Tristan Kloss; Ph.D. Student
Tristan Kloss studies the ecology of early benthic animals during a period commonly known as the Cambrian Explosion. His work has taken him across the world to China and vast parts of the western United States and into Canada, where he has studied how organisms lived and died some 530 million years ago. He has also studied the ecology of modern reef forming and burrowing organisms in the Bahamas.
Tristan has presented his work at a number of national and international conferences, and he has secured funds from the Geological Society of America and the Wisconsin Geological Society. A paper based upon his work as a M.S. student was published in the international journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology in 2009. He is a Research Excellence University Fellow for the 2010 spring semester.
In addition to his teaching responsibilities at UWM, he is also active in a number of on campus science-related programs, including the Science Bag and the COMPASS mentoring program, as well as acting consultant for the 2010 Science Olympiad.
Born and raised here in Milwaukee, WI, Tristan received both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Geosciences at UW-Milwaukee. Tristan’s projected graduate date with Ph. D. from UWM is late 2012, early 2013.
- What is your field of study and how would you describe it to a prospective graduate student?
I usually keep it short and tell people I look at fossils. If you want to get technical I deal with paleoecological issues; so I look at how fossil organisms interacted with one another, their environment, and try to understand how these interactions directed their evolution. It can be a pretty broad field, but I’m interested in two different aspects of it: 1) how benthic suspension feeders evolved during the Cambrian Radiation, specifically in response to changing substrate conditions; and 2) how marine communities are restructured following mass extinction events.
- What brought you to UWM to study Geosciences for your graduate degree?
I was here as an undergrad and just got nosy. I started asking a lot of questions to (my then TA) Kirk Domke, who referred me to (my now advisor) Stephen Dornbos, and he offered me an opportunity I couldn’t pass up: study early Cambrian invertebrates in China. It was pretty much awesome.
- What's been your best experience so far?
Just one? That’s it? Okay… I suppose that would be finally learning to swim after twenty-five years, and then seeing a shark in a coral reef in the Bahamas. No one thought we would encounter a shark, so that made the moment even sweeter. Thankfully, though, we didn’t need a bigger boat.
- In graduate School, have you gotten the opportunity to travel as part of your education?
Oh God, yes. Before I got involved with the Geosciences department, Chicago was pretty much the furthest I ever got from home. In the past few years I’ve performed field work in California, Utah, and Idaho; went to field camp in Montana; completed my Master’s Thesis work in China; went on a field trip to the Bahamas; and attended an international conference in Canada. Sometimes I still have to slap myself and think “Man, I went to China!”
- What trait or thing has allowed you to succeed in graduate school?
I think the most important characteristic that any student can develop is self-motivation. There can be a lot of things, both within school and outside of it, that can get you off track; and two years can seem like a long time if you’re working on your Masters; and four years can seem like an eternity if you’re working on your PhD. I’ve had long stretches of time where I’m crunching data and writing papers like a maniac, and other times where I hit a wall and start questioning myself; but I always come around and find something new and exciting that reminds my why I love this stuff. Grad school ain’t easy, but you make it even worse when you give up on yourself. So don’t.
- Do you have any advice that you would give to a new graduate student in your program?
Ask questions! All the time! Even if every other student in the class groans every time you open your big fat mouth. It sounds cliché, and I think every professor says it on the first day of class… and I say it all the time to the students that I’ve taught… but man, it’s the truth. I wish I would have asked more questions as an undergrad. I wish I would’ve asked more questions as a Master’s student. I wish I would ask more questions even now while I’m working toward my PhD. Even as a grad student, you aren’t expected to have all the answers; and some of the best scientists, at any level, are the ones that ask a bazillion questions. Plus questions serve as a networking tool, whether you realize it or not. Ask questions, look inquisitive, appear motivated, and opportunities follow.
- What has been the hardest part about being a graduate student (Is there anything that you've had to "give up" as a graduate student)?
I don’t know if there’s anything that I absolutely have “given up” as a graduate… but I think you need to be more creative with what you have. You become more of an opportunist. You don’t turn down free food. You quickly learn about every “College Night” discount at the ballpark, at the museum, at the bar. You suddenly appreciate a well-worn t-shirt. You might end up spending more Saturday nights writing papers than drinking beers. But it’s not a bad life. It’s not as bad as some people make it out to be, I don’t think.
- What are your plans after you graduate?
Oh man… I dunno. I mean there are so many things I would love to do, and that I think, thanks to my experiences here, I have the opportunity now to go out and do those things… I’m interested in remaining in academics, or in educational outreach outside of the university. I enjoy helping people make a connection with geology in a way that is meaningful to them, and I think it’s important that everyone be given the opportunity to let that little light bulb go off in their head. Understanding scientific principles will be increasingly important as our civilization continues to shape the world around it, and I want people to be reasonably well-informed so they get a fair shake in that world. I’m also currently interested in resources management. Stuff like the Department of Natural Resources, the parks service, the forest service, the Bureau of Land Management, etc. As a geology student I’ve been to some wonderful places, and I love the land, and I’m sure it’s a challenging job trying to balance all these different private, public, and corporate forces that want to utilize the land in their image, but I bet it’s fascinating too. It’s a combination of all the things that I love about science: field work, research, educational outreach, interacting with a diverse clientele, and just trying to make some measure of difference in the way others think about the world. Either that, or become a fly fishing guide and freelance writer in Montana.
- How would you describe the Department of Geosciences at UWM to a prospective student?
It’s close-knit. I know all of these people—faculty, staff, and students—really well. There are so many opportunities to get involved within the department—field trips, social events, the annual recognition dinner—that you can’t help but be friendly. One of the grads I met here will be standing up in my wedding. The other thing that I can’t stress enough is that students are treated with the utmost respect by the faculty and staff. Everyone is very accessible. There are a lot of opportunities here. I enjoy showing up pretty much every day.
- What has been your favorite activity while you’ve been in Graduate School in Milwaukee?
I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of a program here at UWM called the Science Bag. It’s a free science show put on by various UWM faculty members that is geared towards the general public, especially families. It was initially co-founded by a member of the Geosciences faculty, so I’m very happy to keep it within the department. I’m usually there to help assist the presenter, and introduce them, and just generally be around for the sake of the show. The Science Bag is always interesting, the presenters usually come up with some awesome interactive demonstrations, and you realize that most people really do love science if it’s delivered to them in the proper way. It’s taught me a lot about science education and public relations that you can’t get from a classroom setting.
- What do you most enjoy about Milwaukee?
I’m biased. I like that we call it soda here, and not pop; that when I ask where the bubbler is, people know what I’m talking about; that I can get fried perch with potato pancakes and applesauce pretty much anywhere in the city on a Friday night; that the city doesn’t close down in winter for anything less than an Ice-Age-scale blizzard; that we have Bob Uecker on the call for baseball games; that I’m less than a hour drive in any direction from beautiful rural countryside; and that the word “Milwaukee” means “the good land.”