Robert Laroche, B.S. in Biology, c/o 2018
Minor in Business Management
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Ph.D. student at Rice University in the Egan Lab
As a Bonner, Robert contributed substantially to several Bonner projects and was a project leader for the former Campus Kitchens project (now FIT) and Cultivate. In graduate school, Robert recently worked on a Saharan paleontology expedition in Niger collecting fish fossils to bring back and study. His main research interest is over patterns of inheritance of smallmouth bass–specifically in life history traits, which are less heritable and can be greatly impacted by a confluence of environmental and genetic factors.
What are you up to after graduation?
For my graduate thesis, I'm looking at population-level genomics and patterns of inheritance in a 10-year data set of smallmouth bass. I'm trying to understand how the life history traits of parents influence those of their offspring and how this is mediated by genetics and the environment. There's already some evidence in smallmouth bass that the timing of reproduction of parents influences the timing of reproduction of their offspring - think of it as zodiac signs but for fish. It's a lot of benchwork and then a good amount of bioinformatics after, like working with massive genomic data sets and trying to determine parentage from sequences of DNA from across every individual's genome, from hundreds of individuals.
I didn't really plan to end up at Rice; when I was an undergrad, I did a lot of research in phylogenetics with invertebrates, specifically sea anemones, and I did a range of other things, like oyster reef ecology with Dr. Marc Hanke and theoretical evolutionary network analysis with Dr. Ricardo Azevedo. I did a little bit of everything so I applied to a whole range of Ph.D. programs, some of which were in phylogenetics. Then I interviewed, went to all the campuses, and threw Rice into the application pool at the very end. I didn't know any specific faculty that piqued my interest. I reached out to a professor who does coral reef biology because that was close to sea anemones, and she told me that I should talk to another professor, Dr. Scott Egan, who I was a better fit for. I reached out to him, and after I visited all the other schools, I realized that his lab was the lab environment where I would be the happiest. I've been able to learn a lot at Rice and participate in a number of projects, including a fossil collection expedition in Niger in the Sahara.
In terms of my end goal, I'm trying to keep as many doors open as possible. When I finish my Ph.D., I plan on applying to a couple of industry jobs, maybe in Bioinformatics or consulting. I'll also apply to some postdocs (lab positions after earning a doctorate) that I'm interested in and see what pans out. Another option is applying to science policy fellowships, where I would go to DC and maybe do some work with the NSF (National Science Foundation) or NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), or in a senator or congressman's office and write memos or do work for them. This line of work is very broad, so I wouldn’t be working in my niche field, but it would provide more opportunity for broad impact compared to some of the other options.
What do you look back on in your time with Bonner?
I worked on the former Campus Kitchen project, which is now the Food Insecurity Team, and I was on the first team the first year it was launched in 2015. I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed freshman that got put on my first-choice project. It was an easy choice because I've always been interested in food waste but just haven't been able to do more work for it currently. I was part of Campus Kitchen for all 4 years, and it was a nationwide program at multiple universities. Campus Kitchen started off simple, we had two major partners: the dining halls on campus and New Hope Housing. We recovered food a couple of days a week, which eventually expanded to every day for the dining halls–talking to the people in the kitchen to see what food they weren't using anymore, packaging it into bins, collecting temperature data to make sure everything stayed up to code, and then bringing it to New Hope Housing. We always wanted to expand, but that was tricky because the dining halls got taken over by a new provider and they prioritized reducing food waste, so we didn't have as much food to bring to New Hope Housing - which is a good thing. But it did require some changes in the program. Along with Campus Kitchen, in my freshman year, I got motivated to pick back up on a project that had previously been done in Bonner. So with some other people, I started the Cultivate project, which was a community gardening program.
My favorite memory was probably one of the spring break trips, it was really fun to go down to Port Mansfield and the town was always happy to see us. That was really when people got to know each other because when people are working on projects, you really only see each other in that capacity, but when you're in a house together, playing games, staying up late, or just cleaning up trash on a beach, then you get to know people a little better, and not just through work.
How do you think Bonner helped you get to where you are today?
Through Bonner, I developed most of my presentation skills, like learning how to speak in public. Once, I gave a pitch for funding for Cultivate and had to put together a plan and talk to a group of donors in a competition to get money for the project. I also picked up leadership skills, since I was on the executive council of Bonner, and within Campus Kitchen, I managed and led different aspects of the project. That has helped a lot, since now being in graduate school, I have to train and manage undergrads within a lab environment. If I was ever to become a professor and run a lab of my own, I think that skillset of knowing how to manage a group of people will be very applicable.
Actually, when I was doing my graduate school interviews, I had an interview at the University of Kansas for a fellowship. At the time, I was in Puerto Rico for an aquatics science conference, presenting some undergraduate research that I had done, and I got the call that I had made it to the second round of interviews while I was in this hotel room with spotty wifi. I got on the virtual interview call, and the first thing they said was "You were asked to prepare and give a 15-minute spiel, so you can just start with that." I had completely forgotten that they asked me to do this, so I was super close to just exiting the call and blaming the connection, but instead, I launched into a rambly discussion. I think they wanted an overview of my research and why I would be a good fit for the fellowship, but I ended up talking about the work I had done in Bonner and Campus Kitchen and Cultivate, like building gardens, working with community partners, and navigating needs from multiple different interest groups. They emailed me a couple of days later and I ended up getting the fellowship! At the end of the day, the time that I spent in Bonner was some of the best work I did during undergrad.
What is something you're really proud of from your work in Bonner?
I'm really proud of Cultivate and that we built a garden at New Hope Housing Canal, even though it didn't have the longevity that I hoped it would. I am glad that we served the residents that we were trying to in the time that we could. We got a garden in the ground, and fruit trees, and I know that the residents that came out and helped us build the garden or just to talk about the trees really appreciated it. That's probably what I'm most proud of in Bonner, even though Campus Kitchen did really great work too. A community garden is a big commitment, it’s not something you can just do and then you’re done with it, it takes a lot to maintain. The impact was also hard to quantify, you could measure the pounds of produce that we would grow and donate to food pantries, but in terms of the quality of life of residents enjoying the green space, that's not something you can put numbers on.
What about now?
I published my first first-author paper this year recently, over research that I did during undergrad–so only 6 years later. It's a long process, getting rejected from journals, going back and forth on reviewers' comments, putting it aside to focus on other work, doing rewrites, but I eventually got published in Crustacean Biology! And now I have another first author paper–the first chapter of my thesis–accepted to the Journal Oikos with minor revisions.
Advice for future/current Bonners?
Stick with it, and believe it when people tell you that there are benefits to doing service. When the work got tough, I would question whether I was spending time doing the right stuff. People are always thinking about the next step, what comes after, what is the best thing to do for future job prospects, or for your resume or CV to make you stand out. Don’t overlook the work you're doing in Bonner, you get out of it what you put in.