Biodiversity - Ecosystem Function Relationships in Southern African Woodlands
I learned a lot about managing people and working as part of a team, particularly on fieldwork but also in large collaborative research projects. I think these ‘soft’ skills are what I now value the most.
What was your research about?
The tropical woodlands and savannas of southern Africa are complex and heterogeneous ecosystems, characterised by the coexistence of grasses and trees, structured by seasonal fire and herbivory. They vary widely in species composition, tree cover and canopy structure. Understanding the controls on tree growth, mortality, and total woody biomass is important for predicting how these ecosystems contribute to the global carbon cycle.
I explored how tree species composition and species diversity interact with environment to determine ecosystem function in southern African woodlands. I found that tree species diversity promotes variation in tree size, leads to a longer growing season, and allows thicker, more complex woodland canopies. All these factors allow more diverse woodlands to hold greater woody biomass.
What made you apply to the E3 DTP?
I wanted to continue studying community ecology after my undergraduate studies. Originally I planned to study liana encroachment in wet tropical forests, but this project on savanna biodiversity was advertised through the E3 DTP. I was attracted to the balance of high-level theory (biodiversity ecosystem function theory) and field-based community ecology. I also found the idea of working in African savannas very appealing, as it was a new environment for me to explore.
What did you find challenging in your PhD?
Initially, I was challenged by how much free reign I had to design the project. I learned a lot about identifying the big questions in a scientific field and how best to contribute new ideas. I was also surprised by all the little side projects that were sent my way during the PhD. These definitely enriched my experience and taught me a lot about time management. I was surprised by how much I was able to collaborate with other researchers, some of the most valuable work from my PhD was on larger group projects.
After the initial challenge of having so much autonomy to design the project how I wanted, in the end I relished the freedom to direct my own learning and set my own schedule.
Looking back, what would you have done differently?
Inevitably there are aspects of a PhD that don’t work as well as others, and ideas that come to a dead end, but even with four more years of experience I wouldn’t discourage my past self from exploring these ideas, because they often lead to better things. I had grand plans to combine a carbon cycle process model with trait measurements from different tree species to track biomass turnover in savannas. I spent weeks researching how to do this only to conclude that it was too much work to invest for only one chapter of my thesis. I abandoned the idea, but in the process I learned a lot about the subject and I’m now revisiting it in my post-doc job.
Which aspects of your PhD did you enjoy the most?
After the initial challenge of having so much autonomy to design the project how I wanted, in the end I relished the freedom to direct my own learning and set my own schedule. Joining a lab group gave me the opportunity to check in with other PhD students and researchers. Together we helped each other and accomplished a lot.
Fieldwork and collaborations - I set up vegetation monitoring plots in Bicuar National Park, Angola. Apart from the rare opportunity to work in this beautiful savanna landscape, I also formed good relationships with colleagues from ISCED Huíla, which hopefully will continue through my career.
Teaching - I found it incredibly rewarding to teach on undergraduate field courses. I helped to develop a new project brief for the course and guided small groups of students through the process of identifying testable hypotheses, experimental design, data collection, analysis, and scientific writing. This teaching prompted me to reflect more deeply on my own research process.
Which skills did you gain during your PhD?
My statistical and data processing skills have come a long way since I started my PhD. Looking back through old R code always reminds me how much I’ve progressed in this regard. I learned a lot about managing people and working as part of a team, particularly on fieldwork but also in large collaborative research projects. I think these ‘soft’ skills are what I now value the most since moving into a post-doctoral research job.
The PhD galvanised my research interests, to the point where it became almost inevitable that I would pursue a post-doc in savanna carbon cycling.
What would not have been possible without the DTP?
I really valued the academic support I received from the DTP, especially in the first year of the PhD when I was finding my feet. The support systems put in place by the DTP prompted me to reflect on my work at the right time and made sure I didn’t stray too far from the right path. The DTP basically saved my fieldwork from bankruptcy! Without the support of the DTP I would never have been able to conduct three seasons of fieldwork.
How has your PhD helped you to decide on a career path?
The PhD galvanised my research interests, to the point where it became almost inevitable that I would pursue a post-doc in savanna carbon cycling. I view the PhD as a necessary apprenticeship for further academic work. I learned about the university system, how to secure funding, how to work with international researchers, and how to balance teaching with research.
I took a couple of months to catch my breath after I handed in my thesis. Now I’ve started a job as a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Edinburgh, working on the SECO project, a NERC funded project that aims to understand carbon dynamics across the dry tropics. I applied for the job during the final months of writing up my thesis, and negotiated to start the job after my viva was complete. I see the job as a natural continuation of my PhD research, albeit with a larger spatial remit and more focus on carbon rather than vegetation structure.