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Meet Our Students - Katharine Ruskin

Kate RuskinWhat year and semester did you begin EES graduate studies?
Spring 2011

What degree are you pursuing?
Ph.D.

Who is your academic advisor?
Dr. Brian Olsen

What prior degrees do you have?
B.A. in Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology from Columbia University

Why did you choose to attend grad school at UMaine? Why did you choose EES?
I chose UMaine to work on the Saltmarsh Habitat and Avian Research program (SHARP), a collaborative project that involves researchers from several universities, state and federal agencies, and local non-profits from across the northeastern U.S.  UMaine is one of the principal investigators, and is leading the field effort in Maine.  The primary goals of the project are to assess and monitor marsh bird communities in the region, and develop a regional approach to local conservation efforts. I chose EES because of its commitment to interdisciplinary study, which I think is an important perspective to apply to conservation efforts.  I liked the flexibility it allows for coursework and connections it provides to researchers in dissimilar fields.

What have been your favorite classes at UMaine so far?
Though they’re the toughest as well, I’ve enjoyed and learned volumes from statistics courses I’ve taken with both Dr. Brian McGill and Dr. Bill Halteman.  I also love the debates we’ve had in the graduate evolution seminars I’ve taken with Dr. Brian Olsen.

Briefly describe the research project you are working on.
My Ph.D. research is focused on the breeding ecology, evolutionary biology, and life history strategies of sparrows found in saltmarshes of the northeast.

What has been your most rewarding research experience and why?
It’s very hard to choose because I’ve loved all of the research jobs I have held to date.  I previously focused on contaminants in waterbird populations for New York and New Jersey Audubon, and the U.S. Geological Survey. With my own graduate research, I’ve found the follow-through I’m privileged to experience most rewarding.  For the field work itself, I’m glad to be finishing up my second year of intensive demographic surveys on our study sites.  We uniquely mark individuals, and study many aspects of Sharp-tailed Sparrow breeding ecology from chicks to adults, so I love getting a feel for what is going on at the site for the entirety of the breeding season.  For some of these birds, I know their whole life stories.  On the non-bird side of things, I’ve enjoyed working with UMaine undergrads and our other technicians.  I like teaching them the ropes at our field sites and helping them get experience they’re looking for as they plan to move forward through their studies and into the job market.

 What advice do you have for prospective graduate students?
It’s your responsibility to ensure your project gets off the ground and is a success, so be resourceful and in charge of your own work.

Are you interested in mentoring undergraduates?
Absolutely.  Most of our field technicians and data entry masters have been UMaine undergrads.  The undergrads I’ve worked with have been enthusiastic, observant, quick-learners, and very dedicated to the project.  I’m grateful for their efforts, and for competently picking up the slack when by the end of the field season I was losing it.  I’m happy to work with anyone who has an interest in our work, and is looking for more experience.


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