Ecology seeks to understand the vital connections between living organisms and their environment, which form a complex network defined by their use of available resources. Maryrose Weatherton is applying a similar ecological lens to study the environment of students in higher education. By using what is known about ecological systems, she hopes to develop a better way to measure and characterize achievement in minoritized grad students.
Weatherton is a doctoral student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB), but the focus of her work is on how education practices and policies within this field can be improved. She is especially interested in examining the variety of resources that students use to achieve success within their programs.
While most EEB graduate students are studying how plants and animals maximize available food, water, and shelter to survive in the wild, she is using a novel approach to examine how those graduate students use resources such as mentorship, academic coaching, and study groups to thrive in a higher education ecosystem.
Weatherton’s goal is to expand the definition of success and increase education equity between majority and minoritized students. In her study, minoritized is a blanket term that covers many lenses of inequity—including students of color, women, LGBTQ+, low socioeconomic status, international, and first-generation students.
“We know that within STEM fields, there are significant gaps in the academic achievement and persistence between majority and minoritized students. These academic gaps can have large impacts on equity nationally, in terms of degree attainment, earned wealth, and social well-being,” Weatherton explained.
“Previous work has also suggested that the idea of success also differs among groups of majority and minoritized students. Using both qualitative and quantitative approaches, I’m hoping to show that student definitions of success may have cascading impacts on many aspects of the student experience and may be one factor driving inequities in graduate education.”
Weatherton’s current research was inspired by her work as an environmental studies student at Marquette University, where she researched tropical plant communities and competition between plants within an ecosystem.
“What I love about ecology is the idea that there is an overarching set of ‘rules’ that structure these really complex communities, and researchers can leverage these rules to address challenges like conservation and global warming,” she said. “I am hoping to develop a similar set of ecological ‘rules’ that govern graduate student success and to use that in addressing equity challenges facing higher education.“
Preliminary results of Weatherton’s research have demonstrated that student definitions of success differ in major ways from how student success is defined and measured in the literature.
“Student definitions are far more diverse and nuanced than those proposed by researchers and leaders in the field,” Weatherton noted. “My next step is to examine which resources graduate students use to achieve this success and whether resource use patterns are related to student characteristics and outcomes within their graduate programs.”
Weatherton’s passion for reaching diverse audiences began when she went to work as an outdoor science educator at the Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee, WI. Her experiences working with underserved, mostly low-income, students inspired her interest in increasing educational opportunities for minority students.
“Teaching things like hiking, catching tadpoles, snowshoeing, and sledding to kiddos that had never really been outside to play really sparked my passion for education,” she explained. “I taught mostly low-income students and I think those experiences really turned my interest toward teaching and equity in education.”
Once her research is complete, Weatherton plans to continue pursuing science education and curriculum development in a nontraditional setting, such as a zoo or aquarium, which is more flexible in its curriculum and can serve as an educational resource for underserved communities.
“Ultimately, I would like to use my research to make concrete, systemic changes within science education broadly,” Weatherton noted. “I hope that my research will reveal important drivers of graduate student outcomes that can be leveraged to increase the equity of graduate education across the country.”