Ph.D., Princeton University

Matt Grobis: You can’t just power through ideas in research; it’s really a Marathon

Interviewed by Nowreen

 Interviewer’s note: Thanks Matt for sharing your experiences as a Master’s/PhD student at Princeton University. Princeton University is a private Ivy League research university in Princeton, New Jersey, USA.

Matt grobis

Ph.D. Student

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University

Matt Grobis is a 5th-year PhD candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. He studies how information transfer in fish schools, specifically how schools are so good at avoiding predators. 

The transition to grad school was easier, but I then had to really unlearn the “sprint” mentality from college. You can’t just power through ideas in research; it’s really a marathon.

Why I chose the Princeton University for my doctoral studies

I was drawn to the research my advisor does. He combines experiments and mathematical modeling to answer fascinating questions on how animal groups can do things that individuals can’t.

I’d also heard that Princeton’s EEB department is very quantitative. As an undergraduate, I was shy about programming and theory and felt intimidated to try to develop those skills on my own. When I was choosing graduate programs, I knew that being in a program renowned for its quantitative rigor would be a great environment to grow as a researcher.

Looking back on the last four years, I think it was a great choice. 

My research and its importance

Collective behavior is the study of the emergent properties of groups. Think wildebeest migrations, honeybee colonies, bird flocks, human societies. Even bacteria can come together to overcome challenges in their environment.

How is it possible that groups are capable of behaviors that aren’t possible at the individual level? Why are groups so often greater than the sum of their parts?

I study the antipredator behavior of fish schools. My study system is the golden shiner (Notemigonus crysoleucas), a minnow in the northeastern US and Canada that many predators find delicious. As individuals, they are essentially hopeless against predators that are faster and stronger than them.

Yet when shiners form coordinated groups, they are incredibly effective at avoiding attacks. This is largely due to rapid information transfer through the group: by being coordinated with each other, fish that can’t even see a predator can still move in the correct trajectory to avoid being eaten by one.

From the predator’s perspective, a mass of quickly moving fish is disorienting, and many species have to make careful choices on how to attack the group if they’re going to successfully grab anyone. 

The first half of my thesis aims to understand the prey side of things: what are the rules that schooling fish follow in information transfer, and how do those rules change under predation risk?

The second half turns to the predator’s perspective and examines the factors they consider when choosing which group member to attack.

There are so many things I need to do, and it feels like they’re not getting done fast enough.

But it’s largely mental. Half of it is acknowledging that there will always be more to learn and do than is possible, and the other half is fine-tuning yourself so you actually can accomplish more.

The major challenge of being a grad student, I think, is the mental aspect of it. You need to self-regulate much more than in college.

Funding for my research

I’m a domestic student. I’m funded by an NSF-GRFP fellowship, and some of my experiments are funded by an NSF-DDIG. The funding is enough to live comfortably. 

Graduate students here teach four semesters unless they receive external funding, in which they only teach for two semesters. I taught the first semesters of my first and second years. Since then, I’ve focused on research and outreach.

What i like being a student at princeton

Princeton is a fantastic place to be a researcher. There are so many smart, creative people here. One of my labmates developed software to estimate what schooling fish can actually see. Another wrote a book on Romanian history before starting grad school.

I’m continually pushed to become a better researcher thanks to my colleagues. The University and my department provide students with so many resources that make doing world-class science an actual possibility.

However, once you’re done with work for the day, Princeton is a pretty quiet place. The University is predominantly focused on undergraduate life (there are 5,000 undergrads and 2,000 grad students), so campus becomes deserted during breaks in the academic year and there’s very little to do off-campus. I find it incredibly hard to stop thinking about work, and I end up working at least a few hours every weekend because there’s little to distract me.

NYC and Philly are 1.5 hours in either direction so it’s totally feasible to go there for a day trip, but you’re investing at least three hours of the day just on travel. Students try to go fairly regularly, though, because it’s a refreshing reminder that there’s a world that exists besides your research.

My undergraduate degree

I studied integrative biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After graduating, I first performed research for a year in Germany on a Fulbright scholarship, and that transition was pretty bumpy.

I was used to feeling smart all the time, yet I had much to learn about how to do field research in a group that shares resources and is often under a time crunch.

The transition to grad school was easier, but I then had to really unlearn the “sprint” mentality from college. You can’t just power through ideas in research; it’s really a marathon. I needed to develop drastically more patience in grad school, and it’s still something I’m working on.

Finding a supervisor and settling

I started thinking about grad schools early in my junior year of college, so there was never much stress with the process of finding an advisor.

I e-mailed my current advisor two summers before arriving, we chatted, and then I applied. I settled into the department fairly quickly; cohorts in EEB are small and you spend the first year predominantly with each other before relocating into your labs.

Life as a graduate student

The major challenge of being a grad student, I think, is the mental aspect of it. You need to self-regulate much more than in college.

Unless you have a very hands-on advisor, you’re the one who sets your checkpoints and rewards you when you meet them. (Yes, you have to reward yourself; external validation largely ends after college.)

You have to learn about yourself: what motivates you every day, how do you turn your brain off at night, what work schedule leaves you fulfilled. I’ve found it challenging to keep up my hobbies, exercise, and relaxation in general because I always feel like there’s something urgent I need to do.

I haven’t published this paper yet, I should write a review article, I told myself months ago I’d learn Python, there are dozens of articles in my “to-read” folder, etc. If I’m not careful, I easily become cranky and irritable because I’m stressed: there are so many things I need to do, and it feels like they’re not getting done fast enough.

But it’s largely mental. Half of it is acknowledging that there will always be more to learn and do than is possible, and the other half is fine-tuning yourself so you actually can accomplish more.