The BioOne Ambassador Award program recognizes early-career researchers excelling in communicating their research outside of their industry. Every year, up to five recipients receive $1,000 (USD) cash award, respectively.
Rhett Rautsaw was a 2019 nominee. Learn about the impact of the award on his career, how he got to where he is today, and his advice for young career professionals interested in science.
What has been the impact of winning the BioOne Ambassador Award?
The response has been amazing and the number of people that have recognized my work, including news sources, has been exciting. A few people have even come up to me and asked, “Hey, are you the one who won that BioOne award?”
I have had high school students contact me to interview me and ask questions about my research, and I was invited to give a plenary talk at the Desert Tortoise Council Meeting in Las Vegas this month.
It’s great to see the hard work that I put into my Master’s degree get so much recognition. It has given me a lot of confidence and it’s motivating me to do even more like creating more videos explaining my research.
What are your plans for the next phase of your career?
Currently I am midway through my PhD program at Clemson University. My research is focused on combining ecology and evolution to understand how competition has influenced venom evolution in pitvipers. This summer I’ll be working on data collection.
After I complete my PhD, I hope to get a few postdoc positions and end up at a research-focused university.
Are there any skills you feel are particularly valuable to a successful research career which might surprise our readers?
Reading is a very critical skill in the sciences. There is so much literature and you have to stay on top of it.
Another great skill is organization. I try to keep everything—my notes, my projects—as organized as possible. That way, if I need to go back and do things again, I know exactly where to find all my research and data. This saves me from relearning things over and over again.
Lastly, is just motivation and efficiency. Sometimes in research you have tasks that you aren’t excited about and being able to work through those tasks without procrastination will get you back to the things that excite you that much faster.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
My elementary school teacher Samantha Porter really fostered my love for science. I majored in biology because I loved animals and I always wanted to be a zookeeper, but when I graduated high school and started college, I really had no idea what being a biologist meant.
At Wright State University, there were two professors who taught me how to be a biologist—Dr. Thomas Rooney and Dr. Jeffrey Peters. In my first year I jumped straight into an ecology and evolution course with Dr. Rooney and went on a fieldwork trip to Peru. I also joined some of his graduate students in Wisconsin doing insect community surveys.
Dr. Rooney introduced me to Dr. Peters, and I spent my last semester at Wright State University in his lab. He introduced me to lab work and the genetics side of things, including exciting questions I could ask with DNA data. It was my experience in Dr. Peter’s lab that got me into my Master’s program and started me on studying tortoises.
Tell us a bit about yourself, such as where you grew up, hobbies, or family:
I grew up in Laura, Ohio, a very rural town in western Ohio. I had to drive 20 or 30 miles to get anywhere. My high school had a graduating class of only 60 students. As a kid I played a lot of soccer and basketball, and I watched a lot of nature documentaries and Steve Irwin’s work. That’s really what got me started on my path.
I spent a lot of time pretending I was Steve Irwin—catching snakes and bringing them back to the house. Luckily there are no venomous snakes in my part of Ohio. I ended up with a big collection of animals that I would take to elementary schools and teach kids about snakes, turtles, and lizards. I’d teach them that they aren’t just out there to harm you, and that there was no need to be afraid of snakes, they just needed to respect them.
My mom was terrified of snakes in the beginning, but my parents actually built another room onto our house for all the animals I collected over the years. She now loves snakes and always helped me at the elementary schools. My parents have been some of my biggest supporters.
What advice would you give to a research-minded student that finds themselves in a small town?
You can’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and get involved in research, even if that means moving away. That is incredibly scary to do, but once you get there, you’re going to find friends and people to help you, and people that share the same passion as you. You just need to take the leap.
Once you get there, it is going to be very different from what you’re used to and it might come as a bit of a shock. It might even feel like everyone else is smarter than you. That’s not true. This will subside with experience and time. It’s also important to remember that imposter syndrome is very common, but also is not true. The truth is that no one knows everything—we all know different things. It’s important to recognize that collaboration and teamwork are incredibly helpful, and that you are smart even if sometimes you feel you aren’t.
What career advice would you give to young scientists and your younger self?
The career advice I’d give to all high school students and undergraduates is get involved and be active in research. When I was a high school and undergraduate student, I didn’t know that being a part of an active research lab was a thing until my last semester. They should look at the professors at their college and send them an email to meet up and discuss getting involved in research. They should also look into things like NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergrads (NSF REUs) which will allow them to travel to different labs over the summer and boost their research experience. Then before going to graduate school or early in their graduate careers, they should be aware of NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFPs). I could have spent a lot more time doing research, building my toolbox, and having more fun if I knew about these things sooner!
And I’d advise myself to not forget where you were when you started. At the beginning, you certainly don’t understand science-y jargon. As you move along and learn more, don’t forget that you didn’t know anything at one point. You should be able to and strive to explain your research to who you were before you learned so much.
And maybe stop playing so many video games and read a few more books.
Interested in reading about other BioOne Ambassador Award winners? Get to know Kalhari Bandara Goonewardene, PhD who focuses on food animal health.
Be sure to search the BioOne Career Center job board or post your resume/CV - both offers free to early career professionals and job searchers!