Graduate focuses on inter-disciplinary research

Christopher McKagen, Staff Writer

Joseph “Robbie” Burger, from Powdersville, S.C., began a pursuit of unusually high expectations in the classrooms of Francis Marion University only a few years ago.

Burger graduated from FMU in 2006 with a major in Economics and International Studies and a minor in Biology. Prior to graduation, Burger experimented with different majors before deciding on economics and biology.

“Like many undergraduates, I came to FMU with no clear view of what I wanted to do when ‘I grew up’,” Burger said. “I changed my major several times during my first and second year and I soon became intrigued by the conceptual basis and analytical approach of economics.”

Burger attributes the opportunities that were available to him at FMU as primary reasons for choosing economics and biology as the fields of work he wished to pursue. These opportunities included studying in Mexico for a summer, receiving funding from multiple sources at FMU for research, and attending and presenting that research at scientific conferences at other universities.

“I received funding to support research from the Honors College, the School of Business and the biology department at FMU,” Burger said. “I was even able to get funding to present research at two scientific conferences at Duke University and the University of Massachusetts.”

Burger said he was able to participate in projects at FMU that he feels would not have been available to him at a larger school.

“I had the opportunity to develop a project with a professor from start to finish including everything from experimental design, data collection and analysis, and writing a manuscript which ultimately led to my first publication.”

Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Latha Malaiyandi described Burger as being one of the most productive students to study biology at FMU in recent years.

“We faculty in biology frequently refer to him as probably the most intellectual and prolific student we have had come through here at least in the last six years,” Malaiyandi said.

After graduating from FMU, Burger said that he knew he wanted to go to graduate school for ecology but decided to get a master’s degree in biology first. With his knowledge of Spanish and growing résumé of experience, he applied for a program at a graduate school in Louisiana.

“I became aware of a project funded through the National Science Foundation through the University of Louisiana at Monroe on the social behavior of a small mammal in central Chile,” Burger said. “I contacted the professor and sent him my curriculum vitae and summary of research interest. He accepted me into his lab as a master’s student to work on this project.”

The research and studies that Burger participated in while in Chile for nearly a year-and-a-half directly assisted in his capacity to be accepted into a doctoral program after earning his master’s.

“I was able to obtain a research assistantship which covered my travel, housing, research expenses and salary to spend over 16 months over the course of 3 years in South America working on mammal behavior and diseases for my master’s thesis,” Burger said. “This allowed me to be competitive for Ph.D. programs and so on, so some of the experiences I had at FMU were foundational for my career and have taken me a long way.”

That competitiveness, and a master’s degree in biology, allowed Burger to choose a doctoral program that fit his wishes. He wanted to pursue research that would allow him to link his interests in both economics and ecology.

“I was considering several programs and had a number of offers but decided on the University of New Mexico because of their long-standing reputation in interdisciplinary research and pioneers in integrative biology,” Burger said.

At age 28, Burger is now a research fellow for the Program in Interdisciplinary Biological and Biomedical Sciences (PIBBS) in the department of biology at the University of New Mexico. He has been working toward receiving a Ph.D. in Integrative Biology since August 2009 and incorporates all of his educational opportunities into his work.

“I still continue to have broad interests in ecology, evolution, economics, and global issues,” Burger said. “Some of the most pressing issues we humans face today regarding energy and resource use, population growth, climate change, poverty, disease and biodiversity involve complex problems and require interdisciplinary approaches.”

Burger chose a rapidly paced academic journey that carried him from the lawns of FMU to the laboratories of the University of New Mexico and beyond in just five years.

Burger claimed his love of the challenge of science and advancing human knowledge of how the world works as his motivation.

“Knowledge is a wonderful thing,” Burger said. “Equally important are the fruits of those before us. Isaac Newton once said ‘If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.’”