FAQs for a Grad Student: PAD edition

What do you study? What is that? Why do you study that? Why are you in a biology department? So…what are you going to do with that?

These are the types of questions that every graduate student dreads, but they’re valid questions nonetheless. In fact, I’d wager that our dread relating to these subjects has a lot to do with the fact that the answer to one of them is usually, “Um, I don’t know,” rather than us seeing them as invalid in some way.

The fact of the matter is, grad students go to grad school because we’re giant nerds. This isn’t a bad thing (most of us own it quite proudly) but it does make for a difficult time when asked why we do what we do. We do it because we like to learn. We do it because we want to (insert vague shrug here).

That said, my particular field of research is weird even for grad school (on so many levels) so I often get asked these questions by people who are grad students (or have been at some point in time). Since this is the case, I thought I’d go ahead and answer them here (so I can just send people to my blog the next time they give me that confused, “Is that even a thing?” look).

  1. What do you study?

I study plant awareness disparity (or PAD). This used to be referred to as “plant blindness,” but I recently published a paper that attempts to rename the term because it is a disability metaphor (which is bad). You can find it here.

2. What is that?

PAD is the tendency not to notice plants in an environment, which often leads to really misguided ideas like, “plants don’t matter to humans,” or “plants aren’t that important to the ecosystem.” If you’ve ever taken a biology class and heard (or thought), “Ugh plants are so boring, why do we even have to learn about them?” That’s PAD, and PAD is BAD (for a few reasons why, check out #PADisBAD on Twitter). PAD often results in less support for plant conservation, less awareness of where our food comes from, and less appreciation for the things that plants do (that often benefit us).

3. Why do you study that?

I first noticed PAD in my botany class as an undergrad. I loved botany (no surprises there) but all of my fellow students (and I do mean all of them) did NOT want to be in that class. (Luckily for us it was required for biology majors. 😉) I was always so confused and frustrated by this lack of interest in plants. I thought plants were fascinating but for some reason no one else in my cohort seemed to share this opinion. I soon gained a reputation of being, “That overly-enthusiastic plant lady,” because I kept trying to convince my fellow students of how cool plants are (I told you grad students are nerds).

When I discovered that there was a term for this phenomenon, I was thrilled because I finally had the language to describe what I was seeing all this time. And, even better, I could do research and contribute to finding a solution (or, more accurately, multiple solutions) to the problem. I quickly decided that I would do my PhD dissertation on the subject.

4. Why are you in a biology department?

I mostly get asked this question by people who a) are in a biology department themselves or b) are in an education department and cannot understand why an education researcher would be in a biology department. To be fair, I would probably ask the same thing. The type of research that I do is actually called discipline based education research (or DBER) because I have training in a specific discipline (biology/botany) and now I do education research within that discipline. Ergo, I’m in a biology department because while my research is technically education research, I do it from the point of view of someone who has taken A LOT of biology and botany courses. This helps when I do my research because since I have so much experience with these courses, I’m more likely to know what types of educational interventions will work within their confines. And since these courses take place in biology departments, I kind of have to be in one to do my research. Ta-da! Education researcher in a biology department. (We do tend to be unicorns, but positions like this are getting more and more common. As it turns out, having biology education experts in biology departments really helps make the biology curriculum better. Go figure.)

5. So…what are you going to do with that?

Ah, the most dreaded question of them all for a graduate student. I used to always say I wanted to be a research professor at an R1 university (those are the big universities with lots of research going on. They tend to attract more grant money, and have large class sizes too). But recently I’ve had a change of heart. I’ve started to learn more about science communication and this has shifted my interests toward wanting an outreach position with a botanical garden, science center, museum, or related entity. Honestly, my dream job would be directing outreach and education at one of these places and getting to build science communication and education programs for the public (and for students at local schools and universities) to benefit from. As it turns out, I really love talking about plants (again, go figure), and I want to better understand (and help others understand) how to do so in a more relatable way that will hopefully help alleviate PAD.

These are the five most common questions I get as a grad student, but they’re certainly not comprehensive by any means of the word. If you have another question for me, leave me a comment or tweet at me (@KateParsley_) and I’ll give you the best answer I’ve got!


Overly-Enthusiastic Plant Lady

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