Welcome to the 2019 Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting- Louisville

June 1, 2019

Dear Colleagues,

As a native Kentuckian, and Program Chair of the 2019 Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting, I want to welcome you to the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the city of Louisville.  This city lies at geographic and cultural intersections that create a rich backdrop for what is a truly amazing program.  Louisville is situated in the Outer Bluegrass physiographic region and was founded at the Falls of the Ohio River. The human history of the region stretches back at least 11,000 years and includes a sequence of Native American civilizations.  These peoples founded rich and complex cultures and, at the time of earliest contact with Europeans (~1660s), those reported living near the Falls included Honniasontkeronons, Chiouanons, Outagame, Iskoussogos and Touguenhas.  Contact with Europeans began a period of chaos and bloodshed for Native American peoples due to European-origin diseases and Euro-American military conquest.  The city of Louisville was formally founded in 1778 making it one of the earliest Euro-American cities east of the Appalachian Mountains.  Since its founding, Louisville has been an important and unique hub for commerce and culture in the region.  Celebrating the 20th year since passing its fairness ordinance, and with a perfect score from the Human Rights Campaign, I hope that you find Louisville intriguing, welcoming, and fun.

This year’s theme is Bridging Communities and Ecosystems: Inclusion as an Ecological Imperative.  Expanding inclusivity is an urgent objective of the Ecological Society of America.  It is imperative that we provide a supportive framework for advancing individuals who bring the diversities of perspectives needed to address the complex challenges facing the science of ecology.  The Society has invested in a series of initiatives that seek to create opportunities and diversify both the membership and meeting.  These efforts include the SEEDs program, the Extending the Tent initiative, and a variety of other efforts.  The Program Committee and ESA Governing Board are both dedicated to increasing inclusion at the Annual Meeting and to broadening participation in the Society and we will enforce our meeting Code of Conduct.  At this year’s meeting, we have an excellent set of workshops and special sessions, many of which provide state-of-the-art training on issues related to inclusion.  I hope you will attend some of these sessions.  Finally, this year’s meeting is being held in conjunction with the United States Society for Ecological Economics (USSEE) which I hope provides exciting opportunities for bridging science and application and for the establishment of fresh dialog and new collaborations.

I am particularly proud of the slate of Plenary presentations at this year’s meeting.  The Opening Plenary will be on Sunday night by Karen M. Warkentin from Boston University whose talk will be titled All the variations matter: bridging disciplines and communities to study diversity in life history and sexual behavior.  The Scientific Plenary on Monday morning will be Resilience, recovery and the ecology of change by Katharine Suding from the University of Colorado, Boulder.  The New Phytologist Trust Keynote Speaker is Diane Pataki from the University of Utah whose presentation is The Ecology of Cultivated Landscapes: Theoretical, Methodological, and Ethical Considerations.  The Recent Advances Lecture for 2019 will be on Thursday by Robin Kimmerer from SUNY-ESF whose talk will be titled P-values and cultural values: Creating symbiosis among indigenous and western knowledges to advance ecological justice.  One exciting benefit of having our meeting in conjunction with USSEE is the addition to the program of a unique plenary which will be given by Daniel Childers from Arizona State University on Tuesday morning titled Informed interdisciplinary social-ecological approaches in an era of convergence science? Taken together, I believe these presentations offer an expansive perspective on a range of topics and advance the meeting theme in an excellent way.

Local Host, Sarah Emery, from the University of Louisville has done an excellent job organizing field trips.  At the meeting, we will have a variety of evening socials and gatherings to facilitate networking.  In addition, I hope you will find time to relax with colleagues and make new friends while you are visiting Louisville.  The convention center is located in the cultural and culinary epicenter of the city.  You will find yourself in walking distance to a wide variety of dining options.  If time permits I hope you will avail yourself of some of the many nearby attractions unique to Louisville including the Mohammad Ali Center, the Louisville Slugger museum, the Belle of Louisville Steamboat and the many opportunities to learn about the bourbon heritage of the region.  The waterfront redevelopment is a popular spot and includes the opportunity to walk across the Ohio on a pedestrian bridge. If you want to venture a little further away from the Convention Center, I encourage you to check out one of the lovely Fredrick Law Olmstead parks or the JB Speed Art Museum.

This is the 20th anniversary of my first ESA meeting and I eagerly look forward to seeing many old friends in Louisville and to the opportunity to meet and learn from folks who are coming to ESA for the first time.  Please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns and I would be particularly grateful if you would stop me at the meeting and share your thoughts.  The Society wants to know what you are thinking and I am happy to field any ideas you may have.

Best wishes and see you in Louisville,

Ryan McEwan, 2019 Program Chair

ryan.mcewan@udayton.edu : @mcewanlab




Dayton, Ohio: An audio essay


Nolan Nicaise, one of the first Honors students in the McEwan lab, included an audio essay as part of his Thesis.  His goal was to survey the soundscape of Dayton, Ohio.  To accomplish this goal, Nolan rode his bike through the city on several expeditions and recorded sounds.  Below are the recordings he made.  Nolan graduated UD in 2011.


Track 1

Track 2

Track 3

Track 4

Track 5

Track 6

Track 7

Track 8

Track 9

Track 10

Track 11

Track 12

Track 13

Track 14

Track 15



if you are interested in discussing his work you can contact Nolan


if you would like to read the Thesis that accompanied this Soundscape click here:  LINK





Path to Grad School: Finding a fit with a future mentor

puzzlephoto by Sarah Frankenberg

The overall objective of the graduate school search in is to settle into a position where you can thrive as a professional and a scientist.  In other posts I have outlined a number of important considerations (LINK) including being careful and picky about the place where you go to graduate school.  For a MS-Thesis option, the program will run 2 years or so and these are two important years in your life so you should take it seriously.  For a PhD, the timeline will normally run 5 years, it can be quite intense at times, and your experience can have a large influence on your future.

In your search for a graduate program, your first consideration is finding a strong fit with a mentor.  Student-mentor sympatico is the single most important factor that will determine your graduate school success.  Here I want to provide some tips that may be helpful

Build a pool of potential mentors

The first step in finding a good graduate program fit is to figure out for yourself a general direction that you want to head in during your career.  The single best way to figure out what you might like to work on as a graduate students is to get involved in undergraduate research, either through an internship program or working with a faculty member on your home campus.

When you begin to search for a graduate program, you do not need to have a project in mind, and in fact, students rarely bring the specific ideas that become their Thesis/Dissertation project with them into the graduate program.  What you probably do need is a sense of the kinds of organisms you might like to work with, the kinds of ecosystems you want to spend time in, and the kinds of questions that you might find exciting. For example, you might have a strong sense that you want to work with plants and stay in the Eastern Deciduous Forest and maybe you had some experience working on ecological invasion in an internship.  If you found these things exciting you might be able to narrow down your focus.

Once you have a general idea, then you can simply search for people using search engines such as Google.  Most scientists have websites that you can peruse.  You also should take a look at peer-reviewed literature published by your potential mentor.  You definitely need to be publishing from your graduate work and if the person you discover has not published anything recently then you might want to think carefully before you join that lab.  Often scientists have a social media account such as Twitter that you can follow to get a sense of their interests.  In a best cast, you might be able to catch a talk by the person or one of their students at a conference.  You may be able to network to that person through a mentor during your undergraduate experience.  Another way to find opportunities is through the ECOLOG List-serve (LINK) and through job boards.  Here is a page where we have accumulated links to various job boards where grad school opportunities are likely to be advertised:  LINK.

First contact

Making contact with a potential future graduate adviser can be a harrowing experience for undergraduates who are looking to launch a career post-graduation.  If your potential mentor has posted an advertisement then you will have instructions that you need to follow to make contact.  If  you have found a person who has not apparently advertised, you can cold email that person to express your interest and inquire as to availability of opportunities in their lab.

If you are going to “cold” email someone, or are following instructions in an AD to email the potential mentor, here are some tips.

Features of a high quality “first contact” email

(a) Make your email relatively short and digestible.  Especially if it is a cold contact, the person receiving the email should not have to “scroll” extensively to read your text.  Keep your text to a couple of short paragraphs.

(b) Be sure that the person you are emailing can tell why you are interested in working with them, in particular.  Faculty with active graduate programs may receive a lot of emails and one of the key indicators of the seriousness of the student is that the email communicates an understanding of the kind of work being done in the lab.  It does not have to be extensive, but you need enough that the reader can tell that you have a reasonable idea of the kinds of questions being asked in the lab, and the organisms and systems the lab focuses on.

(c) Be sure that the email has some pertinent information about your interests and also indicates how you believe you could contribute to the work being done in the lab.  The email should, briefly, highlight the kinds of things you have worked on and what you think you might bring to the lab.  For instance, if you did some undergraduate research, had an internship, or took some specialized courses, you can highlight those experiences.  If you have experience in data analysis (R) or GIS those may also be a good thing to mention.  List your GRE scores if you have them (take the GRE!- LINK)

(d)  Attach a CV to the email.  Here are a few CVs that might help you get ideas of structure and organization (LINK, LINK and LINK).

(e) Be professional.  You need “Dear Dr. YyYyyy” at the top.  In a first contact email, do not address this person by their first name and absolutely never use “Mrs.”  Using “Dr.” in an initial email greeting is a basic courtesy- do not overthink it!  At the conclusion of the email, sign off in a professional way such as “Best wishes,”  or “Sincerely,” and then type your name.

(f) Just send it!  Many undergraduates can get into a kind of fugue state of anxiety related to reaching out in this way, which can delay or prevent first contact.  Be diligent in prepping your email, but then go ahead and hit “send.” Well done!

(g) Once you send the email, do not obsess about it.  Let it go.  You may never get a reply from this person.  That does not mean they are a bad person, or that your materials were inadequate, they might simply be overwhelmed with their work.  That happens.  You might get an email back immediately!  You might get an email back 3 weeks later when the person climbs to the top of the email heap.  Etc.  The point is, you do not know what is going to happen next and it is less stressful if you just send the email, let it go, and move forward with your life.

Here are a few sample emails that might spur your thinking:  LINK, LINK and LINK.

Visit the campus and focus on finding a fit

Finding a fit with a graduate mentor is important for those looking to pursue a Thesis MS and absolutely critical for success during a PhD.

As a way to prepare for this post, I spoke with a student who had a very stressful experience and had to change research labs due to a poor fit with a mentor.  She had a couple of interesting things to say that I want to add here for your consideration:

“Doing a PhD is going to be very difficult under positive circumstances, if the fit with the mentor is poor it becomes practically impossible.”

“If you have to constantly bend your personality and compromise your standards to make things work with your PI, you will end up mentally exhausted and you start to dreading even being in the lab.  This means your project is likely to fail.”

Although email exchanges and phone/skype calls can reveal some of the potential for fit with a mentor, I would urge you to visit the campus.  A campus visit will enable to you to  suss out the features of the lab community and the graduate program and to get a much better idea if your perspective and ambitions match with those of your potential graduate mentor.

Here are some items to look for or ask about while you are visiting:

  • Are there regular lab meetings?
  • Is the PI (mentor) available for consultation and conversation?
  • Does the PI meet with students regularly?
  • How long does it take to get a draft manuscript back with comments?
  • Are there set expectations for students that are communicated to the lab?
  • Are there set expectations for the adviser that are communicated to the lab?
  • What is the level of camaraderie among the students in the lab?
  • What is the level of camaraderie among the lab students and others in the department?
  • Are there adequate supplies and equipment to accomplish your research?
  • When was the last time the students in the lab went to a professional conference?
  • Are there skills-building opportunities in the lab, in the department?
  • Is there positive communication between the PI and existing students?
  • Are current students happy in the lab?  Is there laughter?

If you are interested in diversity in the academy (you | should | be) or want to test whether there are any hidden underlying discriminatory tendencies, one experiment you can do is just use the phrase “women in science”  or “inclusivity” and see what happens.  You can simply say something like:  “One thing I want to do in my career is learn more about inclusivity in science…to help make the field more welcoming to people from a variety of backgrounds.”  If the person says “Ohh, that is interesting, here is something we are working on X” then you can get a feeling for where the lab is headed and whether you like that direction.  If you mention women in science or something similar and the person you are interviewing with starts huffing and puffing, or gives you a snarky reply, or dead silence, then you have useful information that you can take into consideration in your mentor selection process.

Overall, being part of a research lab means being part of a human community.  The features of this human community may play a large role in your success as a graduate student.   No community is perfect, no PI will meet all your needs precisely, and every graduate school experience will likely have both triumph and struggle.

You cannot control all the variables that might influence your grad school experience; however,  if you are careful early in the process, you can minimize the risk of having a poor fit with your mentor and, thus, maximize your probability of success.



See other posts in the Path to Grad School series here:  LINK


















Path to Grad School: Things to ask your potential new adviser


If you want to do a research-focused graduate degree (Thesis MS or PhD), it is critical that you find the mentor and a good situation for your professional development.  Do not start a graduate degree program at an institution out of convenience.  You should be careful and strategic.   In a separate post, I argue that the most important element to your success in graduate school finding a good match with your mentor (LINK).

Here I aim to provide a list of helpful questions.  I would recommend actually having these in a little notebook while on campus on your visit, so that you don’t forget.  Clearly you want to look for a match in your scientific interests and see if you are a good fit for the community and the personality of the mentor (see related post- LINK).  You do not want to START the conversation with these!  Match is the most important issue at hand.  However, you really need answers to these practical questions at some point along the way.  If you are looking for a PhD program, it would be a good idea to talk to both the potential mentor and the “Graduate Chair” and see if you can get good answers to these:


Questions to ask your potential new graduate mentor

  1. Is there a tuition waiver associated with being a grad. student?
  2. Is there a stipend?  What is the stipend amount?
  3. Who pays for health care? What is the health care like?  Are rates likely to        change soon?
  4. Are there fees besides tuition that are not covered in a waiver?
  5. What is the required course load for graduate students? How many classes do you have to take and what are the required classes?
  6. Are there TA or other duties associated with the position?  Are there other departmental activities that are expected of students beyond what is part of the TA/GA?  What is the hourly load each week?
  7. What is the source of funding to pay for research equipment, supplies and travel?
  8. How much travel funding does the department have?  Will they pay for you to travel to meetings?
  9. How do I contact current students in the lab? From the program?
  10. How do I contact lab alumni? Program alumni?


Many of these questions are practical and you really should not agree to join a lab as a graduate student until you have the answers.  I would urge you to be really contentious about pursuing the last two.  Talk to current students in the labs that you are interested in. Find out about their experiences.  If you visit campus and there are current students in the lab, and no time is set up to talk to them then you should view this as a potential “red flag.”  Because, why??  And, find students who recently graduated from the labs you are interested in. What are they doing now?  Are they working?  Alumni are a key indicator of how things will work our for you.



See other posts in the Path to Grad School series here:  LINK










Path to Grad School: Focus on funding


If you are interested in going to graduate school in Ecology or other Environmental fields, the first thing to consider is what degree you want to pursue.

Here is a separate post where I argue for pursuing a Masters degree:  LINK.

If you are going to pursue a Masters, then the next major decision is about the type of Masters you might pursue.  There is a major distinction, a fork in the road, that undergraduates should think about when pondering this situation.   That distinction is between a Thesis-oriented degree and a non-Thesis degree.

If you choose a non-Thesis degree then you will have to pay for grad school.

If you choose to pursue a non-Thesis degree then you will most likely have to pay tuition and you will not be paid a stipend.  You are effectively choosing to take more classes.  This is a decision that each student will have to make.  I would urge the student to think very carefully about what, exactly, benefit they believe they will gain from taking this approach instead of pursuing a Thesis option.  Then seek hard evidence that they will, indeed, gain the professional benefits they are seeking.

If you choose a Thesis-oriented MS, then you should get paid to go to grad school

If you are doing a Dissertation-oriented PhD, should get paid to go to grad school

If you are more interested in research and excited to pursue a Thesis or Dissertation focused degree then you should not pay tuition and you should be paid a stipend.

Therefore, if you are interested in a Thesis/Dissertation-focused degree, then the “grad school search” is really about finding SUPPORT for your graduate activities.

To find a good situation you need to dedicate yourself to finding a program where you can pursue your research interests and match up those interests with a faculty member who is looking for a student and has funding available.

In a separate post I outline keys to finding a fit with a future mentor:  LINK

Here I want to focus on the financial particulars:

Sources of support for a Thesis-Dissertation option / Research degree

Teaching Assistantship (TA)

This is the most typical kind of funding for graduate students. Generally you are required to teach undergraduate introductory labs. This job basically involves reading some material from some kind of lab manual and then teaching it to freshman. Around 50% of those students are barely interested. You might get lucky and teach some upper division labs where the students are more focused.  Generally you teach 2 or 3 labs each semester, and that is the justification for the university paying you. Your “real” job during the TA is doing research on your project!

Graduate Assistantship (GA)

These are rare. Sometimes it is simply, you just get paid for doing your research project! Cool, right? Sometimes a GA will have some kind of odd duty, like taking care of the plants in a greenhouse, or working in an animal care facility. Basically, if the department has a job that it needs done by someone who is invested in the process, they can “hire” a grad student via a GA and get that work done on the cheap. It is still a good deal for you, cause doing a GA usually is more flexible than a TA

Research Assistantship

These are nearly at the level of the passenger pigeon now…this is funding directly related to the research project you are working on! This usually comes from grant funding for the project. The faculty member effectively hires you to be a graduate student! If you get one of these, you are very fortunate and can just focus on your “real” job full time.

Financial particulars


Rough Range: $12,000 to $27,000.

The level of funding for stipends ranges widely depending on the type of program you are involved in, the location of the university, and the source of funding. At a large Research I university in a major urban area, your stipend can be expected to be considerably higher than those in smaller universities in more rural settings. A “Normal” Stipend is in the range of $18,000/year. That generally includes 9 months, and you might have opportunities for extra money in the summer.


Tuition may or may not be lower than the amount that undergraduates are charged…it really depends on the institution. The good news is, though, that if you are on a research project, the tuition should be forgiven through a process called “Tuition Remission.” You should be paying NO TUITION. You MUST get clear on this before you accept a position! If you are expected to pay tuition, that could radically change the financial viability of the support!  See our list of questions to ask advisors in a separate post:  LINK.


Fees can eat into your meager stipend in a way that is significant. Sometimes grad students are shielded from all fees- sometimes they have to pay some, but not others. Fees are one of the mysterious ways the university gets extra money from undergraduates, but does not have to account for them in the tuition number they publicize- as a graduate student living on a relatively small stipend you do not want to be caught up in this. Ask about fees!

Health Insurance

The university should offer students coverage for free or at very low prices. You might be restricted to health care at the university hospital or through the student health services. Check on this.  If you are in a relationship and might have a child during your PhD you need to find out if their health insurance covers dependents (i.e., your baby).  Note that, in my opinion, it is unethical (and ~despicable) for the school not to cover dependents of graduate students; however, this unethical choice is common.

Travel Funds for Meeting

Going to professional meetings to present your work is a key step for graduate students. It allows you to network and show off what you have done. Most universities have set-aside money to fund grad student travel to meetings. You need to check on this. The cost of attending a meeting is ~ $1200/meeting.  You might find opportunities that are cheaper (for instance, if you dont have to fly to the meeting), but my number is a good one if you want to be realistic, and might be a tad low, actually.   You need to ask about support for meeting travel.

Research Money

You should not spend your own money on your research project. I mean, if you need to buy a box of garbage bags or something, okay, fine. But, generally,you should NOT buy things on your own. Also, think about travel funds for research. If  your project requires a lot of driving, you need to think about, and ask about, how you will get there- are you expected to drive your own car? Is there money for reimbursement? Don’t sweat the details…again, if there is a time or two you fill up your tank, that is one thing. But if you have to drive 300 miles every two weeks for your research and there is no money, this is major problem!


See other posts in the Path to Grad School series here:  LINK






Path to Grad School: McEwanlab series

OsageOsage orange trail, Sugar Creek Metropark, ca 2009

Through my career I have been involved in mentoring and advising many undergraduates.  Of these, a large number have had graduate school aspirations.  In this blog series I outline some of the key issues surrounding the graduate school application process.  I provide some factual information and also opinions based on what I have seen work for students in the past.  Obviously, like all of the posts on the McEwanlab blog page, these are opinion-based and are simply an attempt to provide helpful insights.


Path to Grad School:  Take the GRE in October.




Path to Grad School:  Become a Master of Science.




Path to Grad School:  Focus on funding.




Path to Grad School: Things to ask your potential new adviser




Path to Grad School: Finding a fit with a future mentor















Path to Grad School: Take the GRE in October


Many undergraduates pursuing Bachelors degrees in environmental disciplines may be interested in graduate school.   Students who have had experience in undergraduate research may be interested in pushing forward toward a career in science.  For some students, a graduate degree is an important step in their career even though they are pretty sure they do not want science to be a full-time job. Still others simply want to keep their options open.

One of the steps in admission to graduate school is the Graduate Records Exam or GRE.

Here is information about this exam:  LINK

If you are an undergraduate who thinks you might go to graduate school in the near future then you should take the GRE.

My recommendation is that you plan to take the GRE in October of your senior year, or earlier.  Graduate school opportunities can pop up early in the fall and you do not want an opportunity to slip by because you do not have scores in hand.  Also, if you have scores that you are not happy with then you need time to re-take the test in the fall.

There has been some criticism of the GRE, and some universities are eliminating this requirement; however, the bottom line is that most graduate programs do require it.

Programs differ in both the importance of the GRE scores and the standards for admittance.  In the Department of Biology at the University of Dayton (LINK) we recommend applicants obtain a score of 150 or more in the verbal and quantitative sections and a score of 3.0 or better in the written section.  I believe the UD Biology requirements are comparable to other programs; however, I would encourage you to check the details of the places where you are applying.

Applying to complete a research degree in Ecology and the Environment should involve an effort to connect with an individual mentor with whom you have a good fit (LINK).  During your conversations you can inquire as to the importance of the GRE from their perspective and what (if any) standards they might have.

Although the role of the GRE as a gateway to grad school has been diminishing through time and the test itself is under scrutiny (LINK), there are still many programs which require this test.  Therefore an undergraduate who is graduating in the near future should take this test if they want to have all their options open.  Whether or not the test is an egregious boondoggle, if the program you apply to requires it, they almost certainly will not waive it for you as an individual.   So you need the scores in hand.

What if you want to work for a while before going to graduate school?

You probably should take the GRE anyway because (A) you are better at taking tests right now than you will be if you work for a while and (B) you do not know what your circumstances will be geographically, etc.

GRE scores can be used for 5 years (LINK), so if you take the GRE as an undergraduate you will be set for quite a while.

For example, if after graduation you get an awesome internship in the middle of an amazing forest and spend two years measuring science things and then decide to go to graduate school….you probably will need to have GRE scores for your application… and in that moment it may be a much bigger barrier than it is in the middle of fall semester, senior year.

-You might be 200 miles from the nearest testing center, whereas if you are senior at a University there is probably a testing center in your town, maybe on your campus.

-The $$ it takes to pay the GRE might actually be harder to come by in that moment than it is now, for instance, if your internship stipend is small and you are partly being compensated by room and board.

-Test taking is like any other skill, it will fade with time and it might be a lot harder to get yourself up to speed on test taking later than it is while you are an undergrad.  As a senior undergraduate you take tests all the time, but after two years in the woods the whole idea of taking a bubble test might feel like an impossible nightmare!

In mentoring I try to always prioritize helping students develop options and capacity so that they can pursue their ambitions.  In the case of the GRE, regardless of what I might think about the test itself, it is clear to me that taking it early fall of senior year is a good investment for the graduate-school-interested undergrad.  That student’s future self, working on a grad application after two years in the woods in Maine, will probably agree!




See other posts in the Path to Grad School series here:  LINK