Finding mentors and making it work long-distance: Perspectives from an NSF GRIP Intern
Today my colleague asked me, “are you going to test these sensors on a tree up in the mountains so you can go somewhere out-of-town?” My response was, “Nope, I’m putting them on trees at campus and at my house.” This colleague, an engineer who works in the basement of our building, looked at me like I was missing a grand opportunity. I had to explain more about why I’m psyched to work on city trees before he came around.
I’m a backcountry-turned-backyard botanist studying how climate change and urban microclimates are influencing the seasonal activity of our urban trees and the collective canopy in the city. I’m in my second year of a PhD program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado - Boulder. Along with my advisor, Carol Wessman, I focus on plant-environment interactions at the individual and landscape scale. I am an NSF Graduate Research Fellow, and I applied for and was accepted into an NSF Graduate Research Internship Program (GRIP) with several mentors from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in two locations: The North Central Climate Science Center in Fort Collins, Colorado, and the USGS Central Office in Boulder, Colorado.
If you are an NSF fellow, you are eligible to become an NSF GRIP intern with several federal agencies such as the USGS, USDA, EPA, NOAA or others. For GRIP you can 1) find a posted opportunity that is exactly what you want to do, 2) find a researcher who has posted an opportunity and try to co-develop a different project, or 3) find a researcher through any of your scientific connections and develop a proposal together. For my work, I browsed the opportunities listings at the USGS and the USDA and didn’t see any that were related to my field of study - urban ecology, phenology, and microclimates. There are lots of cool projects, but who has the time for a side project that is unrelated to your dissertation during a PhD? So I began the quest to find mentors who would be able to co-develop the start of my dissertation project with me even though I had zero connections to anyone working at Federal agencies in the urban ecology field. Thankfully, I ended up finding not one but three really great mentors!
About my work
Certainly I have a deep passion for trekking up in elevation or voyaging into wilderness and open space to access [relatively] pristine wilderness; however, I am very intentional about my desire to work with urban vegetation. My undergraduate majors were Botany, Conservation Biology, and Environmental Studies, and you better believe I spent as much time as I could out in the backcountry! My first job out of undergrad was monitoring native populations and making native seed collections in New Mexico for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Seeds of Success Program. I’ve worked for botanic gardens in Chicago, Rancho Santa Ana, and Red Butte and with federal land management agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service Stations.
So why urban trees? My urban interest stems from reading work like The Trouble with Wilderness, or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature by Bill Cronin, which emphasizes that: 1) humans have always been altering nature; and, 2) it can be tragic to just focus on pristine areas while sacrificing the areas already “destroyed” by humans. Leaders I admire in the urban ecology field have described how human impact can be seen directly or indirectly nearly everywhere. Ecologists can attempt to study areas with minimized impact and ignore those human influences, or they can recognize that humans are here to stay and study them too! That has stuck with me and inspired me to dive into the urban realm. Specifically, I’m interested in using a combination of remote sensing methods and ground-based sensors to study how urban tree phenology and microclimates are interacting in Boulder. Read more about my work or check out some links below to read more about urban ecology.
Finding mentorship has been extremely important as I build an urban ecology dissertation project. Urban ecology is still a relatively new field and largely understudied. Former students in my lab have studied urban landscapes but currently I am the only one going down this path. My advisor has supported my interest in tackling questions about vegetation in the urban landscape and my partnerships with outside agencies.
Here’s how I approached finding a mentor, plus some tips on how to make these types of relationships successful.
Finding a mentor
How do you reach a mentor with a “cold call”?
To get started, I sent short, targeted emails to potential collaborators. My strategy is to look up a bit about them and describe what you are interested in. Use a link to give more information about your project/program and keep your text short. Just asking if there is interest in exploring an idea is a non-committing question that can make a response more approachable. I’ll share the email I sent around to scientists I thought could be helpful on my GRIP project. I had a very high response rate and several people wrote that they were interested in talking more. Several researchers didn’t have time, but pointed me towards someone else who could help!
Dear ___ ,
I am a first year PhD student at the University of Colorado- Boulder. Have you ever worked with an NSF GRIP intern? I am an NSF Graduate Research Fellow and I am investigating possibilities to submit a GRIP application for a joint project with the USGS, due May 6th 2017, for a 6-12 month project to start in the fall 2017. This summer I am working on a pilot to collect ground measurements of vegetation phenology in urban/ex-urban areas around Boulder. I would like to compare them with remote sensed MODIS data and would really benefit from a mentor at the USGS. I see that you have also worked with remote sensing data and are interested in socio-ecological systems.
I can apply for $5000 in research allowance to conduct a project of mutual interest.
Let me know if there is any interest in exploring this NSF opportunity further.
Thanks for your consideration!
Be explicit about what you are looking for in a mentor
If you get a positive response, the next step is to send a second email where you explain a bit more about the project and then be super up-front about what you are looking for in terms of support, expertise, etc. so that the person can decide if they have the time and ability to help. Time can be a huge constraint with federal researchers, especially if they have a travel position, no matter how interested they are in helping you.
In this second email, I like to give a bit of background on myself, what has been done with the project so far, and maybe attach an initial proposal so they have access to all the details if they want, or can more concisely get a better sense from your email. Then, I have a bulleted section on what I’m looking for in a mentor and ask if there is anything they expect of me. For example, here is what I wrote:
What I am looking for in a mentor is:
Review of my GRIP application (about 3 pages) by May 5th ( I could have it fully prepared by May 1st).
Feedback on experimental design and methodology
Consultation for analyses
Assistance with interpreting remote sensing data and using different platforms
Feedback on preliminarily documentation of results and presentations
Is there anything you would ask of me as an intern for this program with the USGS?
Don’t be afraid to build a team of mentors!
If you can’t find anyone who is studying exactly what you want to do, then piece together the expertise. I couldn’t find anyone who was looking at urban tree phenology and microclimates, so I built a team with a phenology/hydrology specialist, a remote sensing specialist, and a phenology/citizen science specialist.
Once you have your mentor(s):
Find out about your mentor’s projects and past expertise. I was surprised to learn later on that one of my mentors has a background in physics and is a great resource for my technical accelerometer questions. Take the time to ask about your mentors’ career trajectory. I’ve often been surprised at the diversity of projects and experiences that come up.
Once you know your mentor’s expertise, target your questions to them. Avoid sending blanket emails to everyone that has info that is irrelevant to other mentors. Federal agency workers are often stretched for time. If they begin to trust that your emails are concise and specific for them, then it is more likely you will get a timely response.
Send check-in emails periodically. Keep a conversation going about when things should be done, and keep in-touch about hard deadlines. For soft deadlines, especially ones you set for yourself, it may not be necessary to check-in or notify every project member. I like to send a check-in email once I have completed something, rather than re-sending an email to say I need more time to work on something that didn’t have a hard deadline.
Show your enthusiasm and curiosity! Your mentors likely went to grad school and seeing enthusiasm and curiosity along the journey can be inspiring to them! I like to adopt an attitude of learning and view time with my mentors as a space to ask thoughtful questions and bounce ideas rather than simply trying to extract knowledge or show my own expertise.
Embrace your freedom, ask for help when stuck. It is really exciting to design your projects, but it can also be isolating when you feel like you’re the only one who really knows what is happening with all the moving parts. Don’t despair - reach out to a mentor and ask if they have time to have a meeting dedicated to organization/planning/questions - whatever it may be. That is the beauty of mentorship! You don’t have to work alone, but you do have to ask for help, as many federal mentors are likely more hands-off than an academic advisor.
Protect your time by communicating in the most efficient way. Communicating with multiple mentors takes a toll on the time you have to make progress on your work. Sometimes sending a powerpoint or visual can be more effective than writing a ton of email text. Sometimes having a phone call can do wonders for explaining things that would take way longer over email. I was grateful when my mentors suggested a video conference instead of going to the office when I was recovering from a leg injury that affected my walking, and it saved me a lot of time!
Always come with questions, always leave with action items. Make an agenda before you meet with your mentor. Show them that you have a purpose (especially if you initiated the meeting) and are prepared for the meeting, because they probably budgeted a specific amount of time to meet with you at the cost of something else. Take notes while you meet with mentors- show that you value their time by ensuring they don’t have to repeat things. How many times have you had a fantastic meeting and then completely forget what you talked about?
I am happy to answer any more questions about being a GRIP intern (email@example.com) or to chat about how to build and maintain a mentor team. Further, if you have interest in collaborating on any urban tree ecology projects, let me know!
Interested in reading more about urban ecology? Check out some of these pages!
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