For Students

For Undergraduates

Below I describe courses that I have taught and the opportunities for undergraduate research in my lab group. If you have taken a course with me and want a letter of reference, please read the FAQ on this page. If you are  interested in graduate school, you may want to read the material I have have prepared for prospective grad students.

My Courses
I have taught a number of undergraduate courses focused on genetics and genomics since joining the UF faculty:

  • FALL 2011 – I will be teaching a bacteriophage genomics course supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). This couse will immerse both majors and non-majors in a project to isolate novel bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) from soil and characterize the viruses
  • I have taught two large undergraduate courses a number of times:
    • The genetics section of Integrated Principles of Biology (BSC2010). This course has three different faculty members as instructors because it is a survey of biology that covers all major topics. Having multiple instructors allows us to provide instructors who are experts in the areas that they teach. I teach the genetics portion of the couse.
    • Genetics (PCB3063). An intensive survey of genetics, covering diverse topics such as Mendelian genetics, molecular genetics, and evolutionary genetics.

Undergraduate Research
I have had a long-term interest mentoring undergraduate researchers (this interest began during my first post-doc, when I  supervised a large group of undergraduates working on the Neurospora genome project). I have included undergraduates in many research projects at UF (undergraduate co-authors are indicated on my publication list). Two undergraduates that worked in my lab (Jordan Smith and Naomi Iuhasz-Velez) chose to stay and complete their Master’s degrees (Jordan completed her degree in zoology, Naomi completed her degree in mathematics).

Students have joined the lab group because they have found my course interesting or because they have identified me by searching the web. I have tried to present in the HHMI Science for Life course regularly and students often interview me for this course. I often advise students who contact me in either of these settings to think about the types of research they are most excited by and to investigate multiple mentors. If I do this with you, please do not interpret it is disinterest. Ultimately, I want to give students advice that will help them find the best mentor. If I am the best fit that is great, but I would rather help a student to find the best mentor for their interests than have them work in my lab if I am not a good fit for them.

For Graduate Students

I cover information for prospective graduate students, including a description of my lab group, and students that would like to have me serve on their committee below.

Prospective Graduate Students
My research focuses on a variety of problems in evolutionary biology, including genomics, molecular evolution, phylogenetics, computational and mathematical biology, and population genetics.  My research is not focused on any specific group of organisms. I am interested in theory and some projects do not have a focal organism. In other cases the focal organisms for studies I have been (or am) involved in include birds, reptiles, marine invertebrates, algae, and fungi. Students with the fit best for my lab are those that enjoy being members of a diverse group.

If you are interested in working with me, I recommend you look at my publications and lab group to get an idea the types of problems that interest me and how I approach mentoring. This information should give you an idea of our ongoing projects we are doing and help you determine whether my lab might be a good fit for you.

After this please email me to introduce yourself. Include your research experiences, a curriculum vitae, and feel free to attach any publications you have.  I would also like some specifics on what you are interested in doing for a PhD project (and why you feel my lab would be a good place for you). I do not expect you to have a fully developed project, but having an idea of the types of questions that interest you will help us start a dialog. If there are specific studies you are interested in identify them (i.e., say “I was really interested in papers X and Y” rather than “I am interested in your research”). Don’t feel shy about describing work from other labs that interests you — I’m interested in a full picture of your scientific interest.

I can chair graduate committees in Zoology and Botany (both programs are housed in the Department of Biology) and in the Genetics and Genomics program (housed in the UF Genetics Institute). If you are interested in joining my lab, we can discuss the specifics of the programs.

Like many universities, UF has minimum GRE and GPA requirements. There may be additional requirements for international students (e.g., TSE and TOEFL scores).  Check these requirements to make sure you have taken (or will take) the appropriate tests.  If you have a score below the minimum, but you are an excellent fit for the lab, exceptions can sometimes be made.  Let me know, and I will see what can be done. If you choose to apply, I am happy to provide advice on your Statement of Purpose. Please note that your Statement of Purpose, which carries substantial weight in our program, should provide details about your research interests and should not focus on things like the reasons why you have chosen a career in science (e.g., childhood experiences that made you want to become a biologist). There is nothing wrong with including a little of this information, but it is better to focus on where you want to go rather than the reasons you want to go there!

Feel free to contact me if you are interested in another faculty in the department but want to make contact with other UF faculty members. You might want to do this to learn about potential committee members or to determine whether there are alternative advisors that you might want to consider.  Just let me know who else you are considering — I am not offended when a prospective student that indicates s/he is interested with working with another faculty member but wants to talk with me because I have related interests.

Lab Group and Mentoring Philosophy
I take a very open-ended and individual approach to graduate mentoring and I have kept my lab group small. Because Rebecca Kimball and I run our labs together, my students typically interact closely with a larger set of students than those I mentor. However, it is important to recognize that Rebecca and I have distinct (but overlapping) research programs. Some of our students have both of us on their committees but others do not. Some of my students work on projects very close to Rebecca’s  interest and collaborate closely with both of us, other students work on projects very distinct from her interests.

I am broadly interested in evolutionary biology, genetics, and genomics., and I am interested in mentoring students in these areas. I am also very interested in science pedagogy, so I am interested in students who want to combine education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields with research. One of my former students (Deena Bermudez) participated in the UF SPICE program graduated with an MST (Master of Science Teaching) degree. I think it is critical to communicate with the broader community about science, and learning about pedagogy should be viewed as an important part of graduate school.

Because I approach different students in different ways, it is important for prospective students to discuss the type of scientist they would like to be. My general advice for students interested in graduate school is to think about how they want to approach science. An important question is “how independent do I want to be?” Some professors expect their students to complete projects designed by the professor whereas others expect their students to design an independent project (typically related to the professor’s research focus). Although I tend toward the latter, but it is important to recognize that this range is a continuum. Almost everybody matures during their graduate career, and you may ultimately wish to be very independent but feel unsure of the best way to proceed when you begin a graduate program. If you want to work with me you should feel free to discuss your long-term goals and your needs before you begin the graduate program. I expect these discussions to continue throughout your I feel that it is important for students and advisors to adjust their style of interaction over time, and I try to do this.

The most important thing to think about when considering mentors for graduate school is what you want to learn in order to move to the next phase of your career. This is much broader than what you want to learn scientifically. It is about the type of scientist you want to be. Do you like working in teams or do you like working independently? I like to do both, but I think it is important for students to get a firm grasp of the best way to work independently. I feel my role as a graduate mentor is to help you find the best way to do this. However, I may also encourage you to work as a part of a group if I feel it will be helpful to your growth and your career. I view all interactions with graduate students as a collaboration — I expect you to take responsibility for your progress and challenge me if you disagree with any of my recommendations. Even if you agree with a specific recommendation, it is often valuable to consider alternatives. The most important thing is to keep communicating.

Over the past year, I have focused on undergraduate mentoring and recently took on the role of undergraduate coordinator for my department. Recent graduate students have included Jena Chojnowski (now a post-doc at the University of Georgia), Naomi Iuhasz-Velez (now a student at the University of Miami), and Jordan Smith (now working as a technician). Look at my publications to get an idea of projects we worked on together.

Committee Membership
I have served on committees for students in the zoology, botany, genetics and genomics, computer science, mathematics, plant molecular and cellular biology, plant pathology, and UF medical school IDP programs. If you would like to have me serve on your committee, please contact me with information about yourself and your project. Let me know what you feel I can contrubute to your committee, and we’ll discuss whether it is appropiate for me to be a committee member.

Finally, I would also like to share one general piece of advice for graduate students, regardless of whether they are working with me — tell faculty members what you are thinking, not what you think they want to hear. A big part of successful mentoring is helping students find solutions to problems that work for them. Over my career I have found approaches that work for me. The approaches that work for me may or may not work for somebody else. Ultimately, the most important thing a graduate advisor or committee member can do is help students identify strategies that work.

Letters of Recommendation

I regularly teach two very large courses, PCB3063 (Genetics) and the genetics section of BSC2010 (Introductory Biology) so a large number of students ask me for letters of reference. I like to support my students, so I have tried to answer many of the questions that I am asked regarding letters below. Some of my comments may be helpful for obtaining letters of reference from other professors. I hope this FAQ helps you to determine whether you would like a letter of reference from me and to find the strongest letters overall.

Q: Will you write a letter of reference for me?
A: It depends. I do not like to write letters unless they are strong. For that reason I am typically unwilling to write letters for students in introductory biology. I teach three sections of about 300 students for part of the semester. This doesn’t give me the opportunity to learn much about my students. I am willing to write letters for students in my genetics course. Although my genetics course is large (>150 students) I feel that I get to know a number of my students and will therefore consider writing a letter. Obviously, if you have had me for a smaller course I would be willing to consider writing a letter.

Q: When should I contact you?
A: As soon as you are certain that you would like a letter.

Q: What information do you need when I contact you?
A: Please contact me with an email that states clearly that you would like a letter of reference. If you can send a photo it would help me; I am much better at learning faces and first names than full names, so it will be easier for me to remember you if you provide this information. If you went by your middle name or a nickname, mention that name when you contact me; I probably used that name when interacting with you and only dealt with your full name only when I entered grades. Let me know about the program (i.e., medical school, dental school, graduate school, etc.) that you will be applying to at this time. I will set up a short meeting to discuss your letter. Please bring your résumé or curriculum vitae, your personal statement (or a draft of your personal statement), information on uploading or sending your letter, and any other information you would like to include. You will also need to provide a signed  FERPA waiver/release and you may need to include an additional elease and/or an addressed envelope. Make sure you provide these materials along with anything else necessary for my letter. Please bring me this information in an envelope that closes (like an 8 3/4 x 11 1/2 inch envelope with a clasp). One the outside of the envelope, write your name, the date the letter is due, the semester you took my course, and the grade you recieved in my course. This will help me keep your materials organized.

Q: Should I provide a transcript?
A:  Some students include a transcript, but this is not necessary. There are several reasons that I consider it inappropriate to comment on your grades, but the most important to me is that I feel my letter should describe my experiences with you. In most cases, the program you are applying to will have your transcript so I would not be adding anything to the information they have. Moreover, I have no direct knowledge of your performance in other courses. There are other reasons why commenting on your grades is inappropriate, but I wanted to share an important philosophical reason why I avoid sharing this information. If you wish to share your transcript simply as information about your background, feel free to do so.

Q: Should I send a reminder to send the letter?
A: I often ask students to send an email shortly before their letter is due, as a reminder. Obviously, I am not offended by this – my goal is to help you and I don’t mind emails. Do provide me with an accurate date for the completion of the letter. I have found that some students don’t want to impose on their professors; in the extreme this can make students shy about providing the deadlines. Realize that I want to hit your deadline, so don’t be shy about stating it clearly. On the other hand, don’t expect me to complete your letter early. If I can complete a letter early, I will often do so. But the most important thing to me is completing letters by their deadlines; since I have other committments I am often unable to complete letters earlier than their deadline. If you have a specific reason why you want an early letter, simply explain the reasons why and I will probably be willing to revise your deadline.

Q: Will you confirm that a letter has been sent?
A: Many automated letter submission systems send an email to the student confirming submission, so I usually do not have to do this myself. Most of these automated systems send this confirmation shortly after the letter was submitted, so contact me if you haven’t recieved confirmation (it may mean that I made a mistake when submitting). If you are applying through a system that does not provide an automated confirmation, feel free to check with me by email.

Q: Should I contact you to let you the outcome?
A: Absolutely! I love to hear when my students successfully move on. I am happy to provide advice (or simply provide sympathy) if you weren’t successful this time.

Q: Does this advice apply to other faculty?
A: This FAQ reflects my personal preferences. At least some of the things I have said are likely to be useful when you request letters from other faculty members, but you should talk to each of the professors you want letters from individually.