Featured Student Friday: Christine Swanson

Each week, SFRC highlights a fantastic student or alumnus for #FeaturedStudentFriday. Today’s student is Christine Swanson, a Forest Resources and Conservation Ph.D. student. Christine is advised by Dr. Stephanie Bohlman.

 

What’s the best thing about your current position?

The best thing about my current position is that I get to interact with so many people with diverse backgrounds and ideas. I’m housed in SFRC, but as one of the 2015 Water Institute Graduate Fellows, I regularly interface with other PhD students in environmental engineering, geography, and fisheries. I’m also involved with Tropical Conservation and Development, taking classes in that department, which has helped me really appreciate how important social sciences are for conservation biology. It’s not enough to know where and why we’re losing species and ecosystems. If we don’t inspire people to action, and if we don’t engage in social and environmental justice, progress towards conservation will be undone or else may cause great injustices to vulnerable populations.

 

Was there any key thing that set you on the path towards SFRC?

My interest in interdisciplinary scholarship drove me to pursue the PhD opportunity with the Water Institute. I was excited to interface with researchers who were approaching a complex issue (development of dams in the Amazon) from a variety of perspectives. It was also critical that my adviser, Dr. Stephanie Bohlman, had similar research interests and views on work-life balance and my personal and professional development during the PhD. She has helped me explore a variety of interests in addition to my dissertation research, and I’m glad to have had these opportunities.

 

What drives you?

I really enjoy solving puzzles and getting results back. My favorite part of research is when I actually get to sit down and start analyzing the data. I really enjoy coding for the same reason. You can sit and stare at a problem and look at it a hundred different ways when suddenly, out of nowhere, the answer will become very clear. It’s really exciting to see your hard work come together, and for me, that happens when I start getting results and figuring out how they relate to the natural phenomena observed.

 

What were your struggles to get where you are today?

One of my biggest struggles is that I take on too much. My background is in interdisciplinary studies, and I’m naturally interested in all kinds of different topics. This can make it difficult to focus on the things that are most important (like writing my dissertation). Like many other graduate students, I have also struggled with mental health issues including anxiety and depression. It has been difficult to get out of my head and reflect on how much I’ve really accomplished over the past three years – things I never thought I’d do, like writing for major news outlets and serving as president of the Graduate Student Council. The imposter syndrome academics suffer can be overwhelming, and it’s challenging not to beat yourself up and compare yourself to other people. Making that doubting voice go away is a constant struggle.

 

What advice would you give to a younger you?

Fear of missing out is real, but you can easily take on too much if you’re not careful. Prioritize what you do and decide what it is you want to get out of your PhD. If you want to be a researcher, then find ways to engage in projects that amplify your abilities in that arena. If you want to be a policy adviser, focus on activities and experiences that will get you those skills. No one can be everything and trying to do too much will overwhelm you and cause you to burn out. There will always be more projects than you can participate in, so get comfortable with saying no, even if the project you got asked to work on sounds amazing.

 

Do you have any favorite memory of your time at SFRC?

My favorite memory is of my first summer at UF. My fellowship cohort traveled to Brazil together. After three weeks of living in too-close quarters and long days of interviews and workshops, we went on a trip to Jalapão , one of Brazil’s national parks. It’s beautiful there, a scrubby ecosystem in a semi-arid landscape with green and orange plateaus towering above. It is a rugged terrain with much less infrastructure than American national parks, and on our way to our accommodations our bus got stuck on a sandy road. We spent hours from the mid-afternoon through the evening gathering dead wood and any manner of object we could shove under the tires to get some traction. At some point, the battery on the bus died, drained by the headlights. We were hungry, tired, and without hope of leaving any time soon. My labmate, Jacy Hyde, Fisheries student, May Lehmensiek, and I spent the night on top of the bus sharing a single sleeping bag and spooning for warmth. If one of us shifted and turned in our sleep, the other two had to follow. Despite the discomfort (sleeping on a metal bus is not pleasant) and perhaps too much familiarity with my fellow adventurers, what I remember most about that night is how spectacular the night sky was – millions of stars stippling the pure black, the creamy Milky Way painted in broad brushstrokes against the darkness. We did eventually make it to our destination and have a great time in the park in the following days, but my evening stranded in the desert will always stick out.

 

Are you working on anything exciting you’d like to share?

I have a few really exciting projects coming up. Soon, I will have a news story coming out about measuring biomass from space. I’m also starting a podcast about failure and struggles in academia to normalize the issues so many graduate students (and others) face. I also hope the podcast reaches a broader audience to help people understand that scientists are just normal people. I would love to see more women and people from underrepresented groups feel empowered to be scientists. I’m working with the Amazon Dams Network (amazondamsnetwork.org) to create an editorialized blog focusing on broad-scale issues surrounding dams, including problems with connectivity (water, ecosystems, people), social justice, and others. The first edition was published in March. I’m also really excited to start digging into my data for my dissertation. I made a big breakthrough in a coding issue I was having, so hopefully I’ll be getting some results soon.

 

You can follow along with Christine’s writing and research on her website or Twitter.