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April 2017 GWIS Lead

Tuesday, May 16, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Allison Shultz
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April 2017
GWIS LEAD is a GWIS periodical profiling women leaders in science.  Subscribe
Meryl Mims: Ecological Research and the Art of Negotiation
Although Dr. Meryl Mims’ formal career path began as an undergraduate student at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, GA, her interest in science started before she can remember. As a child, Dr. Mims admired astronauts and obsessed over space exploration (in fact, she still loves space and spends occasional evenings stargazing through her telescope). This natural intellectual curiosity was fostered by a childhood spent outdoors and learning to love nature. In high school, Dr. Mims was introduced to ecology:
 
“it resonated with me in a way that no other class ever had. The field brought structure to my informal understanding our living planet and how we as humans depend upon it. I absolutely loved ecology, and thankfully I found out in college that I also loved writing, laboratory and fieldwork, and statistics!”
 
As an undergraduate, Dr. Mims began her more formal path as a scientist in the Biology Department, where she soaked up research experiences.
 
“I pursued every opportunity I could find to get into a lab and work with graduate students and post-docs. I ultimately found a research lab that was a fantastic fit for me, and I worked in that lab for over three years as an undergraduate and lab manager after graduation. In that lab, I found generous and good mentors and was given the opportunity to begin working independently.”
 
During her undergraduate years, Dr. Mims researched the ecology of Lake Malawi cichlids (a freshwater fish). She completed a senior honors thesis in which she examined genetic variation among species from Lake Malawi. In fact, Dr. Mims earned several publications from her early work as an undergraduate, and these undergraduate research experiences helped her focus on a career in ecology and conservation biology. Moreover, this early drive and motivation carried forward into Dr. Mims’ doctoral pursuit.
 
Dr. Mims sampling tadpoles in an ephemeral rock pool in the Dragoon Mountains of Arizona during her PhD research.
 
Dr. Mims attended the University of Washington, where she studied aquatic ecology and conservation; she earned her M.S. in 2010 and ultimately her Ph.D. in 2015. Early in graduate school, Dr. Mims found great success and productivity; unfortunately, she paid a high price for it.
 
“I was setting very high standards for myself and not compromising on them, and it resulted in a highly productive but completely unsustainable pace of life. By the end of the quarter, I had met my professional goals but at a cost to myself physically (I got sick a lot and wasn’t exercising) and mentally (I was completely drained). This resulted in me needing to revisit what a sustainable career pace looked like. I adjusted my goals, brought a bit of balance back into my life, and it really helped."

Even with adjusted goals and balance, Dr. Mims continued to be highly productive. In graduate school, Dr. Mims worked with a team of researchers on the west coast to better understand how changes in aquatic habitats impact amphibians. She used a technique called landscape genetics to study how habitat affects three different species: the Mexican spadefoot, the red-spotted toad, and the canyon tree frog. She and her colleagues found that there is greater species differentiation as water requirements increase. Moreover, she found that aquatic habitat is especially important for species with higher water requirements.
 

Dr. Mims rowing with the Corvallis Rowing Club, with whom she rowed during her postdoc. One of the highlights of this amazing experience, she said, was “rowing in the Head of the Charles in Boston. I rowed in a Women’s 8+ (8 rowers and our coxswain). Five of the 8 rowers in the boat are scientists, and all are wonderful mentors!”

This, indeed, is what scientists look like!

Dr. Mims emphasized frequently the importance of working with a team and having multiple mentors by her side throughout her career.
 
“One thing I’ve realized is that I excel by having a “team” of mentors rather than one specific person. I think this is because there isn’t really one correct way to do science, and I benefit from having multiple perspectives and from having mentors with different strengths.”
 
After her time at University of Washington, Dr. Mims continued her career as a postdoctoral fellow at a federal agency—the U.S. Geological Survey—with the support of the USGS Mendenhall Fellowship. During her postdoc, she studied multi-species vulnerability to climate change. This work will help inform decisions about conservation and management of many species.
 
As Dr. Mims said, she wants her career to “be a marathon, not a sprint.” So when it came to looking for a tenure-track position she sought out a place that would provide support for her to achieve her professional goals. Again, Dr. Mims emphasized the importance of mentors, community, and support in her job search, interviewing, and negotiation process. Dr. Mims sought a place that would provide at least some financial support, facilities, and teaching support.
 
Moreover, Dr. Mims was already prepared to pay-forward her good fortune in mentors by already advocating for her future students. For example, when she was looking at potential positions, she looked for a place that could provide support for her future graduate students. She also tried to gauge the happiness of the individuals at prospective institutions, keeping balance in the back of her mind.
 
Dr. Mims finding some work-life balance and rafting the Deschutes River in Oregon. She rowed this river four times during her time as a graduate student and postdoc.
 
When it came time to negotiate, Dr. Mims again relied on her mentors to provide advice. With their help and advice, she made a list of her “needs” and “wants.” This included an annotated list of research related items, but also benefits, moving expenses, child care options, and student support. Her annotations consisted of short justifications for why these were critical to her success.
 
Importantly, Dr. Mims didn’t wait till she was offered a position to make this list. She had prepared this list of key equipment in advance and brought it to her job interview.
 
“That way, if the department head asked about specific needs, I would be prepared to discuss at least the “big ticket” items and expectations. In writing down my needs, I also got a sense of the physical space I needed for my lab. I was a bit concerned that this might come across as too forward or assuming, but the opposite was true - it made me more relaxed and confident going into the interview, and it helped me articulate clearly the specifics of my research and space needs.”
Currently, Dr. Mims is starting a position as an assistant professor of biological sciences at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. The goal of her research is to understand how aquatic species respond to changes in landscape and climate. She described her research to me in its simplest terms:
 
“Freshwater is important for humans for many reasons, including providing drinking water, transportation, and energy; and we sometimes need to change rivers, streams, and ponds in order to meet our needs. Freshwater is also important for many animals such as fish and amphibians. I am interested in how the changes humans make to streams and ponds affects the fish and amphibians that live in those habitats. Some animals do well - or even better - with the changes humans make to their freshwater homes. But other animals struggle with these changes and may disappear from the streams and ponds we change. My research studies which fish and amphibians are most likely to disappear, and which are most likely to do best, if we change their freshwater homes."
 
To address this overarching goal, Dr. Mims uses multiple approaches including (but not limited to) population and landscape genetics, trait-based inference, and multivariate statistical tools.
 
“I work with many scientists to collect fish and amphibians, take a small sample of their DNA, and release them. Their DNA can help us understand how many individuals live in one place, how they move, and how they respond to changes in their freshwater homes. I also use records of animals collected by scientists to understand where animals have lived in the past. Those records are stored in museums, and anyone can look at them and study them, too! Finally, I work with scientists to use photographs of Earth taken from airplanes and satellites over many, many years to study how the freshwater homes of fish and amphibians have changed over time. I then make sure that my research can help us find ways to get the freshwater we need as humans while also making sure that fish, amphibians, and other animals can stay happy and healthy in their freshwater homes.”
 
Watch this video to see how Meryl Mims learns
from her studies of aquatic species. 

Through interviewing Dr. Mims, her hard work, energy, and collaborative nature showed. Throughout the last month she has already interviewed prospective graduate students, applied for funding opportunities, and set aside time to contribute content for GWIS. She is looking forward to the GWIS April Webinar on Negotiation! Dr. Mims left me with this advice that almost anyone can apply regardless of where they are in their career:
 
“Negotiating is not a one-time process—It continues throughout your career. It is a skillset that you can begin to develop as a graduate student, and you’ll need to practice it time and again. You are your biggest advocate, and if you don’t ask for things, chances are you won’t receive them. So start thinking about this now! Practice it where you can, and remember that at its core, it’s about getting what you need to succeed. Do your research, make your lists, talk to your mentors, and look for opportunities to look out for yourself. In the end, you will benefit – and your department, students, and institution will benefit – if you have what you need to succeed.”
 
Dr. Mims at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, in the Hall of Biodiversity. The American Museum of Natural History is one of Dr. Mims’ favorite places to visit.




For some advice on negotiating, Dr. Mims recommended this recently published blog post from Jeremy Fox on negotiation.

You can learn more about Dr. Mims and her current research on her website.
 
Contributed by Kameko Halfmann.
Animated video contributed by Kayleen Schreiber. 
Copy Edited by Rozzy Finn.

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Founded in 1921, Graduate Women in Science is an inter-disciplinary society of scientists who collectively seek to advance the participation and recognition of women in science and to foster research through grants, awards and fellowships. We comprise over 20 active chapters of more than 800 women who are "United in Friendship through Science" to support and inspire member professional goals and mutual appreciation of science. Learn more at www.gwis.org.

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