Master of Environmental Science (Research)

It's been almost eight weeks since I commenced my Master of Environmental Science (Research) degree and in that short amount of time I've connected with some key people and already feel as though I've learnt a lot. At the moment, I'm still very much on a high and am very excited but, of course, I know there is much more to come, including the inevitable stress and bouts of imposter syndrome and wavering confidence. I figure that's all part and parcel of higher degree research and, while I'm aware that these emotional ups and downs are more than likely to occur, I don't think I'll be able to fully prepare myself for them, so I'll just have to ride those waves, trust my instincts and graciously accept the support provided by my colleagues, family, friends and my loving partner.

In these past few weeks, I've been exposed to so many new things and participated in workshops and discussion groups and attended a few meetings, all in a quest to keep up-to-date and expand my knowledge as quickly as possible.

Reading has been a key component of these first tentative months. Off the top of my head, I've read the abstracts of at least two dozen papers, but probably much more; two unpublished chapters/manuscripts related to my research; the grant proposal (again!); countless university rules, policies and procedure documents; and a number of papers for the Lab's fortnightly Insect Ecology Discussion Group, including:

  • Andrew et al. (unpublished manuscript draft), Thermolimit respirometry in dominant meat ants: does microenvironment temperature influence ant temperature and metabolic rate response?
  • Fox et al. (2016), Gender differences in patterns of authorship do not affect peer review outcomes at an ecology journal. Functional Ecology, 30: 126–139, doi:10.1111/1365-2435.12587
  • Vasseur et al. (2014) Increased temperature variation poses a greater risk to species than climate warming. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, doi:10.1098/rspb.2013.2612
  • Slade et al. (2016) The role of dung beetles in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cattle farming. Scientific Reports, 6: 18140, doi:10.1038/srep18140
  • Mohamad et al. (2015) The effect of direct interspecific competition on patch exploitation strategies in parasitoid wasps. Oecologia, 177: 305–315, doi:10.1007/s00442-014-3124-2
  • Gellego et a. (2016) A protocol for analysing thermal stress in insects using infrared thermography. Journal of Thermal Biology, 56: 113–121, doi:10.1016/j.jtherbio.2015.12.006

One of my favourite websites is www.antwiki.org, and I've read about various ant taxa, such as Iridomyrmex, Camponotus, Rhytidoponera and Polyrhachis; and all about ant morphology and taxonomy – there is so much!!! And what better excuse to buy some more books? I have now added The Ants of Southern Australia: A Guide to the Bassian Fauna (Andersen 1991), The Ants of Northern Australia: A Guide to the Monsoonal Fauna (Andersen 2000), Miniature Lives (Gleeson 2016), and Ant Ecology (Lach et al. 2010) to my ever expanding collection, and am busy working my way through the latter - I'm up to Chapter 6: Ants as Mutualists.

I've also been out in the field a bit, and collected Pheidole, Camponotus and Iridomyrmex specimens, as well as in the lab practising my identification skills, which need a lot of work! Thankfully, my first proper experience of keying out an ant went very well – considering my complete lack of knowledge in this area – and I identified a specimen I had collected from my backyard down to species level: Camponotus consobrinus. I told my supervisor the other day that although I know I'm not "competent" in ant taxonomy, I am "confident" to continue honing my skills. It's not so scary...

The Life, Earth and Environment research theme (of which I am broadly a part of) also holds fortnightly seminars, and I've attended a couple of these, including Emeritus Prof. Harry Recher's "Population and Consumption: The Death of Nature and the Failure of Science" and Dr Anneke van Heteren's "How do animals evolve on isolated islands? A palaeohistological perspective."

Postgraduate student workshops are also commonplace, and so far I've attended a Research Services induction and well as a School of Environmental and Rural Science induction, plus others run by the Academic Skills Office, including Working with Supervisors, Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses, and Critical Thinking and Critical Reading.

Then there are the Dixson Library training sessions, and so far I have attended Basics of EndNote, with Exploring Scopus still to come! I had already taught myself a fair amount of EndNote via YouTube videos and Scopus looks fairly intuitive but I can always use more help!

Another important part of being a postgraduate student is the inevitable "networking", so I have made contact with some key people, such as Prof Nate Sanders (University of Copenhagen), Prof Rob Dunn (North Carolina State University), and Prof Alan Andersen (CSIRO), who are all collaborators for the project I'm working on, and Dr Israel Del Toro, who (along with various colleagues) has published some papers that just might be the springboard for my literature review. In these days of social media, nearly all have websites and blogs, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts, which makes keeping in touch so effortless!  I also created profiles for myself on Academic.edu and ResearchGate.net and connected with a few academics, which should prove useful when I need copies to hard-to-find papers!

Additionally, I have become a student member of the Ecological Society of Australia, the Australian Entomological Society, and the Entomological Society of America, and I have applied for membership of the Royal Entomological Society. This gives me access to quite a few publications, as well as funding opportunities for attending and presenting at conferences, and information about awards and other potentially beneficial activities.

In amongst all of this, my first (co-authored) paper was published in Proceedings of Bhutan Ecological Society: Experimental effects of reduced flow velocity on water quality and macroinvertebrate communities: implications of hydroelectric power development in Bhutan, which was a pretty exciting moment. This paper was based on fieldwork conducted in Bhutan in November 2014 during my undergraduate degree.

But, for now, it's back to my EndNote library, which feels like it's growing at an exponential rate! There is so much literature when you search for climate change OR global warming AND ant OR Formicidae. Thankfully, I'll be focussing on ant-mediated ecosystem services and disservices, so I hope I can cull quite a few as I trawl through the 600+ references I've already added.