Dr. Robert Fletcher
Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation
2016-2017 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
I consider my role as a mentor to be both a privilege and a responsibility. It is a privilege because I have the opportunity to work closely with some of the best students from around the world, each of whom have the passion and skills to make positive impacts on our planet in the coming years. It is a responsibility because I must identify what each student needs and position them for the highest possible success they can achieve in their career. I approach this effort through both careful teaching of knowledge and skills and mentoring students to become leaders in their fields.
My philosophy is that all doctoral students can learn even the most difficult topics and skills if given the motivation to do so. Motivation by students occurs for different reasons, and I strive to motivate students in diverse ways, such as having an infectious enthusiasm for the field, providing students the context for why the material matters, and challenging them to think broadly and critically. Unleashing learning potential requires not only facilitating student motivation but also keeping students motivated throughout their doctoral program. To engage students, I place all material in a historical and current context. I believe that by emphasizing how science and conservation has progressed over the years, students will better appreciate their own role as scientists and leaders. Providing historical context also helps to illustrate just how much early workers advanced the field, while also illustrating how individuals can make large contributions that sometimes change the trajectory of disciplines.
I have three primary goals for my students. First and foremost, I promote critical-thinking skills in my teaching and my mentoring. The ability to think critically is essential not only for further career advancement but also for understanding numerous aspects of daily life. Understanding the logic, evidence, and alternatives of scientific concepts is indispensable for gaining reliable knowledge. The pedogogical methods I use to promote critical-thinking skills typically include problem-solving and inquiry-based approaches, such as incorporating discussions, exercises that require students to reveal and evaluate (often tenuous) assumptions of their work and the field at large, and thought-provoking question-and-answer presentations during lab meetings. Second, I endeavor to improve student communication skills. Being able to communicate difficult concepts can be a powerful asset and can position students to rise above their peers during their careers. I used diverse pedagogical methods for fostering communication skills, including student presentations to labs, having Ph.D. students provide guest lectures in my courses, requiring that Ph.D. students present their research at national and international conferences, and encouraging students to present their work to diverse audiences and stakeholders (e.g., state agencies). My third goal in teaching is to help inspire a passion for the natural world and for doing science. I do this, in part, by unabashedly showing students my own passion and curiosity for the field, as well as by catalyzing students with provoking questions.
My mentoring and advising philosophy is that mentors need to couple a keen understanding of student goals with their strengths and weaknesses to best position students for success. I tailor my mentoring strategies on the basis of the long-term career goals of students, while being unwavering in my expectations that they will work to be the best in their respective field. To do so, I believe it is important for students to play to their individual strengths, all the while working toward improving their weak areas. This philosophy has led me to alter the research track for some of my Ph.D. students, which has ultimately been beneficial for their career growth. For example, Rajeev Pillay was recruiting for research that involved quantitative modeling of the impacts of climate change on biodiversity. However, after working closely with him on these issues for seven months, I re-directed him to field-based research in one of the largest landscape ecology experiments on the planet (located in Sabah, Borneo), based on my awareness of his strengths as a field biologist and his desire to work on those issues. That transition has ultimately been a huge benefit for his career growth, where he completed a successful dissertation that will have great impacts on several topics (habitat fragmentation, bioacoustics, animal behavior).
My goals as a mentor are to be a facilitator of student career growth and an advocate for my students and other students at the University of Florida. To foster growth, I use weekly lab meetings and weekly one-on-one meetings as primary mechanisms to mentor and challenge my graduate students. While lab meetings are common across campus, my approach is strategic and innovative. My approach to lab meetings is that each semester, every student must present a component of their dissertation work, focusing on what their ‘big question’ is or what the ‘big problem’ is and how to communicate it well to a broad audience. I challenge students to focus on rigorous approaches to these questions, how to identify key assumptions, and how their work will change the field. Other graduate students play a key role in this process: during presentations I ask the presenting student to pause at several critical points in their presentation and challenge the other students to provide critical feedback. We also use lab meetings for other key endeavors, such as developing ‘power talks’ for their research. This sort of think-tank environment has led to my doctoral students publishing many high-impact, peer-reviewed articles in journals such as Nature Communications, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), and Ecology. My lab meetings have generated much interest, where I have had eight other graduate students that I do not act as a graduate adviser participate in them. I also contribute to the larger graduate community by having served on 27 Ph.D. student committees and serving on the WEC Graduate Program Committee since 2008. I find mentoring graduate students extremely satisfying because allows me to push the research envelope with my students in a dynamic way that is otherwise unattainable.
Finally, I encourage the graduate and undergraduate students in my lab to become leaders and take an active role in the department, the University of Florida, and professional societies. For example, Chris Rota (M.S. 2009), organized the 2009 Southeastern Ecology and Evolution Conference, and Katie Haase (Ph.D. 2016), was the President of the WEC Graduate Wildlife Society Association (WGSA). I also require that my graduate students present their research at professional meetings to help further hone their networking and communication skills. To date, my students have given over 70 presentations, as well as organizing and leading one symposium, of their research at national and international conferences. Taken together, my overarching, long-term vision is to make a lasting, and positive, mark on the next generation of scientists.