Who are you?
My name is Nick Barts, and I’m a PhD Candidate in the Tobler Lab at Kansas State University!
Why did you become a scientist?
Although I’ve always loved science, I never planned on doing research in the same way that I am now. I started college planning to do work in environmental justice, a field that focuses on providing equality for access to outdoor space and protections for communities who are often forgotten in respect to development and planning. I’m still very passionate about this, but while taking classes in college, I realized that I kept asking questions like “what happens when animals have to move into new environments?” and “how can animals live in places like frozen lakes or deserts?”. With the help of some amazing professors, I transitioned to a career of biological research, and I’m so happy that I did!
What are you interested in?
The work that I do focuses on a central question: “why can’t all animals live in every environment?”. To tackle this, I focus on how animals function in response to their environment. My research investigates the physiology of animals (what they do and how they work) to understand how they can cope with the stress of different environments. Right now, I’m studying what mollies do to survive in toxic springs where few other animals can survive.
What do you like best about what you do?
My favorite part about science in general is the freedom to develop my own questions and the excitement of discovering things no one knows about. I’m not sure I’d have the same opportunities in other jobs, and I don’t think I would give it up for anything! I also really enjoy getting out of the lab and into the field. Once a year, we travel to Southern Mexico as a lab to get in the water, catch some fish, and do really cool science.
What does a typical day look like for you?
An average day at work starts by taking care of the fish we study. We have an entire room and an entire greenhouse full of fish tanks, and one of my jobs is to feed them and make sure that they are healthy! After that, I can usually begin one of my experiments. Some days I have to set up special equipment that allows me to track how fish use energy, which is really important for understanding their overall energy demands. If I’m not working with fish, then I’m likely at the bench measuring differences in their proteins and cells. This work allows me to assess the health and stress of the fish. Although I do a lot of laboratory work, you’ll rarely find me in a white lab coat, but I’m almost always wearing gloves. Every day ends pretty much the same as it starts, by taking care of the fish.
What are your aspirations for the future?
If I’ve learned anything as a PhD student, it’s that I have as much passion for teaching biology as I do for researching biological questions. In the future, I’d really like to work at an institution that values both teaching and research equally, realizing that we cannot produce great scientists unless we create equal access to quality biology education in the classroom. I have a large interest in continuing research on animal physiology, but I’d like to develop K-12 and college curriculums to highlight scientific inquiry, critical thinking, and the diverse individuals conducting sciences.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
When I’m not in the lab, you can usually find me hanging out with friends playing board or video games. I really enjoy the escapism, and I appreciate the strategy and art that goes into developing them. Music has always been important to me, so I try to make time to practice my trumpet or get out and enjoy concerts. And when the weather is nice, I like to get some friends together and go hike around the prairie or play frisbee.