Desert Scholar

Emily Mydlowski, who carried out numerous research projects as an undergrad at NMU, will be starting a Master of Science in Biology program at Boise State University in the Fall 2016 semester. Credit to NMU professors who helped give her the research experience she needed goes to Dr. Alan Rebertus, Dr. Jill Leonard, and to Ms. Emily Sprengelmeyer (Madison College.)

Read on to learn how she found herself in the desert and how her very first field season as a graduate student is going.


“During the summer before my last semester at NMU, I searched for the perfect graduate program by looking up faculty that had overlapping research interests in a region of the country that I was interested in living. Once I located a person whose research I thought would be fun and intriguing for two years, I sent them a short email, hoping to strike up a conversation. During my search, I sent twenty-something emails and received a handful of responses back. There were a couple hopeful leads but for some reason the conversations didn’t feel quite right.

I took a break from searching and went on a “soul searching” canoe trip in Manitoba and when I returned I was fired up and ready to start searching for the advisor that would best suit my needs as a student and developing scientist. With the help of McNair I traveled to Fort Collins, Colorado to visit a professor at Colorado State University. The visit was great! Students in the lab were friendly, the research was interesting, and the advisor was helpful. Despite a positive experience upon my visitation, there was a component of it that didn’t feel like it would be a good fit. To this day, I haven’t identified what that was.

When I returned to Marquette, I continued searching for advisors. The semester continued and graduate deadlines were approaching; I felt pressured to solidify my choices. One day in November, on the fifth page of a Google search, I found a professor at Boise State University that was doing a neat project on a rare plant in Idaho. I felt desperate to find a connection I felt confident about and sent him an email. The next thing I knew we were emailing back and forth and set up a phone conversation (that ended up lasting over an hour!). He is from Canada and spent time in Ontario and on Lake Superior, which really helped me to bond with a total stranger. When our phone conversation ended I knew this was the advisor I wanted to be involved with. I visited BSU a few short weeks later to see the plant and study areas with Dr. Robertson and we hit it off beautifully.

Slkspt 123

I started working on the field work for my master’s project in the middle of June 2016 to have three field seasons instead of two for my project. Dr. Ian Robertson and I are looking at the impacts that harvester ants have on vegetation and on a rare plant, Lepidium papilliferum, in the sagebrush steppe ecosystem. LEPA grows in a specific habitat called slickspots, which have special physical characteristics different from the surrounding soil. The ants eat seeds of the plant and sometimes even defoliate the plant (see below.)

Defoliated LEPA next to ant colony

To see the effects of ants on plants, we are planning to treat colonies with an ant pesticide and compare those plots with no ants to plots with ants. The work for this involved doing vegetation surveys (which I was very comfortable with having so many botany/ Dr. Rebertus classes under my belt from NMU), and seed sampling of both LEPA and surrounding vegetation. Another component of my research is doing LEPA seed introductions. In another area, the Idaho Army National Guard (funds the research) has a section of land fenced off to keep free range cattle out of LEPA habitat. There I am going to be introducing LEPA seeds to slickspots to look at germination success and pollination. It’s a fun project and sort of feels like a culmination of my undergraduate works,. The ants are so much fun to watch – I wish I could be ant sized for one day and see what its like in their colony.

Though the desert is dry and I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty drab, it does have cool organisms. We have seen badgers (which I keep calling beavers out of habit, I think my head is still in the northwoods), black chinned hummingbirds (one came after my orange flagging tape the other day), ground squirrels (they remind me of potatoes with legs), jackrabbits, so many great raptors, Lazuli buntings, rattle snakes, lizards, cow killer ants, and black widow spiders (a regular sight at one of the study areas). This past week I was standing on top of a rodent hole and to my surprise a kangaroo rat crawled out from under my foot and almost went up my pants! Work has been fun to say the least and a nice introduction to Idaho before classes start in August. I will be taking biometrics, a TA class, a seminar class that involves being flown into northern Idaho-hiking, camping, and fly fishing(!!!!!)- and thesis credits. I will also be teaching an upper division general ecology course. I’m really excited.


For the McNair students who are graduating this year (December or May) or next, I would definitely start looking at graduate programs during the summer and getting in touch with faculty before they become too busy. I felt so overwhelmed with the process, so to start, I Googled my research interests (e.g., “community ecology,” “plant insect interactions,” “plant ecology,” faculty) and went through the list. Another good place to start is by looking through colleges that are in a state you are interested in living in. If you start looking during the summer, you will have plenty of time to arrange campus visits with McNair at a time during the semester before it gets too busy. Be sure to keep in mind when the application deadlines are; in my search I noticed that most MSc biology program deadlines are sometime in the January-March window and PhD program deadlines are December-January. There will be variation within that, but it’s critical to have those in your head and plan accordingly. Pursuing graduate school is exciting! Best of luck to those of you searching for programs. :)”