Puppy love propels graduate to earn PhD in animal behavior

woman holding dog

Melinda Weaver shares time with her 3-year-old dog Duncan, a border collie-St. Bernard mix. She was inspired to get her doctorate after learning more about animal behavior while training her dog Muggsy, pictured below. Photo: Melinda Weaver


Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2018 commencement. Read about more graduates.

Melinda Weaver found a soulmate. You know, that one-of-a-kind companion who loves you unconditionally? He just happened to be a dog named Muggsy. Little did she know that this dog would alter the course of her life forever.

Muggsy was a huge dog — an Akita mix — but the poor puppy was afraid of everything. Melinda had to learn how to control him, so she began looking for a dog trainer. After enrolling in an obedience program, she was paired with an exceptional dog trainer who taught her how to work with Muggsy, fearfulness and all.

While training her four-legged friend, she became fascinated by animal behavior and the ways animals change their behavior in response to humans. And, after reading a National Geographic article on how scientists were using animal behavior for conservation projects, she thought, “I could do that.” So she did.

She applied to graduate school at Arizona State University and was accepted. Melinda left her home in Redondo Beach, California, and started the animal behavior PhD program in the School of Life Sciences. Unfortunately, her furry friend did not join her on this new adventure for long. 

Muggsy, suffering from lung cancer, died in her arms her first semester of graduate school. To make matters even worse, two of her friends and a father figure also died — all within a year's time. Melinda had to launch her graduate career while dealing with tremendous loss. Luckily, a strong network of friends and getting involved in activities she enjoyed carried her through a very difficult time.

Question: What were some challenges you faced during graduate school and how did you overcome them?

Answer: Muggsy died during my first semester of graduate school as did two of my very close friends. There were times when I definitely felt like I wasn’t going to make it. But I relied on my friends and I focused hard on my work. I would always whisper to myself, “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.”

I had to watch almost 3,000 hours of bird videos and I had dozens of undergrads work on the projects for more than a year just to quit without giving me data. Again, I just put my head down and kept working. My network of friends was so supportive and picked me up when I was down. I also found other opportunities on campus to keep me excited about some aspect of graduate school when other aspects were hard.

I spent three years on the executive board, including a year as president. I volunteered with GPSE and Ask a Biologist. I wrote for SOLS magazine. I taught at a local community college. It was a lot of work, but I always had something going on that I really enjoyed and that helped me through the harder stuff.

Melinda Weaver and her dog Muggsy

Melinda Weaver, pictured with her dog Muggsy, is graduating this semester with a PhD in animal behavior. She has a tattoo of her beloved companion. Photo: Melinda Weaver

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: In my first career, I was a journalist, which is very deadline-driven. I had never missed a deadline, and I always put tremendous pressure on myself to meet everyone’s expectations on time, every time.

In graduate school, you can’t do that. You wear too many hats and have too much work to get done in one day or one week or one year. 

I learned how to prioritize and forgive myself when I just couldn’t get everything done. I learned that I didn’t have to finish everything right away. I could wake up tomorrow and it would still be there. It completely changed my perspective because I learned to make time for myself and prioritize things that matter, like the people and dogs in my life. I’m sure you wanted to hear about a great academic lesson, but really, I learned how to be a better person in grad school, both to myself and to the people around me.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I got my undergraduate degree in journalism, so before I could go to graduate school, I had to take some undergraduate science courses and get research experience. One of the things I did was study ant behavior in Costa Rica for a month, and I went to a conference to present research on that work. At this conference, I met Stephen Pratt and Jennifer Fewell and some other ant behavior people at ASU and really liked them.

So, on a whim, the day the applications were due, I applied to ASU. I originally interviewed with an ant lab, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to do, so I looked at other options. However, I had a great time at recruitment weekend and loved everyone I met. ASU has a really special graduate student community. So when a summer job was posted in Kevin McGraw’s lab, I applied for it and he offered me a graduate position. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: My advisor, Kevin McGraw, taught me basically everything I now know.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Balance, balance, balance. I really burned out working too hard the first couple of years, which caused struggles in my personal life and probably delayed finishing my research. ASU has tons of opportunities, social and professional. Take advantage of all of them. Make friends. Make time for yourself.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Does Postino count? If not, I really liked sitting on the benches outside of LSC in the sun and catching up with friends during a lunch break or something.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: That’s the million dollar question. I’m applying to postdoctoral opportunities right now. Next semester, I’m serving as an adjunct at local community colleges while I apply for postdocs. I’ve applied for several things and I’m just waiting for the right opportunity to work out.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would tackle, on a much larger level, the questions I asked in my dissertation. How are human-impacted areas affecting the surrounding animal populations and what behavioral changes do they make to acclimate to those?

I would take that information and apply it to developing urban areas to make them friendlier to a greater biodiversity of animals so we don’t wipe them all out. In this, I would include understanding the effects of toxicity in animals, particularly aquatic animals.

Q: What’s something you are most proud of during your time at ASU?

A: I’ve always said that no matter what comes out of my work at ASU, I will be most proud of how I managed my undergraduates. I worked with more than 75 of them during my seven years here and I wasn’t used to managing research teams.

I learned something from every single one of them, sometimes hard lessons, but I really learned how to relate to and work with a lot of different personality types during really stressful situations. Some of those people have grown up and gone on to interesting careers and have become really excellent friends who visit me when they are back in town. I’m really proud of those relationships.

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