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Meet Biology PhD Student Justin Lesser

UL Grad School -- 09/18/2019

Justin Lesser spent his summer knee-deep in the marshes of Massachusetts, tracking tiny fish called mummichogs. As a Biology PhD student in Dr. Jimmy Nelson’s Ecosystems Lab at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, he studies how coastal erosion affects the eating habits of these abundant little fish, which in turn impacts the survival of larger predatory fish such as bass and flounder.

We spoke with him about the places his research has taken him, and the support he’s received at UL Lafayette.

Hometown: Wayne, New Jersey
Undergraduate degree: Brandeis University, 2014
Master's degree: Northeastern University, 2016
Expected doctoral graduation: Spring 2021
Advisor: Dr. James (Jimmy) Nelson

How did you come to work at in the marshes of Massachusetts this summer?
For the past three summers, I’ve been a part of the TIDE Project, an NSF-funded project administered through Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC). For 13 years, TIDE added excess nutrients to an entire salt marsh creekshed, establishing a natural laboratory to study the impact of excessive nutrients on coastal ecosystems. Now, we are beginning to assess how this legacy of nutrient addition affects the system’s recovery and response to additional stressors, such as sea-level rise and warming. I study the system’s food webs, and their responses to some of the landform changes caused by the nutrients. My advisor, Jimmy Nelson, worked on the project before joining the UL Lafayette biology department, and I jumped at the chance to return to some marshes I’ve studied during my previous degrees, as well as the opportunity to collaborate with people at a wide variety of places (Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland in addition to Louisiana and Massachusetts) with so many research interests.

Why did you choose to study biology at UL Lafayette?
While doing my master’s degree at Northeastern, I got the chance to travel all around, and experience places I had never been before. Never having been to Louisiana, I jumped at the chance to step outside my comfort zone and experience someplace new. I also was very excited to work with my advisor and come on as one of his very first doctoral students.

What is your favorite part about your program at UL Lafayette?
The biology department is extremely vast in the research areas it covers, from genetics, to ecology, to neuroscience and medical research. I love that the department brings all these different areas together provides opportunities to learn about research being done outside my focus. I also like how eager my colleagues are to share their work, taking the lead to put together a yearly graduate student symposium where we can give presentations in a low-stress environment.

What skills or knowledge are you gaining from your experiences here that have helped you find success in your career?
I’ve learned so much about how to analyze and look at the data I collect, and I’ve also learned a great deal about planning a field season and leading a research team. The experiences I’ve had supervising and working with undergraduate researchers will be really helpful for my future as a principal investigator in my own research lab.

Anything you would like to share about your experience at the University that we didn’t ask about?
The grad students! I’ve made some great friends in my department, and I like how inclusive our department can be. I think it's important to have that kind of relationship with peers in grad school.


Did you know UL Lafayette offers one of the largest graduate programs in biology on the Gulf Coast? Learn more about the graduate opportunities available in our Biology Department >