Doctoral experience in bug science at University of Georgia, USA

by Dr. Lim Su Yee

The “Arch” at the University of Georgia, Athens. Tradition says that you must not pass through the Arch until you’ve graduated. Photo by UGArdener/Flickr.

The “Arch” at the University of Georgia, Athens. Tradition says that you must not pass through the Arch until you’ve graduated. Photo by UGArdener/Flickr.

‘Georgia on My Mind’, and probably will always be, as the lyrics goes for a song popularized by Ray Charles. It was sheer luck and fate that I had the experience of completing my graduate1 studies abroad. There are many key mentors to whom I am truly grateful for making the entire experience of graduate studies immensely enjoyable for me.

I arrived, wide-eyed, adrenalin-driven, filled with eagerness and childlike innocence at the Atlanta Hartsfield International airport in Atlanta, Georgia, United States after a long flight over the Pacific Ocean traversing multiple countries and terrains on December 17, 2007. It was winter in Georgia then. As I looked out from the window of my seat in the airplane, it was sunny and bright. I was excited, thinking “Oh, sunny is good. It wouldn’t be cold then, phew..!” After navigating the airport and collecting my baggage, I met my main academic advisor, who was kind enough to drive over two hours from the university campus to pick me up. After collecting my luggage, he said “I think you should put on your coat. It’s kind of chilly outside.” Little did I know, that was the start of a life experience, which I will forever treasure.

Enrolled as a Master of Science student in the Entomology Department at the University of Georgia (UGA), Athens, I started taking classes in January 2008. As a girl from the tropics, my first few weeks in Georgia were excruciatingly cold. Do not be fooled by Wikipedia’s listing of Georgia as subtropical. Athens, Georgia (unlike Athens, Greece) can definitely get very cold, as we had snow several winters ago!

In the USA, most universities have two main semesters (Fall, Spring), and the additional semesters (Maymester/Summer). The academic year for most universities starts in the Fall (August/ September), although there is a possibility of starting a program at a different time (like I did in the Spring semester). The graduate programs in the USA requires graduate level coursework component, besides the expected rigorous research work. From my understanding, the majority of the graduate programs in the USA require at least 30-40 credit hours of graduate level coursework, and a successful thesis / dissertation defense to complete the program.

As a research assistant, besides taking classes in my first semester, I was also given a mini project to handle, which eventually led to a full-blown PhD dissertation.

Crosswalk in Athens, Georgia. Photo by J. Stephen Conn/Flickr.

Crosswalk in Athens, Georgia. Photo by J. Stephen Conn/Flickr.

I was extremely lucky to receive an assistantship, which funded my studies at the university. There are typically two kinds of assistantship that students could apply for and receive: research assistantship (RA) or teaching assistantship (TA). Research assistantships are given to students who will help with additional research projects within their respective laboratories, and teaching assistantships are awarded to students who will assist with undergraduate instruction.

Soon after I started the program at UGA, I was also given the opportunity to switch my program from masters to doctorate, which I accepted. A research committee was formed with two other professors (in addition to my main advisor) and they provided tremendous guidance and help throughout my doctoral study. A research proposal was written once a research topic was decided, and submitted to the research committee for evaluation and approval. In addition to the research proposal, choices on a student’s coursework was also discussed and approved by the committee to ensure that the student will be well prepared with all necessary classes that complements the student’s research work.

In the Entomology Department at UGA, the ‘Comprehensive Exam’ is taken in two parts: written and oral. This exam is usually scheduled upon completion of coursework, or after about 1-2 years into the program. The oral portion of the exam was challenging. Thankfully, I passed both and was allowed to continue my research as a doctoral candidate. Completing the research work and dissertation was equally if not more challenging. After submitting the completed dissertation to the research committee, a date for the defense2 was scheduled. The defense is usually divided into two parts: a public presentation by the doctoral candidate, followed by a Q&A session, and subsequently, a closed defense with the student’s research committee. Thankfully, I passed the grilling and examining after an almost full day’s affair.

On a slightly different note, I was often asked “Why Entomology?” or “Why bugs?” To be completely fair, I truly think that it was Entomology that has chosen me, and I have enjoyed it thoroughly. Termites were my main focus, specifically the subterranean termites from the genus Reticulitermes, native to the Nearctic3 region of the world. The project I worked on brought me to many places in the USA, especially in the southeastern region of the country. Together with my lab mates and advisor, we travelled on many occasions to the various field sites to sample and collect specimens. We worked on a fundamental question in science: ‘What is this insect? And how do we tell it apart from another similar kind of insect?’ In short, I worked in the field of taxonomy and systematics, but also had the leverage of being in an urban entomology laboratory, working with one of the foremost termite experts of the world.

Some highlights of my doctoral study include:

  • the description of a new termite species (Reticulitermes nelsonae, Lim & Forschler 2012)4 that was named in honour of the researcher who discovered it,
  • a revision on the taxonomy of Reticulitermes spp. in the southeastern USA,
  • developing an interactive web-based identification key5 for the group of taxa6 we were working with,
  • traveling, meeting people from various walks of life,
  • learning yoga,
  • admiring the Spanish moss on the Sapelo Island, GA,
  • experiencing the misty waterfalls of Mount Hood, Portland, Oregon,
  • learning life lessons from my main advisor, and
  • being featured in UGA’s Graduate School Centennial Summer Edition Magazine’s.

I could never have planned a better program for myself, and never would I have imagined having all these experiences that have enriched my life. I would like to say a sincere ‘Thank You’ to all that have left footsteps in my path. I encourage anyone who is willing to ride the waves and explore the unknowns to consider pursuing graduate studies in the USA. It is hard work and challenging, but the fruits of labor are sweet indeed.

The author would like to say a special thank you to:

  1. Her family
  2. Professor Dr. Lee Chow Yang, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia
  3. Professor Dr. Brian T. Forschler, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA
  4. Professor Dr. Joseph V. McHugh, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA
  5. Dr. Tracie M. Jenkins, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA

Footnotes

1 Postgraduate studies is known as graduate studies in the USA.

2Defense is also known as viva

3 Nearctic is typically defined as one of the eight terrestrial ecozone / biogeographical regions that includes Greenland, North America and some parts of highland Mexico.

4 Lim SY, Forschler BT (2012) A new species of Reticulitermes Holmgren, 1913 (Isoptera: Rhinotermitidae) from the southeastern United States. Insecta Mundi 0252: 1-4

5http://keys.lucidcentral.org/keys/v3/Reticulitermes/

6Taxa refers to species in this context. It could also refer to an entity in a higher level classification (ie, Genus, Family, Order, etc.).

About the Author:

Dr. Su Yee Lim recently joined Rollins, Inc., the parent company of the largest pest management company, Orkin, LLC. in the North American Region as their research scientist. She holds a PhD in Entomology from the University of Georgia, USA. She can be contacted at suyee03[at]gmail.com. Find out more about Dr. Su Yee Lim by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/suyee/