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How One Scientist is Making Entomology a More Welcoming Place

Avery Russell, Ph.D.

Entomologist Avery Russell, Ph.D., is passionate about pollination—he directs research that involves behavioral ecology, plant–animal–microbe interactions, and evolution. As an assistant professor at Missouri State University, Russell divides his time between instruction, research, and service. A keen mentor to students, Russell works to find ways to make entomology a more welcoming place while untangling the complexities of pollination.

By Tim Vandervoet, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: This is the next post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.

Avery Russell, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at Missouri State University. Opening a new lab at MSU just four months before the COVID-19 pandemic would be an enormous challenge for many early career professionals, but Avery has found a large measure of success by supporting the eight students in his lab and creating a welcoming place for those interested in entomology. Avery’s supportive lab atmosphere is mirrored in his approach to teaching, with courses covering evolution, plant–animal interactions, and entomology. To help ensure better representation in the field of entomology, Avery serves on numerous diversity committees at MSU, including the Graduate Inclusive Admissions Committee, the Provost Diversity Committee, and College of Natural and Applied Sciences Diversity Committee. Prior to his current position, Avery was a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied plant–pollinator–microbial interactions. He received his Ph.D. in insect science at the University of Arizona in 2016.

Vandervoet: Tell me about your research—what you work on today, and how did you come upon that subject?

Russell: Our lab focuses on three associated topics: (1) behavioral mechanisms and floral traits that mediate foraging flexibility; (2) evolution of floral traits and flexible animal behaviors; and (3) the microbiology of plant–pollinator interactions. Our primary study organisms are bumble bees, as they are easy to work with in the lab and field and much is known about their behavior. As an undergraduate working in neuroethology, I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know. While I started off in neuroethology as a graduate student, after a rotation in a behavioral ecology lab working with bees, I couldn’t shake my interest in plant–pollinator research. I was also lucky enough to be surrounded by colleagues who thought about ecological and evolutionary consequences of behavior, and so I also began exploring both perspectives. As I was finishing up my Ph.D., I wanted to add something novel to my plant–pollinator toolkit. Luck had it that a postdoctoral position to investigate plant–pollinator–microbe interactions was available, and I thought this would be just the thing to broaden my study system.

With the first year of your new lab behind you, I wonder how you measure success—publications? Successful grant proposals?

Grants, publications, awards, and presentations are all important components of success. However, much of what gives me a feeling of success on a daily basis is related to my mentees. For example, success is when my mentees are excited about their research, learn something new, and can teach others. Success is also when my students grow, such as when they learn to ask for assistance, or say no, or to take failure in stride. Likewise, the lab is successful when a mentee leaves the lab with an appreciation and understanding of science and the importance and role of social justice in academia. I also try to make sure mentees are considering their successes frequently, because academia can be a very negative environment, as we are often critiquing and receiving critiques. During our one-on-one and lab meetings, we make a point to talk about successes, broadly defined. We applaud health breakthroughs, social successes, and other life achievements, as well as traditional scientific successes.

Russell Lab trip

Avery Russell, Ph.D., says he views his role managing a lab at Missouri State University as that of a mentor to his students. “I want my mentees to leave the lab with skills that suit their particular professional interests and to know how to navigate academia. I also want mentees to develop core principles that hopefully make us better people,” he says. Here, Russell Lab members pause for a photo on a kayaking trip. Pictured left to right are (front row) Abilene Mosher and Maggie Mayberry and (back row) Russell, Parker Campbell, and Steph Sanders.

Tell me about your students. How do you support them to become the professionals they want to become?

The researchers who work with me are undergraduates and master’s students, and most have interest in careers adjacent to academia. As a result, I am frequently retraining myself to be competent in mentoring for other professions, and I try to build a lab that is highly responsive to mentee needs. Professional development topics at lab meetings are guided by mentee requests; for instance, we may bring in outside speakers to discuss conservation, industry, or teaching. Semester planning meetings likewise focus on centering mentee goals and accomplishments. Additionally, I make sure that the lab’s cloud storage has up-to-date professional resources for student use, including scientific literature, outreach materials, templates for creating presentations, writing grants, CVs and resumes, etc. Overall, I try to create a safe, supportive, and affirming environment that makes it clear that help is always available and that there’s no one right career or way to build a career.

Avery Russell, Ph.D.

In his downtime, Avery Russell, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biology at Missouri State University, enjoys rock climbing.

How do you approach the role of mentorship, what have you learned, and what would you share with others?

Mentoring is my passion, and I try to invest considerable time and effort into learning about and implementing equitable mentoring practices and in revealing the “hidden curriculum” of academia. I want my mentees to leave the lab with skills that suit their particular professional interests and to know how to navigate academia. I also want mentees to develop core principles that hopefully make us better people. For this reason, I try to be clear with expectations, emphasize the importance of communication, practice compassion and empathy, put mental health first, and practice awareness of power and social dynamics. I believe that lab meetings play an especially important role in mentoring: While we do traditional lab things (e.g., paper discussions), we focus heavily on mental health, professional development (holding workshops on CV writing, reviewing, outreach), and diversity, equity, and inclusion, generally and in academia. Twitter has been an invaluable tool for me: There are so many incredible mentoring resources created by students, staff, faculty, and other professionals. Diversifying who I follow has really helped broaden my perspectives and strategies in mentoring. In addition, polished mentoring resources are shared on our lab website for anyone to modify and use.

What advice would you give other ECPs or soon-to-be ECPs? What do you think is the most important thing to consider to develop a successful career?

I’m not sure I know! Most academics (including me!) have only gone through each professional phase of their life once, so advice is often very subjective, and success is also very dependent on luck. Seeking out and listening to diverse perspectives has helped me improve my mentoring and how I work with and advocate for others. Building a strong support network and having a life outside of academia have also been key to keeping me happy: learning to pay attention to the red flags and to say no and to value yourself; learning how to ask for help and to thank people for helping; learning when something is good enough and learning when to give up; being resilient when faced with failure (e.g., in your science, your collaborations). However, I suppose the underlying components I consider to contribute to my success have been to try to practice kindness, empathy, and relentless organization.

Tim Vandervoet, Ph.D., is a scientist with the New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research, Ltd., in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. He is the 2020-2021 International Branch Representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Twitter: @timvandervoet. Email: timvandervoet@gmail.com.

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