Thursday, 16 April 2015

Post 48: Collaboration, Collaboration, Collaboration, and an Amazing Novel Ecosystems Panel Discussion!

Last week I was looking through my emails and saw an invite to a Novel Ecosystems Panel discussion that was organized by one of the PhD students in our department, Nancy Shackleford (who just passed her comprehensive exams, CONGRATS!), on seemingly very short notice. During her discussion with my lab group when she was our guest a number of weeks ago, she'd mentioned collaboration and pulling together different people, and this seemed to be one of those great circumstances!

We have two wonderful guests here right now: Dr. Rachel Standish from the University of Western (UWA) Australia, who is on Nancy's committee, and Dr. Richard Hobbs also from UWA and most recently became a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (which is a big deal!). Richard was also Nancy's master's supervisor. Both are visiting from Australia. And both were on this panel to discuss reflections on the novel ecosystems concept that both have written on with my supervisor, Dr. Eric Higgs, since the novel ecosystems book came out in 2013: Novel Ecosystems: Intervening in the New Ecological World Order. The book was co-edited by Richard, Eric and Carol Hall.

What I really loved afterwards about what turned out to be an awesome panel discussion was the format: 15 minutes per speaker, followed by 10 minutes of general questions, then a short break for filling up with cheese and fresh cut fruit, and then pods of discussions around the small sets of tables that were distributed around the room, with Eric, Rachel, and Richard visiting each of the different tables.

More tulips from the Vancouver Easter long weekend! :) 
It was excellent! And what a diversity of contributions from each of the panelists: Richard started off by discussing some of the history of the concept, starting with F. Stuart Chapin III and Anthony Starfield, and Peter Bridgewater who were writing on synthetic and emerging ecosystems in the 1980s, to explaining how he got involved with the concept, to publishing the novel ecosystems book with Eric in 2013, and some of the criticisms and responses that have taken place since. He is a great storyteller, and definitely kept us laughing as he walked us through this brief history.

Rachel also reflected on her initial motivation to get involved with the concept, which included her usual pragmatism around "Will it be helpful?" Her answer to the question included a qualified yes, as she could think of at least 2 types of ecosystems in which she thought it had direct application: degraded landscapes such as those she has studied in the Australian wheat belt, and urban landscapes. She wrapped up with a few reflections on where work on the concept could go next, including more work to try to define/understand thresholds for ecosystems and ecosystem states, and wondering about novelty in terms of changing phenological shifts for plants, due to climate change, and mismatches in species because of that.

Some of the fantastic flowering red currant, Ribes sanguineum, on campus!  
Eric covered a lot of territory very quickly, but it was very, very good. He spent his first few minutes emphasizing the three components of the novel ecosystems definition that are really key to the concept: difference in ecological function or composition from historical configurations, some threshold having been passed because of the changes, and a demonstrated self-persistence of the ecosystem.

He emphasized the third aspect, the persistence of the novel ecosystem, because without that, you have designed or engineered ecosystems, requiring a lot of constant inputs and efforts to keep it going. This isn't to say that an engineered ecosystems can't later become a novel one, but at least right at the beginning, it won't be a novel ecosystem because it lacks that self-persistence on its own. And it's important to emphasize this so as to curtail arguments that all designed ecosystems (including and especially those that appear post-mining restoration) are novel ecosystems. They are not.

Each of the panelists mentioned some of the controversy that's been going on about the concept. The early  2006 paper that is really one of the most prominent on the concept "Novel ecosystems: theoretical and management aspects of the new ecological world order," co-authored by 15 others, was well received when it came out. And the 2009 paper, "Novel ecosystems: implications for conservation and restoration," written by Richard, Eric, and another colleague James Harris from Cranfield Univesity, was also well-received. So Richard was sort of reflecting on why it was that now some people in restoration and conservation are becoming very alarmed by the concept. Some of those concerns are well grounded, but others seem to be (to me), founded in fear and a lack of inner adaptability for change. Our ecosystems are experiencing rapid ecological changes. Period. The novel ecosystems concept, as Eric and others have pointed out, does not diminish the reality of the changes that conservationists, biologists, and restoration practitioners have been noticing.

More lovely tulips, even when they're close to being spent!
I find that one of the most useful functions of the novel ecosystems concept is that it opens up that questions of "Should we intervene in an ecosystem?" and accompanying that, "What are our options and priorities?" Frequently, restoration and conservation projects take place within very well-defined budgets. If you have 1.3 million dollars to spend on a region in a given year, is it better to spend it on one site/ecosystem that has a LOT of invasive species, associated soil and chemical changes that mean that restoration will be extremely difficult and success is uncertain, or spend that budget on smaller projects that have less degradation or less invasion, and a much higher chance of success? Towards the end of the discussion at our table Eric sort of joked that he thinks we're entering the "Age of Deliberation", where we're doing to be having long arguments and discussions about all of these questions and more.


It's that time of year and three thesis defenses are happening tomorrow!! Congrats to Anita Girvan, our wonderful TAC, who is defending Friday morning, and to two of my colleagues, Nikki Heim and Meg Sullivan! What wonderful news, though I'm frustrated about the overlapping booking for Nikki and Meg's defenses; I'll need to choose which one to attend!

Post 47: Guest Post on Teaching from Garrett Richards!

Three weeks ago we had a lab meeting during which Garrett Richards was one of two guests, and we ran out of time to discuss his perspectives on transitioning into teaching, which I had been particularly interested in hearing about. Garrett is one of those wonderfully reflective people who produces excellent work all the time, because of his unending internal processes of introspection and thoughtfulness. Because of this, he's delightful to work with, and he follows up when he says he'll do something with/for you. He's currently in Saskatoon finishing writing his PhD and teaching sessionally.

Garrett generously emailed me after the meeting with these additional thoughts, which we didn't get to talk about during the lab meeting (it already went over time). So, from Garrett:

1) Obviously teaching is something to consider a little later in your graduate career. I don't know of many sessionals without a master's degree, and it seems to be a minimum requirement on any posting. Still, if you're interested in pursuing teaching, it's something to start thinking about even at the end of your master's, even if you won't teach for another few years. Some PhD programs, for instance, have a mandatory teaching component (e.g. after your classes and comprehensive exams you might spend one term teaching a course coordinated by your department) that might be attractive to you.

First apple tree blossoms I've found on campus! Love the splashes of pink through the white petals! 
2) Sessional teaching is super unreliable. In any given term, the courses you are able to teach (and want to teach) might not be available. At the University of Saskatchewan (UofS), one tricky thing about this is that ALL sessional opportunities get posted to the public, even if a department already suspects they will fill them with their regular sessional instructors. 

So you need to apply to a lot of them, but some are not even "real" postings. I didn't have that problem applying at UVic (not that I ended up teaching there), but it was a lot harder to find the postings to begin with. If the university where you end up doesn't have a convenient regular posting for all sessional positions like the UofS, email the department(s) you're interested in and ask how to be kept in the loop. Anyway, demand for completely new sessionals seems to be low, so don't plan on getting an appointment right away - apply for a few different terms and hopefully you'll stumble into a class that a new instructor has a chance at getting. Then you'll have some experience and connections, which might open up further opportunities.

3) Of course, if you manage to get a permanent appointment in some department (i.e. based on your research), the teaching doors may fly open, even if you don't have any teaching experience.

4) Teaching is a lot of work, and takes up a lot of mental space (especially if you're teaching in an area outside your research focus). Most graduate students will already be familiar with these challenges from TAing. Actually teaching a class is way more fun (i.e. you actually get to make decisions about what material to cover and what assignments to give) but quite a bit more work. I'm lucky to have a lot of public speaking experience, such that I don't have to write super-detailed notes for each lecture (I use my slides to guide me and just a few extra notes written on paper). 

And some latecomer cherry blossoms. The first started blooming in February, and now it's mid-April! Lovely!
I've heard a piece of advice that you shouldn't teach until you've drafted at least two chapters of your dissertation. Still, splitting your focus between teaching and writing is hard - I try to devote entire days to one or the other. I would expect to do 3-days-teaching and 2-days-writing each week for a big class, and the inverse for a small one (once you get into a rhythm). 2 new classes at once would probably take all your time, but I assume things get way easier when teaching a class a subsequent time.

5) Be proactive in asking questions to someone in the department. They may not plan on doing a lot of hand-holding, and you should feel free to do a lot independently, but there are some things you will need guidance with (just like when TAing). For my first appointment, I was a bit surprised at how little information I was given - I sent an email back with about 20 questions (e.g. Is there marking assistance? Where will my office space be? How much can I change from the existing syllabi? How do I access online parts of the course? Do I need to ask the bookstore to order textbooks for my students? et cetera). It's a bit tricky to balance guidance vs. independence - I overdid the independence a little bit in my first class and should have gotten someone to check over the mid-term I had developed before giving it to my class (i.e. it was too hard).

Thanks Garrett!! 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Post 46: Lab Meeting Guests, and Normalizing the Grad School Experience

This post has been brewing in my mind for a while, and now that I'm mostly over my flu (caught early last week on the Easter long weekend!), and TAing has wrapped up, I can engage in this space a little bit more again. In many ways this semester turned out to be much busier than I could have imagined it to become at the beginning of January. I knew I was staring down TAing a very big class with multiple tutorials, that I'd be trying to write a lot of my thesis, and that I would be keeping up with my hours for my second research project. At some point in those early weeks of the semester myself and my colleague Tanya took on the role of organizing our weekly lab meetings, too, and we set out on an ambitious schedule.

Due to difficulties with our technological setup at University House 4 (we didn't have a video-conferencing set-up, nor did we have functional space with a big screen to effectively share work or demo programs or such), our schedule was flexibly modified as the semester chugged along. Still, we included a good variety of meetings, from a discussion on short scientific presentation skills, to prep and planning for a conference many of us are attending in early May called Thinking Mountains, to overviews of Weebly (website development), Scrivener (a composition program), and Papers (citation program that plays well with Scrivener), student presentations and catch-ups, and a variety of guests, mostly PhD students, a post-doc student, and a visiting scholar from Australia.

Walking in the land of tulips! Makes me think of the tulip mania that took over the Netherlands during the 1600s. 

For the meetings with guests, I was particularly keen on hearing about their experiences during their graduate degrees, because in the recent months I have found it incredibly useful and wonderful and important to help me deal with the impostor syndrome, anxieties, and other concerns about graduate school. I've found that the more I hear stories about people experiences—good and challenging—about making it through grad school, the more I've gained perspective, built bonds with those colleagues, and found a way to really enjoy my experience all the more. In short, it's been a really useful way to normalize a lot of the experiences of going through this program, and it's been simply wonderful to make more connections and deepen my understanding of the graduate school.

So on top of asking about their current research projects, Tanya and I asked about what the most valuable advice was that each of them had received during their graduate experience, major roadblocks they'd encountered and how they overcame them, what formative experiences led them to carry on to do PhDs or further, and what they recommend for managing relationships with their research communities, including their committees and supervisors. For a couple of the later ones we also asked questions about the differences between PhD students and post-docs, and about experiences with transitioning into sessional teaching (this will be an upcoming guest post). Our guests included Frances Stewart, Christy James, Nancy Shackleford, Liese Coulter, Garrett Richards, Kira Hoffmann, and Jonaki Bhattacharyya.

Because there were so many of them—it's a shame that I didn't have more time to write on each closer to when they happened—and because I got too wrapped up in enjoying the stories and having our guests I only took sparse notes, so the below is going to be a very brief overview of what we all discussed and heard during those meetings.

Beautiful tulips on the walk to the bus down in Cadboro Bay! Love the colour!
Unsurprisingly, each graduate student has their own story: their own path to developing their interests in the field they're currently studying. And the advice or insights or stories each of them shared are as varied as the people telling them. It's amazing the territory discussions have covered with this diverse set of students, whether it's hearing about stories about the Elk Island National Park or the Cooking Lakes Moraine from Frances, where she is conducting her work on gene flow among a number of mesocarnivore (animal whose diet consists of mostly meat!) species, and learning about the genetic techniques used to figure out these landscape scale animal behaviours and relationships. Or then about Nancy's math background and her excellence at developing the networking skills that have enabled her to co-publish a number of publications very quickly. She described the process as "pulling together different people's strengths," and recommended working with "people that you like;" if someone's getting in your way or preventing you from reaching your goals, making the connections you want, or supporting your work, get them out of the way and find someone better! I also really loved hearing about her ideas about writing, during which she encouraged writing quickly and getting the writing out quickly, because someone else will fix the mistakes that you've made (give feedback). :)
Kira and Christy are both amazing women doing very interesting work! Christy on finding out about specific habitat ranges for a variety of bird species in the Willmore Wilderness. Christy's two cents: make sure to take the time to build relationships with your supervisors, and mentioned that when her supervisor says something's going to be easy, it definitely won't be! There are all sorts of curveballs that come along the way, and you work your way through them!

Kira identified a few different roadblocks, from struggling with a statistics course, to feeling the insidious isolation that we find at different parts of our grad school experience, but reminded us to be adaptive, as things always change. Further, "don't take yourself too seriously," and "Don't compare yourself to others." This last point is one that I can really identify with; some of my early grief in my program began with the constant comparing, and accompanying worry that I wasn't working hard enough, or doing enough, or learning quickly enough, or wasn't smart enough, etc. It is hard, though, when working with a bunch of fantastic, brilliant, and intelligent people!

Kira found a group of other PhD women working in ecology that became a sort of support group that's really been helpful for building  camaraderie and excitement and a deeper engagement with her graduate experience. This sounds very similar to what I've recently been enthusing about with my writing group! :) And one final bit of advice: meet with your supervisor regularly, even if you feel you don't have much to discuss. There is always more to discuss than you think! And it is good to check in with how things are going, and keep the forward momentum going.

And our dogwoods are blooming on campus now, too! :) Love these ones! 
Jonaki had some incredible stories, including about some of the adventures she had during her PhD, such as losing her hardrive and the backup of her hard-drive due advised us to be our own "project managers: set an agenda, go through the material;" your supervisors will appreciate the professionalism, and similar to Kira's advice, it will keep the momentum going.

Garrett had some really practical advice, too, and encouraged us to become much more assertive communicators, by asking for very specific things from our supervisors when it comes to feedback (he's also in the writing phase right now), and provided some useful ways to frame these requests: "This would be most helpful" or "I'd like this kind of feedback," which can guide the expectations for what he'd most like to hear from his supervisor.

Everyone has their ups and downs, and finds different ways to tackle the surprises and challenges that come along the way.

I'm sorry because in a way I can recognize that this post falls very short of expressing the delight of sitting in on the presentations, and hearing the varied experiences, the voices and stories of different researchers, and the adventures that they shared, but I hope this at least gives a little sense of these wonderful people.

The next post is going to be Garrett's recommendations on teaching, because that was one aspect I'd been particularly keen on hearing from him, but we didn't get a chance to talk about it too much because we ran out of time at the lab meeting!

If I do this again in the future, I will try much harder to write soon after each of the lab meetings with the respective guests.