By: Tunde Adebola
I knew what I wanted to do for my PhD studies, and I also knew it would be challenging to pull this off successfully. After speaking with Dr. De Mutsert about my goals, she suggested to collect system-specific data to help with my research work, so I thought, “Sure, why not.”
Since I’m developing an ecosystem fisheries model for Nigerian coastal waters (NCW), it meant I had to travel to Nigeria at some point during my dissertation work, and this would be my first visit to my home country Nigeria since I came to the USA 10 years ago.
I set out early to develop the model for my dissertation since I knew it would takes considerable time and effort to build it from the ground up. It is a first attempt to building a coast-wide ecosystem model for Nigeria. I needed both detailed ecological information and reliable data for the model and also for my entire research.
Initial data used for this process was from internet sources and published literature but this changed when Sharon Bloomquist spoke about departmental research grants for PhD student in the fall of 2015. With Dr. De Mutsert help, I applied for this grant in order that I may go collect environmental data in the Nigerian coastal system and got grant monies in the spring of 2016.
As a developing country, Nigeria has many of the environmental problems associated with her stage of national development. Some important ecological problems include overexploitation of natural resources in some part of the country, desertification in the northern borders with the Sahara Desert, and oil pollution in the Niger Delta a region that has suffered from more than 60 years of oil exploration, exploitation and hydrocarbon pollution.
The growing coastal population has traditionally relied on coastal fisheries and are subjecting coastal resources to ever-increasing fishing effort since many coastal peoples have little or no alternative occupation than to fish. This problem is more critical in the Delta where oil pollution exacerbates an already difficult resource depletion situation, causing environmental damage and pollution estimated to cost $1 billion USD and approximately 30 years of remedial action to reverse.
The Niger Delta is so important that it is estimated that more than 80% of commercial fish stocks in the Gulf of Guinea adjacent to Nigeria’s shores either used this as habitat or transition between the sea and estuaries in their lifecycle migrations. Here and elsewhere along the coast, more than 300,000 small-scale fishermen are operating low technology-fishing vessels in addition to an industrial fishing fleet of approximately 250 trawlers.
Another issue of concern to my study is the nutrient subsidies from coastal areas that have resulted in eutrophication as evident by ubiquitous water hyacinth covering costal lagoons, salt marshes, and creeks along the 853 km coastline that boarders the nation’s shores with the Atlantic Ocean.
My aim in this research, is to investigate these three anthropogenic factors (fishing, eutrophication and oil pollution) in order to see the extent of their impacts on the coastal food web.
I hypothesize that fishing will reduce ecosystem biomass and secondary production in coastal waters and expect eutrophication to increase productivity up to an extent; especially in locations where nonlethal oxygen depletion occurred. The impact of petroleum hydrocarbon pollution will depend on weather conditions, amount of oil spill and the location in which spills have occurred. Impacts will be modeled singly and in combinations using a mass balanced approach in Ecopath with Ecosim fisheries management software.
I aim to provide information for advice about best coastal management practices in Nigeria and in other West African countries along the Gulf of Guinea.
Having a good dataset is an important step towards developing a reliable model to test scientific hypothesis about the impacts of fishing, nutrient enrichment and hydrocarbon pollution in Nigerian coastal food web.
I’m thankful for all who have supported my research from its inception especially my research committee, the Environmental Science and Policy graduate program and members of the Fish ecology lab.
By: Sammie Alexander
The summer sun is out marking a bittersweet end to the busiest semester of my college career.
After volunteering in the Fish Ecology Lab for a semester I decided I wanted to begin conducting my own research. I had no clue what I wanted to study, but I knew I liked animals and ecosystems. Equipt with these vague interests and drive for exploration, I was partnered with PhD candidate (now Dr.!) C.J. Schlick to develop a research project branching from her work on river herring. Although it was July when I decided I wanted to conduct research, I had already missed the deadline to apply for the Fall 2015 OSCAR Undergraduate Research Scholars Program and would need to apply for the Spring 2016 cohort.
Tip: Plan ahead. Make note of deadlines as soon as they are available to you. GMU students: If you are interested in participating in undergraduate research, visit the OSCAR Undergraduate Research Scholars page where all deadlines are posted.
A majority of the Fall 2015 semester was spent preparing my 11 page narrative detailing the who, what, when, where, and why of my research plan. This was the first time I had ever been required to present a plan of this nature and extent, and it was no small feat. Prior to submitting my application, I attended a narrative draft meeting to ask questions and learn tips on how to write an effective narrative. At the beginning of the session, students were asked to share their intended project topic. Students shared questions from neuroscience related topics far beyond my comprehension to the impacts of variations in the political structures of foreign countries’ economies. I slowly felt my chances of getting selected for the program slipping away.
Tip: Comparing fish ecology to the assessment of foreign nations’ war strategies doesn’t work – so don’t compare them.
After quite literally a dozen drafts, I finally submitted my narrative to OSCAR and patiently waited for a response. Applicants were notified in late December, and to my surprise I had been selected. This meant that Spring 2016 would be filled with 18 credits, a weekend job, and a research project. To clarify, this semester was hard, took more than a few pep talks, and required a lot of coffee, BUT it was not impossible.
Tip: Positive thinking does wonders. Visualizing WORKS. You will be more productive following 8 hours of sleep instead of 2.
Spring 2016 consisted of numerous hours dissecting blueback herring (fish), extracting otoliths (earbones), aging fish, and making posters to present at colloquiums, conferences, and symposiums. I enjoyed the lab work I did for my project because, while tedious, I felt a sense of accomplishment at the end of every day. The routine of the lab work also provided me a much needed break from my normal school work. Sometimes it felt like a deadline or presentation was every other day, but I made it through.
Now to reflect on my favorite parts of participating in OSCAR:
-I found a love for dissecting blueback herring and exctracting their otoliths. So cool! Every time I find an otolith I felt like I had found an exciting treasure. You think I’m kidding but it’s thrilling.
-Each day that I worked alongside my mentor, C.J. Schlick, I felt inspired. Her extensive knowledge of the fish we studied never ceased to amaze me. Aside from her knowledge about fish, she continuously encouraged me to extend my reach within the scientific community through attending conferences.
-As a second year undergraduate, conferences did not sound fun. The key word, “networking”, terrified me. Why do I need to talk to strangers? Here’s why: these strangers are awesome. Imagine hosting a party with all of your friends who care about the same things you do while getting to eat food and learn new things about your favorite topic for 2-3 consecutive days. It’s great. Not to mention, there is almost always a raffle – who doesn’t like prizes? Beyond the raffles, there are usually also prizes awarded to people with the best presentations, posters, etc. I can’t explain how surprised I was each time I won an award this past semester. Overall, each conference left me feeling inspired to continue conducting research in order to solve the everyday challenges we face on a changing planet.
By: Adrian Dahood
Hello De Mutsert Lab friends and followers! I have posted a couple of blogs here before. You likely already know that I have the coolest (pun intended) study area in the lab (in my humble opinion). I work in the Antarctic and I am about to go pay my study area a visit during the Antarctic winter.
My dissertation research involves creating a food web model of the marine ecosystems of the Western Antarctic Peninsula, specifically focusing on a region known as Statistical Area 48.1. Krill play a central role in the marine food web of the region. Therefore, it is rather important that the models adequately capture changes in biomass trends of krill and krill predators.
One of the key data sets I am using to build my models is NOAA’s Antarctic Marine Living Resources Division’s (learn more about NOAA AMLR here: https://swfsc.noaa.gov/aerd/) long-term monitoring data of krill and krill predators in Statistical Area 48.1. For the past two years NOAA has invited me to join the winter krill cruise and help them collect data to grow these data sets. I am about to head to sea with them for a third year.
I will be setting sail on the RVIB (Research Vessel Ice Breaker) Nathaniel B. Palmer. We will depart from Punta Arenas, in far southern Chile and remain at sea for about 27 days before returning to Punta Arenas.
While at sea, we will collect data 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each person will work a 12 hour shift and then have 12 hours to rest (or in my case work on some writing projects!) During a shift, we will set the krill net four or five times.
Once the net is retrieved, we sort and count the catch. In sets where few krill are caught, we can work through a haul in less than 90 minutes. Sets where we catch a lot of krill can take several hours to process. We try to count every single krill and only sub-sample when we catch tens of thousands of organisms.
In addition to krill, we typically catch an assortment of amphipods, gastropods, crustaceans and larval fish in the net sets. We count everything by pulling out all of the big critters from the sorting tray, and then filter the sea water to look at the microscopic animals. We spend a lot of time on the microscopes, sorting, counting critters, and even sexing and staging (determining if they are male or female and how ready they are to reproduce) krill.
Thanks to the winter krill cruise, I have developed a new appreciation for zooplankton. Zooplankton are very important components of the food web. They are a key connection between primary producers (phytoplankton and other algae) and upper level predators, like penguins and seals. Until you see them in person, you can’t really appreciate how gorgeous and fantastically diverse zooplankton are. I love finding “new to me” species.
This is the fifth and final year of the winter krill survey. I am quite sad to see it end. Most scientists go to Antarctica during the Antarctic summer, when the weather is generally gentler. The winter krill cruise has certainly had it challenges (last year we had an ice hurricane that prevented us from working for several days), but is has provided a unique perspective on krill ecology.
I will be blogging from the field for the duration of the winter krill cruise (most of the month of August). You can read about my adventures in Antarctic research here (http://adrian.fritztech.com). If you are particularly excited to read about my time in Antarctica, you can flip through my website and read the blogs from my previous trips south.
One of the draws to science for many undergraduate and graduate students is the opportunity to travel to far and sometimes obscure places around the globe, in the name of research. My dissertation research keeps me local to the Chesapeake Bay region, but I have been fortunate enough to travel domestically and internationally to attend and present at conferences, as both a graduate student and also as part of my job. I haven’t been traveling much as of late due to life happening (all good things!), but I’m excited to hit the road again soon. I was recently selected to participate in the Embassy Science Fellows Program fellowship with the State Department through work. Details are starting to fall into place…and it looks like I’ll be heading to Mauritius!
Mauritius is a volcanic island nation off the coast of Southern African in the Indian Ocean, to the east of Madagascar. It is known for its beautiful turquoise waters and the world’s third largest coral reef which surrounds the island. Perhaps you have heard of Mauritius because it was the only known home of the now extinct Dodo bird! Or maybe you have heard of the country because it is headed by a female biodiversity scientist, President Dr. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim (their first female President!). Did you hear me?! There is a female scientist ruling the country! The bulk of her research focuses on deriving pharmaceuticals from native Mauritian plants: prior to becoming President, she was a Managing Director of a pharmaceutical research company, as well as a university professor.
The island is teaming with rare flora and fauna indigenous and there are breathtaking sandy white beaches and protected lagoons all around the island. Similar to other nations with borders to the sea, much of the biodiversity and ecological resources of the island are now threatened by human development, coastal erosion, climate change and the introduction of non-native species. There is particular interest by the government in protecting and conserving these natural treasures, all the while balancing sustainable population and economic growth. One of the ways the country hopes to accomplish this is by promoting environmental and oceanographic sciences in the public education curriculum. My main task during this fellowship is to lecture at the University of Maurtitus and advise the various government ministries on increasing the awareness of the importance of biodiversity and conservation at the national scale.
I am looking forward to this once-in-a-lifetime experience! It is not every day that I get the opportunity to merge my marine science background with policy in an international context such as this one. I am looking forward to also immersing myself in the culture…and getting the chance to meet with Dr. Gurib Fakim (I heard she is looking forward to meeting me- eek!). Details of my departure are still being worked out, but I will be sure to share photos and updates while on assignment. Stay tuned until then!
-Treda Grayson, PhD candidate in the Fish Ecology Lab
Hello from sunny La Jolla, California. I am out here working on my dissertation research from my committee member’s lab, the Antarctic Ecosystem and Research Division of NOAA’s Antarctic Marine Living Resource group. Dr. de Mutsert asked me to write a blog while I was out here, and I honestly had no idea what to write. I come out here, not for the ocean views (which are awesome), not for the data (also world class), but for the community of failing and moving forward. Yes, I come to California to fail, and that is a bit awkward to write about, but here goes.
It’s tempting to hide from failure
The de Mutsert Fish Ecology lab is a great group of people. We try to look out for each other, but we (at least the students) put on fronts of success for each other. Ask any one of us how our research is going and we will automatically say “good, making progress”. We show each other pretty lines of model predictions and recite high numbers of data collected. I struggle A LOT in my research. I am switching fields from behavioral ecology to ecosystem modelling. Half the time I can’t tell if my model is doing better or worse than it was last week and I am terrified of breaking it beyond repair. My labmates, while wonderful people who want to help, do not work in my ecosystem. If I totally break my model they don’t have great ecosystem relevant advice to get it working again. Since I am (more than a little) desperate to graduate in a timely fashion, I have a fear of totally breaking my model. This is really counterproductive. Let me repeat that. The paralyzing fear of breaking your model, or more generally messing up your research, is really counterproductive. Sometimes you have to smash your model to smithereens to understand what it is telling you. Sometimes you need to make a bad assumption or learn a data handling lesson the hard way to truly understand the problem you are working on. Sometimes the fear of failing can hold you back and do more damage to your research than actually failing.
Failure is always an option
I come to California to my committee member’s lab to fail. We have weekly lab meetings here. They are delightfully called “Science Friday” and they involve lots of tasty baked goods. Most importantly every week someone from the lab gets up and lays their science bare. They talk about what didn’t work. Even if they haven’t fixed it yet or don’t have a clue how to fix it, they openly talk about what failed. Failure is OK and expected here. There is an understanding that failure is part of the process, and if you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying. Everyone is encouraged to well and truly mess up some of their data analyses, to produce a model that truly stinks for a time and to generally spend their time trying to do things that might fail.
For the past couple of lab meetings, the krill modeler (an actual PhD scientist who gets paid to do this) has talked about the numerous failings of his model. He showed where the predictions are off. He showed a number of things he tried to bring those predictions in line that didn’t work. He talked about how a recent outside expert review of his model found flaws and then he gave some strategies for exploring those flaws. He did not sugarcoat his model’s failings. He has been doing this for years, yes years. After years of failing, and publicly exposing his failure, his model is better. He has a job, and people think well of his research skills. This should not be revelatory, but for me it is. Failing, and failing publically, is an important part of the science process.
Face your failure head on
When I got to California this trip I had a model that was recreating historical trends for three of my modelled species really well. I was ready to give up on three other species because no matter what I did, I could not get a better fit for them without destroying the fit for the others. In other words, I had modelling paralysis because I wanted to show something “successful” for a quickly approaching conference. I was also horribly embarrassed to show off my broken model. But I was encouraged by how open everyone here is about their failures, even showing off and laughing at their R code that failed for no good reason.
So, I laid my model bare before my committee member. I explained to him what I thought I understood about the predictions it was making, and he pointed me to new data to fix one of my modelled species. He was right about the new data, although initially the fit got worse when I incorporated them.
I knew that there were problems with the ways I was handling fish in my model, so I went and spoke to the fish expert here. He laughed and told me that my handling of the fish in my model was horrible (yes he used that word) but he pointed me to unpublished data and encouraged me to keep trying. The model now successfully recreates historic trends two of the species I was going to give up on. Yup, a scientist laughed in my face about how horrible my model was, but he helped me to fix it. There are worse things.
The other day my committee member came into my office and found me enthusiastically talking (or perhaps muttering words not suitable for public consumption) to my model output. My model had once again broken. He laughed and declared me to be turning into a true modeler. We had a nice science conversation about the ecological hypotheses I was testing each time I broke my model. I confessed that sometimes I felt like less of a scientist testing hypotheses and more like a kid playing Jenga. Stacking up all the groups in my model and then watching them come crashing down when I change one value. Here’s the thing: each time I broke my model, I learned about how the software was handling my input, or even better I actually was testing an ecological hypotheses. I am learning how to be more targeted with my changes in the model. I am seeing some ecological patterns emerge that I knew to be important from the literature, but I had no idea had how to deal with in my model. My new motto when approaching my model is now “Stack ‘em up and let ‘em fall!”
Go forth and fail!
Just being in a community of scientists where failure is an option has helped me to succeed. I have gained confidence in my model and my skills. My model is still a work in progress, but it is so much better than it was when I got here. Without anyone making a point about it, I have been encouraged to put my science out there and expose its flaws for all to see. I am working on an abstract for a meeting of experts that I never would have considered presenting to, but here I am. So go forth and fail! Rebuild your research from its own ashes!
-Adria Dahood, PhD candidate in the Fish Ecology Lab
Adrian Dahood, a PhD Candidate, in the De Mutsert Fish Ecology Lab, won the 2016 Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) Fieldwork Photo Competition. In addition to bragging rights, Adrian won a travel grant to a polar conference of her choosing. There were 57 entries in the competition and the general public voted on their favorites. Adrian’s photo received the highest number of votes! You can view all of winning photographs here: http://www.apecs.is/news/apecs-news/1414-winners-of-the-apecs-international-polar-week-photo-contest-2016.html
Adrian’s dissertation research focusses on designing a new marine protected area in the Western Antarctic Peninsula Region. To this end she is creating foodweb models and spatial models to describe many of the species that live in the region. The winning photo shows one of her study species, gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua ) porpoising in the northern part of her study area. The day the photo was taken was an unusually sunny and calm day, allowing the travelling penguins to perfectly reflect on the water’s surface.
BY: CJ Carroll Schlick
As the past student representative for the Atlantic Estuarine Research Society and student member to several other organizations, I think it is extremely important for both undergraduate and graduate students to attend local and national conferences. I have participated in about 6 national and 10 regional conferences during my time as a graduate student. My conference participation has helped to enhance my CV and more importantly, it has helped to hone my abilities to communicate science to a broad audience. To that end, I am always surprised when I meet students who have never been to a conference or have never considered going. Below, I share the benefits I have received from attending professional scientific meetings and hope to encourage other students to do the same.
When people think of conferences, they are usually aware of the networking potential. You can have conversations with professionals you have never met before. Most students are intimidated by this concept but shouldn’t be. Conferences are designed for networking with researchers in your area of interest and most attendees seek out opportunities to engage with students. Students are not seen as “newbies” who only attend meetings to learn. We will soon be or already are contributing to our respective fields of study and engaging with established scientists earlier in our careers provides the potential for years of collaboration. Professionals who attend the conference can tell you their story, for instance sharing what attributes helped their career (or adventures they would recommend not repeating). Attending conferences allowed me to network outside of the “academy,” to collaborate on projects through organizations not affiliated with a university. Networking also informed me of what other career opportunities were available, since I recently decided that I did not want to pursue a career in academia. Through this process and exploration, I could then direct my focus on scientists who were currently working outside of the university setting. I recently networked at a conference with an environmental consultant and this relationship has provided a new outlet of knowledge that I can tap into. Effective networking takes time to develop but is one of the most useful things you can do as a new or even seasoned student. So my advice: Start networking early and often. Build relationships and don’t be afraid to be your own advocate.
New Point of View
So you want to attend a conference and you don’t have any results or your results are confusing or your methods aren’t working….Sound familiar? I have been there! And actually, this point is the best time to attend a conference. Many students believe they must have a finished product to present, but then they graduate and never present the work (or only attend one conference). Preliminary results and proposed projects are acceptable presentations at a conference. I personally use poster presentations for my proposed projects because you have more time to discuss the project with interested attendees. The goal here would be to discuss problems/road blocks you are having with your study while presenting your poster. If someone is interested in your work, they may have a new point of view that will help catapult you into the next phase of your work. Also, if you plan on pursuing another degree, you will meet other professors in your area of interest that could potentially be your next advisor or supervisor. My advice: Present your research or your research plan even if you haven’t started it! Talking about your current work or proposed work is the best way to expand your breadth of knowledge.
Maximize Your Experience
GET INVOLVED!! Just attending a conference can change your work, perspective, and career but you are still missing a lot of what conferences and scientific societies have to offer. Meet with your society’s student representative to ask how you can be involved or to offer an idea of something you wished the conference provided (trust me student representatives are always looking for ideas for workshops and luncheons). You could also approach other board and committee members at the society and ask them how to help. Program committees, social event coordinators, membership committees, website/media committees are a few examples where help is often needed. Many positions on society boards are voluntary, with the individuals working full time somewhere else, so help is readily accepted. Many of these volunteer activities do not take more than a few hours a semester (and they can help enhance your CV). Additionally, working as a volunteer increases your exposure (increases your networking) and can have a huge payoff (especially if you are shy and need help getting outside your comfort zone). For example, if you want to meet a profound leader in your field but you are too scared to introduce yourself, you can use your position within the society as a jumping off point to start a conversation. In addition, if you are volunteering for a board member, for instance, they could (and most likely would enjoy) introducing you to said person, thus reducing the stress of the experience. My advice: Volunteer to help the society or conference organizers and use that position as a platform to develop a sense of confidence to meet new scientists in your field.
Cheap Workshops on Valuable Tools
Workshops and fieldtrips are an added advantage to most scientific conferences. They will usually take place a few hours to a day before the conference begins. Many are free or a low attendance fee is added (I’ve paid up to $140 but that is unusual). Workshops that are offered vary widely between topics. More generalized conferences have a wider range of options. For example, at the last Coastal & Estuarine Research Federation (CERF) in Portland, Oregon, workshops covered topics like “Social Media and Science”, “The Academic Job Search: From A to Z”, and “Tutorial on Scientific Writing and Publishing.” However, more specialized conferences may offer more specialized workshops, like the past American Fisheries Society (AFS) conference in Portland, Oregon offered workshops on “Beginning/Intermediate GIS for Fisheries Scientists,” “Analyzing Fish Diets to Assess Trophic Status,” and “Age and Growth Analyses with R.” Regardless of the specialization of the workshops, these opportunities provide a resource at a reduced price that may not be available through other means. For example, I participated in the AFS “Age and Growth Analyses with R” workshop and learned information pertinent to my dissertation. Learning these procedures through other means could have included teaching myself (a long arduous task), taking a class (or two) that would have cost several hundred dollars in tuition, or more than likely a combination of the two. Moreover, some topics covered in workshops are not even available through at the university level. I participated in the CERF “The Academic Job Search: From A to Z,” which provided valuable insight into preparing to apply for jobs in academia (this was obviously before I decided that academia wasn’t for me). This information is not traditionally taught to students, making this workshop important to someone who is about to go on the job market. So my advice: When you are preparing to attend a professional meeting, make sure you research what workshop and field trip opportunities that are available at the conference.
Even though the registration for students is usually reduced at professional conferences, finding the funds for all the other expenses can be a challenge. Between transportation, hotels, registration, and food, a conference can be cost prohibitive. But don’t fret! Many societies offer ways to help students attend a conference. Some offer student travel grants, while others offer to reimburse registration if the students work at the conference. These opportunities will usually be listed on the society’s webpage and/or sent out on a list serve to members (good reason to be a member). Both opportunities can help defray costs of the conference and travel awards can certainly be added to your CV! Additionally, you are usually recognized at the conference, further increasing your networking opportunities. Students receiving travel awards are usually presented with the awards at the business meeting, putting you face to face with the board of the society. Student volunteers are presented with t-shirts, acknowledging they are able to help attendees with questions or directions. Both opportunities increase your exposure at the conference and give you reasons to speak with attendees around you. My advice: Apply for any and all grants and awards offered by a conference. Volunteer if that waives your registration fee. Also, check with your department, student organization or college to see if they offer travel grants.
Conferences are exciting networking opportunities designed to share current research, ideas, and questions throughout the scientific community. Most societies, professors, managers, and schools encourage student participation. You just have to be willing to get out there and immerse yourself. Become a member of scientific societies and organizations to enjoy all of the benefits of being a part of that community. Many groups provide job list serves, funding opportunities, research spotlights, and member directories (showing who is also participating, giving you a way to introduce yourself). Science is a field that is dictated by communication and conferences are a primary tool that can easily be mastered early in your career. Take advantage of it!