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UW-Eau Claire grad now leading his own undergrad research team

| Judy Berthiaume

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, UW-Eau Claire’s biology faculty should be standing a little taller this fall.

Nearly 10 years ago, Adam Schneider was among the first group of Blugolds to intern in the Galapagos Islands.

Nearly 10 years ago, Adam Schneider was among the first group of Blugolds to intern in the Galapagos Islands.

Nearly a decade ago, Adam Schneider was among the first Blugold interns to work on research at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador.

This summer, the UW-Eau Claire graduate returned to the same research center in the Galapagos, this time as Dr. Adam Schneider, a botany professor at a college in Arkansas leading his own undergraduate research team.

"Engaged learning involves immersive, hands-on experiences in which students are actively participating in their learning,” Schneider says. "So, one of the first things I did at Hendrix College was to revive my contacts in the Galapagos and see if they’d be interested in hosting students. Meanwhile, I applied for money that could cover their travel and living expenses.”

The second thing he did was ask faculty at his alma mater for advice as he began creating for his students the same kind of life-changing experiences he had in Galapagos as a Blugold.

They were happy to help, sharing ideas and offering support as their former student closed a circle that took him from undergraduate student researcher to faculty research mentor.

"I absolutely did model my summer program in the Galapagos Islands after UW-Eau Claire’s,” says Schneider, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2012 with degrees in biology and chemistry. "The overall model was the same, in which I accompanied the students for their first several weeks to help them adjust and set up in their work.

“Deb Freund, the professor who first took me down there and continued to lead the UWEC Galapagos interns until she retired, was indispensable in providing advice on recruiting students, interacting with station staff, navigating Ecuadoran bureaucracy and more. Other UWEC faculty who have been involved more recently were also helpful.”

The result of their collaboration?

A summer research program that exceeded his expectations and helped make what he believes will be a lasting impact on his students, Schneider says.

"It was rewarding to see the students face their challenges and navigate through them,” Schneider says. "I think they are still continuing to process their experience, and I can't wait to see how it shapes their lives going forward.

"It’s hard to imagine anything more rewarding than being able to pay forward the amazing opportunity that I was afforded by Deb and UWEC.”

Returning to the same research site in the Galapagos years after his first visit gave him a new perspective on the work being done there as well as a greater appreciation for the region itself.

"No one can fully appreciate a place the first time they are there, so having several years to reflect on my first experience, and then go back and have a chance to immerse myself again was cool,” Schneider says. "I had a better sense of what to expect at work, and outside of work, and a greater understanding of and appreciation for the unique biology of the area.”

One of the highlights, he says, was that his time in Ecuador overlapped with UW-Eau Claire’s research program there, allowing him to spend time with current Blugold researchers and their faculty mentors, Dr. Wil Taylor and Kelly Murray.

"I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about how the relationship between UWEC and CDRS has developed since I was a student, and how to build on my experience this year to potentially support students and the station in the future,” Schneider says. "If I’m able to take students in the future, I'd like to explore ways to coordinate a bit more closely with the UWEC team.”

Establishing the Galapagos Islands internship opportunity for his Hendrix College students is just one of many ways his time as a student at UW-Eau Claire is influencing his work as a professor, Schneider says.

Thanks to UW-Eau Claire faculty, he understands that his classroom teaching is important, but also that it is just one way he can support and inspire student learning.

After all, it was a combination of challenging coursework and high-impact experiences — ranging from research projects to study abroad programs to science seminars — offered by UW-Eau Claire that helped shape his college years and his future.

"Being a professor is so much more than just lecturing,” Schneider says of the lessons learned from UW-Eau Claire faculty. "You are also doing research, you are advising students, you are mentoring, you are managing people, you are writing grants, you are collaborating with other faculty to run a major or department or other aspects of the college. Having opportunities to do a bunch of different things — primarily teaching, research and mentoring — in a self-directed yet highly collaborative way, is what I love most about my job.”

When he came to UW-Eau Claire he had an interest in biology, but not a clear sense of how that might translate into a future career, Schneider says, adding that UW-Eau Claire’s reputation for providing students with research experiences is what first brought him to the campus.

It was at UW-Eau Claire that his interest in biology — plants in particular — grew into a passion, which he eventually found a way to turn into a rewarding career.

"Look out your window right now, and most of what you see are plants,” Schneider says. "If you pause and look a little closer you'll see an incredible diversity. You'll see a diversity of species, as well as shapes and sizes and other adaptations that allow plants to thrive in a tremendous range of environments and do a lot of cool things that animals or other creatures can't do. At the same time, there is a deep sense of unity to biology because all life shares a common ancestor and evolves under some common constraints. And every day scientists find new ways that organisms interact with and depend on each other.

"Natural evolution is an amazingly powerful and beautiful theory that describes all this biodiversity that we see and organizes every living thing as a snapshot of a dynamic process that extends far into the past and future.”

While his undergraduate coursework gave him the building blocks necessary to complete his biology and chemistry majors, it was the outside-the-classroom experiences that had the greatest impact on his future, Schneider says.

For example, he found his niche within the biology field after listening to a scholar from UW-Madison speak during a seminar at UW-Eau Claire.

"Dr. Linda Graham talked about her research on determining which group of algae are most closely related to land plants,” Schneider says. "What was so cool about her talk is how she used a variety of lines of evidence — genetics, morphology, the fossil record, maybe biochemistry — and tied them together to answer a really cool question about where plants came from.

"That's when I realized I wanted to be a systematist, because you get to use all sorts of different types of evidence from across the sciences to understand biodiversity. And it gets even better when you go a step further and combine what you know about those relationships with all the cool, unique things that amaze us about different species to tell you something about how evolution works.”

It’s those kinds of “aha” moments — be it in the Galapagos, in his classroom or elsewhere — that he hopes to create for his own students.

He also hopes to build strong connections with his students, just as UW-Eau Claire faculty did with him.

As a Blugold Fellow during his undergraduate years, Schneider worked on research alongside multiple faculty, including Dr. James Boulter in chemistry and Dr. Tali Lee in biology.

In one project, he worked with Lee and two other Blugolds to design a greenhouse experiment to look at how changes in rainfall frequency over a growing season might affect two common grassland species.

With Lee guiding them, the students engaged in the scientific process by asking questions about the natural world and evaluating evidence, work that helped prepare him for graduate school and eventually resulted in Schneider’s first peer-reviewed publication.

"However, the most important outcome for me was the mentorship these opportunities provided professionally and personally,” Schneider says. "Dr. Lee has helped me and supported me through each of my career stages, and she continues to be one of my most trusted and valued mentors.

"Undergraduate research was the first step in developing these relationships and learning how to be a scientist.”

Following the lead of UW-Eau Claire faculty, Schneider now is working to create similar opportunities and experiences for a new generation of student researchers.

Top photo caption: UW-Eau Claire grad Dr. Adam Schneider (right) — now a professor in Arkansas — led an international student research program that he modeled after one he’d been part of as a Blugold.