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My interview with...Jordan Sinclair


Jordan Sinclair graduated from Wayne State University with Honors in 2006 with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Mathematics. She went on to get her Masters in Applied Mathematics (2008) and PhD in Biology (2012) from Wayne State University. She currently works as a Postdoctoral Fellow in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Rice University, where she studies the evolution of plant mating systems. She also worked as a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow at Hokkaido University in Japan in 2013. We caught up with her and asked her a few questions about what she is currently doing and asked her to reflect on her time as a member of the Irvin D. Reid Honors College.

Q: What was your first involvement with the Honors College, and what activities/service projects/volunteer work did you take part in while being a part of the Honors College?

First involvement was an ice cream mixer!  I received 2 undergraduate research awards, took part in the conferences, and spent a lot of time in the Honors lounge.  I also remember planting trees on campus, tutoring inner city youth, participating in park and vacant land clean ups, and preparing and serving food at homeless shelters.

Q: How did those experiences enrich your experience with the College?

The research awards were invaluable – as an undergrad to have funding to carry out my own research was an amazing opportunity and resulted in my first publication.  Volunteering is something that everyone should do at some point.  For me it’s a way to give back and remember and be thankful to everyone who has given their time to help me.  I think it’s also helpful to keep things in perspective - the world is a bigger place than a classroom, but it’s easy to forget that.

Q: Talk a little about your time as a scholar athlete at Wayne State. What were the challenges you faced not only as a scholar athlete, but one with the added expectations that being an Honors College student brings? How did you handle those challenges, and how can that relate to what you are doing today?

There is no question that as a student athlete (and especially one in the honors department) my work load was higher than most.  That being said, I was doing what I loved and wouldn’t trade my time spent in the gym or doing homework on the bus for any amount of increased down time as an undergraduate.  Perhaps the most obvious challenge was time management.  Honors classes required extra work and softball required a lot of time, but learning to juggle responsibilities (and realizing that the juggling is possible!) is a lesson and skill that continues to help me be efficient and successful as a researcher and also maintain a life outside of my career.

Q: What made you decide to do a community service project to reforest vacant lots around Detroit? Did that community service project help shape what you are doing now, and how so? Is there anything that you are doing now in your research that you could share that could help further the reforestation efforts in City of Detroit?

Detroit Reforesters was born from a desire to do something positive to improve the city I love.  My area of expertise happens to be in the field of ecology so it was natural that any help I could offer would be in that vein.  Detroit has so much vacant land yet simultaneously has one of the lowest green space cover percent of any city (of similar size).   Planting native species and reforesting some of this vacant land not only increases property and neighborhood aesthetic values, but it has cascading effects that help native insects and birds as well as processes like water run-off rates.  

Q: What got you interested in doing research in the field of sexual reproduction in plants, and how did the Honors College help prepare you for those research opportunities? 

I became interested in sexual reproduction in plants working in Dr. Freeman’s lab as an undergraduate.  It was through an Undergrad Research Award that I was first introduced to field ecology and that experience helped me decide that this was the career path I wanted to follow.  The Honors College not only provided me with the means for that first experience, but gave me a second and third opportunity in the form of a second award and my honors thesis requirement.  Without these experiences I don’t think I would have understood what research entailed and likely wouldn’t have even gone to graduate school.

Q: What are you currently working on as a postdoctoral fellow at Rice University?

I have 2 major projects on the go right now. The first examines how seed dispersal through different vectors affects forest composition and spatial patterns.  This work is being done in Ranomafana National Forest in Madagascar where many of the trees rely on frugivorous seed dispersers like lemurs.  However, all lemur species are endangered at some level due to poaching and habitat loss which could result in a dramatic shift in future rainforest composition.  The second project I am working on examines the evolution of dioecy via monoecy using spinach.  It is a greenhouse experiment and builds on previous work done by Dr. Freeman.

Q: You spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow at Hokkaido University in Japan. Tell us about that experience, what research you did, and how that is similar or different to what you did at Wayne State and what you are currently doing now at Rice University?

My work at the Hokkaido University compliments the work I did at WSU very nicely.  In Japan I studied the evolution of gynodioecy using natural populations of a perennial shrub.  Basically, I was able to apply the theory I developed while working with Dr. Freeman at Wayne State to a natural system.  It also curtails nicely with both projects I am currently working on at Rice.  Seed dispersal is a very important part of reproductive ecology and influences many aspects of population dynamics.  Seed dispersal played a major role in the model I developed while at WSU, was measured as a central goal of the project in Japan, and is obviously the primary driver of the Madagascar project.

Q: What were some of the major cultural experiences you had during your time in Japan? Would Japan be a place you would like to move back too if given the opportunity?

Japan was a really great experience and quite different than I expected.  Not that I expected it to be bad, but I didn’t know what to expect and had an image in my head that was more or less a Hollywood version of Tokyo.  My experience at the University was great.  I worked in Dr. Gaku Kudo’s lab and he was very welcoming and helpful.  I was able to step into a project and get a lot done in one year.  Outside of work, I tried to make the most of my time by traveling whenever possible.  Japan is a very beautiful country with a rich history and fabulous geography.  Some of my favorite cultural experiences were hiking Mt. Fuji, enjoying the onsen (hot springs) in winter, taking part in a traditional tea ceremony, and enjoying the many festivals.  The food was also incredible!  Given the opportunity I would love to go back, in fact, since Dr. Kudo and I continue to collaborate on the gynodioecy project I plan to return to collect data in the near future.

Q: In addition to Japan, other research opportunities have taken you to, according to your website, the deserts of Utah, the Colorado Front Range, Costa Rica, and Madagascar. What has been your favorite location to conduct research and why?

Hmmm.  That’s a hard question because I have been fortunate in that my field sites have been in really unique and beautiful places.  Without trying to side step your question too much I will say that while Costa Rica and Madagascar are awesome, there are additional challenges to doing research in tropical versus temperate ecosystems.  The tropics have a much higher species diversity and so the system becomes very complicated very quickly making it difficult to isolate mechanisms, which is often what I am trying to do.  Plus camping in the Rocky’s or in the middle of the Utah desert – that’s hard to beat! 

Q: What kind of advice would you give incoming or current Honors students about research and service?

I would say be as involved as you possibly can and gain as much experience as possible.  Not only does this help you decide what to pursue in life, but it will give you an edge when you eventually start applying for jobs or graduate school.  Your time as an undergraduate may seem stressful, especially compared to high school, but this is a valuable period in your life that you can choose to use wisely and really grow as a person.