Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: “Where are they now?”.
Adam Brandt graduated from the University of Illinois in 2014 with his PhD in Animal Sciences. With his love for teaching and research (some of his studies have focused on African elephants and the Hispanolan solenodon), a university job fit his career goals perfectly. Now, as an Assistant Professor of Biology at St. Norbert College (De Pere, Wisconsin), he teaches a variety of undergraduate courses including general biology, animal behavior, disease ecology, and African wildlife conservation & health, and conducts research in the field of molecular ecology.
Describe your career path following graduation. What made you want to pursue a career as a professor? What was the transition from graduate school to a career as a professor like for you? Were there any challenges you faced?
After graduating, I was a post-doc at the Illinois Natural History Survey studying chronic wasting disease. This position lasted about a year and a half before I was offered a position with St. Norbert College in Fall 2016. A career as a professor just seemed a natural fit to my interests. I very much enjoy teaching and research, so academia was a perfect match. The transition was stressful, mostly because finding a tenure-track position is challenging. The job market is very competitive and you’re hoping that your very specific set of skills is the very specific thing an institution needs in a new hire. To make the search even more stressful, my wife also graduated from Illinois with a PhD in Animal Sciences with a very similar research focus—so finding two of these elusive tenure-track positions at the same institution or at least within a reasonable commute of one another. . . well that just seemed impossible. I got an offer with St. Norbert College, so I moved my family from Urbana to Wisconsin hoping we could find a second job sooner rather than later. My wife (Jess) will say it was pure luck but really, she is the better half of this partnership. She landed a visiting assistant professor position at another small liberal arts college (Marian University) and managed to turn that into a tenure-track position within a year.
You were recently featured on the Netflix documentary 72 Dangerous Animals: Latin America (Episode 9), discussing the venomous Hispaniolan solenodon. How did you become involved with this project? What was the experience like?
This research had been a side project my advisor (Alfred Roca) and I worked on for a few years without much progress. Eventually through some collaborations, we increased our sample size and managed to get the Hispanolan solenodon mitogenome published. We put out a press release and the paper got some attention. I guess when you talk about a venomous mammal with Freddy Krueger claws that lived with the dinosaurs, people get interested! It was about that time that Showrunner productions was working on their next series. They had success with the “72 Animal” series (which also includes dangerous animals in Australia and the cutest animals). The solenodon was on their list for Latin America so they contacted me about doing an interview on camera. I happened to be free when they were interested in filming. The experience was and still is surreal. The interview only took a few hours and it was my first experience with anything of the sort. I was also interviewed by the local media about being in the series, which was also pretty neat. A few friends and colleagues have younger kids that saw me on Netflix, they were very excited to talk about the solenodon. I think that was the best part of it, getting someone excited about science and nature. You can learn more about the solenodon and Adam’s interview in this YouTube video.
How did your experiences teaching as a graduate student at Illinois shape the way you mentor and teach your students at St. Norbert College?
Teaching as a grad student helped me to define my teaching style. I worked for Amy Fischer in Animal Sciences in the Companion Animal Biology and Humane Education program and taught a wide range of courses in different settings. I started with ANSC 207—Companion Animal Biology and Care, which is an online course with a virtual discussion session. Engaging students in an online classroom without face-to-face interactions is a challenge and forces you to really analyze your methods. I led discussion sessions for ANSC 250—Companion Animals and Society, which exposed students to controversial issues. Here, I refined techniques to get students to think critically about a topic. I lectured in larger classes with 150+ students, again a completely different experience to deliver material and get the students involved. I even designed a course on small mammal care. I learned a lot about what works, more about what doesn’t work, and how this varies depending on the learning environment. I learned a lot about using technology in courses (eg. Compass, Ellumiate, Wikis, YouTube videos, etc.). Probably most importantly I learned how to assess my teaching effectiveness beyond student evaluations. All of these teaching opportunities allowed me to develop a teaching pedagogy that prepares students for successful careers and to be engaged citizens.
What do you think are the most interesting, rewarding, and/or surprising aspects of your job?
The most rewarding and surprising aspect is what kind of impact I have on students. On a day-to-day basis, I’m just trying to present information that I hope they will process and retain. I want them to do well in life, but I don’t expect to have any profound impact while talking about photosynthesis. Now and then, I will get an email or get a comment from a student about something that really sparked their interest—a paper I shared, a weird animal behavior, or some medical application that relates to the concept we’re discussing in class. Sometimes it just gets them excited about the topic, other times it has a bigger effect in guiding their career pursuits.
Is there a particular course, professor, or experience at the University of Illinois that has impacted your way of thinking?
I have to give credit to Alfred Roca and Amy Fischer. I’ve known and worked with Al for a very long time and I credit him with all of my research success. He pushed me to be a better scientist, he made sure I was thorough, accurate, and didn’t hesitate to point out when I was just hand waving on a weakly supported point. I credit Amy with all of my teaching success. She gave me countless opportunities to develop my skills and gave honest and constructive feedback that truly improved my teaching. The lessons I learned from both Amy and Al carry on in my research and teaching today.
What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?
Take time for yourself.
This interview was conducted by Emily Wuchner who is the Thesis Coordinator at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys playing the bassoon, watching sports, and hanging out with her calico cat, Gracie Sue.