#53 Ryan Greenway

This week's PhDetails is another spontaneous in-person interview with my colleague and friend Ryan Greenway! Although Ryan is studying for his PhD at Kansas State University he has already moved to Eawag here in Switzerland where he will start a PostDoc with Blake Matthews once his PhD is done. I managed to grab Ryan whilst he was taking a break from frantically writing up (and whilst he is still eligible for PhDetails) to talk about how he ended up in his PhD, the highs and lows of being a grad student, and what’s next for him. You can also find Ryan on Twitter @ryangreenway. 

RDK: Like I did with your fellow group-member Marvin I thought we should start by finding out about your favourite movie and band so people have a bit more of an idea about non-academia Ryan...
RG: My favorite movies would have to be The Big Lebowski and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s hard to pick a favorite band, but I’d have to go with either Radiohead, Tame Impala, or Phish. My musical tastes have always leaned towards the psychedelic.  

RDK: Great choices - I don’t think too many people will stop reading because of those! So you’re actually coming to the end of your PhD, if it’s not too dangerous to ask, how long until you hand in?
RG: Exactly two weeks to the day! NO PRESSURE

RDK: How long will you have been doing your PhD by the time you hand in? Where has your funding been coming from?
RG: Just short of five years, I started in August 2014. My first two years were funded by a Teaching Assistantship from my university. After that, I received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship that has funded the remainder of my graduate career. 

RDK: That’s pretty quick for a US PhD right? What made you want to do a PhD in the first place? 
RG: It’s a bit on the shorter side, but nothing crazy. I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in research as soon as I started working in a research lab during my Bachelor’s. After that, I quickly saw that the academic path was one of the few ways to really have an independent research program to pursue the questions I was interested in.

RDK: Did you do a masters before your PhD? What was it about?
RG: I didn’t do a masters, I went into my PhD a few months after graduating with my Bachelor’s Degree in Zoology from Oklahoma State University. I did a lot of research as an undergraduate though, and got immersed in the academic experience early in my degree. 

RDK: Did you think at any point that it could have been useful to have done a masters and spend some more time maybe homing in on what your interests were? Or was it easy for you to pick this up early in your PhD?
RG: Honestly, if I could go back I probably would have done a Master’s. Nothing against my PhD advisor at all, but I think getting a broader research experience can never be a bad thing. 

RDK: How many PhDs did you apply for? 
RG: Just one. I actually joined the lab of my undergraduate research supervisor. He moved to a new university the last semester of my Bachelor’s, and I applied to work in his lab at Kansas State.

RDK: Efficient! Do you have any advice for people applying for PhDs now?
RG: Apply broadly (not like me) and talk to people in the labs you are applying to! Current and previous graduate students in labs you are interested in are the best resource for learning about the expectations and working culture of a group. 

RDK: What hours do you typically work - I assume this has changed as you have entered the writing up process?
RG: I typically work at the office (or a nearby coffee shop) from 9-5, give or take. Approaching deadlines, I always wind up working much longer hours, often as the result of procrastination more than anything else. 

RDK: Do you have any tips or tricks for keeping motivated and avoiding procrastination during the day? From what i’ve seen I think managing procrastinating and trying to stay motivated is a big part of what being a successful academic is about!
RG: That’s something I’m still trying to figure out for myself. I think being interested in the projects you’re working on is a key for maintaining motivation, but procrastination still finds a way to creep up. 

RDK: Yeah, like agreeing to be interviewed for someone’s blog...What has been the big question that has kept you psyched through your project?
RG: I’m really interested in how adaptation to different sources of natural selection can lead to the formation and maintenance of new species. I think speciation is fascinating, because it’s ultimately responsible for producing all of the amazing biodiversity around us. 

RDK: Can you sum up your project in one sentence?
RG: Adaptation to extreme environments leads to the formation of new species, sometimes in completely different ways. 

RDK: Sounds like that might have involved some exciting fieldwork? Have you travelled much for your project?
RG: Quite a bit! The bulk of my research has relied on sampling fish from the southern Mexico, particularly in the states of Chiapas and Tabasco. I’ve gone to these field sites every year for the last six year, with trips ranging from two to six weeks. I’ve also collected samples for my research from one-time trips to both Costa Rica and Florida.

RDK: Normally I ask people on the blog if they ever used bodged field equipment. Do you have any experience with poorly improvised gear?
RG: I’ve had to construct seine net poles out of three duct taped together metal broom shafts on multiple occasions. But a lot of the field equipment I have relied on isn’t what one might consider high tech. 

RDK: How did the broom-net hold up? Was it a hack or a bodge?
RG: They last about one field season; the hydrogen sulfide in some of the streans I sample actually corrodes the metal pretty quickly, and eventually they crumble into rusty pieces.

RDK: I’ll say it’s a bodge...but it sounds about as good as it will get! If you could go back and speak to one-year-into-his-PhD-Ryan what advice would you give him?
RG: Learn R now, don’t wait until your subscription to SPSS runs out in a year. Also, read new papers any chance you get. 

RDK: Is there anything which has become an integral part of doing your PhD? I know you like going to coffee shops but is that all you need to stay sane? Do you have any hardware/software you couldn’t live without?
RG: I’m pretty reliant on an app called Fetch. I use it for moving and editing files on the high performance computing clusters I work with. Aside from directly research related things, I wouldn’t have been able to get through my PhD without Spotify and a few of my favorite podcasts.

RDK: I really think podcasts have become essential for the sanity of grad students, what are some of your favourites?
RG: My two favorite podcasts are extremely nerdy. One is called “Hello From the Magic Tavern,” it’s an improv comedy podcast where the basic premise is a dude from Chicago fell into a magical world (think Narnia or Lord of the Rings) with his podcast equipment and interviews the inhabitants of this realm. My other favorite is “Critical Role,” a live streamed Dungeons and Dragons game played by a bunch of voice actors. 

RDK: Have you experienced any low-point during your PhD? Did anything specific help you get through it?
RG: I’ve had a few, but the worst was when I was having a bunch of health problems around the end of my third and beginning of my fourth year from a previously undiagnosed chronic illness. It was really preventing me from accomplishing much of anything related at work or at home. Luckily, I have an extremely supportive supervisor and labmates that were understanding and have helped me tremendously while navigating life with a chronic disease. 

RDK: Who is your supervisor? Do you have any other mentors who have helped you get through your project?
RG: Michi Tobler is my PhD supervisor. Joanna Kelley is another mentor of mine. Joanna has been helping me to learn genomics and bioinformatics during my PhD. 

RDK: How often did you meet with them? Has that changed over the course of your PhD?
RG: Michi has always had an open door policy, but at a minimum we would have scheduled hour long weekly meetings. Sometimes I’ve met with Michi five or more times a week. I regularly Skype with Joanna as well, since she is at a University on the other side of the country. We probably chat a few times a month on average. 

RDK: And what about high-points from the last year? Other than moving to a beautiful country and meeting inspiring, fun academics to go for beers with...too much? 
RG: I’d have to say traveling to California and Hawaii for academic conferences while postdoc searching last year were pretty amazing. Not often that you get to take nice trips to talk to the top researchers in our field on tropical islands without having to pay for it. Same goes for all of the travel I was able to do for my fieldwork. I saw places I never would have thought to visit thanks to my research. 

RDK: Don’t forget your recent prize - congrats! What do you like doing when your not working? Is there anything you’d like to achieve outside academia in the coming year?
RG: On a regular day, when I’m not working I’m normally doing something with my dog Chase, or hanging out at one of my favorite coffee shops. I also love to hike, camp, and fly fish, all of which I’m looking forward to doing more of in Switzerland over the next few years. I’ve recently started working on my drawing skills after a few years of not really doing anything artistic. I’m hoping to continue drawing and make some pieces to show off. 

RDK: Yeah it sounds like your moving to an ideal country then! Did you ever see yourself leaving the US? I remember the fact I had left the UK only really sinking in about a year after I arrived here in Switzerland!
RG: Honestly, not really until the I started to actually look for postdoc opportunities. The funding situation in the US can be pretty bleak for postdocs, and I saw a lot of advertised positions abroad.

RDK: So what was the deciding factor for you? How would you rank a) the project, b) the supervisor, c) the institute, and d) the country, in importance for you when you were deciding where to go next?
RG: I’d say that the project and supervisor were the most important for me, followed closely by the institute. I wasn’t super particular about the geography of where I would wind up, I’ve already been living in the North American Great Plains for the last 25 years, so I just wanted somewhere that was not in the center of the US. I was really excited for this opportunity because it’s a pretty open project where I can decide what I am most interested in working on, Blake is a leading researcher in evolutionary ecology and eco-evo dynamics, and the Fish Ecology and Evolution group at Eawag is home to so many amazing scientists producing high quality research in the subjects I’m most interested in.

RDK: Is there anything specific about your PostDoc you’re really looking forward to getting stuck into? (Other than that sweet sweet Swiss paycheck?)
RG: I’m really looking forward to working on a new system and asking new questions about adaptation and speciation. I’m also excited about the opportunity to do some mesocosm experiments! 

RDK: So you’ve been here at Eawag for over 2 months now, what do you like most about your new group?
RG: Aside from the fact that we mostly look like a family group, I really like the complementary research approaches of everyone in the group. Also, everyone was super welcoming and I really enjoy hanging out with everyone at work and over beers (or a combination). 

RDK: It’s safe to say we have some ‘unique’ features of the department (Wednesday meetings...if you know, you know…). If you could change one thing about the group/department what would it be?
RG: I’m still getting a feel for everything, so I’ll wait a bit longer before suggesting any radical changes. 

RDK: Very diplomatic, you’re going to do well here! Last couple of questions, do you have a favourite organism?
RG: I’ve always been extremely fascinated by new world poison frogs (family Dendrobatidae), particularly the genus Ranitomeya. They’re tiny, brightly colored, and have interesting parental care behaviors.  

RDK: Well Ryan, thanks for taking the time to chat with me and good luck with writing up! One last question: if a genie could grant you one wish to help with your PhD or PostDoc what would you wish for?
RG: Instantaneous run-times on the cluster.