Ecologist Spotlight: April Blakeslee

Welcome to the Ecologist Spotlight column!

We seek out ecologists with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to highlight their work and share their stories and experiences. Thank you to April M.H. Blakeslee for participating in our column this week! If you would like to be featured, or would like to nominate someone, please contact us today.

April M.H. Blakeslee. Credit: Mike Blakeslee.

Please state your current affiliation.

April: Biology Department, East Carolina University (Greenville, NC).

Tell us about yourself and your current area of research.

April: My research in marine ecology is fairly multidisciplinary and includes several fields—conservation biology, invasion biology, biogeography, biodiversity, parasite ecology, and evolutionary ecology. One of my primary research areas centers around the unique and integrative insight that can be gained from studying biological invasions.

Why is it important to study marine invasive species?

April: Recently, biological invasions have become recognized as a major contributor to the global (and often disjunct) distributions of many marine species as a result of human transport mechanisms. Invasion research is therefore important not only from a conservation perspective but can provide theoretical and practical understanding of population and community level influences of novel species, and can also serve as an important teaching tool for students and the general public. Marine invasions are a major part of human-induced global change, including population, community, and ecosystem-level shifts in marine biota, genetics, and the environment. We examine many integrative aspects of marine invasions, focusing in four major areas:

(1) global distribution patterns and biogeography of free-living and parasite species,
(2) marine invasions and vectors,
(3) population genetics and population ecology in native and non-native populations, and
(4) community ecology and host-parasite interactions of native and non-native organisms, including host behavior, physiology, and genetics.

We focus our studies primarily on marine invertebrates as they have contributed vast numbers of introductions globally, and they also serve as hosts to marine parasites, which are a fundamental but often overlooked component of many marine systems, and which can become cryptic invaders themselves.

What first interested you in ecology?

April: I am very interested in how organisms interact with their environment. In a lot of ways ecological research is like solving a puzzle (something I find very enjoyable) because there are so many potential pieces. It is a very rewarding feeling to at least get closer to solving major ecological puzzles—for example, better understanding the why’s, how’s, when’s, where’s, and what’s of a biological invasion.

April working in the lab. Credit: Cliff Hollis.

What has inspired you in your career?

April: Collaborative research – I find working in a team to be one of the most rewarding parts of ecological research. It brings together multiple expertise and viewpoints and can be really fun to work together to solve these puzzles. It is also nice to work with people who can get excited about the same things that you do.

Tell us about one of your favorite research moments.

April: For my dissertation research, I traveled through a big chunk of the western Atlantic to collect samples and work on data along the way. I started in southern Atlantic France and worked my way up through the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and into Norway, then back down to Belgium, where I took the Chunnel train from Brussels to London, and then traveled through Wales, England, and Scotland. This was pre-GPS enabled phones, so there was quite a bit of trying to figure out maps, getting lost, and driving until the wee hours of the morning. It was also during the infamous heat wave of 2003, with no A/C in the car or most of the hotels we stayed in. However, it is an experience I will never forget because I was able to go to some really interesting and beautiful locations, and I also met many researchers along the way who let me use their lab space (some of which I have maintained connections with to this day). I also ended up with some really interesting data which was eventually published in Ecology and Molecular Ecology.

Who is someone that you have never met but whose research you have always admired?

April: Two someones: Armand Kuris and Kevin Lafferty. I have co-authored a paper with them, but have yet to actually meet them in person. Hopefully someday!

What is a challenge that you faced as a student, young professional, or early faculty member and how did you work through it?

April: I think a challenge that all female students and professionals may face is implicit bias throughout their careers. It can sometimes be difficult to know how much that has, or is, influencing our abilities to advance in our careers and do the quality work we would like to do. I don’t have a specific example to give here, but I do worry that it may have affected (and may continue to affect) how I am perceived as a scientist, which of course can have a big impact on my career (in terms of getting papers accepted, grants funded, and ultimately decisions at my workplace). Moreover, work/life balance, and the perceptions related to it, can also be tougher for female students and professionals than their male counterparts. It can be frustrating (to say the least) to worry that the effort I am putting in may not be perceived (or rewarded) in the same way as a male colleague. I deal with this by taking things day to day, working hard, and forging good collaborations with others (which help make the effort much more worthwhile).

April in the field. Credit: Mike Blakeslee.

When you become discouraged by a challenging research problem or unexpected issue, how do you stay motivated?

April: I am one of those people who has a hard time walking away from something that is challenging or posing a problem. I will sometimes stubbornly work at something for a long period of time before finally realizing I need to walk away and take a break from it. To me, it is that break (when I finally recognize it!) that is ultimately most helpful, along with the recognition that I can ask for help. I have found those two things – a break to get perspective, and getting help from a colleague/mentor – to be the best ways for me to deal with a problem and try to resolve it.

You have mentored numerous students, ranging from high school level to graduate degrees. What is a strategy that you use for providing feedback on a student’s progress?

April: I try to make all my work with students more collaborative than directive, so I provide feedback to students as I would to a colleague—mostly through meetings and discussions for how things are going. I also try to make training more hands-on, so that the student learns along the way. I have found these to be really good ways of providing feedback and helping the student get to their end goals.

What do you do in your “off” time?

April: I have a family with two kids, so we do a lot of things together. One activity we all really enjoy is being outdoors (camping, hiking, kayaking/canoeing, playing outdoor games, biking). I also love to travel, so I drag my family along with me to many things (often our weekends are booked…which they sometimes appreciate). I also really enjoy theater and music, and try to attend shows/plays/performances when I can. I have seen ~25-30 Broadway shows (on Broadway) at this point, and multiple shows in other cities (including London and Edinburgh!).

April in the field. Credit: Mike Blakeslee.

If you met a 10 year old who was interested in ecology, what would you say to encourage them?

April: I would say that ecology is a great field of science because you get to try to figure out what is going on out in nature, and (per above) solve puzzles! You can often also travel to many places around the world to do that—and get perspectives not only in your backyard but at a much larger scale.

Scene: *You walk into a local coffee shop* What do you order?

April: Probably a chai latte. And a chocolate croissant. 🙂

Bonus: Are there any other interesting stories you would like to share?

April: Over the past couple of years, teaching and research have allowed me to visit several places around the world, including Sydney, Australia; Baja, Mexico, Newfoundland, Canada; Stromstad, Sweden; and upcoming this year, Argentina (including Patagonia). These trips have furthered my love of ecology and conservation, and have allowed me to meet many amazing people.