Amazing Students

RajReni Kaul

Reni Kaul
RajReni Kaul received the Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award from UGA’s Office of Instruction this spring. (Chad Osburn/UGA)

RajReni Kaul, a Ph.D. student with a focus on population ecology, put her passion for science into practice as the founder of STEMzone UGA, an outreach event held on campus prior to home football games to increase the visibility of STEM research done at UGA in a relaxed and fun setting.


Sterling Heights, MI

High school:

Sterling Heights High School

Current employment:

Graduate research assistant for UGA

Family ties to UGA:

I’m the first Georgia Dawg of my family.

Expected graduation:

Summer 2019

Degree objective:

Ph.D. in ecology

Other degrees:

B.S. in microbiology, M.S. in fisheries

University highlights, achievements, awards and scholarships:

I’ve just completed my fifth year as a graduate student in the Odum School of Ecology. Over this time, I’ve been active in the student community by filling various roles in the department’s graduate student organization (chair, webmaster, student recruitment, etc.). I have also been able to develop my teaching skills. This spring, I was awarded the Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award by UGA’s Office of Instruction. Recently, I’ve been working on developing a workshop series to teach R computer programming for undergraduates in the biological sciences.

My research focuses on population ecology, spanning from theoretical to applied. I am interested in the general path populations take on the road to extinction. Theoreticians have developed equations that capture what we think that road looks like. My work pushes these ideas forward by trying to re-create this theoretical road in a highly controlled laboratory setting. This work acts as a proof of concept before exploring these ideas in (an often messy) natural setting. Understanding how populations go extinct can help us make better conservation decisions. On the flip side, this information can also be useful in controlling disease outbreaks and invasive species.

I started my passion project, STEMzone UGA, last summer with the encouragement of fellow graduate students Anya Brown, Rishi Masalia and Carly Phillips. STEMzone UGA is a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) outreach event held on campus prior to home football games. The goal is to increase the visibility of STEM research done at UGA in a relaxed and fun setting (like tailgating!). The graduate students at UGA make the perfect messengers — we are passionate about the Dawgs and our research. Leading up to our inaugural event, we sponsored science communication workshops that brought in local experts (faculty, staff and students) to help students experiment and develop their science communication style to effectively engage general audiences. We were able to bring together 11 STEM-related groups for our first event. During the four-hour event, we interacted with roughly 2,000 Dawg fans. It was really amazing watching multiple generations of UGA Dawgs get drawn into the various booths by the enthusiastic students.

This event was beyond my wildest dreams, and I am so grateful for all the people whose time, expertise and sweat made it happen. I’m currently gearing up more events this fall!

More details about our first STEMzone event can be found under the press coverage section of the STEMzone website.

I chose to attend UGA because …

… the Odum School of Ecology is an amazing place to develop my skills. The range and depth of expertise in a single department is rare.

My favorite things to do on campus are …

… lunch near the turtle pond in front of the ecology building, walks through the Trial Gardens and coffee breaks at the science library.

When I have free time, I like …

… to explore with my dog. The Oconee Forest is a local favorite for both of us.

The craziest thing I’ve done is …

… go on a backpacking trip through southeast Africa. I decided to take the trip on a Monday, I was on a plane by Friday and sleeping on a Mozambican beach Saturday.

My favorite place to study is …

… a shady spot under a tree.

My favorite professor is …

… my adviser, Dr. John Drake. He strives to match his mentoring style to each student’s needs. John has been a great mentor and has set an example that I strive to meet.

If I could share an afternoon with anyone, I would love to share it with …

… the social scientist correspondent and host of “Hidden Brain,” Shankar Vedantam. I am always blown away with his ability to turn cutting edge social science research into a riveting story.

If I knew I could not fail, I would …

… have a less fulfilling life. Many of my experiences that have led to substantial personal growth or new research interests have started with a “failure.”

If money was not a consideration, I would love to …

… build a foundation designed to support broader training of scientists. Like most early career researchers, I’ve spent so much of my training mastering the technical details of my field. However, that is only a small piece of what scientists need to be effective. Research is very entrepreneurial and can impact society in profound ways.

What is your passion and how are you committed to pursuing it?

I am passionate about sharing my love of science. I have done this on a small scale through one-on-one interactions, but STEMzone has really been a highlight for me.

After graduation, I plan to …

… pursue my research in an academic setting.

The one UGA experience I will always remember will be …

… STEMzone.