Our research focuses on the population dynamics of plants and how they are influenced by impacts of natural disturbances and global environmental change. We are particularly interested in the interactive effects of fire, grazing and drought in grasslands and woodlands in southern Australia, and how climate change, fragmentation and shrub encroachment affect ecosystems.

Monday, 22 July 2013

What do you wish you'd learnt at University??

Grass-trees in the Warby Range
I've been chatting to former students of late, trying to find out what we could have done at University to better prepare them for life in the workforce/academia. I'm in the enviable position where many of my students have gone on to work in the botanical field and many have gone on to make great contributions - as environmental officers, as university researchers, as advocates for conservation of biodiversity, as government policy makers. Hence, we must be doing something right. Finding out how they could have got more out of their education has been really eye-opening (and perhaps not surprising).

It's clear that former students of mine have two very clear regrets, representing two very different skill sets.

1) Far and away the biggest 'regret' expressed by former students is that they wished they'd tried to learn the major plant families (better than they did!) and, in particular, the spotting characteristics that help you to quickly narrow down your options. Frequently I hear them state that plant identification is a critical skill in their current jobs, but one of the skills not well learnt at uni. Hence, they have struggled with this important aspect of their work. This might be because it is not well taught in undergrad courses or, more likely, as an undergrad it is not immediately clear that such skills are pivotal and hence worth learning well. Teaching the basics is an investment in future ecologists, but one that those future ecologists must be willing to learn, no matter how hard or boring it might seem at the time.

2) A close second relates to statistics. This one is not surprising to me - most undergrads really shy away from mathematics and data analysis more generally. I suspect that a lot of this has to do with the fact that biology students don't immediately see the relevance of statistics. Many just want to get on with improving conservation outcomes, but experimental design, evidence-based management and data interpretation are central to many ecological disciplines and can't be avoided. I always challenge my students to understand their stats, and to be proficient in writing code to generate graphs and simple models. Ultimately, they never complain! Well, that's what I tell myself!

Of the other 'regrets' expressed by my ex-students, the dotpoints below consistently get raised. The idea of highlighting them here is to encourage current undergrads to think outside the box, to engage with concepts perhaps not central to their current thinking about ecology, and to ensure that they are aware of the types of skills necessary in the workforce that (perhaps) only seem like annoying things needed to pass a final exam.

3) Some students really wish they had mastered computer programmes that are now pretty much 'tools of trade' for ecologists - ArcGIS, Access Databases and R get mentioned a lot. I tend to agree. Computers are part of the arsenal of all ecologists, as is modelling and data storage, so it's important to challenge yourself to learn these programmes. Rarely will they be taught in general undergrad courses to levels that approximate 'expert proficiency'. Instead, you often have to master them yourself (with the help of willing allies like Post-Grads and Post-Docs).

4) Contributing to discussion groups. Science is a contest of ideas. But many undergrads avoid serious discussion of concepts, theory and data. I'm not sure why this is (although the obvious reason probably goes something along the lines of "I don't want to look stupid or say something seen as dumb"). This outlook needs to change. Coherently arguing a position, based on well-researched information, is central to decision-making, so any opportunity to practice these skills at uni should be grasped with both hands. One of the things you'll also have to learn, however, is to take criticism constructively.  This ensures rigorous debate, and sound ideas rise to the surface. What might seem like short-term pain will ultimately have a long-term gain to your ability to contribute to the discipline.

5) Time management. We all know the story of the undergrad that leaves their assignment to the last minute or the Post-Grad student that takes two, three, four or more years longer than anticipated to finalise their research thesis. But as your career progresses, you find you have less and less time to do all the tasks that you've been handed. Several students have told me that they wish I'd been harder on them when they failed to deliver what was promised - that if they failed to meet a deadline, there should have been a consequence beyond a stern (but often sympathetic) look. I'm working on this!!! But getting into the habit at uni of meeting deadlines, and developing a system that works for you, can only help you later in the workforce. And being a reliable, efficient team member should not be under-estimated.

6) Ecophysiology. Surprisingly, several students wished they'd taken more classes in this topic. The role of ecology is to understand the abundance and distribution of organisms and, for field biologists, knowing how to measure this is crucial. But what underpins much of this (aside from dispersal processes) is how plants respond to stresses such as water-limitation, frost and extreme heat. These outcomes are often observable as effects on cell or organ function, and it's only after university that some students begin to realise the importance of this.

7) When many students enter university, they do so because they have an interest in a particular species (such as a koala), or a group of organisms (e.g. big cats, whales, orchids). But it soon becomes pretty obvious that it is near impossible to study all species in great depth to understand them, yet the pressures to 'manage' them is high. Many students tell me that they enjoy learning about plants from a functional trait viewpoint, largely because the concept allows conceptualization of responses of whole communities to things such as disturbance, climate change and urbanization. Perhaps we need to teach this concept more rigorously from 1st year level biology, and emphasize to students that the best understanding of annual plants or C4 grasses can be gained by viewing those plants by their traits. Such thinking will need students to move beyond the specific natural history that drew them to biology, and look for broader patterns in nature.