What questions should prospective graduate students be asking?

Author: Mack White, Earth Systems Science PhD Student, Florida International University; Advised by Dr. Jennifer Rehage & Dr. Rolando Santos

So, you decided to go to graduate school? Hopefully this is a decision you have spent much time thinking about. If so, congrats! Making the decision to pursue graduate education is a big one. However, it can certainly be a long and arduous process – leaving prospective students feeling anxious, confused, and sometimes disappointed. Though this article cannot help you with the hours upon hours you have likely spent sifting through job boards, meticulously editing cover letters, or in paralyzing fear of hitting send on the three-sentence email that took four hours of careful curation (we have all been there) – I do hope you find it useful once you finally get that message from your prospective advisor(s) saying, “we would love to set up a time to meet you”. Eureka! The journey may seem far from over, but a meeting with a prospective lab means you are being seriously considered for the position.

It is perfectly normal to feel intimidated by the idea of meeting an entire new group of people, but there is no need to be nervous. These meetings are a two-way street, and you should not sell yourself short. Just as the lab is trying to decide whether or not you are a good fit, these meetings are great (and sometimes one of the only) opportunities for you to determine whether a lab is a good fit for you. Depending on where you are at in your career and how things pan out, you could spend the next 2-5+ years taking classes, developing your skills as a scientist, and living life with these people in a place that may be very far from wherever you call home. As such, it is important you give some serious thought to what sort of questions you want to and should be asking to get a comprehensive understanding of not only what your graduate, but potentially your professional career may look like. In this way, you can make the decision that is best for you.

Asking specific, open-ended questions indicates that you are not only excited about the opportunity, but that you have given serious thought to the realistic possibility of joining a particular lab and being a part of “the team”. But what questions to ask? What does a good question look like? Are there bad questions? How can you make sure you are getting the information you need while also making a good impression? I reached out to academic faculty (i.e., professors and post-doctoral students) and current graduate students with varying amounts of experience and research interests to see what questions they thought prospective graduate students in biology, ecology, and associated fields should be asking (1) themselves, (2) prospective lab mates (e.g., current graduate students and technicians), and (3) their prospective advisor(s) – what sort of questions would they want answered if they were in the shoes of a prospective graduate student once more? In this article, I aim to collate, organize, and briefly synthesize their answer to those questions.

In total, fourteen out of approximately forty individuals responded to my survey request (faculty = 7, graduate students = 7). These individuals generated over 100 individual questions (n = 115; ~ eight questions/ind.). After collating all of the written responses, I examined the text for general themes which their questions related to. In total, I identified eight themes which captured the essence of all the questions submitted: (1) advisor style/accessibility, (2) lab style, (3) funding/stipend/benefits, (4) productivity/publishing, (5) professional future, (6) program, (7) personal life, and (8) other. I summarized the survey responses for graduate students, faculty, and both combined (i.e., a total of three groups). Though responses differed between current graduate students and faculty, patterns were generally conserved across groups (Figures 1- 3).

Figure 1. Distribution of question types from graduate student surveys with sample sizes.
Figure 2. Distribution of question types from faculty surveys with sample sizes.
Figure 3. Distribution of question types from all surveys with sample sizes.

Questions pertaining to the prospective advisor’s style/accessibility dominated both student (36%) and faculty (35%) responses (Table 1; 36% across groups). Some common questions for your prospective lab mates include – “how often do you meet with your advisor? have you enjoyed your time working the advisor(s)? are they hands-on or hands-off in their mentoring style? how quickly do they return edits on your work?”. Some questions for your prospective advisor(s) include – “how long do students in your lab generally take to get a degree? what do you believe is a reasonable work schedule for a graduate student? what do you feel is your advising style?”. A lab with a lot with a lot of unresolved tension – whether that be between students or students and the advisor(s) – is not a lab you do not necessarily want to throw yourself in to. Take the word of current graduate students and realize if they are mostly unhappy, it is likely you will be as well. It is important to understand the mentoring style of your prospective advisor(s) and any qualms current graduate students may have early in the process. I have had many people I look up to in the field tell me finding the right advisor is nearly as important as finding a project you are excited and passionate about – which is pretty important!

Questions pertaining to lab style were the second-most reported (21%) across groups (Table 1). However, these questions were reported more often by graduate students (21%) compared to faculty (11%). These questions related to the social dynamics of the lab, as well as lab-mandated practices. Ya’ know, how well will you fit in with all these folks and how often are you going to be doing lab activities? Unsurprisingly, questions about lab style were generally directed towards current lab members and included questions such as the following – “how happy are you in the lab? does the lab get together much outside of work/school? does everyone get along in the lab? what sealed the deal for you on this particular lab?”. This can be really important, especially if you are a social butterfly and are wanting to be part of a lab that likes to hang outside of office hours. These questions can be extremely telling!

Questions pertaining to funding/stipend/benefits amassed to 16% (Table 1) of the responses for all individuals surveyed (current graduate students = 21%; faculty = 11%). Questions about funding/stipend/benefits related to money in some way, shape, or form. Though you may feel uncomfortable talking about money and benefits, it is extremely important to know how your research will be funded and even more important to how comfortable you are going to be for the duration of your graduate career. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself for asking these types of questions after you have accepted a position. Some common questions for your prospective lab mates included – “do you feel like you have the equipment needed to do your research? do you get health coverage? is the stipend comfortable and does it make sense given the cost of living in the area?”. For the prospective advisor(s) – “is there currently funding for the project? what are the student fees and am I responsible for paying them out of my stipend? is there support for conference travel/publication costs?”. Though I would not let money get in the way of accepting your dream offer, it is important to give serious consideration to the financial support you will be receiving – whether that is for research or your stipend.

Questions related to productivity/publishing were responsible for 10% of the total number of questions reported (Table 1). However, they were less frequently reported among graduate students (4%) compared to faculty (15%). This is not surprising given the “publish or perish” nature of academia. Faculty members know just how important productivity and publishing papers can be for one’s career. Though they are not one in the same, productivity and publishing are intertwined – with publications often being viewed as analogous to productivity in research science. Depending on your career goals these types of questions could be very important – for some, not so much! Questions concerning productivity/publishing were almost exclusively directed towards faculty. Some questions for your future advisor may include – “what opportunities exist for collaboration? will I have the opportunity to publish in a peer-reviewed journal? will I be able to pursue side projects? do I have to publish my research? what is your policy on publishing and intellectual property?” Though it is likely your prospective advisor will have the answers to these types of questions, it may be of use to ask current graduate students similar questions to see if the lab is actively collaborating with other students in or outside the lab.

Questions related to one’s professional future was another common theme noted throughout the survey responses, being responsible for 8% of the reported questions (Table 1). However, the percentage of questions which were related to one’s future professional career differed greatly between faculty (13%) and current graduate students (2%). Though you are certainly doing this for your future career, the lab you end up in, as well as the research you will be doing, may very well play a big role in your future career. Being thoughtful on where and with whom you are applying will take care of most of this, but there are some specific questions you should ask yourself which may shed light on your future. These questions actually start with yourself – “what are my short-term goals? long-term goals? what research excites me? What skills do I need for those short-term, long-term, and career goals?”

Some questions for your prospective advisor(s) may include – “what positions do lab alumni now have? what sort of networking opportunities exist? how long does it generally take for a student to take a new position following graduation?”

Next up, we have questions relating to personal life. What will your life be like outside of school and what sort of work-life balance exists among current graduate students? These types of questions were responsible for 7% of all questions reported (Table 1). These types of questions were reported much more by current students (11%) than faculty (3%). Questions reported in survey responses were exclusively directed at graduate students and included questions such as the following – “what is there to do for fun? do you need a car to get around? is the advisor considerate of familial responsibilities? what are the pros/cons of living in the city?”. It is important to understand what sort of opportunities exist for you in your potential new hometown. Though it is not always possible, I would highly advise visiting the campus of any school you are seriously considering. Not only will you get to meet your prospective advisor and lab mates, but you will get a feel for the campus and the surrounding area.

Tied with personal life, we have questions related to the program (7%; Table 1). Questions related to university and department requirements, as well as resources, are often overlooked. Departmental and university requirements, as well as poor operational efficiency, can be a huge pain. Though it may not dominate the conversation, you should likely ask a few questions about the program. Questions for your prospective advisor and current graduate students may include – “do you feel supported by the program? do you feel restrained by the program? how intense is the class work? are professors generally understanding of missing class for field work (if you are into that kind of thing)?”.

Lastly, we have other. You may be asking what these questions are about? Though I felt like I could not categorize them, they are types of questions you would generally find yourself asking towards the end of the conversation with your prospective advisor(s) and/or lab mates. Questions for your prospective advisor and current lab mates may include – “do you have any advice for me? do you have any questions for me? what questions do you wish you would have asked before joining the lab?”. These types of questions can be revealing of the lab and/or provide you a platform to talk a little about yourself.

So, what are some big take-aways? First, it is important to ask questions. There truly is no such thing as a dumb question. If you are genuinely curious, ask – it is your future we are talking about after all! Second, the conversations with your prospective lab should not feel like an interview. Allow these meetings to progress organically, but I would suggest you keep a notebook with 10-15 questions you want to make sure are addressed at some point in the meeting. Towards the end of the meeting, it is likely that whoever you are meeting with will ask if you have any more questions. This is where you can address any of those questions you wish would have come up in conversation – and don’t be afraid to take notes throughout these meetings. Along that same line, don’t be afraid to ask for someone’s contact information just in case you have more questions or forget to cover something that is important to you. Though I have provided some basic summary statistics and thoughts here, I will leave it up to you to determine which questions are most important.

Given the inherently subjective nature of categorizing each question into one of eight different “themes”,  I have provided a supplemental list (S1) of all the questions, in their original wording, at the bottom of this post. It is my hope that this list ensures the words of those who participated in the survey and your ability to interpret them are not lost in my own interpretation, broad categorization, and synthesis.

I would like to thank all the faculty and graduate students who participated in this survey. Though their identities will remain anonymous, this post would not have been possible without their time, stimulating conversations, and thoughtful responses. As you will see in the supplemental materials, much thought was given to their responses in hopes of helping you in your scientific journey. We are all rooting for you and wish you the best of luck!

Supplementary Materials:

S1. List of questions received from student, faculty, and combined surveys.

  • How responsive is the advisor in editing student documents, taking care of administrative business or student emergencies?
  • How often does he/she meet with students, in groups or individually?
  • How successful has the advisor been in helping students through the program?
  • How long has it taken them to graduate?
  • What positions have his/her grad students found after graduation? 
  • How wide and deep is the network of scientists with whom the advisor interacts?
  • Is the grad student cohort generally happy and satisfied with the atmosphere in the lab?
  • Is the subject matter that the students are researching exciting to you?
  • Is there expertise in the Department or University from which you can learn skills you’d like to have?
  • Is there a specific project, you would want me to work on, or do I pick my own?
  • What has distinguished your most successful PhD students? How do you measure success? Would I be given goals and deadlines?
  • What would my expectations be? Am I expected to go to conferences, and will I be funded? Are there publication requirements to graduate?
  • How long do students in your lab take to graduate? What do they go on to do?
  • Do you consider yourself hands on? How often would we meet? Will I have help picking classes and a committee?
  • What sorts of struggles do you anticipate a grad student having, and how and when do you know to step in to help?
  • I’m familiar with DNA Extraction, PCR, and Gel Electrophoresis. What other methods does your lab use that I could study? What computational skills will be required?
  • How is the lab structured? Are there lab meetings and collaborative opportunities?
  • Where do you see the lab going in 2-5 years?
  • Your lab website lists graduate students? How many are you actively mentoring?
  • Can I reach out to current grad students?
  • Do you enjoy the lab? Is the environment supportive? Did you have help picking classes and a committee? Do you all get along?
  • How intense were classes? What did they entail? How much time did they take up?
  • Do you like the school? Did you like the area? Were people nice and accepting? Why did you choose the program?
  • How did you find housing? Is it expensive? Do you need a car to get around?
  • Is the stipend comfortable? Is there support for conferences, research etc?
  • How is the work-life balance? Is the PI understanding? Do you know students with kids or other familial responsibilities?
  • How are TA assignments made? Lottery or choice? Are there workshops to be better?
  • Do you feel pressure to publish? Are you supported when you write manuscripts? Do you have all the equipment you need?
  • How was the admissions process? Was it confusing or straight forward?
  • Any advice for me?
  • What are my 2-5-year goals?  (year range relative to MS or PhD)
  • What kind of job do I want to have in 5-10 years? (year range relative to MS or PhD)
  • What research questions am I most interested in expanding upon into new territories?
  • Which research most excites and inspires me (and why)? 
  • Who is currently doing that research?
  • How often do you meet with your advisor to discuss your research?
  • How often does your lab meet together?
  • What advising style does your advisor have?
  • What funding support do you have as a graduate student?
  • How did you select your thesis/dissertation committee?
  • How happy are you with your advisor/committee/program support?
  • How quickly does your advisor/committee return feedback on writing and presentations?
  • What are your advisor’s expectations of you?
  • How many students/technicians do you advise and how frequently do you meet with each?  How often do y’all meet together as a lab?
  • How is research funded in your lab?
  • How long have you been at your current institution?
  • How do you advise students generally (as developing professionals) and specifically (as pertaining to the specific research area of individuals)?
  • What opportunities for collaboration exist between your lab and other labs within our outside the institution?
  • How long do most students take to earn degrees under your advisement?
  • What’s your (and/or your institution’s or funding agency’s) policy on publishing and intellectual property for graduate students and postdocs?
  • What are your expectations of graduate students?
  • I would ask both the advisors and the students what the mentoring style of the advisor is. In other words, are they “hands-on” or “hands off.”
  • I would ask about the group dynamics in the lab. Are there lab meetings? How often are they? Do students work more independently or more collaboratively. Some labs work on many similar projects, others work on very different types of projects. Some labs are large and vice versa, and this can dictate how much facetime you get with an adviser. How are authorships decided?
  • How is the position funded, what is the stipend and whether or not it covers tuition, are you guaranteed funding for 5 years? How much TAing will you be doing as apart of this appointment?
  • Suggest asking about former students/postdocs and where they are now. If you don’t ask this, you should at least look into it yourself. If students frequently drop out of a lab, it can be a red flag.
  • What is the advisor’s policy on conference attendance? They are important for sharing research, networking, and getting into your next position. Some PIs will fund your attendance, others may tell you you are on your own.
  • Suggest asking current students whether they feel supported, both in the lab, and in the school in general. Ask what resources are available for students. Ex. student interest groups, health coverage etc.
  • Ask students about the city you will be living in. Does the stipend match the cost of living? What do students do in free time?
  • How is the interaction between the advisor and individual students?This is intended to be a broader question to get some sense of how an advisor approaches the process of mentoring graduate students.  It can allow prospective students the chance to determine whether an advisor adopts a hands-on or hands-off approach and the degree of independence that will be expected from them as students.  You can and should also ask this question to individual students who do or did work with the same advisor to see if the advisor is generally available and responsive to student questions, needs, and concerns.  Importantly, you can assess the agreement across answers from different people to determine if a consensus opinion exists.
  • What types of resources are typically available to students in the lab? This is another broad question that can be very revealing because it can be asked with respect to finances, personnel, or field and lab equipment – all of which are critically important to graduate student success.  Additionally, prospective students can get answers to this question at multiple organizational levels, asking the question about the individual lab under consideration but also about the broader department or even college.
  • What types of jobs do former lab members have now? In many ways, graduate school serves as a steppingstone get to your professional career, so carefully consider the match (or lack thereof) between the jobs held by former students and the jobs you think you want. 
  • What funding is available for the project? What other resources will I have access to? No student in biology or ecology should pay to go to grad school. Although no one likes to come right out and say it, the more money and resources you have the greater chance you have of a successful project.
  • Can I talk with your current students, technicians, and postdocs? These will be the people you interact with the most and they are also the best insight into what the PI is really like. Any PI who will not put you in touch with their lab freely is a red flag.
  • Who does the lab collaborate with and what networking opportunities are there (trips to conferences etc.)? One of the most crucial things for students to do is build their network. Networking is critical to getting future opportunities and jobs.
  • What are your expectations of me? Will I need to publish a paper? What do you see as a typical work schedule for a graduate student? Asking for expectations upfront and being on the same page from the beginning will help avoid future conflict.
  • What is the mentoring style of PI? Or what is your mentoring Style?
  • Is there support, whether from the lab, department, or university, for grad students to present at conferences?
  • What is one weakness/what are some of the things the lab/department could be doing better? Also related to grad students, if they would choose the same lab/university?
  • Can someone in the area live off of the graduate stipend?
  • Is the lab/department collaborative?
  • What skills do I want to learn in graduate school?
  • What are my career goals in order to make sure they are getting the training and experiences to make themselves competitive in the job market.
  • If possible, visit the campus, the lab, and spend time with the students. It is very important to know if not just the project is a fit for you, but that you feel comfortable with the campus and the city, and the people that you will be working with for the next few years. The lab dynamic and atmosphere can be make or break. Ask your prospective lab’s students, what is it like living here, how do you link it? What do you think about the current lab dynamic? Does it work for your working style?
  • What was the most important thing that factored into your decision to join this lab? What was the most attractive thing for you that “sealed the deal”?
  • What is the most difficult aspect of pursuing a graduate degree at this school? What did you find most challenging and how did you overcome it?
  • I’m looking for a collaborative and constructive learning environment with an advisor who has the time and energy available to invest in his students. Overall, how is your experience working with Dr. —- so far? Do you recommend him as an advisor?
  • Funding is a huge consideration for me in deciding on a program. If you don’t mind, how have you funded your degree? Were you able to secure a tuition waiver through a Research Assistantship?
  • Did you know for certain that you definitely wanted to work with Dr. —- and only applied to —-, or did you apply to several universities and make your decision after receiving final offers? If so, what factors ultimately made you choose his lab?
  • When you applied to —, had you already talked to Dr. —- and nailed down your project to include in your statement of interest? Or was your statement of interest in your application a more general discussion of your experience and potential research interests?
  • Are there any questions that you wished you asked Dr. —- or the admissions program during the application process? Any other advice to share?
  • How does everyone get along in the lab?
  • How do people like/ what are their thoughts on working for/with the advisor?
  • How do people like the college (office, equipment, campus, facilities, etc.) itself and classes/ professors in the department?
  • What comments/ advice do people have about the town the University is in?
  • What’s the community of grad students like/ do people hang out or help with others’ research much?
  • What is your mentorship style like, and why do you feel that it is the best approach to mentoring students in graduate school?
  • What is the dynamic of your lab group? Are people friendly and sociable or do they mostly keep to themselves and interact only on professional terms?
  • Is mentoring graduate students something you genuinely enjoy or just something that is “part of the job” for you?
  • What character traits do you think students need to have to be most successful during graduate school?
  • Ask to speak with a current member of the lab to get their honest perspective. Ask them what kind of mentoring style the PI has (hands off vs. hands on?)
  • Ask about lab culture (how often do you have group lab meetings? What are your weekly expectations for your grad students? Status reports? Individual meetings? etc)
  • Ask about the flow/timeline of the program if you don’t know this already (deadlines for milestones like proposal submission and defense, qualifying exams, comprehensive exams if they have them, TA assignments, and course expectations; How long would you be taking classes for? Are there required courses for your degree? When do you start doing research?)

A Summer Spent Catching Sharks? Count me in!

Author: Catherine Fox, Marine Biology & Environmental Science Student, Florida Southern College; Advised by Dr. Gabriel Langford

Picture this: it’s winter 2021, covid has been a pandemic for nearly a year now. The research project I was supposed to do last summer was canceled due to covid and now I’m searching for something for next summer. I’ve applied to what seems like hundreds of places (when maybe it was only ~20) and haven’t been accepted to any. I can’t spend another summer at home waiting for something to come my way, so I keep searching. Then, one day, I get an email from my professor asking if I would be interested in working with sharks over the summer. Of course, I’m interested! I tell her I have experience operating and docking boats of various sizes and I’ve been saltwater fishing since I was young. Next thing I know, I’m accepted to participate in summer research! The plan is to take out the brand-new boat a couple times a week and capture bonnetheads, bull sharks, and blacktips. By the time May rolls around I’m so excited to get out on the water. But as with most research, there were many hiccups along the way. First, the boat wasn’t ready. Then we couldn’t get someone to drive it down to Tampa. Then there were issues with the insurance. As days bled into weeks, we tried to keep ourselves busy. We learned how to mend the nets, set up camera traps, and spent many hours cleaning and organizing labs in the science building.

Finally, the day had come! The boat was ready, it was in Tampa at the marina, and it was finally insured. We met at the crack of dawn, yawning, and stretching out the kinks in our bodies as we loaded the van with all our equipment. The car ride was filled with excited chatter as we talked about what the day would hold. It was a beautiful day, and the sun was shining brightly in the sky. We caught one juvenile bull shark that day, but it died. We were saddened by this, and our excitement evaporated quickly. When we got back, we practiced the workup on our fake blow-up shark so we could be faster and more confident next time. We also mended the holes in the net (at this point I didn’t realize just how many hours that summer would be spent mending those holes).

We got faster and faster over the next few weeks and caught over a dozen sharks. Then a massive red tide bloom started killing everything. Thousands and thousands of dead fish floated on the water, leaving a putrid stench to the air. All the rays that we had been catching were dead and there was no sign of the sharks. Day after day we went out searching for them but we didn’t find them. We thought this was the end. We wouldn’t catch anything else, maybe we should change our research project? But late July we decided to go out once more just to make sure. And thank goodness we did! That day we caught a record number of sharks in one gill net!

We only caught more from that point on. Bull sharks made the return and shortly after cownose rays did. But we never saw another southern stingray. I wonder if they all died or if some were able to survive? Maybe they went upriver or left the bay. I guess we’ll never know. That summer was filled with so much fun, laughter, learning, and too many sunburns and even though things didn’t always go as planned, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

 Do You Know Your Philosophy of Science? 

Author: Tyler Coleman, PhD Student, Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, University of Florida; Advised by Dr. Andrew Carlson 

Our scientific research interests stem from our personal philosophy of science, whether we realize it or not. My research interests lie at the interface between ecology (e.g., population, community, behavioral), biology (e.g., physiology, morphology, ontogeny), and natural resource management. I am particularly interested in integrating these theoretical and applied fields using innovative quantitative techniques. Managing natural resources requires sustainable utilization to provide the fundamental ecosystem services that promote quality of life (Muralikrishna and Manickam 2017). I am passionate about the multi-disciplinary aspect of ecological studies because it is essential to integrate knowledge across disciplines to develop, test, and apply theory to advance human understanding and inform management decision making. These interests are fabricated from my developing philosophy of science.

Do you know your philosophy of science? I feel this question is not asked enough. How can we, as scientists, adequately ask scientific questions if we do not know what our scientific philosophy is? How can we play a role or have a voice in managing our natural resources if we do not have a philosophy of science? I can simply answer both of those questions: we cannot. What do the words subspecies, community, home-range, or individual mean to you? Are they concepts that a professor or mentor taught you about? Maybe a definition you have memorized from a textbook? Or have you critically dissected literature about evolutionary and biogeographic units from both ontological and epistemological perspectives to translate the meaning of those words? Many, if not most of us, were not taught the value of having an established personal philosophy of science, or how to formulate one, early in our career. 

We can begin thinking about our philosophy of science by assessing how we as humans have evolved to communicate, listen, and think. Humans are a “System 1” thinking society. We must open our psychological processes from a “System 1” way of thinking—voluntary, little to no effort, originating impressions and feelings—to a “System 2”—effortful mental allocation, subjective experiences, reasoning with beliefs. It is necessary to engage in slower, more deliberative ways of thinking compared to fast and intuitive thoughts (Kahneman 2011). This alone will influence how we interpret teachings and allow us to establish our own philosophy of science. 

Altering the way we think about our philosophy of science will be incredibly challenging, yet compelling, rewarding, and beneficial to our scientific process. We must challenge ourselves to go through the waves of trials, tribulations, and breakthroughs when contemplating our philosophy of science. We can never truly understand unless we push ourselves mentally while acknowledging our own beliefs and perspectives. Acknowledging the significance of the ontological and epistemological basis of fundamental units in science is the foundation to the scientific method—experimental design, analysis, and interpretation—and currency of conducting research (Murray and Crother 2015). Start asking people around you—colleagues, professors, biologists, friends—their outlook on what an ecological community or species is (e.g., Hull 1976; Crother and Murray 2011, 2018). You will quickly see that people do not normally consider these questions, as humans tend to be “System 1” thinkers. Scientific philosophy is a never-ending story, but acknowledging its existence is an essential hurdle for us as scientists to overcome. 

I have been challenged by a colleague to write one sentence describing my philosophy of science. Here is what I have as of today. 

My philosophy of science is… 

a transition through time accumulating knowledge based on data—as more data is acquired, better knowledge is gained (i.e., steps in the correct direction) of the system. 

–OR– 

the probability of the parameters (i.e., system) given the data (i.e., knowledge) based on the likelihood of the data given the parameters combined with prior knowledge of the system. 

I promise both of those sentences say the same thing. If either one sounds familiar, it’s because they both are a twist on Bayesian Theorem. I want to be clear here that I am neither a Bayesian nor Frequentist. I believe both statistical theories fundamentally have a place in science, it just depends on the question. However, from a philosophical perspective, I think this minor twist on Bayesian Theorem is a really good way to describe my philosophy of science, regardless of statistical method used. 

The philosophy stated above—scientific understanding of a system improves with more and better data acquisition—is utilized in our philosophy of the management of aquatic resources. Managing aquatic resources will only get harder with climate change and the rapid growth of the human population. Therefore, there is no greater time for us as scientists to communicate and collaborate with our peers and the public. To provide the fundamental ecosystem services that afford a greater socio-ecological quality of life, it is essential to integrate knowledge across disciplines and scales (local, regional, and global) to develop, test, and apply theory to advance human understanding and inform decision making of our aquatic resources. It is important to understand the relationship between economic choices and potential impacts on ecosystem health, including impacts of invasive species and climate change, to ensure both ecosystems and economics are safeguarded. As fisheries scientists managing aquatic resources, it is our role to uncover hidden connections between fishes, aquatic ecosystems, and human stakeholders to help form new policy, governance, and management approaches for a sustainable future. Our philosophy of science must help produce the mechanisms to help further fisheries science. 

References: 

Crother, B. I., and C. M. Murray. 2011. Ontology of areas of endemism: Ontology of areas of endemism. Journal of Biogeography 38(6):1009–1015. 

Crother, B. I., and C. M. Murray. 2018. Linking a biological mechanism to evolvability. Journal of Phylogenetics & Evolutionary Biology 06(01). 

Hull, D. L. 1976. Are species really individuals? Systematic Zoology 25(2):174. 

Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

Muralikrishna, I. V., and V. Manickam. 2017. Environmental management: science and engineering for industry. Butterworth-Heinemann. 

Murray, C. M., and B. I. Crother. 2015. Entities on a temporal scale. Acta Biotheoretica 64(1):1–10. 

Waves of Invasion: Non-Native Peacock Eels in the Florida Everglades

Author: Jordan Massie, PhD Candidate: Coastal Fish Ecology and Fisheries Research Lab at Florida International University

Jordan is all smiles before releasing a large Common Snook (Centropmus undecimalis) collected during routine sampling in Everglades National Park’s Shark River

As residents of Florida, we are no strangers to encountering non-native species inhabiting our southern landscape. Non-native species represent a diverse array of taxa and occur in many different habitats, ranging from intentional introductions such as the melaleuca tree which was planted to facilitate the reclamation of wetlands in the Everglades, to the Cuban brown anole lizards which have established across nearly all corners of Florida (Campbell 2003; Dray et al. 2006). Aquatic ecosystems are no exception in regards to species invasions. The tropical climate of South Florida presents ideal conditions for aquaculture catering to the ornamental fish trade. Consequently, some of these non-native fishes have escaped from outdoor rearing ponds and established within our ecosystems, particularly prior to the adoption of best management practices by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Aquaculture in 1998 (Tuckett et al. 2017). In many cases, the impact of establishment remains poorly understood, but a logical first step in assessing potential impacts is to document their abundance and distribution over time.

Led by Dr. Jennifer Rehage, the Coastal Fisheries Research Lab at Florida International University (https://myweb.fiu.edu/rehagej/) has been monitoring fish communities in Everglades National Park since 2004. As part of the Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research program (https://fcelter.fiu.edu/), our team has focused on better understanding how seasonal and interannual variation in hydrologic conditions shape fish community dynamics in order to inform ongoing restoration efforts in the Everglades. A key part of this research consists of boat-based electrofishing at standardized sampling sites in the Shark River (Boucek and Rehage 2013, Fig. 1).

Figure 1: Map of the study area in Everglades National Park where long-term electrofishing has been conducted since 2004. Panel a) shows the general location of the Shark River study site and panel b) indicates the location of standardized sampling transects in the mid/upper river (black stars).

These sampling events capture shifts in community structure as conditions progress from the seasonal inundation of floodplain marshes in the summer/fall to the winter/spring dry season when freshwater species seek refuge in creeks and river channels. Each year, non-native fishes are frequently encountered. However, the abundance and identity of these invaders has changed from year-to-year.

The Shark River is located near the southern extent of the subtropics, and fish assemblages contain a mix of temperate and tropical species. The mild temperatures found throughout the year provide favorable conditions for many non-natives, and those most common captured (Fig. 2) include tropical species such as Mayan Cichlid (Cichlasoma urophthalmus), tilapia (Oreochromis spp.), and particularly notable in recent years, the Peacock Eel (also referred to as Spotfin Spiny Eel, Macrognathus siamensis). Due to intolerance to cold water temperatures, periodic cold spells in South Florida can result in high mortality for tropical species (Rehage et al. 2016). For example, the cold snap in 2010 resulted in high mortality for populations of Common Snook (Centropomus undecimalis) existing near their northern range of distribution (Stevens et al. 2016). We observed similar trends in our long-term data for non-native species in the Shark River.

Figure 2: Non-native species commonly captured during boat-based electrofishing in the Shark River, Everglades National Park: a) Mayan Cichlid (Cichlasoma urophthalmus), b) mouth-brooding Blue Tilapia (Oreochromis aureus), c) Peacock Eel (Macrognathus siamensis), d) Peacock Eel catches from single electrofishing bout in March 2021. Images by J. Massie and J. Rehage.

Following the 2010 cold snap, non-native species abundance was very low in our electrofishing catches for several years (2011-2013, Fig. 3). However, we saw abundance increase in subsequent years in shifting waves of species identity. Peacock Eel encounters spiked during the spring of 2014, followed by a jump in tilapia catches in March 2015. Non-native catches declined once again following a drought in the summer of 2015, but numbers were again on the rise and Mayan Cichlids topped non-native catches during the 2018/2019 sampling season. These observations were dwarfed, however, by catches of Peacock Eels in 2021, with catch-per-unit-effort more than two times greater than for any other species/year (Fig. 3). In April 2021 alone, 170 individual eels were captured during a single sampling event. While these data help illustrate the extent of non-native presence in the Shark River, the true impact of non-native species on native fishes is not well understood. Future research should focus on better understanding the extent to which specific habitat needs and resource-use overlap for native and non-native species, and the resulting competitive interactions.

Figure 3: Catch-per-unit-effort (CPUE) for commonly encountered non-native species in the Shark River, Everglades National Park. CPUE reflects the number of individuals captured per meter of shoreline sampled via boat-based electrofishing at standardized sites. Individual panels illustrate each sampling season for the past 10 years, beginning with high water levels in December and continuing through the dry season of the following year. Missing observations reflects months that were not sampled in that year.

Much work remains in describing and quantifying non-native species occurrence, persistence, and the impact on native species and ecosystems in the Everglades and beyond, but understanding the spatiotemporal patterns of establishment may be an appropriate starting point to guide future research. There are a number of avenues to help contribute to this research for both citizens and scientists alike, and I encourage you to report non-native sightings in your own research and daily travels. Foremost, non-native sightings can be easily reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission through their website, hotline, or smartphone app (https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/nonnatives/report/). Sightings can also be shared through the EDDMapS database, which facilitates real-time web-based mapping across the United States and Canada (https://www.eddmaps.org/). For folks interested in becoming even more active, you might even consider participating in one of the bi-annual Fish Slam events organized by USGS (https://www.usgs.gov/centers/wetland-and-aquatic-research-center/science/virtual-fish-slam-march-2021), where biologists and students state-wide work together to document new species introductions and range expansions of non-native fishes. No matter the extent of your role, by furthering our knowledge of non-native species in Florida we can all work together to help protect the valued native species and ecosystems that make our state an amazing and unique place to live!

Literature Cited:

Boucek, R.E., and J.S. Rehage. 2013. No free lunch: displaced marsh consumers regulate a prey subsidy to an estuarine consumer. Oikos 122: 1453-1464.

Campbell, T.S. 2003. The introduced brown anole (Anolis sagrei) occurs in every county in peninsular Florida. Herpetological Review 34: 173.

Dray, F.A., B.C. Bennett, and T.D. Center. 2006. Invasion history of Melaleuca quinquenervia (Cav.) ST Blake in Florida. Castanea 71: 210-225.

Rehage, J.S., J.R. Blanchard, R.E. Boucek, J. Lorenz, and M. Robinson. 2016. Knocking back invasions: variable resistance and resilience to multiple cold spells in native vs. nonnative fishes. Ecosphere 7: e01268.

Stevens, P., D. Blewett, R.E. Boucek, J.S. Rehage, B. Winner, J. Young, J. Whittington, and R. Paperno. 2016. Resilience of a tropical sport fish population to a severe cold event varies across five estuaries in southern Florida. Ecosphere 7.

Tuckett, Q.M., J.L. Ritch, K.M. Lawson, and J.E. Hill. 2017. Landscape-scale survey of non-native fishes near ornamental aquaculture facilities in Florida, USA. Biological Invasions 19: 223-237.

Intro to Fish ID

FL AFS Fall 2021 Continuing Education Virtual Workshop

Posted below is a link to the fish ID overview from Theresa Warner (FWC) from the FL AFS Fall 2021 Continuing Education Virtual Workshop. This video is a part one of a four part video series that focuses on the introduction to fish anatomy and identification. This series goes over how to identify species within the Carangidae, Epinephelidae, and Lutjanidae families. This is a great video for anyone that is new to some of these species, needs a refresher, or needs additional fish ID resources. The rest of the series will be posted throughout the week but you can check out these videos and more from other workshops at https://units.fisheries.org/fl/continuing-education/previous-workshops/.

Don’t forget to check out the “Upcoming Workshop” tab on the AFS FL website (https://units.fisheries.org/fl/continuing-education/upcoming-workshops/) to stay update on any new workshops in the future!

2021 Sheepshead Shuffle Fundraiser is EXTENDED to July 2nd!

If you haven’t already signed-up for the shuffle, do it now:

https://flafs.regfox.com/florida-afs-sheepshead-shuffle-2021-5th-annual-virtual-5k 

You will get a free swag bag right off the bat!! 

Then GET OUTSIDE!! & get hustlin’ your way through 5k (3.1 miles). It’s only a billion degrees out and rainy. No big deal. Run on your treadmill if you prefer, we don’t mind. Feel free to walk or run half a mile a day. Take your pupper along or your roommate/significant other for some quality screen free time.

Track your steps on a running app or just record your time. And don’t forget to take a selfie!! Sweaty selfies are encouraged. Cute pets are extra encouraged. 

Make sure you send your times or a screenshot from your running app along with your selfie to flafsstudent@gmail.com to be entered to win some awesome prizes!!! 

Share that selfie on facebook with the hashtag #sheepsheadshuffle2021

Technology Preview: Acoustic Telemetry

Technology Preview: Acoustic Telemetry

Written by Lauren Kleiman

Since early human history, we have followed animals to learn things: the best paths through a forest, the foods that are safe to eat, safe places to find shelter. Today we still track animals, but now the questions we seek to answer through tracking animals have become more advanced. In this post I will be discussing tracking of fish, mostly due to the subject matter of this site and my own research. Mark-recapture methods involve implanting an external tag or marker on an animal, releasing it, and recording any recaptures either by directed efforts or incidental through commercial fisheries. This method has been in use for a long time, and can give some important distribution data, but it is not effective if the organisms disperse too far for effective recapture. Recapture rates are extremely low on mobile organisms, so it requires a lot of upfront tagging efforts and sometimes thousands of deployed tags. Mark-recapture data only gives point data: the mark time and place and the recapture time and place. There is no data between those two points. 

To address the issues with mark-recapture, many research labs adopted acoustic telemetry; a technology system that uses sound to track organisms directly in their natural habitats. Size-specific acoustic transmitter tags are implanted in the body cavity of the fish, based on the size of the organisms to avoid affecting natural movement behaviors. The most common size used in fish is a V16 which is about the size of a tube of lipstick, as the bigger the transmitter the larger the battery and the longer the transmitter continues transmitting data. Transmissions are given off on a random interval within a set time range, usually around 2 minutes to ensure that tags in the same area don’t “talk” over each other. The receiver, an omnidirectional hydrophone, is a listening device that records the time, date, and specific ID of the tag when it occurs within the range of the receiver. Although this technique requires initial capture of the fish, recapture isn’t required. Data is recorded to the receiver as long as the tags are within range of the receiver.

Active acoustic telemetry utilizes the same tag and receiver pairing. However, as it states, this is an active process. The tags generally transmit at a higher rate which causes a shorter lifespan of the tag due to battery capacity. The hydrophone is manipulated by researchers to continuously track the tag, usually off the side of a boat in the case of fish, resulting in very fine-scale movement data. Unfortunately, a boat can only track one organism simultaneously and the effort for this technique is very high for personnel, time, and boat access. Active tracking also requires being able to follow the organism where they go which is not always possible on the water. A boat in the water

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Figure 4 Active acoustic telemetry

Passive acoustic telemetry installs the receiver in a stationary location in the environment so any tagged fish moving by these receivers is recorded and the receiver is later retrieved and downloaded which can limit the locations or numbers of receivers. In this technique, the layout of receivers can greatly influence the scale of the data and the questions to be addressed. Receivers can be placed at specific natural chokepoints, multiple placed in a line to examine passage at a location, or grids of receivers to attempt triangulation of more exact fish location. There are tradeoffs between cost of the equipment and coverage of the ecosystem to consider when designing these experiments. Passive tracking allows for longer recording of tags. The transmission rate can be longer since there is not active tracking of the tag so the lifespan of the tag can be very long. Some tags can transmit for up to ten years which can allow fidelity and life history questions to be addressed. These are still limited by the locations of the receivers as even if the tags are transmitting, if they are not within range of a receiver, then the data is not being recorded. 

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Figure 5 Passive acoustic telemetry

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Figure 6 Potential acoustic receiver layouts illustrated on the Loxahatchee River. a. Overview of Loxahatchee River with boxes over the inset locations. b. Example of a chokepoint receiver. c. Example of a receiver line. d. Example of a receiver grid.

These more complex systems of tracking animals allow scientists to address specific questions about movement, spawning, habitat use, sexual segregation, and many more. As these data are limited by the number and spread of receivers in the environment, there has been a large move towards collaborative networks of researchers. A receiver can hear any tags in that area, not just the ones deployed by a certain scientist so researchers can have data from the tags of other organism and from other institution’s tags. By agreeing to share data from the tags of those researchers, they are able to also receive data from their own tags on that scientist’s receivers. This leveraged data across organizations and studies allows larger scale studies of migrations. These networks cover multiple water systems, states, and countries. The scope of these studies is becoming larger and more collaborative, and science is able to answer larger questions.

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Figure 7 International telemetry collaborative networks

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Figure 8 Continental U.S. telemetry collaborative networks

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Figure 9 Members of Florida Atlantic Coastal Telemetry (FACT) network

2021 Officers

Here are the new officers for 2021!

President: Casey Murray

Casey Murray is a PhD student at the University of Florida’s Tropical Aquaculture Lab working with Dr. Matt DiMaggio where her research is focused on characterizing larval fish digestive physiology to inform the design of feeding and weaning protocols that aim to reduce the overall use of live feeds while maintaining high larval survival. Casey is studying both freshwater and marine ornamental fishes to develop species-specific larval fish culture protocols. Casey received her B.A. in Biology from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 2015 where she discovered her passion for ornamental aquaculture during her senior thesis research on the determination of juvenile Banggai cardinalfish habitat preference.  Casey graduated from the University of Miami with a Master of Professional Science degree in 2017 where she studied the factors affecting loggerhead sea turtle hatch success in Everglades National Park.  Prior to starting at the Tropical Aquaculture Lab in 2019, Casey worked at Roger Williams University where she helped culture Atlantic lookdowns, glassy sweepers, and smallmouth grunts along with researching alternative protein sources in salmonid feeds.
In her spare time, Casey enjoys traveling, baking and spending time with her pet duck, Tiny.

Vice President: Brent McKenna

Brent is a Master’s of Science student at Florida Atlantic University.  His interests lie primarily with fishing and the best ways to ensure the survival and success of fishes.  He believes that fishing is one of the best ways to interest people in conserving fishes. Thank you to everyone in Dr. Baldwin’s lab for their experience and friendship.

University Co-Liaisons: Kenzie Horton and Kristie Perez

Kenzie is native Floridian and received her Bachelor of Marine Science from the University of South Florida in 2016.  During her undergraduate degree, her passion for research grew through her various internships that varied from fisheries, marine immunology to husbandry. She is currently working as a Fisheries Biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in the Fisheries Independent Monitoring program to provide data on managed and non-managed fish using a variety of gear types including small seines, large seines, trawls, and Baited Remote Underwater Video surveys. The program samples different estuaries around the state of Florida and along the West Florida Shelf in the Gulf of Mexico. Recently, she accepted a position in the Master of Science in Marine Science program at Jacksonville University where she will continue to pursue her passion for research.
Kristie is a certified project manager with a background in corporate project management. She will complete her master’s degree in Fisheries and Aquatic Science at UF’s School of Forest, Fisheries and Geomatic Sciences this summer. Her technical project is focused on the planning for a Long-Term Stakeholder Process which has been proposed to begin later this year for Florida’s newly designated Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve. Her primary interests are in aquatic animal health, coastal management, and conservation behavior. She will begin a PhD in Interdisciplinary Ecology in the fall at UF’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment focused on these as they pertain to shellfish in the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuary Research Reserve.

Secretary/Treasurer: Carissa Gervasi

Carissa Gervasi is a Ph.D. candidate at Florida International University. She received B.S. degrees in Marine Biology and Chemistry from Roger Williams University in 2011, where she studied juvenile flatfish ecology and bluefish toxicology. She then pursued an M.S. degree in Marine Science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, focusing on fisheries population dynamics and pathobiology in the Chesapeake Bay. After working as a histotechnologist for a few years she started her Ph.D. program at Florida International University in 2016. For her dissertation Carissa is working closely with recreational anglers and state managers to develop a management plan for the Crevalle Jack, a valuable pelagic fish species whose population may be in decline. Carissa loves writing computer code and is passionate about science policy and management.

MS Graduate Research Assistantship Position at University of Florida

Applications for a Master’s position at the University of Florida Tropical Aquaculture Lab are now open. The successful candidate will be conducting larval fish research for the advancement of marine ornamental aquaculture. Please see the attached document for details about the position and application process. Applications are due by May 21, 2021.