Saturday, July 5, 2014

Generous gift from Honors Alumnus!

We are excited to announce the first merit scholarship for SIB Honors students, funded by a generous gift from Honors alumnus, Mr. Oliver Bell. The Oliver J. Bell Merit Scholarship provides financial support to enrich a student's undergraduate experience, by providing opportunities to engage in activities on-campus, in the community, or through study abroad. For 2014, the IB Honors faculty selected Sophomore student Ms. Finey Ruan, as the first recipient of the Bell Scholarship. Finey will use her scholarship towards the tuition and living costs associated with study abroad at the University of Newcastle in England. Finey has been accepted at Newcastle as a third-year pre-med student and will complete a year-long program of study and research with an emphasis in Neuroscience. We look forward to welcoming Finey back to IB Honors for her Senior year in 2015.

Mr. Oliver Bell (center) with recipients of the first Oliver J. Bell Merit Scholarship, Nhan Huynh (left, MCB) and Finey Ruan (right, IB).

Mr. Bell made the long trip from France to our campus in May this year and met with Finey and the recipient of the MCB Honors Bell Merit scholarship awarded Mr. Nhan Huynh. Mr. Bell was also able to meet with IB Honors faculty, reminisce with Prof. Stewart Berlocher about the 'Old Honors Program' in the basement of Harker Hall, and take a tour of the spacious future home of Honors in the soon-to-renovated Natural History Building.

Venus Kuo, IBH Senior, collecting soil samples on Barro Colorado Island, Panama


This summer I'm glad to report we have two IB Honors students doing independent research at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama.

Nathan Stables, IBH junior, is part of the NSF funded  STRI REU Program which matches student research interests with those of faculty mentors that do research based in Panama. Nathan is working with Prof. Andy Jones measuring genome sizes of tropical trees along sites that differ in soil fertility.

Venus Kuo, IBH senior, is working with me! Venus is part of a larger NSF funded project that is exploring how seeds are defended against diverse predators and pathogens, and how defensive traits are linked more broadly to tree life history. Venus was recently featured in STRI's weekly newsletter (photo and text courtesy of Sean Mattson).

"The hot and humid tropical forest floor voraciously decomposes
virtually anything that is biodegradable. So it came as a
bit of a surprise when Jim Dalling, a professor at the University
of Illinois, demonstrated that seeds from some pioneer tree species
can retain their ability to germinate for up to four decades
in forest topsoil.
His research, published in The American Naturalist in 2009,
inspired Venus Kuo, an undergrad at UI, to find out what keeps
seeds viable. She suspects soil fungi. “Do they play some kind of
a protective, mutually beneficial role for the seeds?” asked Kuo,
as she hiked to the 50-hectare forest plot on Panama’s Barro
Colorado Island where the seeds for the original study
were collected.
Pioneer trees are the first to emerge when a forest regenerates.
But they need a lot of light and this is in low supply in the
understory. Not until a tree falls and opens a gap will pioneers
have a chance to grow into reproductive adults.
Kuo will collect seeds from Dalling’s sites as well as other spots
in the 50-hectare plot where tree census data suggest pioneer
species rained seeds on the forest floor decades ago. She will
test the seeds for viability and diversity of endophytic fungi, and
compare her findings with younger seeds. She expects fungal
diversity will be lower in older seeds, pointing to which fungi
may promote long-term seed dormancy.
“I think it can probably lead to some interesting questions
about how we can predict tree emergence and canopy composition
over time,” said Kuo".

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Importance of an Entomology Education

My family visited me this past week where they stayed in a local hotel down here (down here being Manassas, VA).  My dad found this little guy hanging around their hotel room:

Figure 1 Toilet bowl cropped out.

He misidentified the bug as a roach thus causing a sleepless night for my mother and sister.  They kept the lights and TV on throughout the night to aid their quest in staying awake which made communicating with them in the morning a pleasant experience.  For a visual comparison, these are roaches:

Figure 2 The American philosophy of "bigger is better" was unnecessarily applied.
The following day, much to my family's relief, I let them know that the bug was not a roach.  My knowledge of Virginia's insects still isn't strong and I had to use Google to identify it as a brown marmorated stink bug, Halyomorpha halys.  A bit of entomology knowledge would have gone a long way in letting the ladies sleep and make our vacation time more relaxing.  Now, killing it was not necessarily the wrong thing to do: H. halys, as cute as it may be, is an invasive species that has done considerable damage to crops on the East Coast (according to, yes, Wikipedia). 

That's not to say one is to take everything the internet says on bugs at face value.  Consider Scutigera coleoptrata, the house centipede:

Figure 3 Kill first and Google later.
The internet would like for you to think that house centipedes are a good way to get rid of "household pests" like ants and spiders...and, well, they probably are, but I would prefer ants and spiders in my house over this monstrosity racing across my walls.*  I stayed in a hotel infested with house centipedes before construction on my apartment was completed.  Like the female members of my family, I kept the light on around my bed to discourage any potential nighttime visitors.  Perhaps by receiving an entomology education at an early age, I would have not learned to fear these critters which offer up pesticide-free (and fee-free) extermination services.  

In any case, I think we can all agree that knowing something about bugs could benefit society and one's sleeping cycle and that the Luna moth, Actias luna, is one beautiful insect:

Figure 4 Approximately 0/10 people would kill.

*Non-American-sized insects and arachnids only.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Nine months out of the college bubble (Matt Grobis)

Hi all!

As the one-year anniversary of me graduating approaches, I've had some time to reflect on my college experience and the ways it has - and hasn't - prepared me for graduate-level research.

1. Grades matter, but experiences matter more
Study for your classes. Good grades should obviously be a priority. But view your classes as the skeleton of your college experience; they are a base that you need to care for, but you need to add some flesh to it, too. From an academic perspective, your undergrad classes rarely come up in conversations in grad school... it's all about the work you did in the lab or field. Much more important to graduate committees (and your future self) are your experiences with research: what techniques did you learn, how was the experience different than what you expected, how did you overcome problems you encountered, how did it affect your perspective on science? There's a difference between loving X and loving doing X, and unfortunately a lot of people figure this out once they've already committed a few years to doing X, be it graduate school research, a particular field, etc. Get your hands dirty and figure that out now! If you realize it's not for you, you can redirect your energy to finding something that does make you happy. 

2. Try things out
Say "yes" to more opportunities you receive. Get out of your comfort zone. Second semester senior year, I had the opportunity to volunteer for bird banding - taking mist-netted birds (birds that were caught by flying into a thin, big net strung between two poles or trees) and giving them color rings so they can be identified later. The grad student who sent the e-mail needed the extra help, and in exchange we would learn how to band and handle birds. This was when I knew I'd be working with birds in Germany for the following year, so I said yes (even though the work started around 5am). Even the little bit I learned about how to properly hold birds, distinguish male vs. female characteristics, and identify potential signs of illness came in handy when i started doing research with birds. I also took a graduate-level statistical modeling class my final semester and, while I definitely didn't master all of the complex R coding we did, being exposed to that stuff really changed my perspective on modeling in science.  

And from a personal standpoint, I abide by the life philosophy that you should try everything at least once (except probably heroin and that sort of stuff). Attend a meeting for a random club, go to a play or performance you might not have given a chance to otherwise, call up a friend you haven't talked to in a while. The worst that can happen is exactly what would happen if you don't do it: nothing. And the best that can happen is that you discover something you really like, meet a new friend, or have a memorable time.

3. Accept that it's ok to fail
While #1 and #2 are really important from a career perspective, I would say that this is the most important from a personal standpoint. When I began my Fulbright year at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, I was anxious to make the most of it. I was on the waitlist for ten weeks, so I felt incredibly lucky to have this opportunity at all. I became involved in three separate research projects: formulating and carrying out an independent project on social foraging in wild great tits, helping a graduate student in a project on sleep and predation risk in wild great tits, and recording and analyzing mate-pair vocalizations in captive ravens. I became essentially buried in work, and the grad school applications, bio GRE, NSF-GRFP funding application, and furniture shopping for a new apartment added layer after layer of stress to my life. I made two crucial mistakes: underestimating how much time fieldwork takes to prepare for and carry out, and overestimating how much I can get done in one day. November was pretty miserable, and it was made so much harder because I wasn't used to things not going well.

Research is hard in that you have to make thousands of little decisions every day, many of them on things you're trying for the first time. For example, I needed to replace the normal feeders in the plots with new feeders at the start of the foraging experiment. Which plots to choose? Well, I suppose I should film the current feeders to see which areas have lots of birds at them. What about cameras that are in pretty open areas, where anyone walking by could see and maybe steal them? Ok, I'll park the car a little down the path to not disturb the birds and I'll wait to see if anyone walks the path. Then, how do I decide between a plot that has lots of birds that aren't great tits vs. one that has mainly great tits but not as many? Well, think about what's most important in the experiment and go from there. Ok, now I need to clean and paint the poles the feeders go on. I've never painted anything in my life and I don't know where to get alcohol or paint. Ok, e-mail around, find the name of a store to go to. Drive there, ask around using a German dictionary to help, buy the stuff. No idea if this works well or not, or what size paint container to buy. Let's try something that looks promising. Ok, paint the poles using my best guess on how to do it. Then: the feeders need to be filled and constructed, then transported to the plots, then carried to the places, then secured. Will any birds visit? Well, let's put a handful of sunflower seeds on top and hang some fat balls around the feeder to attract birds. Ok, the feeders sometimes don't dispense food because the cold makes the peanut powder clump together. Well, let's visit the feeders every day to un-clump the powder for that day. So, as you can tell, there are so many decisions that you can't even anticipate before you begin. It's easy to focus on all the little mistakes you make (which can add up to big mistakes) and think you're not fit for academia. But really, you need to accept that mistakes happen and remember all the good decisions you make as well.

As for how things have turned out for me, I've found a much better work balance and have accepted my limits (for now). This doesn't mean I've given up or am any less ambitious... I would say this means I'm smarter about my goals. But it took failing pretty hard, stepping on a lot of people's toes and overworking myself and losing sleep, to learn this. So, don't be afraid to try something and fail! Failure is a much better teacher than success, I believe. 


p.s. this inforgraphic about how high schools frequently underprepare students for college work is relevant and quite interesting. Thanks to Alex Campbell for sending it to me!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Why do we need that calc and stats course? (Laura Klein)

[This post was submitted by Laura Klein, a 2011 grad of the IBH program]

Greetings from graduate school, current and future IBH-ers!
This week, I’m starting my second year as a graduate student in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. Two weeks ago, I came back from collecting an awesome set of pilot data for my dissertation at the field site in Poland where I first worked as an undergrad in IBH.  I recently had a birthday. Life is good.
But this time of year- the time of year to select classes- always brings up strong feelings of regret for classes I didn’t take as an undergrad. Not biology, evolution, or bioanthropology courses- things that would seem really, directly important to what I’m doing now. I regret never taking more math and statistics. I could plead ignorance and say I wasn’t told these would be important, but the truth is I was just late in understanding.
When I first sat at an information session for IBH more than five years ago, I couldn’t believe the places IBH students were going. But as I listened to Dr. Cheeseman speak, I could almost picture myself doing a vague amazing something… until we got to the course plan. Any buds of hope for my own amazing IBH adventures were nearly killed by icy fear when I heard “Calculus sequence” and “advanced statistics” among the required courses.  Had I realized how much calculus would be used in the physics classes, I probably would have been scared of those too. I wasn’t alone in my fear of “the Calculus” either- many of my classmates and the students I helped interview later said their only apprehension about the program was the math requirements.
I came dangerously close to walking away from IBH because I didn’t understand why I would need calculus, physics, or statistics. My 18-year-old self just didn’t see the point- even when Dr. Cheeseman spelled it out:
The point of IBH is not to put students on a specific path, but to give you a toolbox that you could take with you in any direction.  Calculus, physics, and most importantly statistics are the foundation of a toolbox that can take you places.
Ingenious experimental design and precision lab skills are worthless if you don’t have the intellectual tools to analyze the data. Some simple statistics can be done without a lot of math background. But if you start to look at the fancy statistics- the tools that can actually tell you something about a complex system - the list of basic mathematical prerequisites can be long (including calculus and beyond into linear algebra and differential equations). Now, if you just stay away from complex systems, you could stick with the most basic statistics. Raise your hand if you’ve had a conversation with a biologist that didn’t include: “But you know, it’s a complex system.”  I’m going to make a safe bet that there are no hands raised out there.
In the short term, the math background will make you a stronger applicant to graduate schools. When I was doing my grad school interviews at Emory and Harvard, the thing that impressed interviewers most was not the biology or anthropology courses that would be (seemingly) most relevant to my graduate work. What made the IBH curriculum really stand out for them was the math and physics. Without exaggeration, I spent 20 minutes of a 30 minute interview at one of these schools discussing only my math and physics courses.  
Why should math stand out? Because so many biologists avoid taking more than the minimum. I was sitting in an introductory anatomy class last year, and the professor was trying to explain how joints work using torque equations dragged right out of Physics 211. Unexpectedly, the flash animations from the 211 pre-lectures popped into my head and things started to click for me. But I was in the minority of people in the room… and I could have smacked my forehead when I heard “I thought there was no math in biology, that’s why I’m pre-med.”
If you think there is no math in biology, please e-mail me or any of your professors or TAs immediately. We will send protective football padding for when reality hits, because it will hit mercilessly. Somehow in biology, there is a long time in which students may sail through courses and labs and not realize how vital math-especially statistics- is to being a biologist. This period of blissful ignorance usually goes just past the time when you are firmly invested in your major, but it can extend as far as being accepted to and moving into your lab in graduate school.  By the time many people realize that this “no math” thing is myth, there are too many competing interests to give statistics the time it probably deserves: experiments demands attention, grants need to be written, semesters available for taking classes are slipping away.
In the long run, if you’re going to be an academic, I’m starting to understand that statistics training is like gaining extra research dollars out of every grant you will ever receive. How? You won’t have to hire a statistician to analyze your data for you. You won’t have to make sure you collaborate with someone who can do your stats but might want to tag extra procedures or time onto your project. You’ll be invited to collaborate on papers with people who don’t have your training. And if you’re going into private research or industry- or business! or purchasing a home/life insurance!- many of the same principles apply. I’m not sure I know of a profession where knowing too much math has ever hurt a job applicant.
However, just because these classes will be useful does not mean they will be easy. You don’t need to be afraid, but you do need to be realistic. If you need help, get it while there is still time in the semester to really learn the concepts and not “almost catch up” (see Kamil’s excellent blog post on how not to get into grad school for more on this).  You will be with engineers and people who have a lot more daily exposure to these concepts than you, but this does not mean that these classes are out of your reach.  I needed tutoring for Calc II & III, and Physics 211 & 212. And I mean a lot of tutoring. Plus office hours, study groups, and hours of practice exams.  At Illinois, there are resources to make sure you can succeed- the math department has free tutoring, and physics department has reasonable tutoring prices and lots of office hours. If you’re struggling, you are not alone. The older students are all still alive- ask them about TAs, tutors, and other places to get help.
If you’re already in IBH, my best advice to you is to take your statistics as early as you can and take more classes than required. Look for classes that emphasize applied knowledge. Find out what statistical software is used in your desired career and learn it. If you haven’t started down the IBH path yet, don’t let a fear of math deter you from IBH or a career in biology.  If you identify your own roadblocks now and start asking how you can get help to work around them, IBH can help set you on a path to go wonderful places.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Advice to students applying for Gates Cambridge scholarship (Matt Grobis)

Greetings from Warsaw!

I'm in Poland visiting some relatives on vacation after graduating from U of I. A friend just asked me for some advice on applying for a Gates Cambridge scholarship so I figured I'd post this here too. I didn't have any luck with the application, but I can still give some advice that might help you decide if you want to apply for one, or if you do apply for one, things to consider.

A Gates Cambridge scholarship is full funding to receive a Master's or PhD from the University of Cambridge, UK. They're ridiculously competitive, but if you manage to get one, you're essentially guaranteed a PhD from one of the most prestigious universities in the world. From my experience, admission to PhD programs at Cambridge is limited by funding, not space, so for most applicants, they will be admitted to the university but then won't receive funding and will have to withdraw. But anyway, here are some specific tips/thoughts:

1. Competition is ridiculous. I'm not sure how much this reflects the selectivity of Cambridge versus Gates, but I was eliminated pretty much immediately for the Gates. The way it works is that each department in the university ranks all of the applicants and sends information on the 4-6 highest-ranked candidates to the Gates committe. From this, the committee narrows it to around 2-3 for an interview, and then from the interview, it selects half to receive the award. This goes on until about February; after that, Cambridge moves on to the next top third of applicants on the list and considers them for funding. I was apparently ranked in the bottom third and hence asked to withdraw my Cambridge application, haha. Tough crowd! One potential confounding factor is that the advisor I applied to work with accepted a faculty position at another university and would have been unable to advise me anyway... I'd like to think that him leaving influenced the department's decision to rank me so poorly, but I'm not sure.

2. Now that I've established that you have a great shot at the Gates if you do exactly as I did, I'll tell you what I did. I e-mailed a brand-new professor (from now on: Alex) and said I was interested in such and such areas he was researching. Then, he said he had room in the lab and would like to have a research proposal. We e-mailed back and forth and talked on Skype to get a rough 3-year plan. The difficult thing about Cambridge is they want you to have an exact plan on everything you will do during your three years there so that you do, actually, graduate on time. The department I applied to (Experimental Psychology) wanted a polished two-page proposal in the later stages of my application. Surprisingly, Alex helped me go through a few drafts with him before I submitted. The US seems to be a bit unique in that its graduate students arrive, explore their interests, and then work towards a dissertation. From what I've seen, the UK is very much "here's a project I'm working on, it's yours" or "I want to know exactly what your plans are, why you're the most qualified person in the world to do them, and why they're important." So, get a very solid project lined up with a professor who is very interested in you before you apply, or you don't have a good chance at getting funding.

3. If you do find a professor who is interested, and after e-mailing back and forth for a few days/weeks you have a very solid project established (you know exactly the materials you need, the schedule of experiments / fieldwork you'll run, etc.), start working on the essays. Here, much more so than for the Fulbright, show your academic qualifications. The last guy from U of I to get a Gates had eight publications by the time he graduated. Show that you not only have the techniques required but also the mind to carry out the experiment and make everything work. Find very solid reasons for why your project is important. The department needs to rank you high enough for the Gates committee to even read your application, so hit them hard with your research qualifications and rock-solid broader impacts logic, then leave the flowery writing to the Gates essay (not sure actually what consistutes a good Gates essay... the examples on the internet range from talking about the links between the art of painting and molecular biology, Fulbright-style "this is the story of how I came to apply", and hardcore "I have these qualifications. These are what is required to do this project. This is the hole in the world my research is filling.").

4. Once you open a Cambridge application, update it regularly (once every few days), even something meaningless if you have to. If you don't update it for two weeks, the application program sets a timer on your application to terminate it in one week, regardless of how many times you update it after the timer's set. That happened to my friend Beth and really stressed her out, haha.

That's all I can think of right now. I think I didn't get the Gates for a few reasons: my project involved working with birds, and I had no previous experience handling birds. I'd never published before and had worked in an animal behavior lab for only a year by the time I submitted my app. I tried putting a conservation spin on my project (corvid cognition and social learning)... minimal implications for conservation, unfortunately, so I'm pretty sure the department saw right through that (it's worth noting that you can still have very strong 'importance and outreach' implications that don't require conservation). Otherwise, it's probably just a testament to how insane the competition is. I had good grades, extracurriculars, and strong letters of rec but I think research experience is at least 90% of their decision.

Good luck and let me know if you have any questions!


Sunday, June 3, 2012

Fulbright (Matt Grobis)

Hi all!

To those who haven’t heard of the Fulbright grant, a Fulbright is funding to do research or teach English for one year in a foreign country. Because everything is paid for, you can imagine it’s fairly competitive. (For more info, go to

I was lucky enough to be selected for one. Next year, I’ll be carrying out a Fulbright research grant at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, in Germany, studying the intersection of great tit personality and social behavior. One of the projects I’m looking forward to working on is examining how birds of different degrees of boldness rely on conspecifics to find food. One application of this is ensuring beneficial human-animal interactions; understanding how knowledge about foraging sites travels through groups can help us predict native bird populations’ responses to anthropogenic habitat change, for example. I will be working with Dr. Niels Dingemanse, a researcher at the MPIO and also a professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University, in Munich. The Institute is located a forty-minute train ride south of Munich and I’m very excited to explore the city and learn about German culture. Hopefully a year of German at U of I is enough to let me get by, though I’ll be keeping a dictionary close by!

I first learned of the Fulbright a year ago, when I was looking at graduate schools. I found a girl doing really cool research on tiger-human conflict in India and e-mailed her, asking if she had any advice for how she got to where she was. In her very helpful response, she mentioned her Fulbright year in India and how it’d helped her decide what to do for a PhD. Shortly afterwards, I met with the head of my research lab, Dr. Alison Bell, and asked for her help finding someone with whom I could do research abroad. Dr. Dingemanse’s research interested me the most, and after an e-mail that took me a few tries to write, I received a good response! We e-mailed back and forth over project ideas and came up with a tentative project. Meanwhile, I was working on my Fulbright application with the help of the National and International Scholarships Office at U of I ( I’m very thankful to Laura Hastings and David Schug, who helped me through every step of my application. I would recommend to anyone even considering pursuing the Fulbright to fill out an application; the process of organizing your life up to this point and deciding what direction you want to go with it now was immensely helpful.

I was on the waitlist for ten weeks, so I feel very, very fortunate to be in this position. My advice to anyone considering applying for a Fulbright comes in four parts. First, start early! It’s crazy to think I started working on my Fulbright application over a year before I heard the final result. First drafts of essays are always terrible and it takes everyone a while to find an angle to their application. Keep pushing. Have friends, family, and professors give you feedback, and you’ll end with something you’re happy with. Second, find very good reasons why your Fulbright has to be in the country you chose. If you want to teach English in Ecuador, why not Colombia, Peru, Chile, Panama, or Spain? How is a neuroscience lab in Switzerland better than MIT or Cambridge? Outside of research, what can you offer Madagascar that you couldn’t to South Africa or Ghana? Third, be as specific as possible whenever possible. Anyone can write “I plan to volunteer while I’m in Vietnam” and get away with it. It looks much, much better to write “I have contacted this non-profit in the nearby town, which is ten minutes away by bike, and the head of the program, Mrs. such and such, has agreed that I can help on these projects.” Fourth, throughout the whole process, be humble and thankful. Your application needs to make you look awesome, true, but your success highly depends on the help of a lot of people. Say thanks to your letter of recommendation writers. Understand that the person you contact to do research with is taking a chance by responding to an e-mail from someone he or she has never met.

If you apply and you’re lucky, you will get to spend a year in another country learning from others and about yourself. But even if you don’t receive a grant, you will still learn from the experience and be better-prepared for selling yourself to graduate schools or potential employers. I wish you the best of luck! Send your applications to the National and International Scholarships Office before the July 1 priority deadline (if you can!), and please message me if you’d like advice or another pair of eyes on your essays.