Helping Early Career Scientists Get Their Feet Wet

February 13, 2023

A man and a woman stand in everglade trees smiling

Irving Mendelssohn and Karen McKee conduct research in the Florida Everglades in 2009.

– Photo: Irv Mendelssohn

Wetland Scientists Create Travel Award

BATON ROUGE -- Graduate student travel in the Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences, or DOCS, is going to get a boost, thanks to a new travel award generously sponsored by DOCS Professor Emeritus Irving A.  Mendelssohn and his wife, USGS Scientist Emeritus, Karen McKee, and donated to The LSU Foundation.

Graduate students who receive the awards will be able to put them towards travel to conferences and research trips, something Mendelssohn and McKee—both career wetland scientists—recognize as crucial for early career scientists.  

Conference travel is especially important for students, who are laying the foundation of their careers, Mendelssohn said. “It’s really important for a student to be able to make contacts with other students, or potentially, meet a future advisor at a conference, and to present papers, which is how scientists project their expertise. That’s what we realized when we were students.”

McKee pointed to her own long career, noting that traveling to conferences provided a lot of benefits to her. “Meeting people whose papers I’ve read, and whom I’ve admired from a distance – to be able to  meet them face to face, and in some cases ultimately become long term friends, it’s really wonderful.”

Mendelssohn and McKee have shared a passion for wetland science since meeting at North Carolina State University as graduate students. “When I started my career, I took to it and I just loved it,” McKee shared. “It combines not only biology of wetland plants and animals, but also the geology that influences the wetlands…There are all these interactions. You must have expertise in a variety of fields in order to answer critical questions in wetland science. I found that very stimulating.”

“Wetlands are a challenging environment to work in. Really, once you get your feet wet, it’s hard to imagine working in any other setting,” Mendelssohn agreed.

The award they have established can also be used to defray expenses associated with research. “As a professor in the department for 35 years, I know there are highs and lows in our funding, so something like this is always helpful,” Mendelssohn said.

This award is just one way Mendelssohn and McKee have worked to cultivate the next generation of wetland scientists. They have their own foundation, The Wetland Foundation, to provide travel and other funding to students of wetland science and have provided more than 100 awards at more than 60 colleges and universities around the state and country so far.

The success of these awards was one of the inspirations for creating this award, Mendelssohn said, as they wanted to ensure that students in DOCS, where their roots are, got special representation. “We wanted to concentrate on awarding students who are interested in wetland science right in the department that Karen and I had been associated with for years.”

Indeed, encouraging local wetland scientists is especially important because of CC&E’s location. McKee noted, “Here in the Mississippi River Delta, we have some of the premier wetland systems in the world.”


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