Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

revised September 2009

Information for prospective students:

            Please excuse the form letter, but I get a fairly large number of inquiries about grad school, many of them asking the same questions, and it gets time consuming to write individual responses to them all.  If you are still interested after reading the letter below, feel free to contact me again.

            You should know first off, I am a wildlife ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey.  Up until 2008, we were part of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and thus required to focus on issues in the state of Illinois.  Now we are part of a new Institure for Natural Resource Sustainability at the University of Illinois, and those travel and research restrictions have been removed.  I have adjunct appointments with the Animal Biology Dept., Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (NRES) Dept., and the Program in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Conservation (PEEBC).  INHS is housed on the UIUC campus, but in the Research Park on the south end of campus.

So far, I have advised 4 PhD and 13 MS students, have served on numerous thesis committees for other PhD and MS students, and currently advise 2 PhD students.  Please refer to my CV (linked to my web page) for a list of their thesis topics.  I teach Mammalogy and Vertebrate Natural History at UIUC (alternate classes in the fall semesters), and for references to my recent publications.  From 2003-2008 I was mostly an administrator at INHS, but with transfer to the University and an internal reorganization, I am returning to research mode.  I also was Journal Editor for the Journal of Mammalogy through 2009, which took a lot of my time.

            I expect PhD students to have well-defined interests of their own.  These should be clearly articulated in your letter of contact.  I will work with you to help explore the relevant literature, focus your thinking on a topic, and develop a research project.  The direction your research takes and the area in which you choose to specialize should be your own decision.  Most of my current research is based in Illinois and has an applied bent (part of the requirements for my job up to this year), but my students are free to work wherever their interests take them (as long as we can work out the logistics).  I do expect my students to work on some type of problem that interests us both, however.  My taxonomic orientation is towards mammals, and the areas of research in which I am active include population and community ecology, and especially conservation biology.  Students interested more in animal behavior should look elsewhere.  Competitive applicants will have good GPAs (at least 3.5 on a 4-point scale) and GRE scores (at least in the 600 range, >700 preferred), good scores in the Biology subject test (>90 percentile preferred), and a focused, coherent statement of purpose.  Acceptance by the Program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UIUC is very competitive.  Although I do not think GRE scores alone indicate a great student, you will need high scores (usually >700s) to get into the PEEB Program (NRES and Animal Biology may be a bit lower), and I take them to indicate that you can excel in the academic parts of the PhD program.  I would be most interested in students who have previous field or other research experience, and whose CVs show some dedication to a career in ecology or conservation.

            A student pursuing a MS degree has a more limited time frame, and I would expect to plug you into one of my ongoing research projects (unless we mutually agree on another project at the start), usually a conservation-related or wildlife-related project in Illinois.  The main program that considers MS students is in the NRES Dept.  You would take courses at the U of I for 2 years, and get your research project done in that interval and the summer between them (unless you start early, before your first year of classes).  I expect my MS students to graduate with the equivalent of at least 1 research paper that can be submitted to a scientific journal.  This is a good route to take if you don’t have much experience yet, and want to go on to a PhD program after you have narrowed down your interests.

            Before taking this job at INHS, I conducted research on the reproductive biology and social systems of arvicoline rodents (voles and lemmings), population dynamics of voles and lemmings, and the ecology of desert-dwelling small mammals.  Research on desert rodents included studies of competitive interactions among species, long-term population and community dynamics, effects of rodent foraging on plant communities, convergent evolution of rodent assemblages around the world (mostly collaborative analyses with ecologists working on other faunas), and impacts of livestock grazing on small mammal assemblages.  Since moving to Illinois, I have been working on the ecology of mammals in habitats that are highly fragmented and impacted by human activity.  I have had collaborations with avian ecologists at INHS and UIUC in which we studied factors affecting rates of nest predation on songbirds, and some of my recent students did research on birds.  One even studied snakes.  I prefer to return my focus to mammals at this time, particularly small to medium-sized mammals.  My interest in conservation-related issues is pretty broad, and much of my research at INHS involves collaborations with other scientists here at UIUC.  A few of my recent projects are briefly described on my web page.

            The PhD program in PEEB (and in the Animal Biology Dept.) is very competitive, and only a few new students are accepted each year.  The MS program in NRES is a bit more liberal in its acceptance policies, especially if I am supporting the student.  If you are interested, you should request application materials and information directly from these departments (not from me!).   Again, sorry about the "form letter" style, but I hope this answers most of your basic questions. 

                                                                                                Best regards,


                                                                                                Ed Heske
                                                                                                Research Program Leader
                                                                                                Wildlife and Plant Ecology

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