Career of the Month
By Luba Vangelova
My PhD work involves conducting research and writing up the results. My studies focus on understanding the role animals play in ecosystems through the dispersal of symbiotic fungi. The fieldwork involves collecting carnivore scats and analyzing them for truffle spores; I also trap animals to assess their health, sex, and age, and sometimes use tracking devices to determine movement patterns. All of this helps me answer bigger questions about conservation and ecosystem health.
My interest in many aspects of the natural world has led me to also conduct other research projects that are not always relevant to my thesis. For example, a friend and I found a leech predating on a tree frog; we reviewed the literature on the subject and published a short note about our observation. On another occasion, I encountered a truffle species previously unknown to science and am currently writing a formal description to publish the species.
There have been many highlights. I love being in the field in regions that are new to me and having the opportunity to watch the interactions of the organisms living there.
I follow my passions and interests, and I love to be in the natural world asking questions about what I see. As a teenager, I observed and tried to identify all the creatures around me. When I couldn’t identify them from books, or if had further questions, I would look for someone who studied these groups of organisms and email them. Sometimes nothing came of this, but sometimes I made connections with people who turned into long-term mentors and friends. For example, when I was 13, I emailed a scientist for help in identifying a truffle. It happened to be a species he was studying, and we ended up co-
authoring a paper about it. This led to opportunities to travel with him on some of his research projects in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Australia.
I studied at a small college because it had a better student-to-staff ratio that made it easier to find good mentors who could afford to spend time with each student. I worked on field projects around the world, mostly during the summers. I wanted to see the world and have hands-on experience in diverse places with many types of organisms. I designed my own degree in interpretive natural history, with the hope of melding research science with education.
After graduating, I published papers on some of the research I had done on those expeditions, and I wrote a field guide to mushrooms of the Southeastern United States. I also published photos of the natural world and taught programs about natural history. Additionally, I spent some time farming and building, because I wanted to gain more practical skills before going on to study for a PhD. Doing graduate work seemed like a good way for me to find the resources to continue studying the natural world.
Knowledge, skills, and training needed
Many people think science is about knowing things, but it’s actually about figuring out what we don’t know so we can proceed to answer those questions.
It’s important to know what it takes to learn things—particularly to be able to synthesize information and identify the gaps in existing resources and knowledge. Once you identify the gaps, it is up to you to figure out how you can fill them. Sometimes this requires experiments, and sometimes it is more suited to finding a mentor or collaborator and jointly working out the answer. Established scientists are often happy to mentor younger people who are passionate about the same subject. Learn how to write emails to approach them. The other skills you need depend on what areas you are interested in.
Advice for students
It’s far easier to become good at something you’re passionate about, and this opens up unlimited professional opportunities and makes life happier and more exciting. Start learning about your own backyard. Observe and document what you see around you, whether through photography or writing or drawing. Naturalist clubs can be great places to make connections with older retired professionals or accomplished amateurs who can become mentors.
Being published in peer-reviewed journals is the currency of academia, so if you are considering heading down an academic path, think about publishing something about your interesting observations. Even a short note in the natural history section of a journal can give you a substantial advantage when it comes to applying for college, graduate school, or jobs. You can publish such articles at any age, and they can be as simple as documenting a new food plant for a butterfly larva or noticing what a snake was eating.
Elliot’s education: BA, Warren Wilson College, Asheville, NC; PhD (in progress), University of New England, Australia
Related careers: Zoologist, biologist, botanist