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Graduate Study in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior

At the EEB graduate program, we work to create a welcoming, collaborative and supportive community. The graduate program strives to and succeeds in providing stable funding to students throughout their PhD. Students develop their own research interests and directions, and freely take inputs from faculty all across our department and university. Work in ecology spans the theoretical, experimental and applied, across many ecosystems and scales. Below is a quick guide to applying here for graduate school (which also will help you apply to other places), followed by descriptions of some students whose work exemplifies the diversity of people and research interests in our graduate program.

We at the Graduate program in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior are very aware of the serious underrepresentation of many minority groups in our fields. We are committed to doing our part in making our program, and our fields, aware, inclusive and responsive to people of diverse origins and experiences. We have taken this on as a responsibility to our histories, our sciences, and our communities.

The University of Minnesota also has several excellent resources for supporting students from underrepresented groups through their graduate education. Please take a look at the Community of Scholars Program, Office of Diversity in Graduate Education, various graduate student community organizations, Twin Cities Multicultural Resources and Services, the Office for Equity and Diversity, and specific fellowship programs like the Diversity of Views and Experience fellowships and the Interdisciplinary Center for the study of Global Change. The Boreas Leadership Program also provides graduate students opportunities to build skills and training for public engagement and leadership.


Applying to graduate school in EEB is different than applying to college. While you would usually apply to a program or school for undergrad, for graduate school you often apply to work with a particular faculty member. This requires that you connect with faculty before applying, in order to determine whether they are a good match with your interests as well as funding availability.

Below is a timeline that will help you navigate the process, as well as other resources from students in the program:

Summer (one year before start date): Start looking through the faculty members in the program.  Look through their lab or personal websites and think of whose research matches your interest and you find exciting. Keep in mind that faculty members are often associated with multiple programs and departments, so they might advise students in EEB even of their appointment is in a different department.

Late summer/early fall: Contact faculty members you are interested in working with. You can often find instructions in the best way to contact them in their websites. Some prefer a call, while others prefer an email or letter with certain information such as a CV or transcript attached. If they don’t reply or answer the first time, try again, your email might have gotten lost in their inbox!

Faculty will reply back with information on whether they have space and funding to take on a student. If they are not taking students that year, it is fair to ask them if they know of other faculty who they think might be a good match for you.

Fall Semester: Follow up with faculty members who seemed interested in taking you as a student. Set up a phone or Skype interview. This will allow both of you to figure out whether you are a good match for their lab and whether you should apply for the program. You can also contact current or past students in the lab if you have questions for them.

Take your GRE, TOEFL (if applicable), and apply for fellowships such as the NSF GRFP. Ask for recommendation letters from previous mentors or professors who can speak to your ability to succeed in graduate school.

Late Fall Semester: Turn in your application and other related materials!

Early Spring: You will be invited for interviews at schools interested in taking you as a student. This will be an opportunity for your potential adviser and the department to get to know you in person, as well as for you to see what the school and students are like. It is also a great opportunity to learn about funding options and other opportunities.

Spring: Admission decisions are made and you will have until April 15th to make a final decision. Don’t be discouraged if your application is not successful, this can be due to limited funding and it is not necessarily indicative of your potential as a student.

Also, here is a document with more information and tips on the application process and graduate school in general.


Cristy Portales Reyes (Community ecologist studying temperate prairies)

EEB Doctoral Student, Adviser: Forest Isbell

Cristy Portales Reyes

We know that chronic nitrogen enrichment causes diverse prairies and grasslands to become dominated by only one or two plant species, which are often exotic. These changes in diversity can persist even decades after nitrogen enrichment stops. I am working to understand what mechanisms keep biodiversity from recovering after nutrient enrichment. I am particularly interested in learning how above and below ground processes might interact to stabilize this alternative state in biodiversity. For example, mutualistic microbes might become "cheaters" under elevated nutrient levels, causing them to act more like parasites than mutualists to native plant species. So, how could we revert these grasslands to a high diversity state? We don't entirely know, but I hope that by understanding these stabilizing mechanisms we can find better strategies to help biodiversity recover.

Anika Bratt (Aquatic ecologist studying urban watersheds)

EEB Doctoral Candidate, Adviser: Jacques Finlay

Anika Bratt

Ever wonder what happens to the dead leaves that don’t get swept up in your neighborhood during autumn months? I study how these leaves might be releasing nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, in to urban lakes and streams, and ultimately large rivers like the Mississippi. I work in a small residential watershed in St. Paul, MN. We found that winter export plays a key role in release of nutrients from this watershed downstream and that leachates from leaf litter (leaf tea!) could contribute ~80% of total winter phosphorus released.

Maga Gei (Terrestrial ecologist studying tropical forests)

EEB Alumna, Adviser: Jennifer Powers
Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Maga Gei

I am fascinated by the ecology of legume trees, which are highly abundant in tropical forests. Because many legumes are able to fix nitrogen, they play a key role in ecosystem functioning, especially facilitating forest regeneration. During my PhD, I studied how environmental factors (light, water, nutrients) influence nitrogen fixation by legumes in a tropical dry forest in Costa Rica. I am currently looking at the role of legumes during secondary succession in tropical dry and wet forests across the Neotropics.

Matt Burgess (Theoretical ecologist studying fisheries management)

UMN-EEB Alumnus, Advisers: David Tilman and Stephen Polasky
Postdoctoral Scholar, Sustainable Fisheries Group, University of California, Santa Barbara

Matt Burgess

I did my PhD research on fisheries. Fisheries are a major source food, livelihoods and environmental impact in many parts of the world. Fisheries are also—in my view—an ideal microcosm for coupled human-natural systems. My thesis was a bit eclectic, but the overarching question was: How can we use theory to squeeze more usable insights out of our limited data?

I’ve always wanted to do something which had policy relevance and advanced the agenda of sustainable development. I originally decided to combine ecology with economics in my studies because managing ecosystems sustainably ultimately requires managing the people who use them. The more I studied ecology and economics, the more I also began to appreciate the many parallels they have as pure disciplines—because human societies have an evolutionary origin like all other animal societies. I was drawn to theoretical research because mathematics is the common language linking ecology and economics.

Rebecca Ehrlich (Evolutionary biologist studying reproduction, disease and behavior)

Rebecca Ehrlich

I am fascinated by the "cost" of reproduction. Why are some organisms more prolific than others? How does investment in reproduction affect other life-history traits, and how does this differ between males and females? I am especially interested in trade-offs between reproduction and disease resistance under real-world environmental pressures. My research focuses on the plasticity of sex differences in immunity and its evolutionary implications.

Within academia, I am also passionate about better understanding the social and economic barriers that disrupt academic progress. Impostor syndrome may especially impact students from underrepresented groups--as undergraduates, graduate students, and beyond--contributing to the continued underrepresentation of these groups in the professoriate. I hope to use my experiences as a first-generation student to create open dialogue around impostor syndrome and allow for greater transparency in the graduate process.

Rachel Olzer (Studies behavior in crickets and its rapid evolution)

Rachel Olzer

I am currently a second-year PhD student in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior. My research is focused on understanding rapid evolution of alternative mating behaviors in populations of the Pacific field cricket located on the islands of Hawaii.

In addition to my primary research focus, I am interested in understanding diversity and equity in science through the lens of critical race and feminist theory and. Overall, I am interested in understanding the history of race relations in the United States- particularly the history of violence against and disenfranchisement of African Americans. I am currently focusing on the history of scientific racism in the collective fields of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior.

Like many scientists in the fields of EEB, I came to this field through a love of nature. I am interested in how early exposure to the outdoors affects career decisions early in life. Because of the fraught history of racism in the United States, many African Americans, have not had access to spaces where they could freely explore in nature. As such, my outreach focuses on nature-based play and the connection between recreating in the outdoors and developing a critical lens for studying the natural world.

Danielle Drabeck (Evolutionary biologist studying molecular co-evolution between snakes and opossums)

Danielle DrabeckMy research focuses on understanding co-evolution and co-adaptation at the molecular level by studying a tribe of South American opossums on this larger goal by studying a tribe of South American opossums that prey upon Bothrops jararaca, a South American pit viper, and are resistant to their venom. B. jararaca venom is known to contain a C-type-lectin (CTL) protein, Botrocetin, which specifically targets the blood protein vWF (von Willebrand factor), and causes excessive systemic bleeding. Resistant opossums show accelerated evolution at the vWF- botrocetin binding site when compared to non-resistant species, suggesting an adaptation which blocks Botrocetin activity. I use physiological and biochemical assays to understand the potential coevolutionary relationship between these opossums and their venomous prey, by focusing on the interaction between vWF and Botrocetin-type venom components. Utilizing a wide breadth of techniques such as molecular biology, phylogenetics, and biophysics, I aim to understand how these proteins interact, and how coevolution might have shaped their physiological and kinetic properties.

Allison Shaw (Assistant Professor; Theoretical study of EEB)

Allison Shaw

My research interests lie at the intersection between ecology, evolution, behavior and theory. I use models to understand how organisms use behavior (particularly long-distance movement like migration and dispersal) to adapt to their environments, and what consequences movement behavior has for both individuals and populations. I am also fascinated by the role of bias, both within scientific studies and in the academic environment. Theory is typically built with specific empirical systems in mind, which can become a problem if implicit biases are incorporated into a model that is intended to apply more generally. Within academia, I am interested in what factors cause differential representation by sex across disciplines and stages, and how academia is shifting as the postdoctoral stage becomes longer and more common.

Emilie Snell-Rood (Assistant Professor; Studying behavior and evolution in insects)

Emilie Snell-Rood

Organisms today are faced with environmental change on a scale unknown in their evolutionary history. Their ancestral habitats have been converted to monocultures of crops or vast expanses of urban and suburban development, nutrient cycles are shifting due to fertilizer application, and the climate is changing rapidly. How will organisms respond to such novel and rapid changes in their environment? Not only is this a pressing question for conserving biodiversity today, but it is also relevant for understanding how past environmental change has shaped biological communities.

The Snell-Rood lab tackles this question in part by focusing on developmental plasticity – the ability of an organism to adaptively adjust their development in response to different environments. Highly plastic organisms can develop different behavior, physiology or morphology in a new environment, allowing for responses to environmental change within one generation. Current environmental change is occurring so quickly that for many populations, plastic responses may be especially important, especially if those species have long generation times or limited genetic variability. Research in the Snell-Rood lab aims to predict which species will show pronounced plastic responses to rapid environmental change, and how these responses interact with longer term evolutionary responses. We tend to use insects as model systems to test general hypotheses about plasticity because insects can be reared by the thousands and are easy to manipulate. Butterflies in particular make an excellent model system because we have an excellent grasp of their natural history thanks to generations of curious and hard-working scientists and amateur naturalists.