Persistence through the Ph.D.
Photos by Judy Rolfe and Leah Dodd June 08, 2018
Dedication to mentoring others leads to success
Looking back on her graduate student career at University of Delaware, Asia Dowtin sees two themes that enabled her success: persistence and community engagement.
Early in her work here, she had to overcome a switch in advisers, and the research that would underpin her Ph.D. studies almost ended before it began. But for the entire six years she spent studying the hydrology of urban forests, Dowtin surmounted the obstacles and actively worked to engage younger students, both undergraduates and K-12, in the work she loves. That student engagement was one of the factors that helped her land a tenure-track faculty position at Michigan State University starting this summer.
Dowtin and her adviser, Department of Geography Chair Del Levia, Professor of Ecohydrology, collaborated on a piece published in Science today, June 8, that addresses some of the challenges she faced, including the way her doctoral research was imperiled by a non-uniformed officer in an unmarked car stopping her and two undergraduate assistants in the forest in Wilmington, Delaware’s Rockford Park on the first day of her fieldwork. Dowtin’s attempts to address the unexpected concerns from officials garnered no response, and the research was in question until Levia stepped in.
The incident was such a turning point for Dowtin’s work and the way the two of them work together that they thought it could be beneficial to share with their scholarly community. Levia thought it would be good to share how Dowtin was able to persevere with the support of the mentor-mentee relationship the two of them had built on common vision and open communication.
"The 'Working Life' section of Science is of critical importance as it provides a beacon of hope for many in science,” Levia said. “It is a place where people can go to learn about the experiences of others and to benefit from them."
When he brought the idea for a "Working Life" story to Dowtin, she agreed.
“I also wanted to highlight the fact that students of color do face these challenges,” Dowtin said, adding that she wants to help advisers from different backgrounds realize they need to listen to their graduate students’ experiences or even draw them out when they notice students may be struggling. “There are going to be a bunch of challenges that come at you regardless of what you look like, and there are going to be challenges that come at you because of what you look like.”
Dowtin’s time at UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment was defined by both her persistence and the way she proactively worked for an inclusive community and provided opportunities for younger students.
Her research involved more than 150 collectors and gauges spread across five sites in two states, from Fair Hill in Maryland to Alapocas Woods in Wilmington. There was no way she could collect all the data herself, but that was an opportunity, not a problem. Over two and a half years, Dowtin had 17 undergraduates from four UD colleges help with data collection, and those students received course credits, with some even using data for their own research.
Beyond incorporating undergraduates in her research, Dowtin also embraced many opportunities to mentor high schoolers during her time at UD. She led students in the Delaware Chapter of the Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future program in a project mapping the trails behind the Delaware Museum of Natural History. She spoke at elementary schools and public libraries.
And nearly every summer she was at UD, Dowtin brought teenagers from the city of Wilmington’s Green Jobs program to campus, teaching them about topics like forest hydrology and urban forestry, but also just making a point to get them to the University, to emphasize that UD is for Delawareans, including them.
“I feel a personal obligation to make sure that as I come up in this academic world that I help people up who look like me,” Dowtin said. “It is important to me to be a role model for black and brown kids. There are not a lot of people of color in this department or this field.”
Dowtin said her experience reaching into the community and working with undergraduates were attractive to Michigan State, where her new position as assistant professor in urban and community forestry combines teaching, research and extension work, in which she will help community members address urban forestry problems and opportunities in East Lansing and Detroit.
“This job is literally the fulfillment of dreams I had kept to myself for many years,” Dowtin said. “None of this would have been possible if I hadn’t had all of the experiences I did here, the good and the bad.”