Raising the roofs at DIRECT

It’s hard to believe that it’s already June.  For me, it means that my summer climate treatments at the DIRECT project are now underway.  Last week was a flurry of activity at the study site as we had to clean and erect 56 clear plastic roofs.  Half of these have holes which allow rainfall through but keep the microclimate the same – these are the controls for the experiment.  The other half are solid, allowing us to collect and redistribute rainfall in line with climate projections for this region.  These roofs will stay up for 3 months, and join the 12 that were already up as part of the extreme change experiement, which has treatments that last for 6 months.

Depending on your perspective, 56 roofs may not sound like a lot, but it does take a lot of work.  Luckily, I had a few friends to help me out.  Photos courtesy of Kate Luckett and John Matter.

Over the winter the roofs are stored in stacks at the study site.

stack of roofsBy spring, they often have quite a bit of algae and other accummulated dirt on them.  This means need to be scrubbed before they can be put up to ensure they allow as much light as possible through to the plants beneath.  This was mostly done on Wednesday and Thursday last week, so they would be ready to go up on Friday.

When it’s time to erect the roofs, we need to make sure they all go up on the same day so that the treatments are the same.  First, we check which plots need which type of roof.

This one!We carry each roof from the stack to the relevant plot, trying not to fall over, collide with other roofs, walk through any plots or let it get carried away by the wind.  They can be quite kite-like when the wind picks up!  Trying not to drop it, fall over (again) or walk through any of the plots!Then we’ve got to line them up and bolt them to the posts.  It can take some creative maneuvering to get them into place and secure.

Just a little to the left...Finally, we attach the guttering and put the water collection box in place for the climate change treatment roofs.

Don't forget the box or you'll just have one very wet corner!

Then repeat 55 times until the field looks like this.

line of roofs  roofs up

This is actually the fewest roofs we’ve put up at this time of year since the project started in 2008.  We recently finished the nitrogen deposition experiment, which would have added another 16 roofs, and in the first year all 196 plots were given roofs.  Despite the reduction in numbers, I still couldn’t have done it alone and would like to thank Paul Beasley, Rich Dale, Chris Culbert, Shorok Mombrikotb, Lara Meade, Jen Banfield-Zanin for all their help.

I should also note that is will be my last field season with DIRECT.  Given that all the people who helped to set up the project have now left Imperial College, it looks like this may indeed by the last season for the project as a whole unless someone new decides they’d like to take it over.   With this in mind, I’m hoping for a great summer, and will be collecting as much data as possible!

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Bank biodiversity on the bank holiday

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with plants of many kinds” – Charles Darwin


My last few posts, including the one on biodiversity, have been bereft of images, so I thought it was time to brighten things up with some photos from our bank holiday trip to the Peak District. Specifically, I wanted to share photos from a not-so-tangled bank where we paused for a brief rest and enjoyed identifying a range of tiny and beautiful plants.

In this short stop on one small rise we easily identified at least 3 grass species and about dozen forbs (non-grass herbaceous plants).  There were probably  more, but had to be on our way after a few minutes.  Below are photos of Erophila verna (Whitlow-grass), Saxifraga granulata (meadow saxifrage), Ranunculus acris (meadow buttercup), and Geranium molle (dovesfoot geranium).  If you look closely, you’ll see lots of other plants hiding in the photos, and some pollinators too.

Erophila verna       Saxifaga granulata

Ranunculus acris  Geranium molle

I hope those of you lucky enough to have a holiday this weekend enjoyed it too.  Many thanks to my friend, John Matter, for sharing his photos.

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International Biodiversity Day

Today is the UN International Day for Biological Diversity.  The goal of the day is to increase awareness and understanding of biodiversity issues.  I haven’t had much of a chance to write today, but I felt it was important to post something, even if it is mostly links!

First, what is biodiversity?  This Natural History Museum page outlines what biodiversity is, why it’s important and what threatens it.  ‘Biodiversity’ refers to the diversity of life, from ecosystems to species to genes.  The term can still be a bit confusing though, so why don’t we just use a simple term like ‘nature’, asks Mike Shanahan in his post Is it time to kill off ‘Biodiversity’?

However you feel about the semantics, biodiversity is important.  Many people see the intrinsic value of biodiversity, but it is also economically essential.  Beautiful, diverse natural habitats provide amenity value and bring in tourist dollars, but we also rely on biodiverse systems for everything from crop pollination and pest control to wastewater treatment and limiting disease spread.

Unfortunately, we’re losing biodiversity at an alarming rate.  The IUCN lists nearly 18,000 species as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered globally.  In the UK, the State of Nature report released today revealed that 60% of animal and plant species surveyed have declined in the last 50 years (full report, BBC feature).

It’s not a happy story, but there are plenty of things we can all do to help, starting with learning more and telling others about the importance of biodiversity and threat it is under.  WWF and many others offer lists with suggestions for ways to help, but it mostly boils down to reducing consumption of goods and energy, buying sustainably produced products, reducing waste, and doing what you can to support healthy habitats, whether that’s in your garden or further afield.

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PhD Milestones: Obstacles and Opportunities

I’m now approximately half way through my PhD!  This is both very exciting and a bit scary.  I’m really eager to see the outcome of my efforts, to take the disparate threads of data from different experiments and tests, and weave them together into a body of work that contributes something new to my field.  However, before I can get anywhere near writing my thesis, I’ve got a lot more work to do and quite a few hurdles to clear.  In particular, I’ve got to prove that I’m good enough to continue my PhD.

As the hypothetical halfway point, 18 months is a major milestone in a PhD.  My department (Life Sciences), my division (Ecology & Evolution) and my PhD sponsors (the Grantham Institute for Climate Change) all require various reports and presentations at this stage to ensure I am fulfilling their expectations.  In the last few months I have given two oral presentations, presented a research poster, and written a report summarising my work and results for the last year and half.  I am still working on the final and most important of these milestones, the ‘Late Stage Review’ (commonly known as an Upgrade Report).   For this, I must present and justify everything I have done so far and lay out a clear plan for what I will do for the rest of my project.  This, in conjunction with a viva , will be used to determine if I have done enough to continue working towards a PhD.

In general, these presentations and reports have been quite useful, though I’m still a bit tense about the upgrade.  They gave me a chance to present the work I have done so far and get feedback from others.  They also forced me to step back from the day-to-day project tasks that occupy so much time and consider my results in a wider context.  They encouraged me to discuss what I have found so far, ask what questions that raises, identify if/how I can answer those questions with the time I have remaining in my project, and plan my next steps rather than blindly following the path I laid for myself at the start of my project.

Despite these obvious benefits, all these requirements came at roughly the same time, making them feel more like obstacles than opportunities.  As well as limiting the time I had available for necessary research tasks, each also impeded my preparation for the others.  There have been whispers about trying to consolidate some of these requirements.  For instance the Grantham Institute may relax its conditions so that reports submitted for other departments could also be used to meet their requirements.  I really hope this becomes a reality.

For now, I’m focussing on finishing my upgrade report and preparing for the dreaded upgrade viva examination – something that is likely to feel like a threatening obstacle, but which I hope will provide valuable feedback as well as preparing me for the real viva I’ll need to pass in order to earn my PhD.  I have heard a few viva horror stories, but luckily recent posts by Simon Leather (Are PhD Examiners really ogres?)  and Athene Donald  (The Viva Experience) help to put it all in perspective, and I definitely recommend them to anyone approaching a viva or similar exam.

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Catching up and weeding out

It has been a while since I last wrote something for the blog.  I won’t bother with excuses, but will just direct you to Frantecol’s post No Time!   I just seem to have too much I need to do, too much I want to do, and not nearly enough time to fit it all in.

So what have I been doing?  PhD work, BES festival activities with the BES Roadies, catching up with friends and family, and generally trying to maintain some sort of order in my life while communiting between Nottingham and Silwood every week!

In terms of work, I have been very busy, but I haven’t actually been collecting much data.   Instead I’ve been fulfilling various requirements for the department and funding bodies – giving talks, presenting a poster, and writing reports (more about this in a future post).

I’ve also been doing a lot of work to prepare the DIRECT study site for the summer treatments and data collection.  There have been a lot of little jobs to keep me busy, but the big one has been weeding the plots for the diversity experiment.  There are 56 plots in the diversity experiment, each just over 5.7m2 and containing one, two or three plant functional trait groups.  These groups are maintained by weeding the plots once per year in the spring.

For some plots, this means removing obvious species like Taraxacum officionale (dandelion) or Trifolium repens (white clover).  In other cases, it means removing some grass species, like Arrhenatherum elatius, but leaving others, like Holcus mollis, which is when it gets tricky and very time consuming. It’s less finding a needle in a haystack, more finding a specific type of hay in a haystack.

Weeding the plots is a long job with some peculiar side effects.  I managed to strain something in my index finger, so I can’t actually bend it completely.  I have strangely tanned hands and pale arms from wearing long sleeves, and I’ve had more than one odd dream about sorting grasses.  Luckily, a few friendly people agreed to help me, which made the job much quicker and more enjoyable.  After three full weeks and around 180 hours, I am very pleased to say the weeding is finished and even the hand-tan is beginning to fade.

Now on the the next task… cleaning and erecting the roofs for the summer climate treatments!

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Spring it here! or is it…?

It’s been a really rough winter for me, which is why the blog has been neglected.  While I’m referring more to work than weather, it looks like the latter is going to give us quite a ride over the next week.  I’m currently sitting in Nottingham watching precipitation fall that can’t quite decide if it’s frozen or not.  After some lovely days interspersed with plenty of grim, grey ones over the last couple of weeks, I do not welcome this uncertain rain/sleet/snow mix and am not thrilled to hear that it’s due to get colder again.

On the 1st of March, the spring climate treatments at the DIRECT experiment began for this year.  This means roofs have been put on the plots to collect rainfall so the plots only receive a proportion of the precipitation that falls naturally, in accordance with our ‘extreme’ cliDIRECT roofmate experimental design.  Unfortunately, these roofs have not been tested in snowy conditions.  Despite the experiment running since 2008, I believe this is the first time there was a risk of snow that might stay on the roofs rather than melting on contact and draining away.  This could cause me some real problems, including finding a way to remove and collect the snow without damaging the roofs.  Oh the fun of field experiments!

Of course this isn’t the first time the UK has had a cold snap in early March.  March is always a variable month for weather, and just last week we saw temperatures range from -5.5oC to 14.9oC in just two days at Silwood.  However, it is a good excuse to start discussing extreme weather.

While we never could predict seasonal weather patterns for a given year with enormous accuracy (remember the ‘barbecue summer’ forecast in 2009?), the job is getting much more difficult as global temperatures rise and the climate changes.  Only last week we were warned yet again that extreme weather events, particularly flooding and drought, are likely to be much more frequent .  While that is annoying for maintaining my experiment, it is much more serious for society as a whole.  There is an increased risk of water shortages as well as flooding of homes and business, both of which we saw within a one month period last spring.

It isn’t just the UK that is facing more extreme weather events either.  Think Progress compiled an interactive timeline of extreme weather events around the world for 2012.  It includes heatwaves, droughts, floods, typhoons and hurricanes.  While all of these are natural events, there is strong evidence that climate change is increasing their frequency and severity (see the IPCC special report).  These are real issues that directly affect people’s homes and livelihoods where they occur, but also have wider implications for species, ecosystems and global food resources as well.  This is something I hope to write more about soon, assuming I can spare the time from clearing snow off of roofs at my study site.

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Turning Bad Pharma Good

Back in December I attended a lecture by Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science and Bad Pharma.  He discussed the problems that arise when results from clinical trials are not published.  This can mean that the same research is repeated because no one knew about the first trial, thereby wasting time and money.  In other cases, the reprecusions are much more severe, with patients receiving treatments which are ineffective or potentially harmful, all because the full information isn’t available.

Many clinical trials are paid for by the pharmaceutical companies that stand to profit from the treatments they are testing, and those companies often own the results of the trials.  If the companies don’t like the results, they simply don’t publish them.  There are organisations, like the Cochrane Collaboration, that try to find and compile these results to make them accessible, but it’s an uphill struggle.  Ben explains the problem in this TED talk:

So we know that this is a big problem, wasting time, money and resources and risking the health of patients, but what can we do about it?  The obvious answer is to require that all clinical trials be published.  There are already various guidelines and rules about this, but they are flaunted by pharmaceutical companies who don’t want bad press, publishers who don’t want journals full of ‘no effect’ results, and regulators who don’t seem to want to rock the boat.

In light of this, Sense about Science and other have launched the All Trials campaign.  The campaign is for all clinical trials – past, present and future – of treatments currently being used to be published in full.  They are asking governments, regulators and research bodies to take measures to achieve this, and pushing for a cultural change in research that would see failure to report clinical findings as misconduct.

If you agree that all trials should be published so that informed decisions can be made, then please sign the petition or make a contribution to the campaign by clicking the icon below.

All Trials

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