Purdue Profiles: Linda Mason

April 14, 2015  

Linda Mason

Linda Mason, Graduate School associate dean and professor of entomology (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)
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Linda Mason has a storied career in entomology. She’s implemented and presented her pest management programs in numerous countries such as Greece and Japan. She’s also appeared on national television shows, including MTV’s “Road Rules” and “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, all in the name of entomology.

Mason has been a professor of entomology at Purdue since 1991, but her more recent appointment as associate dean of the Graduate School has allowed her to share her passion for professional development with all graduate students. The pinnacle of Mason’s professional development program has been implementing the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) at Purdue, which enters its third annual competition Wednesday (April 15).

How was the transition from working with entomology graduate students to graduate students across all disciplines?

It was a huge learning experience. I understood how the entomology system worked, but when you enter into the Graduate School, you’re serving all graduate students. The graduate experience is different for a student who’s getting a degree in English compared to a student who’s getting a degree in biology. For me, the first couple of years were spent meeting with students and faculty from across campus to understand how the different programs are run and how my position in the Graduate School can best serve all of those different constituents.

What is your favorite responsibility within the Graduate School?

Definitely the professional development activities! One of the things I truly understood, and that became a passion for me and led me to apply for this job in the Graduate School, was the idea of professional development. I knew the students I had met were getting a great research education in their particular discipline, but there’s more to being a good researcher than just doing the research.

A major role that the Graduate School can play in a graduate student’s life is providing those other educational opportunities that they need to develop themselves. My main focus in professional development is communication skills. Students have to be able to communicate their research to all different types of people. If you can’t explain what you’re doing and why it’s important, then your research is lost.

How did the 3MT competition begin at Purdue?

I got involved with it because I went to a summer workshop that was hosted by Stony Brook University and Alan Alda, who started a program believing that researchers need to be able to communicate better. If we can’t communicate our research to the general public, they’re not going to feel a buy-in to what we do, and they’re not going to understand the importance of supporting it with taxpayer dollars. Alan believed that by learning the skills of improv, you could better communicate your research.

At this workshop, I met the person who started the 3MT competition at the University of Queensland, where 3MT originated. He told me that they were expanding and a lot of other universities were starting to join it. I thought it was a great idea, and I brought it back to Purdue. One of the things that I like about it is that it highlights some of the best graduate research that comes from Purdue to the general public. The whole idea is for the general public to see the wonderful things that our graduate students do.

In addition to your Graduate School responsibilities, what classes are you currently teaching?

I teach two classes this semester; one is Introduction to Insect Behavior. It’s a class where the majority of the students are not entomologists, so I have a dual point to teaching it: I’ve got to get the entomology students to understand behavior, but for everybody else in the class, my goal is that they have a greater appreciation of insects when they walk out of my classroom for the rest of their lives. I try to get all of the students interested and involved with my science dailies, in which I find news articles or research articles from all different disciplines on how insects affect people. I try to connect a story somehow throughout the semester to each different major in my class so that they can connect insects to their field. I love having that connection with my students. I feed off of their energy.

I also teach Scientific Communication for the Engaging Researcher, which is a graduate-level class. Many of the students who take that class are very uncomfortable with public speaking. The idea is to move everybody up at least one level with his or her comfort. We spend one day a week practicing written and oral communication. Then we go into the video labs and they all have to practice being on camera, which is a very uncomfortable situation to put most people in. It’s wonderful to see them all encouraging each other to get over their nervousness. It’s a blast to see people coming out of their shells.

Writer: Kourtney Freiburger, 49-62993, kfreibu@purdue.edu  

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