Michaela Woods Exit Seminar Introduction
Ryan W. McEwan, PhD
Welcome to the Exit Seminar portion of the PhD defense of Michaela Woods. Just to orient everyone to the process—first I will do a short introduction, then we will hear the Exit Seminar from Michaela, which is an overview of her PhD research, then we will have time for anyone in the room to ask questions. Following that, the committee will convene for the defense portion of the process which will focus not only on the oral presentation you are about to hear, but also the written dissertation document itself, which Michaela has submitted for review. Following the defense portion, we will gather outside in the atrium, I would estimate an hour or so after the conclusion of the oral presentation, just outside these doors and to the right, to celebrate the moment, or drown our collective sorrows….
I want to seriously thank everyone for being here today, and for all you have done to help make this day possible. Granting a PhD is the highest award we make in academia, it is the ultimate achievement and literally places the individual in extremely rare company. We who work at a University get use to being around “Doctors”—however, outside this Ivory Tower it is extremely rare- the best data I can find suggest <1% of people have a PhD. So this is quite an honor and an important moment. We want to thank the committee, the Department, and the University for supporting this process.
Impermanence is a fundamental challenge in life, and is a foundational challenge for leading a research lab at a University. All the folks who join the lab are, in the end, just passing through, and, in fact, it is our job to accelerate and support that process. It’s core to what we do. Even so, there are times when it is very hard to navigate and I am here to tell you that Michaela Woods graduating and leaving the McEwan lab is going to be very hard to mitigate. You see, Michaela has been an absolutely amazing graduate student here at UD and has served as the fulcrum for transformation inside my laboratory and a foundation for the science we have pursued over the last 4 years or so.
Michaela led a re-orientation of the overall research mission of the lab- transitioning to a new Ecological Restoration-based focus. She picked up threads of projects and turned them scientific products, launched new projects, then wove those individual threads to create a new program. She was incredibly productive in the laboratory, and, in fact, practically all of her dissertation has already been published…she has 4 chapters already published and those were submitted to the committee as journal reprints, a 5th chapter is effectively ready to go to review very soon…and…with all that work already completed, she additionally was the drivin force for developing a huge new project at the Great Miami Mitigation Bank, which you will hear about shortly. That new project established a foundation for a successful grant submission to the Green Acres Foundation and has set the stage for two MS Thesis projects that are getting off the ground now. In fact, this 6th chapter, has set the stage for what may be a decade or more of new science in the lab. I want to point out that Michaela managed all of this work while having a baby, through a Global Pandemic, and now just about to have a 2nd child! Beyond this 6-chapter masterpiece of a dissertation, Michaela has also spent time managing several side projects that generated peer-reviewed articles, including a global collaboration she is involved in that just generated a publication in Science that earned a journal cover! I do not mean to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I do feel like it is fair to say that over the last 3 years Michaela has been one of the more productive scientists at the University of Dayton…not “graduate students” not “in biology”…I mean if you made a rank ordered list by productivity and put everyone, faculty, staff, engineers, UDRI, everyone at UD on that list…she would be near the very top! One exciting feature of this remarkable productivity is that many of her publications include co-authors who are (or were) undergraduates here at UD, other graduate students and, very importantly, several of her papers have co-authors from our partners at the Five Rivers Metroparks- indicating a truly community co-created research program. In recognition of these efforts, in 2021 Michaela was awarded the John, J. Comer Graduate Student Award for Ecological Research.
I hasten to add that Michaela has also been an award-winning teacher in the Biology Department. She has, specifically, been an innovator in developing curriculum around the use of the R programming language for code-based analysis of biological data. In fact, Michaela has had a hugely positive influence in training students in my lab, but also in other labs and in our curriculum in general. She helped develop an R module for our introductory biology labs, and so, through her effort, the hundreds of students who pass through that curriculum gets at least some training in coding. She also has done a lot of training on more advanced concepts and even was instructor of record for an advanced data analysis course in our program. One interesting contribution Michaela made in the realm of teaching was that, early on in her program, she got interested in online teaching. In fact, she took a graduate level class in the UD Learning Teaching Center on online learning and was told by a faculty member “why are you wasting your time taking that class, we don’t teach online?” — she was told that only weeks before the COVID pandemic hit and literally everything had to go online! Because Michaela had this training she helped develop an online version of our introductory lab in Biology, which then became the model for that lab when everything went online for a while immediately following COVID. To recognize all of these efforts Michaela was awarded the Gerald Willis Award for Teaching Introductory Laboratories in 2020, and was also the inaugural winner of the Biology Innovation Award which Michaela also won in the year 2020.
In summary, it has been an unbelievable honor and privilege to have Michaela as a PhD student in the McEwan lab. She has helped set an amazing standard and has been an irreplaceable member of our research team. So, I bet you can tell why I am lamenting impermanence! Alas, we must move onward, and there is nothing to do but suffer the loss… but not yet! We still have an hour or so left to bask in the glow, and so, I am pleased to step aside and welcome Michaela Woods!