So you have a graduate degree… now what?

After three years of conceptualizing a study, collecting and analyzing the data, and writing my thesis, I graduated in August. I am officially a Master of Sloths, as they call me. I should have felt invincible, bulletproof, over the moon with excitement. And I did!


If every one looked like this when they asked “what’s next?”, I would be way more OK with it.

For a few hours. Almost immediately, the ominous question reared its beastly, unwelcome head.  “So, what’s next?” everyone asked.

The only people who might enjoy getting asked that awful, terrible, no good question are those who either have their dream job lined up (ugh, whatever) or those who were smart enough to buy a plane ticket and are ready to fly off to somewhere cool (Brazil? Thailand? Antartica?).

I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t able to juggle the stress of thesis writing with the added stress of job hunting (or draining my bank account to go spend months on Easter Island, for that matter). Consequently, I had a killer master’s thesis, but no killer job at the end of it.


Emma Stone, I feel your pain.

Instead of elaborating on the ugly crying, ice cream eating, and bourbon drinking that ensued, it seems more productive to share some of the helpful tips I’ve learned during my post-grad school days.

  1. The Job Search – Clicking the refresh icon on the Sierra Club’s job board until the perfect job is posted is really not the most efficient use of your time. Instead, your should:

    Stay organized. Make a folder in your bookmarks to keep job boards organized. Every morning while you sip your coffee, check all of the websites in this folder for any new postings that may be of interest to you.

    Subscribe to LISTSERVs. Depending on the number of subscribers, LISTSERVs can be an excellent source of job news. Often times job advertisements are sent to LISTSERVs before they are posted elsewhere. Plus, they’re delivered right to your inbox! Check out ECOLOG-L, if you haven’t already.

    Get your tweet on. Social media can expose you to a different world of possibilities. If you’re able to use all of your willpower and ignore the cat videos and oatmeal comics (they’re so good though), twitter is a great way to build contacts and learn about potential jobs. Many times, it really does matter who you know, and there are a lot of big names active on twitter.

2. Stay Active – Although it feels fantastic to sit on the couch and eat a box of oreos while watching an entire season of Parks and Rec, it’s essential for your body and mind to stay physically active.


I’m just trying to get buff.

Make it a priority to exercise for least 30 minutes a day, whether its yoga, swimming, or a walk around the block. Staying mentally active is just as important. Read blogs and newspapers, keep up with recent publications in your field, and make sure you know what is going on in the world. This will keep you up-to-date and allow you to come across as knowledgable and informed during those interviews.

3. Develop new skills –  Expand your toolkit by learning new skills you didn’t have time for during grad school. Teach yourself a new programming language like, Python or R. Watch some tutorials to become more proficient in GIS. Adding new skills to your CV will make you stand out in a pool of candidates.

4. Work on manuscripts. If you haven’t already published your thesis work, now is a good time to polish your manuscripts and submit them to journals. It will be hard to balance writing once you begin a new job, and it’s important to get your hard-earned work published! This may also be the perfect time to tie up lose ends on that side-project you’ve been neglecting (whoops).

5. Enjoy the good life – It’s easy to get bogged down by the transition from grad school to this other foreign life that exists outside of grad school. The post grad school lumps are real.

Where's my cat? I need a refill.

Where’s my cat? I need a refill.

Just try to appreciate what you have accomplished and give yourself some credit. Allow yourself to recover and enjoy the freedom.

Once you get a job, it will be a while before you have free time again, use it wisely.


Note to readers: Just in case you didn’t pick up on it from this post, asking people “what’s next” may seem innocuous, but it’s not. Keep in mind, most grad students don’t have a plan locked down and are already stressed. Let’s not add to their stress by questioning them about their next step the minute they finished writing the longest paper of their lives. 

Similarly, please stop saying things like, “geez, you must be finishing soon” and “wow you’ve been here a long time“. I’m starting a movement. 


5 Reasons Why You Should Engage in Citizen Science.

Citizen science is when volunteers assist scientists in their research. A citizen science project can involve anywhere from a handful of people to thousands, depending on the scope of the research. Generally, the volunteers help with aspects of extensive data collection or analysis that would be nearly impossible for a single scientist to accomplish alone.

Bloggers, Kelsey and Margot, graduate students.

Enthusiasts of citizen science, Kelsey & Margot.

We have lead citizen science teams on various projects in the past, including BioBlitzes and other intensive biological surveys. In our most recent undertaking, we are collaborating with EarthWatch to lead teams of citizen scientists in Costa Rica. Over thirty citizen scientists joined us throughout our 2014 field season to offer their time, effort and resources to our respective scientific research projects. What, at first, seemed like a huge undertaking (we are responsible for 30 humans?), ended up proving to be an incredible and worthwhile experience.

Here, we present five reasons why more scientists should engage in citizen science projects:

1. Fun! It is down right fun.

WARNING: Working with citizen scientists may induce laughter and spontaneous jumping. Photo credit: Nancie Dohan

Being in the field alone can be a good time, but being in the field with a team of people, excited and craving to learn about science and research, is a transformative experience. When you are in the field with volunteers, do not be surprised if there is a spontaneous dance party in the jungle or an impromptu a cappella version of OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” as you collect data.

During long bouts of field work, it is difficult at times to remember that you are undertaking a task that you love (hopefully). The fresh faces of citizen scientists remind you why your research is exciting and important. Plus, at the end of a long work day it is nice to kick back, chat about nature, and relax in good company.


These middle and high school teachers arrived to Costa Rica as strangers and left as great friends.

2. Mountains of data!

Vegetation plots are 10 times quicker with the extra hands!

You know the saying, “two minds are better than one”? Well, ten or fifteen minds are even better. And lets not forget 20 to 30 more hands! More hands means more gear can be carried, more area can be covered, and therefore more data can be collected. This is especially important in labor intensive, time consuming field work that cannot be accomplished with a small research team.

This can include climate research that incorporates bloom monitoring across the country, tracking far-ranging animals, or measuring vegetation. Other examples of citizen science projects can be found here. With the extra help from trained citizen scientists, the data can be collected efficiently and with less costs to the researcher. And really, what scientist doesn’t want mountains of data (remember that whole thing about needing large sample sizes)?


Volunteers become masters of data collection!

3. Multiple data readings. And quality control check. 

Working in teams makes it easier to cross-check measurements. Photo credit: Nancie Dohan

It is important to collect accurate data. Mistakes are common in field data collection, especially when a procedure is repetitive or you are working out in the elements. Double-checking the accuracy of data should be a priority, however it is not always conducted due to time constraints and logistics. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have people checking your collected data?

Once citizen scientists are trained in the correct methodology, they are able to cross-check and verify that measurements are taken and recorded precisely. Measurements can also be taken multiple times by different individuals to further increase the accuracy of your data and minimize human error.


Multiple readings of the densiometer improves accuracy in canopy cover estimates. Photo credit: Nancie Dohan

4. Diverse viewpoints and backgrounds.

What is important to teenagers these days? What information do teachers need in their classrooms? What makes someone donate much of their time to citizen science projects year after year?


From Japan and the USA, volunteers help with science from all walks of life. Photo credit: Lindi Lagman

There is no cookie cutter volunteer. People come from all different backgrounds, age groups, and professions. For example, you may be joined by an inner-city teenager, a retired chemistry professor, and an international student studying forestry. While this diversity is cool for obvious reasons (we love people who love science!), it is also beneficial because each person brings a different skill set and a new perspective to the research project.


The Teen Team was a powerhouse of data collection! Great job!                                   Photo credit: Nancie Dohan

In our own experience with citizen scientists, we noticed that each demographic had their strong suit. For instance, the teens excelled with some of the more advanced technological aspects, like using the GPS units. On the other hand, the adults tended to be more thorough and precise with measurements. Both are greatly beneficial!

A great group of teachers with diverse backgrounds and personalities.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that everyone has different motivations for joining the research project, as well as varying degrees of research experience and interest in science. Many scientists become so immersed in their projects that they often mistakenly assume that everyone recognizes the value of their work. When your research volunteers come from diverse backgrounds, it becomes necessary that you spell out exactly why your research is important. Working with citizen scientists is an excellent opportunity to remind yourself why you started the scientific endeavor in the first place.

5. Broader impacts.

Most scientists are familiar with the term “broader impacts”. Broader Impacts sections are growing in importance for granting institutions, most notably NSF. Many of us ask ourselves, “how do I achieve these broader impacts in my research?”. One way to accomplish broader impacts is to work with citizen scientists! It is important for the public to be engaged with and understand science. Citizen science projects that engage teachers, nature lovers, and students are exactly what “broader impacts” is all about. It gets scientists and the public working together, which can bridge gaps and make science better understood and more accessible.

Margot and Pablo, an undergraduate student from the National University of Costa Rica, collaborating on research.

Another way to achieve those broader impacts is to mentor undergraduate students. Undergraduates are always eager to gain field experience and willing to help on research projects. In exchange for the training and experience, you get extra help from enthusiastic volunteers, and simultaneously knock out those “broader impacts”. In both of our lives, we are pursuing graduate degrees in science because we had awesome graduate student mentors leading the way.

Undergraduate student collecting data for her project with the help of a volunteer. Here they are setting small mammal live traps. Photo credit: Nancie Dohan

Not only are broader impacts increasingly gaining weight in grant applications, but they are also our responsibility as scientists. Engaging in citizen science and outreach is important in cultivating a society that is knowledgeable about science and research. The ultimate goal is to have an educated public who will be able to formulate opinions and make informed decisions about science policy.

Becca, an undergraduate student, and Margot, helping a volunteer cross the river.

Becca, an undergraduate student, and Margot, helping a volunteer cross the river. Photo credit: Stephen Gorman

You will also become a better scientist by teaching your research. You learn to explain the importance and purpose of your research because citizen scientists will ask many “why” questions. You are forced to dig deeper into the meaning of your research and why it should matter to other people besides yourself. You are teaching people to care and understand science!

Volunteers return home with hands-on experiences and spread the word about your research and the importance of your work, perhaps encouraging others to volunteer or support similar projects.

Adios amigos!


Citizen science is a win-win experience for everyone involved. Scientists are able to amass spreadsheets full of data in a quick and efficient manner, brush up on their leadership skills, and fulfill broader impacts requirements by conducting scientific outreach. The volunteers have the opportunity to take an active role in scientific research and understand science through hands-on methods. And teacher volunteers bring their personal experiences back to the classrooms to inspire students, the next generation of scientists. The EarthWatch volunteers have echoed, “This experience changed my life”, and we can certainly say that they have changed ours as well. Win-win, for both science and society.

Many Minds are Better than One.

With the onset of the Information Age, a new breed of communication is gaining momentum. Since the late 1990’s, the Internet has provided users with a novel framework for publishing content in the form of interactive weblogs (blogs). By enabling new patterns of use, blogs have the potential to transform the general realm of the Internet (Kwaśnik et al. 2005). For the last decade, blogs have typically been solo endeavors, often concentrating on a specific topic. Recently, however, multiple-author blogs (MABs) have started to dominate the blogosphere. Group blogs consists of posts centered on a major theme and are written by multiple authors in a collaborative effort. The Central America Applied Biodiversity Science Blog is one example of multiple authors working together to share their knowledge and experiences from a variety of disciplines about a single common interest: conservation science.

Several authors of the Central America Applied Biodiversity Science Blog (pictured from left to right): Mike Petriello, Margot Wood, and Kelsey Neam

Several authors of the Central America Applied Biodiversity Science Blog (pictured from left to right): Mike Petriello, Margot Wood, and Kelsey Neam

While there are advantages of single-author blogs (e.g. total ownership), they are dwarfed by even greater benefits offered by multi-author blogging. We will discuss three primary reasons that group-blogging enhances the overall academic blogging experience, especially in the interdisciplinary field of conservation science.

1. Collaboration.  Whether you are in the natural sciences or social sciences, the development of collaborations are imperative for sharing knowledge and fostering partnerships with scholars, institutions and actors. Collaborations are essential for maintaining established relationships, and for promoting new idea transfer and encouraging interdisciplinary exchange. Multi-author blogging brings together researchers working on individual goals, and through shared experiences and learning, provides support through a common interest. Collaborative blogging improves interdisciplinary understanding and provides an avenue for moving away from silos towards synergy, in a more creative, accessible arena.

2. Diverse Perspectives. Multi-author blogs have various contributors, each with their own writing style, strengths, and unique personal experiences. It is expected that multiple authors are going to share different viewpoints and opinions. Consequently, the authors, as well as the readers, are exposed to diverse perspectives from a variety of different topics. In the sciences, such as conservation science, this is critical because actors within the field hold widely varying viewpoints and perspectives. 

3. Time is Precious. Producing fresh, stimulating content on a regular weekly basis is quite onerous for anyone, but especially for scholars who are already swamped by the demands of academia. If posts are not published routinely enough, you risk losing the attention of readers. By cooperating through multi-author blogging, academics are able to contribute a reasonable level of submissions without sacrificing valuable time.  

In addition to creating networks among scientists, blogging has the capacity to promote “broader impacts” by enhancing communication between academics and the general public (Wilcox, 2012). Scientists are obligated to disseminate their findings of their research to the public, especially with recent skepticism and negative public sentiment towards science. Scientists must try harder to convey why science and research is important. ​Blogging is one avenue that academics can use to ​provide the public and fellow scientists with accessible information on leading edge research​. Scientists may use collaboratory blogging as a channel for communicating scientific knowledge and generating topical discussion with a broad audience, while breaking free from the restrictive, esoteric means of exclusively ​conveying data to other scientists in the same field​. 

Other Collaboratory Conservation Blogs:

Stirling Conservation Science, Stirling University

Applied Conservation Lab, University of Victoria

Cool Green Science, The Nature Conservancy


Kwaśnik, B. H.,  Crowston K., Herring, S. C., Scheidt L. A. , Wright E., and S. Bonus. 2005. Weblogs as a bridging genre. Information Technology & People. 18:2, 142-171.

Wilcox, C. 2012. Guest editorial. It’s time to e-volve: taking responsibility for science communication in a digital age. Biol Bull. 222(2):85-7.

Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers

If losing things in the field were an Olympic sport, I would definitely win the gold medal.


This has been the summer of all things lost. Pretty much everything has been dropped in the forest and left behind, at some point or another.

Exhibit A: Things I Have Lost


-Prescription Glasses (Luckily, I have two pair. Look Ma, I’m prepared!)


– 3 bandanas

– Compass

– Field Notebook

– 5 pencils

– 1 shirt

– Clipboard (Note: This happens when you hike around with your backpack unzipped. Don’t do this.)

Exhibit B: Things I Have Recovered


-GPS (Good thing it’s bright orange)

-Field Notebook

– 1 shirt

– Clipboard

**Great story alert! For a while, I was bringing my iPhone into the field every day because of the convenience provided by some handy clinometer and compass apps. One afternoon on my hike back from a field site, I reached down to feel my pocket and realized my phone was missing. With a sense of panic, I turned around and retraced my steps back to the tree plantation where I had spent most of the day looking for sloths and measuring trees. After several hours searching through tall brush and scouring areas of trampled grass to no avail, I returned back to the Soltis Center just before dark.

Over the next few days, I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to track down a ridiculously expensive piece of metal. Meanwhile, I sent a message to my phone using the Find My iPhone app – “Perdió teléfono. Por favor, llámeme xxxx-xxxx. Recompensa $$$”. I was relying on this message because without cell service I was unable to call the phone, and even if I did have reception the phone was on silent.


Four days from when I first lost the phone, I received a call from a Tico who believed he had my phone and wanted to know if a reward was truly being offered. He had found it on the road, in almost the exact spot where I had first realized I was missing my phone several days before. The man came to the Center and we swapped phone for cash and that became: the day I got my $600 iPhone returned for a $100 fee. Pretty darn lucky. 

While I would never be caught dead owning a camo-print piece of equipment or apparel, I did learn that it is helpful to have field gear in nauseating colors like hot pink or neon yellow. Having a bright orange GPS and an equally vibrant orange field notebook is probably the only reason I was able to locate them in the jungle. Despite the long list of things I have lost along the way, I have still managed to [somewhat] keep track of my mind. 

All’s well that ends well.


Comida, Comida!

The story of two foodies living abroad in a country with an abundance of rice and beans.

The Soltis Center  is mainly staffed by residents of the local community of San Juan de Penas Blancas, including several cooks who make authentic Costa Rican meals for the student and faculty residents. The great thing about this is that we eat like the Ticos. This also means that most meals look a bit like this:


But really, our favorite time of the day is breakfast time. Every morning we wake up to freshly brewed Costa Rican coffee that we sip (or gulp, depending on the morning) in rocking chairs overlooking the misty valley. Nothing compares to a mug of hot java on a brisk morning in the rainforest.


Yep. Coffee Time.

Once we’ve had about 18 cups of coffee, we make our way to the dining area and gorge ourselves on a fruit smorgasbord of papaya, watermelon, pineapple, and mangoes.

Breakfast time

Fruits of the Rainbow! Plus fried cheese and gallo pinto.

Gallo pinto, the national dish of Costa Rica, is also waiting for us each morning (above). While Ticos always begin their day with a hearty scoop of this rice and beans dish, we were only able to follow suit for around 5 weeks before realizing that rice and beans for 3 meals a day is a bit excessive.  Sometimes we substitute gallo pinto with the classic Bimbo bread (yes, that is the name) with  peanut butter, or scrambled eggs, but mostly the fruit. All of the fruits.

frutasMost days we eat our lunch time meals while working in the forest, sitting on a log near a stream or in the mud on a trail. Before heading into the field we run down stairs to the kitchen to grab our “vegetaria-NO” bags for lunch.  Lunch bags are stuffed into our packs, and make their way to the bottom, smashed among camera traps, densiometers, measuring tapes, and binoculars. The usual lunchtime foods include bread, sometimes with peanut butter, sometimes with jam, sometimes with both, plus a juice pack and chiky cookies. Watching adults drink from juice packs is an entertaining show.


“Vegetaria-NO” Lunch To-Go

When dinner time rolls around at 6pm each evening, the vegetarian option is the usual rice, beans, picadillo (mashed vegetables, including chayote, zucchini or carrots) and salad. On rare occasions we are surprised by alternative dishes, and these sometimes include lasagna stuffed with carrots, rotini with cream sauce, or chickpea and potato soup. On really special days we even get garlic bread!


We admit, picadillo for dinner is better than armadillo for dinner.


Rice and beans: It’s what’s for dinner.

When dinner is not enough to replenish our calorie deficit from 8+ hours of field work, we head back to our cabin and choose one of the myriad of snacks on our snack shelf. If anyone wants to know where all of the Pringles in Costa Rica have gone, take a look at our snack shelf; our guiltiest pleasure. Words from the wise: boxed white wine goes marvelously well with sour cream & onion Pringles.


If we aren’t supposed to have snacks, then why is there a snack shelf in our room?

¡Buen provecho from Kelsey and Margot in Costa Rica!

Hanging With the Sloths


Some people know me by name. Others know me as the “girl who studies sloths”.

The true story? I am Kelsey Neam, Sloth Enthusiast.

Pure Laziness or Superb Adaptation?
I get the feeling that Comte de Buffon, a prominent eighteenth-century naturalist, did not share my passion. Buffon noted the following about sloths: “The inertia of this animal is not so much due to laziness as to wretchedness; it is the consequence of its faulty structure. Inactivity, stupidity, and even habitual suffering result from its strange and ill-constructed formation.”


Is it nap time?

What Buffon didn’t know is that sloths are remarkably well-adapted to their slow-paced, arboreal lifestyle. The distinctive slow motion of sloths is related to the low metabolic rates that allow them to cope with their low-nutrient, folivorous diet.

While their sluggish nature and strong associations with the forest canopy allow them to thrive in their natural environment, these same characteristics may ultimately imperil sloths as the world’s population and demand for land and forest products continue to rise.  Species with low dispersal ability, like sloths, are highly susceptible to land use change and threatened by the conversion of complex natural ecosystems into high-intensity croplands.

In my research, the brown-throated three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus) will serve as a model organism for understanding how land use change influences the abundance and distribution of mammals in the tropics, and function as an umbrella species to promote the conservation of biodiversity.

Meanwhile, in Costa Rica…
In recent decades, Costa Rica’s forests have been subjected to varying degrees of land conversion due to agriculture. The resulting landscape is a mosaic of habitat patches and corridors embedded within the surrounding matrix.


San Isidro de Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica

The main objective of my research is to present a conservative estimate of the effectiveness of landscape mosaics to support tropical arboreal mammals and facilitate movement among habitat patches. Over the summer, I will apply distance sampling techniques in forested areas and tree plantations, incorporating habitat-specific density estimation corrections to generate estimates of the use of different habitats by B. variegatus.

Curt's Old Tree Farm2

One of my tree plantation sites

The long days of hiking rugged terrain, straining my neck as I scan the canopy, and squinting my eyes at what I think may be a ball of fur (which often times ends up being a ball of leaves) all pay off when the [rare] moments arise that I can excitedly whisper to myself, “JACKPOT”.



Hopefully, I will be winning the sloth lottery a lot this summer.  Stay tuned!

Springtime Retreat


Applied Biodiversity Science Retreat Group

We recently attended an ABS retreat in the heart of Texas Hill Country. The picture above represents a larger, but not fully complete view of our ABS group. We camped at a beautiful private ranch owned by a Texas A&M alumnus who discovered a way to use his lands to combine his two passions: nature and adventure. As lovers of both of things, we could easily relate.

The retreat weekend demonstrated how truly collaborative and multidisciplinary our ABS program has grown to become. Among our group were geographers, ecologists, foresters, conservation biologists, economists and anthropologists.

While some of us awoke early to enjoy the sun’s first rays with coffee mugs in hand, others took advantage of the serenity to snooze a bit longer. During the daytime we engaged in several breakout sessions and brainstormed new ways to collaborate, how to best work as multidisciplinary teams and how to most effectively connect our research goals across academic silos.

ABS Bingo Night

ABS Bingo Night!

We had as our honored camping partner,  John Karges, the Assosciate Director of Field Science with The Nature Conservancy. John spoke about the history of TNC’s West Texas program, impressed us with his vast knowledge of Texas natural history, and exhibited a knack for story-telling.  In the evenings we bonded over “team-building pizzas” and ABS Bingo before falling asleep underneath the stars, listening to the sounds of howling coyotes and choruses of frogs.

Our Central America study group is a part of a much larger community of scholars working around the globe. The retreat united these scholars, albeit for three days, to develop stronger relationships and share ideas about our present and future research directions.

Mike, Margot & Kelsey Central America Team

Mike, Margot & Kelsey: Goofy Central America Team