Sun Foundation Peer Prize for Women in Science

An email went around our lab group a few weeks ago about the Sun Foundation Peer Prize for Women in Science and I was instantly intrigued by it. The prize is two $20,000 research grants, one for health sciences and one for environmental and earth sciences, awarded to the person who has the most peer votes. The thing that really drew me to the competition was that you can look through all of the applications and find out a bit about the brilliant work being done by women researchers throughout Australia. It ties in with my ideas about the necessity of finding low carbon ways of discussing and disseminating research and I am full of ideas that I could use $20,000 dollars to research so I thought I would apply. Voting opens on the 5th of June and close on the 16th of June 2017 and I’m very excited to see which other women applied and what research they are working on.

Please note that, in order to vote, the people at Thinkable who are running the competition need to verify that you are a scientist who has published in the past 5 years. This takes 24-48 hours… so you cant just go and try to vote on the last day

For a sneak preview you could have a look at my attempt to create a video about my research. Please be kind, this is way outside my skill set

 

 

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Kate Cranney’s Beautiful Art

A couple of years ago, Kate Cranney did this fantastic artwork and article inspired by me and my research and I want to share it with you all. If you want to see more of her brilliant work you can find her at http://www.katecranney.com/

Drawn to science

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Publication: Tiny terminological disagreements with far reaching consequences for global bird trends

In February, the second chapter of my PhD was published in Ecological Indicators. This paper looks at how sensitive our understanding of global bird trends is to how we classify bird groups.

It’s common practice to use composite indices to try and understand global biodiversity trends. The European Bird Census Council is just one institution that does this, calculating an index of temporal trends in farmland and forest bird species. These bird groups (farmland and forest/woodland) are studied by many researchers and institutions, though in each case different combinations of species are assigned to the different groups.

In this paper I looked at how sensitive the trends in composite bird indices of farmland, forest/woodland and generalist birds are to which species are included in each group. We find that the trends we calculate in these bird groups can change drastically depending on which species are included (using actual, published lists of species assigned to these groups). In some cases, this effect is severe enough that under some definitions a positive trend is seen and under others the trend appears to be negative.

Our results question the current practice of idiosyncratically classifying indicators in scientific research and conservation. This inconsistency is making it more difficult to infer whether and when to preserve bird groups, potentially leading to sub-optimal conservation outcomes.

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Publication: The value of virtual conferencing for ecology and conservation

I am ecstatic to say that the final version of my recent publication is now available at Conservation Biology. Some co-authors and I from the Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis and the Quantitative and Applied Ecology group got together a couple of years ago to write about the value of virtual conferencing for ecology and conservation. I’ve written a bit about this process in the past under my old name Hannah Pearson. It was a fantastic experience working with Matthew Malishev, Kylie Soanes, Stuart Jones and Chris Jones on the project.

In a nutshell

Ecologists and conservation researchers often research and express concern about climate change. These same researchers travel long distances to conferences contributing substantively to global carbon emissions that cause climate change.

Many of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and most pressing conservation problems happen in the developing world but the financial cost of travelling to conferences means that many of these researchers are unable to communicate their research or learn from recent research at international conferences.

Holding virtual conferences have the potential to overcome both problems: reducing researchers’ carbon footprint and increasing the accessibility of conferences from more poorly funded institutions such as those in developing countries.

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America Trip: UC Riverside

My last stop before I returned home was UC Riverside where I stayed with Helen Regan and her husband Kurt Anderson and visited their labs. Of course, due to the time of year most of the academics were away but I was able to meet with many of their fantastic students.

Helen Regan

Helen is the sister of one of the academics in my lab, Tracy which gave me an in to contact her. Unrelatedly, I’ve been curious to meet her for a while because one of her publications (Regan, H.M., Colyvan, M. & Burgman, M. (2002). A taxonomy and treatment of uncertainty for ecology and conservation biology. Ecological Applications, 12, 618–628) has been really influential in formulating my work on inconsistent use of terms. Obviously that work was done a while ago and she has largely moved on from there – her work now focuses on more applied questions relating to quantitative conservation, risk assessment and decision science.

Kurt Anderson

Kurt researches a variety of things including community dynamics (where he works on terrestrial, aquatic, microbial and theoretical communities), plant defences (where he works with field and simulated data) and environmental change in California.

Pamela Rueda

Pamela studies population viability analyses. A number of different methods of PVA are commonly used but it is unclear whether any of these are better or worse than others. She works with simulated data to determine whether matrix or scalar models give better approximations of the actual (as simulated) population dynamics.

Sara Freitas

Sara works on metapopulation dynamics of birds but has also been conducting a meta-analysis about how species interactions change based on climate change. I think she will have a pretty diverse PhD

Sean Hayes

Sean is studying how system stability relates to network structure. Like me, he has had trouble with terminology – stability is probably one of the worst defined terms in the field. For the purposes of his work, he considers a stable community to be one that does not go extinct. He works in simulated and real world (well- a whole lot of bottles connected by tubes with two bacteria in them) space to work out what kind of network of ‘patches’ of habitat is able to sustain a two species predator/prey system.

Katie Johnson

Katie studies hummingbird song – they evolved song separately from passerine birds and very little is known about how their song develops. She’s experimenting with playing fledglings different calls as they are developing and seeing how this affects their song. She’s also found that the terms used to describe different aspects of bird song (‘phrase’, ‘sound’, noise’ are not always used consistently which is interesting.

Daniel Goldberg

Daniel is a masters student and currently studies sexual selection in guppies but is interested in coming to Australia to work with fairy wrens. His dream is to work in a system where understanding breeding selection and behaviour can be linked with conservation outcomes. I think he’s unlikely to find a space for this with wrens because they’re hardy little guys but their behaviour is very interesting a complex so they might be worth studying anyway.

Sean Wilcox

Sean also studies hummingbirds and is particularly interested in studying determinants of hummingbird ‘quality’. He’s a bit like a hummingbird personal trainer: setting them tasks like navigating a string maze, weight lifting and flying in a wind tunnel to test their strength, agility and endurance.

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America Trip: ESA in Baltimore

Ecological Society of America centennial conference

It was my first time attending ESA (America) and this year it was in Baltimore. The conference itself was an experience; they really turned it on for the centenary. There was a personal message from President Obama, a celebratory/promotional video, an animated version of Dan Simberloff’s work on island biogeography and an incredibly depressing performance which combined a string quartet, narration and images to paint a bleak picture of our impact on the environment.

There was content between 8:30 and 5 with around 20 concurrent sessions at any given time plus poster sessions and trade displays and workshops. There was no lunch break and the whole thing was very fully on because they wanted to fit the most possible content into the days they had available.

All that aside, the talks I went to were fantastic and covered everything from education to community engagement to nutrient cycling. I went to so many fantastic talks that I couldn’t possibly describe them all I’ll detail a few of my favourites below.

Symposiums

How basic ecology has and will continue to shape conservation science

Each speaker in the symposium discussed how a basic research has impacted conservation – something I’m particularly interested in. A few of the talks that most interested me in this symposium were

Joshua Lawler discussed how niche theory relates to species distribution models which are now extensively used in conservation, particularly in reserve design

James Estes discussed how studying food webs gives us insights into species interactions and the nature of top down and bottom up control. This was all related to the classic Sea Otter, Urchin, Kelp problem.

Lenore Fahrig talked about how we have been misinterpreting the concept of habitat fragmentation. Habitat fragmentation literature often confounds the amount and fragmentation of the habitat (looking at patch size or distance to nearest patch etc). In fact, when you look at fragmentation independent of the amount of habitat available the effect is usually either neutral or beneficial.

Beyond Invasional Meltdown: Implications and Impacts of Co-Occurring Invasive Species and Assessing Future Research Needs

The speakers here were focussing on Dan Simberloff’s concept of invasional meltdown and more broadly how invasive species interact with eachother and native species

Dan Simberloff opened the proceedings by discussing the original concept of invasional meltdown and how it has been used/misused since its inception. The original concept of invasional meltdown was of a system where invasive species facilitated the spread of other invasives.

Carla di Antonio talked about how removing one invader in a Hawaiian system just made room for another invader to become more prevalent- it didn’t result in any improvements for the native species community.

Sara Kuebbing looked at how frequently different types of interactions occurred with invasive species and talked about how we can avoid the ‘invasion treadmill’ where one invasive species is replaces with another as Carla discussed.

Individual talks

Jane Catford is actually also part of the QAECO lab but only spends about a third of her time there and the rest in Canberra or Minnesota. Somehow, without collaborating, we have ended up working on very similar questions. Jane presented her work on the term ‘invasive species’ and the different interpretations of that term. She showed that there most classifications rely on some combination of four biogeographic criteria (local abundance, geographic range size, environmental range size, spread rate), plus impact. These can be combined to create 15 different ways of being invasive, all of which are used in the invasive literature.

Joshua Drew talked about how the density of human habitation (and consequent pollution and erosion) and fishing pressure was influencing fish assemblages in Papua New Guinea. Most of his work was using a space for time substitution, looking at areas with different human populations and relating this to their fish diversity. However, he did some nice stuff with historical data to verify that increasing human density (rather than other factors) caused the reduction of biodiversity.

Emily Farrer looked at how anthropogenic factors influence the invasion of species into suitable and marginal habitat. Road density was (unsurprisingly) very important and helped invasive species access and persist in marginal habitats. I found this particularly interesting because of the difficulty of defining what a marginal vs suitable habitat was. I believe she did this using SDM methods and calling areas with over 50% likelihood of occurrence ‘suitable’ and those with a lower likelihood ‘unsuitable’ but if these terms are widely used I suspect they are defined very differently in different studies.

Fantastic people I met

Our lab was underrepresented this year (possibly because ICCB was in such an idyllic location) so I attended on my own which was uncomfortable but ultimately probably very beneficial. Because I didn’t know anyone, it was a case of make friends or be lonely and as a result I met many more people and got to know those people much better than if I had have attended in a group of people – though there were also a few lonely times. I met so many fantastic people at ESA that I couldn’t describe them all so I’ll just tell you about the people I got to know the best

Joshua Drew

Josh (@Drew_Lab) is a lecturer at Columbia University studying biogeography and fish. He knows my supervisor Mick McCarthy (@mickresearch) through twitter. Mick recommended that we meet up at ESA and I really enjoyed hearing all about Josh’s research and teaching experiences. It sounds like he’d be a great person to study under because he puts a lot of thought and effort into his students.

Pamela Reynolds and Marissa Lee

Marissa presented in the same session as me about some work that she and Pamela (and colleagues) have been working on. They’d done a systematic review on how people are researching functional diversity. They found that most people who study functional traits collect their own information rather than using trait databases which is likely to be because people treat and measure traits very differently – so there isn’t much trust in the consistency of the trait databases. This has some strong similarities to my work on woodland birds and they use a very similar method to what I used to form the foundation for my research on woodland birds so it was interesting to hear about the pitfalls they faced during the process.

Laura Ferguson

Laura is a Masters student at Oregon State University and presented a talk about scientist-stakeholder engagement in the “Climate Change and Water Sustainability – Willamette Water 2100” project. She showed that having a facilitator, sharing a common goal and including diverse opinions in discussions resulted in more successful science-driven stakeholder engagement. Hey work is primarily in watery systems rather than terrestrial ones but she’s most interested in improving science and management through stakeholder collaboration. I think she’d be a great fit for CEED or CEBRA if she would be willing to move to Australia.

Chanda Littles

I organised to share a room with Chanda (who I’d never met before) through the ESA roomshare website and it was the best decision I could have made. She’s a really great woman who does very interesting work and hopefully will be a friend for life. She works on Manatee behaviour and deals with some fairly sophisticated modelling techniques. She presented her work on the tradeoff Manatees in her system make between feeding in the cold waters of the bay (where they need to expend extra energy to stay warm) and resting in the estuary which is fed by thermal springs. Her interest is in understanding how complex ecological and behavioural mechanisms are influencing the persistence of threatened species.

Bianca Reo/Charbonneau

Bianca studies dunes: their morphology, ecology, stability and erosion and how all of these things influenced the destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy. Natural sand dunes were able to very successfully mitigate storm damage but they tend to be under-rated. Bianca has just written an article after my own heart on dune terminology. It turns out there is disagreement about what terms like ‘blow out’ mean which is impeding communication between researchers and with the public. That article will come out some time next month and you should all read it: A REVIEW OF DUNES IN TODAY’S SOCIETY

Dan Simberloff

Dan Simberloff is a pretty famous ecologist. So much so that his paper on island biogeography (where he killed all the insects on mangrove ‘islands’ and monitored how they recolonised) was turned into a cartoon for ESA – not by his request. I’ve admired his work for years. He was at the conference presenting work on invasional meltdown where (among other things) he touched on how inconsistently the term was being used. I contacted him before the conference and he agreed to meet with me and discuss my ideas about terminological consistency! He turned out to be a lovely, humble, soft spoken man who gave me a lot of time and consideration. He heard out my ideas and thought they were interesting though he doesn’t believe that it is possible to change the way people use terms. As much as I would like to prove him wrong, I think he’s probably right (at least in most circumstances)

Lenore Fahrig

I have admired Lenore’s work for a long time too. Her research focuses on the effects of habitat fragmentation but from time to time she has published an article commenting on the use of terms in that field such as ‘fragmentation’ and ‘connectivity. She was at ESA presenting her recent review of the fragmentation literature where she found (much to her horror I imagine) that, in cases where habitat fragmentation had a significant impact on diversity, it usually increased diversity (rather than decreasing it as expected and proposed in many of her own papers). I always admire someone who finds results that contradict their previous assertions and publishes and publicises them. It shows a high level of scientific integrity. I managed to organise to meet Lenore during ESA and found her to be an excellent and insightful conversationalist. Despite my nerves she was able to draw out details of my work and we found a lot of common ground in talking about inconsistencies in terminology. Like Dan, she is dubious about the possibility of changing the way people use terms like ‘fragmentation’ because the field includes so many researchers and it would be very hard to reach and convince them all. However, she thought there might be hope for my Australian ‘woodland bird’ example because it’s a smaller, more contained system. So I’ve got my fingers crossed that she’s right.

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Structured Decision Making Course

As part of the EDG/CEED Leadership Program, CEED was kind enough to give each represented node $3000 to host an event that would help us improve our leadership skills. This is a broader brief than it sounds as the concept of ‘leadership’ as defined on the course includes everything from self leadership, to networking, to influencing others (see blogs from the leadership cohort who explore this more). Therefore, after much deliberation we decided to run a workshop on Structured Decision Making. Now this usually costs you tens of thousands of dollars but the University of Melbourne is lucky to have three resident experts in structured decision making; Libby Rumpff, Kelly de Bie and Prue Addison and they were willing to teach us. I should say that $3000 did not nearly cover their wages for the time they put in to preparing and running the two day workshop but they saw this as an opportunity to refine their skills (I hear that they may consider offering similar Structured Decision Making Courses in the future). Around 30 students, post docs and government and NGO employees attended the course. Most of these people attended in person at the University of Melbourne but we also streamed the lecture components of the workshop live to a number of interstate and overseas participants.

The workshop was designed to progress in the same way that you would approach a structured decision making problem. Structured Decision Making is made up of 6 steps (although some steps may be done multiple times depending on the concept: 1) creating a problem statement, 2) delineating objectives, 3) cataloguing alternatives, 4) determining the consequences of the alternatives, 5) comparing the different alternatives and, 6) deciding on an action. The workshop took us through each of these steps and we simultaneously learned about the steps and implemented them using a toy decision problem (deciding on a correct course of action in Victorian Mountain Ash forests).

Throughout the workshop our facilitators gave us examples of how they have used structured decision making for everything from choosing a house to protecting the Great Barrier Reef. By the end of the workshop I felt like I had the knowledge and skills to implement a Structured Decision Making process, though it might be easier to implement Structured Decision Making in a group context after some facilitation training.

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