Assistant Professor, Biology
In this edition of “Fast Five: Quick Q&As with Members of the Merrimack Community,” we talk to Bill McDowell, an Assistant Professor of Biology in the School of Science and Engineering. His research focuses on global change in aquatic ecosystems, often using large datasets.
Fast Five Q&A with Bill McDowell
Why did you decide to become a professor?
Being a professor is about balancing both teaching and research. I discovered my love for research during my undergraduate thesis, examining a mutualism between ants and tree hoppers, an aphid like insect. I also had the opportunity to work as an undergraduate lab TA in an introduction to environmental science course. I really decided to make college teaching a central part of my career in graduate school, based on my experiences creating courses on my own and mentoring undergraduate students.
Can you tell us about your research?
My research focuses on global change in aquatic ecosystems, often using large datasets. Global change is pretty broadly defined – climate change is probably the first thing that comes to mind when people hear “global change,” but it also includes issues such as pollutants, land use changes, and invasive species (when a species evolves in one location, but gets moved by humans to a new location). All of these changes can have major impacts in terms of how aquatic systems function and what they provide to humans, but it gets really interesting and complicated when we have these factors interacting with each other. My research on invasive species primarily focuses on the freshwater clam Corbicula fluminea, which is well established in the southern 2/3 of the US. I used an approach called species distribution modeling to try and forecast how much Corbicula would be able to spread in the future, based on forecasts of climate change. We predicted that Corbicula would steadily spread northward, and in the years since that paper was published that has unfortunately been the case. There were only a handful of locations in Massachusetts when we did the modeling, but now there are dozens of known populations, including ones as far north as Vermont or Maine. Climate change is increasing the impact of Corbicula by allowing it to spread much farther north, so these two aspects of global change are interacting synergistically to produce a larger impact than we would expect if we just examined the impact of each component of global change by itself and combined them additively.
What do you want students to learn from working with you?
First and foremost, I hope that students learn that science is something that you do, rather than something that you learn from a textbook. Hands-on, open ended research is a critical component to an understanding of the scientific process, and that doesn’t change whether you’re working in an introductory biology lab or as a master’s student. I also hope that students develop a better understanding of how to assess, analyze, and interpret data and are able to think critically to develop explanations for the patterns that they see in their data.
What advice do you have for graduate students?
Graduate school can be an amazing time – it is a time in your career where you can focus on one topic extremely in depth and develop an extraordinary understanding of it and work hand in hand with a professor. It is really important to make sure that you find the right fit for yourself, both in terms of the subject matter and the personal relationships. In some ways, our own graduates are perfectly positioned to succeed in the program: they already know the faculty members in the department, and many of the students in the first year of the program are continuing research that they pursued as an undergraduate.
Why should students pursue an M.S. in Biology – and why should they choose Merrimack’s program if they do?
A M.S. in Biology can open many opportunities for students. Many positions, even at entry level, now list a M.S. as a preferred qualification, so having a M.S. can really help you get your foot in the door. However, the increase in the depth of knowledge and the development of new and valuable skills that comes with increased training and specialization are even more valuable. I think the M.S. in Biology at Merrimack is an interesting combination that draws on some of the strengths of a thesis based master’s program and a course based master’s program. We incorporate hands-on research through an emphasis on individual research projects in collaboration with a faculty mentor, similar to thesis based master’s programs, but with a much more compact timeline more commonly associated with a course based master’s program. This lets students finish the degree in one year (3 semesters) if they are enrolled in the program full time, but still gives them the research experience that helps develop a wide variety of skills such as project management, independent work, data analysis, and manuscript preparation. All of these skills are critical to their future success, whether they continue to pursue academic research, a position in industry, or a position with a government agency.
Bonus: What’s something people might be surprised to know about you?
I love to play with data to try and understand things better. I am a big baseball fan, and the data that are now freely available online are really remarkable. Using the data available and some analysis methods that I use for my research, I’ve constructed mathematical models to try and better understand and forecast player performance.