'm a first year graduate student in a PhD program.
How did you choose your career?
In Middle School, I decided that I wanted my career to have a meaningful impact on the world, and became interested in environmental issues. As an environmental studies major in college, I found my ecology courses and research particularly interesting, so I decided to pursue further opportunities to do research in ecology.
Have there been any problems in your work life or training that have arisen because of your religion?
I went to a small Bais Yaakov (Girls only-Jewish education) with few resources for high school, so I had to teach myself to a large extent to make myself more competitive in the college application process. In college and grad school, I had the usual difficulties with missing classes for the Jewish holidays. Integration into my program is much harder when I can't eat the food at events or attend social events on Shabbat, but I still attend events when I can, even if I can't eat the food, because interacting with people in my field is an important part of developing as a scientist and networking. Tzniut has also been a problem with some of my lab work for classes- I've had to tell professors that I can't wear waders.
What do you like best about your career? What do you like least? Are you married?
I like thinking about the type of complex questions that ecology deals with and spending time in nature, even if it's just by staring at it under a microscope. It's challenging being in a career where work in wild and remote places is common, since that means that most graduate programs and jobs are not in particularly Jewish areas. I'm not married; I recently started looking for a husband, and it turns out that is hard to do when you live in a city with less than a minyan of Orthodox Jews.
How do/did you handle the financial stress of training?
For undergrad, I went to a college that provided generous financial aid, and came out with a manageable amount of loans. For my PhD, not only is my tuition paid, but I also receive a stipend that covers living expenses, through a combination of fellowships, and teaching and research assistantships.
Are things turning out the way you planned or are they different? Is your career different than what you expected when you chose it?
I'm finding that graduate school is very unstructured, and deciding how to spend my time, and what kind of work to do, is completely up to me. Also, don't expect most ecologists to aspire to fix environmental problems- some just care about their research.
Do you have any advice for students aspiring to be where you are?
Choose an undergraduate institution that will give you an opportunity to work with researchers that are doing important, interesting work. If you are at a small college or one with insufficient resources, try to spend your summers doing research at a REU or similar program. Try to get your results published or presented at a national conference. Maybe get a Master's first- it's a good way to find out if a PhD is for you, and to prepare you for dissertation-level work.
If you could do this over again would you? Is there anything you would change?
Yes. I might have done a Master's between my Bachelor's and PhD.