#ClimateChangedMyThesis: Mentoring students through climate change

By Meghan Barrett

Working with native bees in the field can be a risky business; there is an abundance of interesting species, and amazing papers, to catch a young melittologist’s eye – but finding the species you wish to work on often takes a good dose of luck. As I have entered my second year of graduate school and begun digging into my thesis proposal, my advisor has been wise to caution me away from study systems, such as the fascinating Perdita portalis, that could leave me wandering the Sonoran Desert for ten years and still coming up dry. A risky field project is not well suited to the purpose of a PhD program (where earning your degree and moving on in a timely fashion is a necessity). The key can often be using historical accounts and recent occurrence records to find species that occur abundantly and consistently (temporally and geographically).

Many graduate student ecologists like myself propose theses that contains a significant field component. Unfortunately, that field component itself seems to be riskier every year. Climate change is shifting where species occur, when they occur, and if they occur, often in ways we are ill prepared to predict. Not only that, but the organisms that a student’s focal species interacts with may be shifting, even if the focal species is not. All of these changes can make field-component projects increasingly risky as focal species become near obsolete in previously common areas (Coral bleaching? Disappearing bumblebees? Shifting avian migratory patterns?) or change their interactions and behaviors. Changing biotic and abiotic factors shape the questions we are asking, and the results we get. Understanding how these changes will affect our research is not always going to be a thesis-appropriate task.

In the face of this uncertainty, how should mentors shift the advice they give their graduate students as they work to develop the fieldwork component of their research, to avoid risky and potentially impossible projects?

If you hoped I would have an answer to that question, I am sorry to disappoint. I have a few ideas, that I will outline below, but I am mostly looking to start a conversation. As someone who hopes (in a decade or so) to be mentoring young ecologists, I will be increasingly faced with this same issue. Shamelessly, I’d like to crowdsource my preparedness. Below are my thoughts – and I’d love to hear your ideas or experiences at #ClimateChangedMyThesis on Twitter.

  1. These changes don’t happen (and haven’t been happening) overnight. For frequently-studied/documented species we will likely have indications of the effects of climate change long before a species disappears from a typical site (from extinction or relocation). Suggesting students narrow their focus to these species may help students avoid troublesome organism-climate interactions even if it reduces the possible breadth of research focus.
  2. Some species seem particularly anthro-philic – for example the Eastern carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica, which nests almost exclusively in human-made structures. Generally, these species are more likely to be spotted (by scientists and the public) due to their proximity to homes, cities, universities, etc. This will allow graduate students to crowd-source their species spotting each year, increasing the likelihood of project success and reducing the effect (on a student’s research) of climate-change-induced variability at particular sites.
  3. Some species, such as bumblebees, can be lab-reared with relative ease. Having students propose a project that has a significant lab component with these species, and a comparative field work component to go with it, can reduce risk by making sure that (even if the field work goes awry) students still have a project with potential. Alternatively, modelling/computationally-oriented projects and meta-analyses that use pre-gathered data sets can also be a phenomenal way to work around the climate change crisis and develop valuable skills at the same time.

It’s important to consider, too, that funding is tight for most graduate students. As species become differently abundant, field sites may be further away from a student’s home institution – increasing travel costs to get there. If we can no longer accurately predict when a species will be occurring, students may need to stay at the site longer to make sure they catch the full season (again increasing cost). It may not be that species become infeasible to work on for our students because of occurrence – but rather because of the cost in time/resources for students to follow where they occur.

Our shifting climate will no doubt continue to have devastating impacts on so many facets of the human experience – but our job as mentors to students (graduate and undergraduate alike) is to help minimize this impact on our students’ research journeys early in their careers. What are your suggestions for how we should advise students as climate changes continues to impact our ecosystems?

Author biography: Meghan Barrett is a graduate student earning her PhD in Biology and her MS in STEM Education. She studies insect neuroanatomy and thermoregulation and enjoys a brief spot of science communication on Twitter, @Bee_Bytes, and on her website. She is a member of the editorial board for Rapid Ecology and a member of the Philadelphia chapter of Neuwrite.

Featured image caption and credit: A bunch of healthy coral sits next to a white, bleached bunch of coral. Credit: NOAA, Public Domain.

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