Information for Potential Graduate Students

What sort of research happens in the lab?

The lab focuses on marine community ecology, primarily of intertidal and nearshore subtidal systems. You'll get best advice and support if those adjectives apply to you as well. In short, we use experimental, observational, and modelling approaches to understand the mechanisms (strong vs. weak vs. nonlinear interactions, indirect effects, disturbance, abiotic vs. biotic limits) leading to pattern in the environment. Intertidal systems are intriguing in and of themselves: in an unusual departure from the common land-based model, animals and plants compete for the same resource, space. In addition, the intertidal has become a model ecosystem, because patterns occur on small scales and interactions can be strong. Finally, coastal systems, particularly estuaries, have been heavily modified by human development, freshwater diversion, fisheries, and species introductions.

Ecology has much to offer management and conservation efforts, but only by being rigorous. As ecologists, we can devise clever experiments and measure appropriate variables (which are possible to measure and relevant to problems). We are aware of type 1 (the chance that the difference we observe is not real) and especially type 2 (the chance that we observe no difference even though a real difference exists) errors. We can develop mathematical or heuristic models projecting current processes into the future, testing how sensitive the outcome is to current uncertainty and how we might most effectively alter the outcome. Ecology is all about numbers and therefore all about math.

For more explicit details of current projects, see the Research and People web pages.

Who does ecological research at UW?

Until recently, UW was one of the few universities that still split its biology program along phylogenetic lines (Zoology and Botany). However, a new biology department is now emerging. This department contains a handful of ecologists. Throughout the university, however, are many more. You might check out other professors and programs to see if they better fit your desiderata and to get a sense of the additional intellectual resources available on campus in fisheries and forestry especially. One tremendous advantage of studying ecology in Seattle is the accessibility of a variety of natural areas (whatever "natural" is... some are also badly in need of management or protection to maintain characteristic components, structure, or function). For marine ecologists, these environments include rocky and soft substrates from extremely wave-exposed to wave-protected areas, kelp beds, seagrass beds, tidepools, boulder fields, caves, docks, aquaculture operations, and mussel beds. For some people interested in marine policy and conservation, the School of Aquatic and Fisheries Science or School for Marine Affairs at UW might provide the desired applied perspective. Check them out as well.

What should be included in an application?

Although it certainly helps to inquire about working with particular professors, the Ecology and Evolution caucus in Biology makes final admission decisions as a group. Here are some things to keep in mind as you decide whether and how to apply. UW Biology accepts students for PhD degrees. Some but not all students already have Masters degrees. The average GPA for UW Biology graduate students (obviously a substantial portion falls below) is 3.73 out of 4.0. GRE scores should be above the 75th percentile. Prior research carries considerable weight because it gives us the sense that you know what you are getting into (committing yourself to a half-decade of challenging, self-directed work for an intangible product), and because we can assess your ability to DO science (as opposed to learn facts in classes). Letters of recommendation are also very important. Find a balance between asking for letters from someone who is well-known and someone who knows you well.

What is expected of graduate students in the lab?

First and foremost, graduate students in the lab are expected to be independent thinkers. Current students are working on reef fish community structure in the Caribbean, effects of subsistence harvest in Alaska, habitat modification by oysters from Japan, and a comparison of estuarine processes between Washington and Chile. At the same time, there are always ongoing projects that the lab tackles en masse. Right now we are modeling marine reserves under conditions of spatially-variable productivity. A large project to explore indirect effects of filter feeders on eelgrass has also just been funded. Hopefully, you can strike a balance between collaborative research and pursuit of the questions that strike the core of your curiosity. This doesn't mean that you must know ahead of time what your PhD research will entail, but simply that you feel confident that in a couple of years you can dream up and devise a research project of your own. There are few course requirements for graduate students in Biology. The department requires that you spend 1 term at a field station (such as Friday Harbor Laboratories) and show disciplinary breadth. (Have you taken a physiology course or biochemistry? If not, it may be expected of you.) You are required to be a teaching assistant for at least 3 quarters during your stint in graduate school. Graduate students in the lab are encouraged to take advanced ecology and a suite of quantitative courses (statistics to modelling). Several seminars are generally offered each term as an introduction to old literature and a way to keep up with new ideas.

Is funding available for graduate students?

Biology assures space and funding for 5 years. This funding takes care of tuition and gives you a small stipend, enough to live frugally in Seattle. Funding comes in the form of fellowships (you are encouraged to apply to the National Science Foundation, and Achievement Rewards for College Scientists may provide additional incentive), research assistantships through faculty members (usually several terms of funding over a graduate career), and teaching assistantships. Occasionally, but not often, graduate students TA for their entire time here. The department also has some money available for photocopying and travel to meetings. There is a tradition for students to apply for small research grants from organizations such as Sigma Xi, Lerner-Grey, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute or the Phycological Society of America, as well as the departmental field ecology fund.
UW Biology | University of Washington
Created by Lee McCoy, Updated by Jerome Tichenor, March 19, 2013