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Dr. Jeffrey Ryan

University of South Florida, Tampa, FL

Jeffrey Ryan. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Ryan and the University of South Florida.
Most of the information on this page is from an interview conducted by Carol Ormand on February 22, 2006.

Jeff Ryan is a professor in the Department of Geology at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, FL. (He also recently finished a two-year term as the NSF Geosciences Program Director of Undergraduate Education.) The University of South Florida is a Research-1 university; the geology department has fifteen faculty members. Both Masters and PhD students are expected to produce publishable research, and there is a long history of involving undergraduate students in REU projects. While there are no specific written requirements for faculty research productivity, Jeff likes to have one or two active grants funding his research program, with a small, active cadre of research students, resulting in the publication of a couple of papers each year.

Jeff has an active NSF-funded research program, focusing on the effects of subduction on the geochemistry of the Earth's mantle, and on the origins and evolution of igneous rocks in the southern Appalachians. Before his stint at NSF, he would usually have 3-4 PhD and Masters students, and 5-6 undergraduate students, working with him.

Everybody mentors everybody

With students from undergraduates to PhD candidates, Jeff works to create a research environment where the usual "age" hierarchies break down as much as possible. He does this by structuring his research projects such that each group of his students works on a different piece of the puzzle, making all of them dependent on each other. For example, in a geochemical analysis of rocks from the Central American arc, undergraduates analyze the rocks for elemental abundances. Graduate students then use that data to supplement their own isotopic analyses, carried out in laboratories in Washington, DC. In this situation, undergraduates who have been working with Jeff for a year know quite a bit more about how things work in his lab—especially his clean lab—than incoming Masters students. So the undergraduates mentor the graduate students in lab procedures. At the same time, the undergraduates are curious about what happens with "their" samples, and ask the graduate students about what they are doing. When this happens, and everybody mentors everybody, Jeff's lab becomes very productive. The lab also runs itself—that is, the students have the collective knowledge to train newcomers.

Coincidentally, Jeff finds it relatively easy to recruit interested undergraduates, as a result of curricular revision the geology department underwent several years ago. Because USF is an urban university, with about 2/3 of their undergrads coming from two-year programs at community colleges, the faculty felt that too many of their students were graduating with a B.S. in geology without actually knowing how to DO geology. The faculty set a goal of teaching undergraduates through an active, investigative approach. One of the outgrowths of this goal was a course in practical, applied geology. Another has been the redesign of several courses so that they are built around major research projects. This has created a pool of undergraduate geology majors ready and eager to do research.

The challenge: getting students up to speed on analytical techniques

Because graduate students don't typically come in knowing about how to work in a "clean" lab or with the instrumentation of analytical geochemistry, the biggest challenge Jeff faces is getting them up to speed on analytical equipment and techniques. In fact, with the steep learning curve they face, his Masters students are unlikely to finish their degrees in less than two years. This is especially true because the USF Geology department requires the "moral equivalent" of a technical paper to earn a Masters degree. Jeff is up front with incoming students about this, and also lets them know that how long it will take to get up to speed on the necessary analytical procedures is related directly to the time they are willing to spend in his lab.

Strategies for success

Paradoxically, getting students up to speed is less of a problem with undergraduate researchers, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, Jeff's hard rock course (mineralogy and petrology) gives students a taste of geochemical analysis. The course is built around two big projects; the second of these is to take a sample they've collected (on a field trip in the southern Appalachians), make a thin section of it, and carry out a bulk geochemical analysis on it. When students complete the course, they are familiar with the analytical techniques Jeff's undergraduate researchers use, and they have begun learning to think like scientists. Typically, two or three students from that course will be interested in continuing to work with him. Another venue for Jeff to teach geochemical methods to undergraduates is the 1-2 credit course called Practical and Applied Geology, in which students complete similar projects. Graduate students can also earn academic credit for learning geochemical methodology in a graduate-level Analytical Techniques in Geoscience course that Jeff teaches periodically.

The strategy that Jeff has found to be the most successful in getting undergraduate students up to speed and productive in geochemistry research is to work with groups of 3-4 students. He identifies research problems scaled such that a team of students can pursue them successfully, and he engages them as a group in refining their research questions and targets. He shows them as a group how to operate analytical equipment, and also how to perform routine maintenance on it safely and successfully. Thus, the usual set-up work of getting students prepared to do research becomes a team-building activity. While this approach is a time-saver for Jeff, it's also a more effective way for students to learn the methods of research, as they are more comfortable asking each other for help initially when they forget how to do something, and they are likely to retain that knowledge when they have put it all together themselves. The teamwork experience also seems to encourage them to engage with Jeff's graduate students as secondary mentors, and as workmates and lab colleagues. When he has had a team of undergraduates working in his lab, in association with a few MS and Ph.D. students pursuing their own research questions, Jeff finds that his lab runs itself—the research gets done very efficiently, and the lab itself stays well-maintained. The students appear to find this environment empowering to them... and it doesn't take much, if any, prompting or direction from Jeff.

This does not mean that Jeff abandons his students to fend for themselves, though. His office is directly across the hall from his labs, so he sees his students all the time. He has an open door policy; if they want his help, they come get him or (more often) beckon to him through the window. He also, of course, meets frequently with new students as they begin working with him. An important early focus of their discussions regards the time commitment that is necessary for a student to be successful in a research project—this is the issue Jeff finds that all students, and especially undergraduate students, need the most help with.

Advice for new faculty members

When it comes to selecting graduate students, Jeff advises caution. Take some time to get to know prospective students, he says. Time is precious; you don't want to spend yours trying to deal with a non-productive student. Be judicious in who you choose to work with. At the same time, he suggests considering undergraduate researchers. At many schools, undergraduates don't have to write theses, so how much they do is up to the two of you to decide. That can take off some of the immediate pressure for every one of your research students to produce something publishable.

Jeff adds that if you are working with undergraduate researchers, "don't be afraid to work with more than one." When he has 3 or 4 undergraduates working together, their productivity is several times what the same students would achieve working independently. In addition, as a team they become independent of you—they can usually work together to answer their own questions, and they generally prefer to do so instead of asking you. They learn important team skills, you save time, and everybody wins. Indeed, this kind of atmosphere creates a community of scientific learners, more likely to go on to graduate school and become scientists. That's very rewarding.

Jeff has found undergraduates to be highly motivated, especially when he offers them a free trip to AGU or GSA to present their findings. (Getting money to send undergraduates to present at conferences is never a problem, he says.) While Jeff's expectation is always that students' research will result in a presentation, the university has much looser expectations about what the outcomes will be. This gives you a certain amount of freedom in those rare cases where things don't go as expected.

Scaling research questions for different "levels" of students

Jeff always has more than one research project going at any time. Originally, this meant that Jeff had his undergraduate, Masters, and PhD students all working on different projects. Now he finds ways to integrate different "sizes" and types of research projects into his overall research program. Undergraduates run samples in his lab at USF; this makes it easy for him to supervise their work, and is easy to fund. Also, since several undergraduates work together as a team, collectively they can analyze a significant amount of data. Each Masters student needs to answer one coherent question, by collecting a finite body of data, analyzing it, thinking about the results in the context of the broader picture, and writing it up. A PhD student needs to make a significant scientific contribution. Jeff thinks of it this way: in the end, he should have to draw a "line in the sand" for his PhD students, telling them that will be enough for their PhD, knowing full well that they will continue working on related questions for the next several years. Ultimately, for any student, finding an appropriate sized research project is a question of deciding what data, and how much of it, to collect and analyze.