This week’s PhDetails is with Jack Hruska who studies at Texas Tech University. Jack received his undergraduate degree at Cornell University, where he worked on various projects all related the natural history and ecology of birds. He says that he was fortunate during this time to carry out fieldwork both locally (Ithaca) and Internationally (Malaysian Borneo and Panama). After a year off from undergrad Jack then started his masters degree at the University of Kansas, where he worked with Dr. Robert Moyle on the phylogenetics and systematics of herons. This past year Jack began his PhD at Texas Tech University with Dr. Joe Manthey, where he’s been working on various genomics projects in birds. You can find Jack on Twitter @picathartes25!
As a kid I was absolutely obsessed with The Beatles, so from this era I have to go with them. Talking Heads would be a close second.
Favourite band/musical artist post 1980?
It really boils down to Radiohead, Frank Ocean or Bon Iver for me. My response would mostly depend on the day.
At the moment I’m really into anything that Richard Linklater has done. I really enjoyed Before Sunrise in particular.
Do you listen to podcasts?
I do, but sporadically. Most of them center around politics, sports or science. A science podcast I’ve been into recently is called This Week in Evolution, which is hosted by Vincent Racaniello and Nels Elde. They do a good job of fostering interesting conversations regarding recent developments in the field. I believe these conversations are extremely educational, in that they both provide insights on how to communicate science more effectively and they distill the literature down to a few points, which is all that one will remember in the long term anyway.
Where do you study and who is your supervisor?
I’m currently at Biological Sciences Department at Texas Tech University and am supervised by Dr. Joe Manthey.
What year of your PhD are you in?
Heading into my second year.
Who’s giving you the money – and for how long?
The Biological Sciences Department at Texas Tech offers a minimum of five years support, mostly in the form of teaching assistantships. Personally, I’ve been supported so far by teaching assistantships provided by the department and research assistantships provided by my advisor’s start-up funds.
Do you have any publications?
I have a few, mostly stemming from time as an undergraduate, where I primarily worked on the natural history and ecology of neotropical birds. One of the most interesting projects I was fortunate to be a part of uncovered interesting breeding behaviours about a poorly-known bird called the Sapayoa. Two papers were published from this project. One in the Auk: Ornithological Advances, and the other in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club. These can all be found at my google scholar page: HERE
Did you do a masters – where was it and was it about?
I did. I received my masters in 2018 from the University of Kansas, where I worked on heron phylogenetics and systematics under Dr. Robert Moyle. We were able to estimate the first thorough and well-supported phylogenetic hypothesis for the group, using genomic markers called Ultraconserved Elements (UCEs). Here’s to hoping it will be published soon!
Yes, I have done a fair amount of fieldwork, mostly carrying out avian biodiversity surveys. During my masters, for example, I was fortunate enough to do field work in Nicaragua and the Solomon Islands. Honestly, I’ve immensely enjoyed most of my field experiences but the best experiences have involved a team that worked great together. If you get along with your field colleagues that goes a long way.
How many PhDs did you apply for – what were you looking for?
I applied to five. Primarily I was looking for an advisor who was carrying out exciting work, had a dynamic research programme, and whose research interests aligned closely with my own.
What is the most bodged piece of equipment you have had to use during field/labwork – did it work?
My work often takes place in some pretty remote places, which means that some improvisation is required for essential items that can’t be driven or shipped in. In the Solomon Islands, for example, we would have to make tables from small trees we found near our campgrounds. Making a table from scratch that is both sturdy and comfortable to work on is no small feat!
What one piece of advice would you give to a masters student applying to PhDs now?
Think carefully about the environment that maximizes your potential and try to find a program and advisor that will best approximate that environment.
How often do you meet with your supervisor?
I see my advisor every day, because we work in the same office. I really enjoy that because it gives me the opportunity to have short interactions with him, and I take this opportunity to get his advice or ask him questions that are on my mind at that moment in time. Having a frequent back and forth with my advisor suits me best. We have extended meetings every other week or so.
What supervisor traits are important to you?
An advisor who treats you with respect, looks out for your interests, even if they don’t align with their career arc. I also enjoy having advisors that foster an environment that stimulates communication. I believe that any good collaboration is buoyed by trust, and that honest communication is essential in building that trust.
What do you think are the worst supervisor traits?
Supervisors who are abusive, manipulative and emotionally volatile. I believe students can survive a removed and apathetic advisor, but it is hard to persevere with those that are actively hampering one’s development.
In one sentence what is your PhD about?
Comparative genomics of pine-oak birds of Mesoamerica.
What has been your academic highlight of the last year?
I’d say it would either have to be seeing old friends and colleagues at a conference recently in Alaska or getting a few papers published this spring that had been in development for a few years.
Have you had an academic low-point of the last year – what happened?
Any rejection (either in the form of grants, fellowships, PhD programs, publishing) is always painful for me, and there were a few more than usual this past year. However, I feel like I am becoming more accustomed to rejection. Also, it probably means I am taking more risks, which I feel like will be a net positive in the long run.
Which academic idol/scientist have you met?
I’ve met some big names in the world of avian phylogenetics and evolutionary biology, but I’m not sure any of those rise to level of idol. When I was a kid, I had a brief correspondence with Jane Goodall (she wrote me a postcard), and I’d have to say that’s been the closest I’ve come to meeting an idol of mine.
Which academic idol/scientist would you most like to meet?
Jane Goodall, E.O. Wilson or Dan Janzen.
Do you have a favourite paper?
Anything related to biogeography and birds I gobble up. Apart from that I really enjoyed reading ‘Kern, Andrew D., and Matthew W. Hahn. "The neutral theory in light of natural selection." Molecular Biology and Evolution 35.6 (2018): 1366-1371.’
What has been your favourite conference so far – why?
Whichever conference I attended last (which in this case was the American Ornithological Society Meeting in Anchorage a few weeks ago). Conferences for me have often been a strange mixture of excitement, stimulation, and anxiety. With each passing conference my ability to navigate the rollercoaster of these emotions gets better, which has been a nice development to notice.
What hours do you typically work?
During the week I usually work from 10 – 6, as I am more on the night-owl end of the spectrum. When I’m at home on weekends I try to limit the work I do, but I will still respond to emails, write, or read papers.
How do you avoid procrastinating?
I try to separate my home and work lives as much as possible. I think the ‘problem’ of procrastinating becomes an issue when clear boundaries are absent. I also believe it is crucial to clearly identify why you are doing something before you jump into it. Not having clear objectives makes one more likely to lose interest in the task, and thus more likely to procrastinate.
What motivates you in your day to day PhD life?
I enjoy uncovering the secrets of life, and I feel that being able to contribute to that narrative is a tremendous honour.
What do you do when you’re not working – how do you balance it with your PhD?
I try to make sure I set aside time so I can enjoy time with friends, and pursue hobbies of interest (e.g., tennis, cooking, reading). I also enjoy taking time off from work, for an extended period of time. It is for this reason that I don’t shy away from taking a vacation. I think they do wonders for my mental health and allow me to come back with a renewed sense of passion for my work.
If a genie could grant you one wish to help with your PhD what would you wish for?
Boat loads of cash for sequencing and a private computing cluster.
What would be your dream job?
Either a professor at an R1 institution or working for an international conservation organization.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Hopefully working as a postdoc in a dynamic and stimulating research program.
One word to sum up your future in academia:
Uncertain! I believe it would disingenuous to state otherwise.
What do you want to achieve outside of academia in the coming year?
I’d like to become a better and more efficient advocate for graduate students on campus.
What essential tool hardware/software could you not do your PhD without?
Bash scripting, R, and high-performance computing clusters.
There isn’t one particular person in particular I can point to, but I’ve always gravitated towards people in academia that work actively to make it a more inclusive and welcoming environment, not one that is more restrictive and discriminatory. When it comes to admiring someone, the personality is always more important than the science.
Where is somewhere you would like to work in the future?
I’d love the opportunity to work somewhere internationally. South America, Europe or Australia would be my top choices.
Do you have a favourite organism?
I study birds and have loved them since I was a boy. However, my current favorite non-bird group has be the weasel family (mustelids). I love how smart, curious and fearless they are. We don’t deserve the Honey Badger.
Are there any social interactions/meetings which have enhanced your PhD experience?
All of them. I believe life in academia can be a very lonely endeavor, and that isolation negatively impacts the quality of the science. Contrary to what some others may believe, I see social interactions as integral to the health of any department. Aside from the social benefits, interacting with other scientists, especially those outside of your own field of expertise, can be one of the more stimulating and educational experiences of your grad school career.
If you could change one thing about your group/department structure what would it be?
I would increase communication between the department and incoming students before they arrive. I was not provided with a whole lot of information up front on how to best transition to my department, and it was a bit time consuming to figure that on my own. I believe most incoming students rely heavily on the prior experiences of their lab mates but given that I am my advisor’s first PhD student, I was unable to rely on that resource.
What major question in your subject area is yet to be addressed – why is it important and why isn’t anyone addressing it?
The issues I see in my field are related more are to our inability to establish a theoretical framework that consistently explains the patterns we are seeing, not so much a fault of the questions that are being asked. I think at the moment we are struggling to tell a consistent story about which evolutionary mechanism primarily drives adaptation, for example. Perhaps the truth is that there isn’t a consistent story, but that’s something that does not does not sit well with us scientists.