Advice to graduate students on becoming “translational”

By Alexis Erwin

Alexis Erwin (biography)

In an earlier post on this blog, Mark Brunson posed the questions: How does an ecologist become “translational”? What training is needed to venture beyond the lab or university and to engage with the potential beneficiaries or users of research? Here I offer my own thoughts as someone who started working to “become translational” halfway through a traditional ecology Ph.D. program.

Although the focus of this blog post is on translational ecology and on specific resources for graduate students in the U.S., I suggest the ideas are more widely applicable.

A respected professor said early in my graduate career, “If you don’t feel a physical rush seeing your name in print, you’re in the wrong field.” When I published my first paper, I was worried because there was no rush. My mind jumped to what I thought was the worst outcome: I was destined to be a(nother) drop in the “leaky pipeline” and not get a research professorship.

In hindsight, my worry stemmed from irrationally limiting my definition of success to tenure. That started to change when, out of curiosity, I took a winter break course in Washington, D.C. and discovered a whole new set of questions for academic researchers to tackle with others. Doing the science was only the first step, I learned. What must follow are science communication, interpretation, and “meaningful actions” (Schlesinger 2010).

After the course was over and I returned to campus, I wondered how to integrate what I’d learned into my program. Though my professors and mentors wanted to be helpful, their networks consisted largely of other world-class researchers, without the other stakeholders I recognized as essential to addressing socio-environmental problems. So I looked to the Ecological Society of America (ESA) and began participating in its policy and public affairs efforts.

It’s curious to me now that such engagement was outside my formal training because (as discussed in previous posts on this blog) it is the transferable skills and dispositional attributes I learned from my service to ESA that I now draw on – not specific knowledge of species or interactions or ecosystems. I could not have entered the ESA community without rigorous training in basic ecological science, but what I took away, somewhat unexpectedly, was an ability to convene diverse perspectives, embrace conflict over an issue while maintaining relationships among those involved, and drive consensus.

I’m now regularly asked for advice on how graduate students can “become translational.” Here’s what I suggest, ordered from relatively less time and effort to relatively more:

Invite your role models to have coffee or a brief phone call. Ask them how they got where they are. Ask them what sources they read, what languages they speak, and in which communities they invest their time. What’s just as important as their answers are the connections you’ll build to different disciplinary perspectives and professional networks.

Check out organizations doing translational work, e.g., the National Socio-Enivronmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), World Resources Institute (WRI), Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to identify how they frame socio-environmental problems and how ecological science is (or is not) used. Think how your research might support their missions of advancing food security, ending extreme poverty, and so on.

Cultivate a non-academic professional as a mentor and consider adding this person to your Ph.D. committee. S/he might not be included in matters of your advancement through the graduate program, but the broader context and network s/he brings may prove useful in communicating or applying your research later on.

 Apply to short policy/communication programs (that are sometimes called awards, confusingly). Good U.S. examples are Ecological Society of America’s (ESA) Graduate Student Policy Award, the American Institute of Biological Sciences’ Emerging Public Policy Leadership Award, (both 2 days) or Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes Science Outside the Lab (11 days).

Share your research with non-academic stakeholders. This might take the form of media targeted to the community near your fieldsite, a guest seminar at a relevant non-governmental organization, or a blog post addressed to your funders explaining the impact of their contribution.

Attend a professional meeting outside your specialty, such as the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Forum on Science and Technology Policy (2 days annually), the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) Conference (4 days annually) or the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress (10 days every 4 years).

Serve your professional society as the student representative to a committee or section or informally volunteer.

Pursue an off-campus internship. The American Military University maintains a good list of U.S. federal internships, such as those offered by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and your institution’s career office may have additional resources. Similarly, many non-governmental organizations welcome graduate researchers and some offer a stipend.

Consider a translational post-doctorate in addition to, or in lieu of, a research post-doctorate. The Science and Technology Policy fellowship offered by AAAS is the flagship, but others exist at the national, state, and city levels. Examples (and more are being developed every year) include:

Brunson rightly noted: Ecology students are bombarded with advice about skills to make them most marketable for research careers, from advanced statistics to geographical information systems to data visualization techniques. If we are to stave off degradation of the biosphere, should we not (also) bombard (some) students with advice about shaping management and policy conversations? Should we not include time in graduate programs for network expansion and relationship building with potential beneficiaries and users of science?

The opportunities for graduate students to “become translational” expand every year. Start where you are, take heart that you’re not alone, and share your story.

I welcome insights from others! What opportunities have you pursued within or beyond your graduate program? To mentors, how do you advise students interested in actionable socio-environmental systems research?


Schlesinger, W. H. (2010). Translational ecology. Science, 329, 5992: 609.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any U.S. government entity.

Biography: Alexis C. Erwin is a Senior Environmental Policy Advisor at USAID. As a thought leader in sustainability, she directs efforts to assess, avoid, and mitigate adverse impacts of development e.g., habitat loss associated with dams. Recently she oversaw environmental compliance for President Obama’s Power Africa initiative. Prior to that, she served as a Science and Technology Advisor to the California Senate Energy Committee and completed a National Science Foundation-funded term at the International Rice Research Institute. She is a member of the Translational Ecology Pursuit funded by the US National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

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