Meet an Early Career Ecologist: Molly Reichenborn

This month’s blog post is an interview with Molly Reichenborn, who serves on the ECE Board as the Secretary-Treasurer.

Molly, on a hiking trip in the forest

Tell us about yourself!

Currently I’m a second-year doctoral student at New Mexico State University in the Animal and Range Sciences Department. I’m from Kansas originally and received my undergraduate and master’s degrees from Wichita State University near where I was born and grew up. Though my M.S. degree is broadly titled under “biological sciences”, my thesis research was focused on plant community ecology. Right after finishing my master’s degree, I worked for three years as a project manager with a research group examining the response of plant, insect, and bird communities to cattle grazing on grasslands replanted through the USDA Conservation Reserve Program in Kansas. I first joined the Early Career Ecologists section in 2018 when I was in this position and expecting that a M.S. would be my terminal degree but decided to take the plunge and go for a PhD when my grant-funded position ended in mid-2020. I’m thoroughly enjoying greater access to public lands and the drier climate here in southern New Mexico!

Why did you decide to become an ecologist?

Before I got interested in ecology, I started my undergraduate degree expecting it to be little more than a hoop to jump though on my way to a zookeeping career. I volunteered at my local zoo throughout high school and loved working as a part-time zookeeper while I was an undergraduate. My career focus gradually shifted as I took more ecology-focused coursework, and ultimately changed paths after taking classes on plant and restoration ecology from a faculty member who eventually became my master’s advisor. My grasp on ecology was naïve but eager when I first decided to go to graduate school, but the process of setting up a study, collecting data, and answering questions with that data was an experience that fundamentally shifted my career focus towards ecological research. I feel that I stumbled into a career in ecology and I feel very fortunate to have done so.

What does a typical work day look like for you?

Most of my research, current and past, has been structured around collecting data when plant communities are at peak biomass production (typically when most warm-season plant species are flowering in the systems I’ve studied). Because of this my typical work day varies a lot by the time of the year. In late summer and early fall when it’s peak plant party time, I’m in the field collecting data full time, which for my dissertation research puts me out in the northern Chihuahuan desert at the Jornada Experimental Range. During the rest of the year you can usually find me in the office cleaning, wrangling, and analyzing data, and writing up results of those analyses for publication. I’ll prep for and make trips out to the field for smaller projects outside of my main data collection push during peak plant season, but for the most part I’m either fully in the field or fully in the office depending on the time of the year.

Have there been any key turning points in your career? Good or bad surprises?

My transition from a graduate student to a project manager was key a turning point for me. As a master’s student I lead a small field crew one summer and managed my own research, but as a project manager I worked with a multi-disciplinary team involving the principal investigators, their graduate students, agency stakeholders, and the technician teams collecting data. Working with a diverse (and large) team was definitely stressful at times, but in addition to working on research that motivated me intellectually I learned a lot of the “soft skills” required to manage a field-based research project involving lots of people. I also had the good fortune of working with principal investigators that invited me to in weigh in on high-level project decisions, which further developed my scientific reasoning and problem-solving skills. I am better prepared (and less stressed by) planning for and conducting research now because of the experience I gained in that position.

What projects (research or not) are you most excited about now?

I am currently installing units called Connectivity Modifiers (or ConMods) in areas where honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) has encroached into historically grass-dominated ecosystems. With the loss of grass species comes an associated increase in exposed soil in between “islands” of mesquite shrubs that can be severely eroded without the protective cover provided by herbaceous vegetation. ConMods are small (about 6” tall by 18” wide) units made out of hardware cloth panels that can be installed in these interspaces to help keep soil particles, seeds, and plant litter from being moved out of the area by wind and water erosion. This can help grass and forb species re-establish in these otherwise bare areas – check out this short introduction to ConMods by the USGS and the associated publication to learn more about how these units can aid in dryland restoration efforts!

What is the most fulfilling part of your job?

I’ll cheat a bit and say that two aspects of my work are most fulfilling for me at the moment. The first is seeing something worked out on paper pan out when implemented in the “real world” so to speak. I learn more and plan better each time I take on a new research project, but it’s almost inevitable that there will be a setback from an issue I didn’t anticipate. When a plan goes off without a hitch when implemented in the field from paper, if even a small component of the overall project, it’s really gratifying and I try to take a moment to enjoy the feeling when it happens. The second aspect is a general sense of joy I get from talking to other ecologists. Being a scientist seems to be a double-edged sword in that most of us are really invested in the work we do, and it seems that many of us struggle to keep a consistent work-life balance, especially early career folks. The upside to this investment is that I find that folks in ecology are generally excited to talk about the science going on in our field. Having a conversation about something interesting we’ve just read in a paper or a cool analysis result is a great feeling and always makes me feel grateful to be in this field.

What is one challenge you’ve dealt with, and what success are you most proud of?

At the beginning of last year, I ended up seeking therapy for anxiety. Though anxiety was not new to me, it had progressed to the point that it was interfering with my day-to-day functioning and I was no longer able to manage it effectively on my own. I was lucky enough to find a therapist who helped me identify the source of my anxiety, which essentially was my inability to remained focused on tasks. I was so frustrated with my lack of focus that it was causing me a lot of stress and anxiety around my work. I was eventually diagnosed with inattentive type Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, a diagnosis I would have never considered before meeting with my therapist and going through testing. It took the better part of a year from beginning therapy to the point when I was diagnosed, but with effective treatment and more time management strategies in hand I’m doing much better on the other side of my diagnosis.

The success I am most proud of at this moment is a logistical one. The research project I managed after my master’s degree involved 108 sites on land enrolled in the USDA Conservation Reserve program, which is all privately owned. This meant cold-calling a bunch of private landowners to request permission to collect data on their land, in addition to setting up landowners grazing cattle as part of the study with their local USDA offices to get the necessary paperwork in order. It was a herculean task and I am really proud of the immense amount of initiative our research team and the USDA employees put in to make that happen. 

What has most surprised you about being an early career ecologist?

This will be a bit off the mark since I’m currently a student rather a post-PhD ecologist, but I hope this will be a bit amusing if nothing else. I see this joke on social media often in reference to students taking biology and ecology courses, but the large role of statistics in ecology honestly surprised me when I first got into the field. Looking back on it now, I’m not really sure what I was expecting when I first got into research, but I wasn’t expecting to be taking multiple statistics courses apparently. It intimidated me at first (and still does at times!), but I’ve come to really enjoy statistics along with my love of doing fieldwork.

What advice would you give to other early career ecologists?

Have you ever heard of what I call a “good stuff” folder? Whenever you receive positive feedback or praise, whether it’s an email from a student or colleague, grant application, paper review, or in whatever form in might be, take a moment to save it in a “good stuff” folder on your desktop. That way whenever you’re in a low spot and need some encouragement, you can take a look back on a compilation of positive things that other people have said about you and your work. I’ve found that having concrete examples like this are really helpful in giving me a more positive outlook when I’m not feeling great about my work. I’ve seen this suggested multiples times in academic circles over the past couple of years, and I only wish I would have started consciously saving stuff sooner!

Any other thoughts you would like to touch on?

If you have any suggestions on what the Early Career Ecologists officers can do to support you and our membership, please reach out to us! We’d be happy to hear your feedback and are always interested in finding ways to better supporting our section membership. You can contact us Thanks for reading and looking forward to hearing from you!

Molly Reichenborn is a PhD student studying plant community responses following Honey Mesquite management at New Mexico State University. Previously, she received a master’s degree from Wichita State University and worked as a research project manager examining multi-trophic responses to grazing on grasslands replanted through the USDA Conservation Reserve Program. She is broadly interested in the mechanisms underpinning the maintenance, invasion, and successful restoration of ecological communities, and developing data-supported management practices to guide effective land stewardship. She initially became involved with the early career ecologists as a member benefitting from sessions at the annual meeting organized by the section, and through resources compiled on the section website. She is excited to return the favor to members by building diverse resources and a supportive environment as they navigate the early stages of their careers.