2 of 3 Teaching

The Making of a Researcher

Environmental sciences professor Michael Pace’s approach to training graduate students is shaped by his own understanding of what it takes to be a successful researcher. At the same time, he feels it is essential to work with his students collaboratively. “I try to be sensitive to what they want and where they see their careers going,” he says.

One of the first lessons he tries to convey is the amount of careful thought necessary before starting a research project. During their first year, Pace engages students in an extended discussion to review the research activities in his lab and help them home in on a problem that interests them. He then guides them to refine their sense of the problem into a series of scientific questions they can address. “Once you have the question clearly in mind, it’s easier to go after it,” he says. “This is a fundamental scientific skill.”

Doctoral candidate David Seekell found his question in a long-term project Pace is conducting on ecosystem change. Pace is part of a group of scientists trying to determine the early signs of a shift before an ecosystem reaches a tipping point. They are using paired lakes in Wisconsin to conduct their experiment, inducing a regime change in one by changing its fish community and using the other as a reference.

“I try to be sensitive to what [students] want and where they see their careers going.” Michael Pace

Borrowing a statistical test from economics, Seekell is developing easily understood thresholds that environmental managers might use to anticipate an impending regime change. He has found, at least in this case, that the rate at which indicators vary, rather than the amount of variation, is a predictor of a shift.

Another skill that Pace emphasizes is good writing, which he calls “essential but often underappreciated.” Seekell is particularly grateful for the guidance. “Mike worked closely with me on my first paper, and it must have been agonizing for him,” he says. “But thanks to the time he put in, I can produce them faster and more fluidly. Succeeding as a researcher means being able to communicate your findings. Mike’s given me the tools to do so.”