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Enthusiasm, accessiblity earn Cardon
first Outstanding Advisor award
(April 19, 1999)
n a tiny office off a lab in the Torrey Life Sciences Building, Zoe Cardon and Andy Czaja are debating the selection of wood samples for a research poster presentation. The lab is permeated by the aroma of Peets coffee, mail ordered from California - a carry-over from Cardon's days as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California-Berkeley.
It's a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere and, as the discussion continues, it's easy to see why Cardon was selected to receive the University's first award for outstanding advising.
Cardon, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who joined UConn in 1997, advises both undergraduates and graduate students on a wide range of issues.
Czaja sought help with an honors thesis in his senior year. Freshmen and sophomores come for consultation about class requirements and the career opportunities for ecology and evolutionary biology majors. Upper division students often focus more on specific career prospects and on exactly what they need to do to graduate.
No matter what the question is, Cardon takes time to find out more about the student. "Even a small question is better answered if I know about the student," she says. "I don't know how to advise freshmen what classes to take if I don't know what interests them."
She says there are no short-cuts to good advising. "It's getting to know the students that's the most important thing. Getting to know people takes time and energy and interest. They have very different personalities and very different career goals."
The best opportunity to get to know her advisees comes with the handful of undergraduate and graduate students who work in her lab. She meets with each of them once a week, usually getting together to read a paper and discuss how it might apply to a research project. But much of the interaction takes place informally, on an almost daily basis.
Czaja was one of the students working in Cardon's lab, as he developed his study of how landslides affect trees on the margins of the slides. He says he benefited from the day-to-day interaction. "Zoe is always willing to help, no matter what she's doing," says Czaja. "A lot of times, she'll offer help even without asking. She sends e-mail, saying 'I was thinking about your project, what about this?'"
He says Cardon's critical input was invaluable. "She's critical, but constructive. She'll say, 'That's interesting, but how about we think about it this way?' It makes the advisee feel they know what they're talking about," he says.
Not only did Cardon help Czaja develop his ideas and methodology, she purchased a piece of equipment - a borer for taking samples - for his project and sent him to Colorado last summer to learn dendrochronology, the technique of dating events with tree rings. She even took some of the core samples herself during a field trip to Franconia Notch State Park in New Hampshire. "She's always willing to do whatever it takes to do a project right," says Czaja.
Back on campus, Cardon helped Czaja write up his thesis, returning drafts with comments the next day. She is now working with him to distill the findings into a journal article suitable for publication. It was Cardon, too, who suggested he should submit his project for this week's Frontiers in Undergraduate Research Poster Session.
Cardon is a firm believer in the value of research for undergraduates. "Once they develop their own project, it helps them get excited about thinking beyond what they already know," she says. "They need to know what's in a book or the lectures, but they're not often asked to think beyond that. Research enables them to think more deeply on their own, follow their noses."
Part of what makes Cardon's relationship with her advisees work so well is her own sheer love of learning. "My excitement - they see it. I don't try to convey it, I just am excited about learning," she says. "Some students find it amusing that I could get excited about a little block of wood or about trees or dirt."
Her enthusiasm is infectious. "Zoe has the ability to make me very excited about a lot of things, even things I never thought about before," says Tracy Gartner, a first year Ph.D. student and another of Cardon's advisees.
Initially, Gartner began by consulting Cardon's advice on which classes to take, but that soon evolved into more detailed discussions about her Ph.D. dissertation. "She's helping me develop ideas of what I can do and how I might be able to accomplish them," says Gartner, who is interested in studying how the availability of calcium affects the growth and mortality of different species of saplings.
Cardon's approach gives her students confidence. "She makes me feel like I have a lot of stuff to teach her, rather than she's just teaching me things," says Gartner. "I'm interested in remote sensing and that's not an area of her expertise. She's interested in soil. It's an exchange of ideas rather than a one-way process."
Cardon acknowledges that, like any other relationship, advising is not always a smooth ride. "Any time you get to know a student and they're putting their utmost time and energy and thoughts into a project and you are trying to help them make the most of their experience, then there are ups and downs and sideways," she says. "You have to go from being critic to cheerleader to critic to cheerleader."
Cardon's commitment to her students does not end when they graduate. She remains in contact with students she advised as a post doctoral researcher at Berkeley, and at Bowdoin College, where she held her first faculty appointment. Andy Czaja, who worked with Cardon on his honors thesis last year, has been working in her lab as a research technician since graduating in December. She continues to advise him, not only about the projects he's working on but also giving gentle reminders about applying for graduate school.
Czaja says the advising relationship has not changed much. "It's not really different now," he says. "Even in the fall she treated me almost like an equal. I was the student, she was the adviser, but she treated me like a professional."