2.1 seconds left, thank you for joining us. 2014 was a banner year for you on RCT with the top commenter title and winning the fantasy league. Are you afraid that your online presence has peaked?
I'm mostly afraid that my advisor will discover my prowess at garnering these awards and wonder why I can't deliver the same results when it comes to getting funding for research...when it comes down to it my work involves too much time in front of a computer and I probably take a few too many breaks at work for my presence to suffer that much, even if it probably should.
Tell us about your childhood. What did your parents do? Any siblings? What kind of a kid were you?
I consider myself an only child though I do have two half-sisters; both were in their late 30s when I was born, though, so I feel as though grew up as an only child with two very cool aunts. My parents both worked at K-State and I grew up in Manhattan, so you can imagine how much l loved purple growing up. I feel as though I had a pretty lucky childhood - Midwestern college towns are the best place to grow up in my incredibly unbiased opinion, and I also got to travel a lot because of my mom's collaborations in research and my dad's ability to take the summers off. I didn't have a ton of close friends until high school because I was gone every summer traveling, but the tradeoff was definitely worth it when it came to seeing other parts of the world and having a lot of great memories with my parents.
So far as what kind of kid I was, I was generally a talkative kid that liked to read a lot - I must have gotten 20+ personal pan pizzas from Pizza Hut through the Book-It! program back then. As I said, we traveled a lot as a family, especially during the summer, and giving me a book was the easiest way to keep me occupied. I wasn't much of a trouble-maker, but I consistently got told off for talking too much in elementary school, which was funny to my parents given that when we traveled I was generally shy around strangers. Still, stick me in a class with people I'm comfortable talking to and I will talk...something that is probably not that surprising if you've been around RCT for a while.
I believe you have talked on the site about having Pakistani roots. Was it difficult to grow up in Manhattan Kansas after 9/11 with people's ignorance and stereotypes?
I wouldn't say it affected me directly in that way. It affected me directly because my parents are politically active liberals and Manhattan is certainly pretty conservative as well as home to a large military population, but I never felt discriminated against because of my background in Manhattan. I feel like part of that is that even though it is a town of 50,000, Manhattan only has one high school, so you end up knowing everyone in town and are exposed to pretty much everything that makes up a community. Not that other high schools aren't like that in their own way, but having everyone in the town for the most part go through the one school definitely led to an enhanced sense of camaraderie.
Another part of it goes back to traveling a lot as a kid and seeing a lot of different people while also getting used to feeling out of place - eventually it gets harder for you to feel out of place regardless of where you are.
The last part probably goes back to being biracial - my dad being from Missouri and my mom being from Pakistan means I feel at home in both countries, though obviously more so in the U.S. where I've grown up vs. in Pakistan where I've only been to visit. I have a tough time knowing what to say when people ask me to self-describe myself; I suppose in general I just consider myself to be an American and don't even think about the fact that I'm not white, but sometimes I'm reminded of the fact that others might question that and it makes me smile. My mother has lived the American Dream to a fuller and more successful extent than most despite only dreaming of America as a child. That's kind of the point of this country.
What was high school 2.1 like?
High school 2.1 was a weird combination of honor/AP student and stoner. I actually set a record at my high school for AP classes taken, and got an award for scoring a 4 or higher on all of them. There was a pretty big contrast between the kids that I'd hang out with in class and the ones I'd hang out with when I wasn't in class. My dad has always been a hippie and experimented a lot with a lot of different things when he was younger so I suppose that rubbed off on me, but both my parents were academics so doing well in school was never really a question. I loved school, and it came easily to me, so I had a lot of time to mess around and try to avoid getting busted by the all-too-well-outfitted RCPD.
I spent a lot of time at the lake with friends, or just in general rolling around in the country. I have a lot of fond memories of growing up having fun outside and that's something I still enjoy dearly. I also went to a music festival when I was a junior in high school that probably changed my life insofar as it opened me up to how much music there was out there if you looked for it, and also made me realize just how much more life can be enjoyed with good tunes. Before that point I listened almost exclusively to pop-punk bands that I'd picked up on in middle school. It's good that era is over.
What made you pick KU after spending your formative years surrounded by Kstaters?
I scored a 36 on the ACT my sophomore year of high school and received a scholarship offer for a full ride to KU not too long after that, so I knew early on that I could go there and eventually it just became too attractive of an option to resist. I always knew I didn't want to go to K-State, as much as I loved it, for the simple reason that I really did not want to go to college somewhere where my parents could drop in any time, much less where my professors would know them on a first name basis. I also knew Lawrence was supposed to be much more liberal than Manhattan, and that really appealed to me at the time on multiple levels. But really, when it came down to it, I loved growing up in Kansas and didn't want to leave, and I had a bunch of good friends from high school that were going to KU or moving to Lawrence which made the decision all the easier. It also pissed me off when, for instance, I went on my visit to UCLA and kids could not get a handle on why I might want to stay in Kansas with people I cared about rather than come to their paradise in Westwood.
Congratulations again on being published. I know you are in grad school, what do you want to do in the world of Ecology when you get done?
Thank you, I appreciate it! I'm hoping to get a fellowship to do a research postdoc, hopefully with a couple professors who do some interesting work in my field in Colorado or another in Montana or New Mexico; I'd like to get a bit closer to home in the Midwest but I don't know if I could ever live far away from the mountains again after being so close all the time in California.
So far as work in my field, I'd like to take the research track as far as I can, with a job as a professor at a place like KU as the obvious jackpot when it comes to final outcomes. I'm a realist, though, and I know that there are a lot of people getting PhDs compared to how many faculty positions are opening up, so I take solace in the fact that I've gotten to teach a lot in grad school and really enjoy it. At this point, I've been around institutionalized education for so long that I don't really know how to operate outside that sphere, so I just thank my lucky stars that at least I'm happy being in it.
For those who don't know, what does an ecologist actually do?
It really depends on what questions you are interested in, and what motivated you to become an ecologist. I was motivated by a couple things. First, selfishly, I wanted to have a job that involved going outside into nature, because, why not if I could? Second, arrogantly (college 2.1, remember), I wanted to do something that would be relevant to some of the "big" issues facing humanity. So when I started working in my undergrad advisor's lab at KU and was exposed to the work they did there studying how climate change would affect global processes that life on earth depends on...it was a very happy epiphany for me to realize I'd found something I could see myself getting into for a long long time. I get to work outside, I get to work with people that want to understand and (for the most part) protect the outdoors, and I get to try and solve problems that face humanity as a whole. Or, at least, I get to tell myself that I'm helping to solve such problems, which is what really matters when you're endlessly making litterbags or running a billion enzyme assays and need to take solace in something.
What do I do, on a day-to-day basis? I get to do a lot of wet chemistry, mostly processing of samples (ground plants mostly, in my case) and then subsequent analyses of bacterial and fungal abundance, activity, and plant chemistry. That's what I consider the fun stuff. Then there's all the data entry and analysis, which can often be a huge drag, especially at the start when you have a big dataset and few ideas as to what questions you want to ask it. It's also a huge drag when you are a grad student starting out because you are learning all the code for how to run your stats and data analysis on your own time from assorted websites and hand-me-down scripts that your advisor/labmates have given you. Still, this is where the payoff comes, too, when you get your data to tell you something interesting by asking the right questions or presenting it the right way.
There is also writing up the results, but we don't need to talk about that, other than to say that getting published is great vindication for a lot of grinding that has to go on beforehand. I also have to present my results to others, either in lab, in the department as a whole, or to departments in other universities or at conferences. This part is much more fun, as you get to meet lots of people that are interested in the same topics and will usually either inspire you to keep asking the questions you are asking or will provide you with some new questions worth pursuing. The best part of being an academic is, to me, getting to talk to other academics and learn by osmosis. If you keep your ears open you don't even have to try to learn anything if you work on a college campus, and I love that.
If I were to visit you in the city you live, what would we do and where would you take me?
Irvine is a notably sterile place to live. It's Orange County through-and-through, and, on top of that, it's the largest master-planned community in the United States. No litter, no crime, hardly any homeless people. You can almost pretend there's not even a college campus with 25,000 students named after the city itself. It's definitely a weird place to go after growing up in two quintessential college towns, because Irvine is certainly not a college town.
So, that being said, we probably wouldn't spend much time in Irvine, other than to maybe drop into the campus pub (yes, they have a pub on campus, right in the union, and it has a great beer selection...and is the only true bar in town) for a beer before heading to Newport or Laguna to hit the beach for a bit. I would probably suggest grabbing burgers at Umamiburger in Laguna, or snagging sushi if you were game for that (and I'd really hope you were). If you were here for any extended period of time, I'd definitely take advantage of being close enough to Joshua Tree or Idyllwild to plan a trip to the desert or the mountains depending on the season. That's the main benefit of being in Irvine, to me - 15 minutes from the beach, 2 hours from the mountains, and 2 hours from the desert.
Anything else we might not know about you but would be interesting. I'll form a question around whatever you say later.
I spent a year in Europe in the seventh grade when my mom was on sabbatical, seven months in Germany and six months in Finland. I love both places, and Berlin is probably my favorite place in the world, but Finland in the summer is something else. The sun stays up so long you feel like you never run out of energy, and if you really go up north it never goes down at all. A beautiful country with very friendly people...and so much space for all of them.
Age - 26
Height - 5'10"
Where do you live - Irvine, CA
Facial hair - Bearded
Any pets - Two cats! Koopa and Jericho
What kind of car do you drive - Subaru Outback
Corrective lenses - Oh most certainly
Hair style - Shaggy-to-long, mostly cheap
Favorite movie - True Romance
Favorite tv show - The Wire
Favorite beer - Rogue Dead Guy Ale
Favorite band - The String Cheese Incident
Favorite food - Nihari
Favorite non KU team - Kansas State (less obvious: UCF)
All time favorite KU player - Tyshawn Taylor
First concert - Ultimate Fakebook
First w-2 job - Lab assistant in an lab at K-State studying
Best athlete seen play live - Dwight Howard