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Davis, California

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Elements of ecological research come together at Giedt Hall

Ranked as one of the best ecology graduate programs in the world, the UC Davis Graduate Group in Ecology (GGE) showcased their scientific research at the seventh annual Graduate Student Symposium in Ecology on Feb. 15.

The symposium was funded by the Graduate Student Association, the Coastal Marine Sciences Institute and the Graduate Group in Ecology, and close to 100 undergraduates, graduate students and faculty members attended. They gathered at Giedt Hall to tune in on topics ranging from marine ecology to population biology presented by 11 UC Davis graduate students in GGE.

“One of our main goals is to ignite collaborations that don’t exist yet,” Katie Eskra, an ecology graduate student and a primary organizer of the event, said. “There are people studying ecology from different graduate groups and this is a way to collaborate together.”

The GGE includes students studying a wide range of topics, from forestry and atmospheric sciences to hydrology and entomology. To advance future discussion, Eskra encouraged attendees to share their experiences in the field with one another throughout the course of the day.

“What are people’s high points and low points in ecology?” Eskra asked the audience.

Eskra explained that although students may be pursuing different projects from one another, there could be commonalities between the research challenges and successes they face, thus serving as a topic of discussion.

After the event, student presenters received feedback and answered questions regarding their research presentations. Having been involved in the planning of the symposium for several years, Eskra believes that the event has grown substantially over time.

“This is really a neat thing to be a part of, ” Eskra said. “There were a bunch of volunteers involved including undergrads, teachers [and] the community.”

Apart from the volunteer effort, the Ecology Graduate Student Association chose which graduate students would present at the event. The group also contributed to the logistics of the symposium, including setup, choosing a keynote speaker and securing event funding.

“When I found out that keynote speaker was Mark Bertness, I became really excited and jumped in to help schedule and run the website,” said ecology graduate student Matt Whalen. “Mark is a master of designing meaningful experiments to confront problems in ecology.”

Dr. Bertness, an American ecologist and chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University, was introduced by Whalen as a pioneer in the field of ecology for over three decades.

Although there were initial concerns about whether Dr. Bertness would be able to attend the symposium due to severe weather, he was able to present his recent research from his lab about salt marshes.

Growing up on the West Coast in Tacoma, Wash., Bertness developed an interest in natural history at an early age as he recalled spending most of his childhood roaming the beach. After graduating as a chemistry major, Bertness never considered that he would find a career in ecology.

After reading various studies in ecology to guide his work as a chemist, Bertness discovered Robert Paine, a premier ecologist and retired professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Washington.

“Out of college, I worked as a chemist on the fungicide to save California potato crops,” Bertness said. “Once I met Bob [Paine], I thought this is what I want to do. I want to be Bob Paine,” Bertness said.

Eventually, Bertness went on to study hermit crabs in Panama and was hired by Brown University. As a professor at Brown for over 30 years, Bertness explained the uniqueness of the university in that it values undergraduate education as much as research.

“I don’t feel I have a job, but a calling,” Bertness said. “I have worked all over the world doing research in Europe, Chile, the Gulf and I’ve had a charmed life because I found something that I loved that I could focus on.”

Although it may take time to find the ‘perfect’ career for some, Bertness uses his personal experience to encourage all students to find out exactly what it is they really want to do in college.

“Identify what you love, forget about practicality and just focus on doing that and make it happen,” Bertness said.

Similarly, Grace Ha, a graduate student in ecology and one of the symposium chairs, explained that the symposium not only allows students to discover cutting edge research on campus, but also assists in career exploration.

“Davis is one of the best places to study ecology in the world and why not take advantage of that resource?” Ha said.

Eskra, Farlin and Ha agreed that more students are discovering ecology, citing an overall increase in undergraduate attendance this year with 47 pre-registered students. Ha said the symposium helps the various ecology groups on campus form relationships with one another.

“Davis has a lot of fantastic researchers, but there are so many different departments and a bit of a disjoint between groups,” Ha said. “The symposium fosters dialogue between different communities.”

While the symposium primarily focuses on ecological work, Farlin explained that the group wanted to incorporate other aspects of creativity and innovation. Along with the multiple research presentations and posters, dozens of photographs and pieces of artwork lined the walls of Giedt Hall.

“By and far the symposium essentially showcases the breadth and depth of work done by ecology graduate students,” Farlin said. “However, we also wanted to include other groups and had an art and photography contest.”

The art and photography contest was open to the general public and the contest winners went home with cash and gift card prizes.

“Our goal is to showcase the breadth and quality of ecological research being done by graduate students at UC Davis,” Whalen said. “The symposium provides a forum and comfortable, academic setting for people to get together.”



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