Dr. H. Jane Brockmann


UF Department of Zoology

2004-2005 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner

My doctoral students are colleagues working with me to develop their research and teaching skills to prepare for a professional career in the field of Animal Behavior (or related field). I encourage my students to broaden their range of skills, to develop an integrative and multidisciplinary approach to their science and to develop the confidence they need to succeed. The goal is for them to leave graduate school as successful, independent scholars and academics.

I help my students with all aspects of their research, but there are certain points when an advisor is especially crucial. One of the most difficult aspects of becoming an independent scientist is to know how to choose a good project. My doctoral students choose their own research problems. From the first day in our graduate program, we work to identify potential research problems of interest to the student and of importance to the field of Animal Behavior. Through intense discussions we arrive at a topic and then identify the best system in which to study the problem. I urge my students to read, to talk with colleagues, to learn all the practical aspects of a project and to become scholars of their research problem. With an initial proposal in hand, students just have to leap in and begin to collect data. I join them at their field or experimental sites at various points (when they are ready for me to do so) so that I can understand the problems they encounter and provide suggestions. Most of all I try to help my students to design projects that are sure to yield publishable results, although some parts of the study may be a bit risky. This often means that my students take an eclectic approach to their research, combining field and laboratory observations and experiments with other approaches such as modeling, genetic analysis or morphological studies. By working very closely with my students during these early stages, I help them to develop the skills they need to choose and plan a new project. With each student I try to balance close supervision with independence and critical evaluation with supportive encouragement.

Through the data collection stage, my students consult with me regularly. Although I can often think of quick answers to their questions, I always take the time to go through the process of how you can arrive at an answer using a logical progression. Their questions often involve difficult tradeoffs, for example between getting a larger sample size with one experiment or conducting a second experiment. I watch them gradually develop the skill to solve problems and make important judgments by themselves. It is especially difficult, I think, for students to strike the right balance between doggedly hanging onto a plan and changing direction. I think this is a particularly important moment for a major advisor to be there, to listen and to help even advanced students to think through their research plan and the progress they are making.

Students generally believe that data in hand means the dissertation soon follows. This is never the case. Analyzing the data, thinking deeply about the results, working through the best organization for the manuscripts and writing effectively is always a new and separate challenge. In many cases I feel that I do little more than read, listen, ask questions, react to ideas and propose alternatives. At some point however, I begin to hear my students asking my questions, reacting to their own ideas and presenting their results in an organized way. Then I know they are well on their way to becoming independent scholars.

I hold a weekly journal club with my students whenever possible. We read and discuss research papers, discuss student research results and brainstorm prospective projects. I always introduce discussions of ethical issues, which are not otherwise a part of our curriculum. Interactions with mentors and fellow scientists, the culture of science, plagiarism and honesty, animal welfare issues, workforce concerns, and the broader implications of science are all important topics. We discuss how science is funded, the peer review process and very practical aspects of getting a paper published, a grant funded or choosing a post-doctoral advisor.

My graduate Animal Behavior Seminar (ZOO 6939) is a venue for addressing specific problems in the field such as decision-making, alternative tactics, sexual selection or communication from multiple perspectives. I encourage the students to question assumptions and dogma; to think deeply and critically about what they read; to develop quantitative models; and to evaluate problems using a rigorous, hypothesis-testing approach.

I view the teaching of my courses, undergraduate Animal Behavior (ZOO 3513) and graduate Ethology (ZOO 6515), as part of my graduate students’ education, and I encourage all my doctoral students to teach these courses with me (as teaching assistants). It is always an extremely valuable and intense experience that allows me to share my commitment and enthusiasm for teaching. The diversity of topics we cover in these survey courses gives my students the opportunity to see the larger structure of their field, to understand the major questions and to integrate the parts with the whole. The labs are designed to help our students understand the scientific process and to develop observational and other skills they will need as professional biologists (e.g. statistics, writing, presentation). My teaching assistants and I meet for several hours each week to discuss the material for the labs, but these meetings often develop into discussions of teaching philosophy and conversations about how to present the material. Our students design and carry out independent projects, which also give my graduate student teaching assistants experience with mentoring. Our expectations are high, but I can say that our students are often transformed by our courses and both my graduate students and I find the experience extremely rewarding.

I try to help my doctoral students develop as professionals with a sense of their field and of academics as a career. I encourage them to present their research at meetings of our national and international societies and to participate in committees and workshops. I encourage them to participate in the intellectual life of our department and campus and I am supportive of their being politically active; or engaging in service-related activities for the community; or taking a role in governance by serving on departmental committees or in the Graduate Student Council. Many participate in outreach activities with the public schools or local biologically oriented clubs. Such activities are very much a part of academic life and it is important for them to learn how to balance research, teaching and service activities.

Graduate mentoring fosters an intense and long-term relationship that I value immensely. My doctoral students have, or are well on their way toward having, exactly the sort of career they always wanted. Some preferred a small college, others a research university; I try to be encouraging and realistic in helping them to achieve their goals. The graduate trajectory is different depending on the career goals. When students aspire to a liberal arts college position, then they need considerable advanced teaching experience, a greater array of technical skills and experience in mentoring undergraduate research; when they aspire to a research university position, then they must publish several papers while in graduate school and they must have a post-doc. Post-docs are extremely difficult to come by in my field; most are international awards. I begin talking with my students several years in advance; I encourage them to make the necessary contacts at international conferences; and I help them to find funding.

I feel extremely fortunate to have such an interesting and challenging position; I try in whatever way I can to help my doctoral students to prepare for a similarly rewarding career.