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Publishing opens doors for graduate students
as budding researchers
November 16, 1998

Special Issue

For every man, woman and child on earth, experts estimate there are 200 million insects. They're tough, tenacious and they've been around a lot longer than we have. With odds like that, we can use a guy like Piotr "Peter" Naskrecki.

Naskrecki can tell you precisely where a lot of those insects are. He has been on their trail since he was a child, and the safari has taken him all the way from his native Poland across the United States to Utah and back to UConn.

Supported by a National Science Foundation grant, Naskrecki has helped to create a remarkable database that was initiated more than a decade ago by Daniel Otte of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. It is a comprehensive record of more than 7,000 species of orthoptera, the insect family that includes katydids, crickets, and grasshoppers.

Naskrecki's database, available both on the Internet and CD-ROM, includes text and images of all the world's orthoptera "type specimens." They are the individual insects, preserved in museums worldwide, that serve as the standards against which orthoptera captured anywhere can be identified.

And the database is available to anyone - from the world's leading insect experts to kids with curiosity and a jar.

While similar databases exist for other insects, none are so comprehensive as Naskrecki's. But its exhaustiveness is only one of the things that make it remarkable: Naskrecki is not a professor, he's a graduate student. And he exemplifies the increasing importance of publishing - both in electronic form and in print - for graduate students in all disciplines.

What's more, he's one of a number of graduate students in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology who are distinguishing themselves as both researchers and writers.

Charles Smith is another good example. When he joined the department to work on his Ph.D. this autumn he came with an NSF fellowship, one of three in the department. During the next three years, the fellowship will allow him to engage in extensive research on one of North America's most elusive animals - the timber rattlesnake.

Like Naskrecki, Smith became interested in his research subject during childhood. For the past two decades, that interest has led to professional positions with zoos across America. Along the way, he has discovered the value of publishing.

Self-effacing about his writing, Smith quickly notes that many of his articles have appeared in popular, rather than scholarly, periodicals. But it is hard to overlook a body of work that includes upwards of 60 articles. Couple that publishing history with a clear picture of what he hopes his research will produce - an understanding of the seasonal migratory patterns of rattlesnakes and the impact of those patterns on the snakes' survival - and preliminary research to demonstrate his research proposal has validity, and it is easy to understand why the NSF would look on Smith as a good investment.

What Naskrecki and Smith have in common is a passion for their work. And what both have discovered is that publishing helps get them where they want to be.

"You do science because you're driven to do it," says Naskrecki, "but finding the opportunities to do the work you want to do is a very competitive process. Publication serves as evidence that you are a capable scientist. For students, publishing is your ticket to the world of science."

As in Smith's case, Naskrecki's current success was predicated on his last big project. Without his track record, he almost certainly would not have landed his current NSF grant, which allows him to study the evolution of katydids and expand the database to include such insects as mantises, walking sticks and cockroaches. When he applied for the grant, the existence of the database and a strong body of compelling research (not to mention a highly regarded book about hummingbird flower mites that he co-authored with Professor Robert Colwell) were among his compelling credentials.

Beyond its utility as a career management tool, these students will also tell you that publishing is one of the essential means by which scientists share and examine what they learn.

"Good ideas, published, complete the work begun in research," says Greg Anderson, professor and head of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology. "If you have a good idea and you don't publish it, who will ever know? Conversely, once it is published it stands for all time."

Top students like Naskrecki and Smith are drawn to the department, he says, because of its international reputation and because all of the department's 30 faculty members are actively engaged in research projects on diverse topics.

Anderson strongly acknowledges the importance of the Graduate School and the Research Foundation in providing seed funds that allow both faculty and students to explore an extraordinary range of scientific inquiries.

Anderson says publishing also plays an important role in helping students to define the greatest value of the work they are doing, a question he often raises with his students.

On final exams, for example, he routinely includes a question such as "How would you describe your research to your Aunt Helen and explain to her why she should pay her taxes to support your work."

"Publishing is as important for the University as it is for students," he says. "The reputation of our department, which helps us attract both top students and research funding, is partly built by the publication of articles written by faculty and students. It is at the heart of the work we do as scientists and educators.

Jim Smith