The PhD-path

A PhD may seem kind of a shady business for some people, as many are not familiar with the world of scientific research. Moreover, the aims, purposes and practical trajectory of a PhD differs strongly between countries and scientific disciplines.

My regular blogposts give a bit of a biased viewpoint on what I am doing, as I mostly try to skip the boring parts. Of course, there is plenty of this less catchy stuff around, too, as I am not always traveling the world! This page needs to summarize what I do and will be doing during the 5 years of this project. It shows how varied an ecological PhD is, and how many different steps there are between the first idea and the final publications. Maybe it even helps clearing out some misunderstandings about the scientific world. 

Research project

As I was studying biology, I slowly changed my main interest from birds to plants. The more courses I took, the more I learned about plant ecology, the more I wanted to know about their impressive survival skills. How did they manage to fight the battle of life against each other? How come some of them are even better travelers than the average animal? What kind of special forces are hidden in their tiny green bodies? These questions, out of pure curiosity, provided the main trigger to start my PhD. I wanted to study the plant world in more detail.

DSC_0101

Mountain flower in Torres del Paine, Chile

Now I only had to find a subject. I lay the matter in the first year of my masters before the professor at my local ecology lab (Pleco). Together, we found the optimal subject, invasions and mountain ecology, and – more importantly – valuable contacts ànd a thesis project in Northern Scandinavia.

That was the true start of the story. The thesis raised a lot of new relevant questions, I enrolled in the international network of mountain ecologists and got introduced to valuable partners. The research project keeps growing (follow it in detail here), as I want it to be a project that answers BIG questions in the long run. Finding the results for one problem immediately highlights the lacks in our knowledge and the direction for future research. The research project is hence a dynamic structure, growing together with me, its creator, and through interactions with other scientists.

Design

With every new question comes the search for an adequate scientific design to search for the answers. These designs need to be an integration of innovation and consequence. I see the power of a lot of different approaches, that all contribute in their own way to answer the main questions. I work with observational and experimental designs, I work in the free environment of the mountains and in the more controlled conditions on the campus of the University. I compose mathematical models and integrate large-scale global databases to do applied predictions of the future. 

Plot

Experiment with seedlings in free nature, Punta Arenas, Chile

I strongly defend the use of this wide variety of scientific methods. All of them have their strengths, all of them their weaknesses. It is only by integration that we can find the real answers. 

Practical work

What follows then, that’s the real thing. The real science, that often goes unnoticed, because it often is just boring. That real thing, that is the practical work. For the experiments, plots should be chosen, seeds need to be counted, labels written, all kinds of equipment (ranging from tea bags over nutrients to greenhouses) prepared and bought or recycled, and then there is hoping, hoping that your plants will be there. Observations on the other hand ask for plant species memorisation.

Ecological fieldwork in the mountains needs some special equipment, like warm clothes, appropriate Visa and Passport, a high-tech GPS, touchscreen gloves, solar-powered lamps and indestructible measuring devices that you start loving too much after intensive use (but deserved!), and which are extremely exciting to find back after a long time. It asks for fighting mosquitoes, lemmings, skua’s and sunburns, for getting a backpack and kitchen knives. It provides you with adventurous hikes through the worst (and best) weather, with successes and drawbacks. It wants you to crawl on the ground for long hours every day, to look at plants in muddy soil from only a few centimeters distance, but it also lets you fly helicopters over the mountains. It ends with even longer hours inside, weighing plants, grinding them and testing if their seeds were succesfull. And a big relief when all this data can finally be put on the ‘finished’ shelf. And within all that, you should try not to loose too much of the original hypothesis in the fog of everyday science.

Histogram of soil temperature sensors

Indestructible measuring devices: iButtons to measure soil temperature

Ecological modeling asks for long hours of mathematics, of calculations and even analytical geometry, perfect material for the cold winter days. You need to fix bugs in programming code and dig deep in programming language to write your own functions.

And even ‘easy’ basic observations of plants in the field still demands you to know all the species, and spend considerable amounts of time both indoors and outdoors to study them.

Statistics and publication

And all of the research ends with statistical analyses. Finding the right statistical models, testing for significances, analyzing the data until you know every little number. This exploration part is exciting, as you often find new answers and questions that were hidden behind the mist of every days superficial observations.

Modeling in R

Working with R, a statistical program with endless possibilities

These statistics are followed by a long road of reading, writing, rereading and rewriting. Luckily, at this stage there is plenty of help from colleagues. It is only when every letter is double – or even triple – checked that the manuscript can be send out to an editor. And eventually, after a long long road of revisions, discussions, rejections and corrections, the manuscript may end up published. The published article is the physical reward for years of work, and the aim is to get as many good ones out there as possible. At the end of 2015 (with two years of PhD on my counter), I was already well on my way to number 3, 2016 hopefully brings many more.

Of course, then its message needs to be heard, by colleagues and if relevant also the broader public. This is the stage of conferences (e.g. here, or in Brussels for example), press releases and publicity, but also of teaching (e.g. here) and explaining it to children (on ‘Science Day’). Sometimes, we even use poetry for that. If everything goes as planned, the research gets picked up, finds the newspapers and gets cited by other scientists.

Then, a new question arises, and the process starts all over again…

Side-tracks

A PhD is not a hundred percent straightforward path to that one golden goal in the bright future (as is nothing in life). There is some side-tracks on it, and the most rewarding to me is the teaching of master students. I have had a nice bunch of them working with me through the whole process, each on their own small part of the big question that is my PhD. You can find their names at the bottom of this page.

4 Responses to The PhD-path

  1. wesnhattingh says:

    Interesting research! and the picture of R sends shivers down my spine….We have a love-hate relationship haha

  2. Pingback: Foggy | On top of the world

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