Monday, March 26, 2012

What Field Work Is Really Like

A shocking exposé by Mandy

If you read Drew's post, you have an idea of what kind of work he does. His research often requires a bit of field work. For our purposes, I'm going to define field work as the act of hiking to a destination to collect samples or to set up an experiment. Drew defines it as work done away from the office, oftentimes in a natural environment, and with a large component of manual labor. 

Drew's field work has been rather exotic up til now. It has led us to a glacier in Switzerland, to the beautiful alpine flower-laden meadows of Colorado, and to the ruin-filled mountains of Peru. And now it's led us to the Australian bush.

Let me tell you, though. Field work is hard work and not always comfortable.

In February, we headed out to Drew's research site with two other scientists. Our goal was to spend three days in the bush, artfully placing bags filled with leaves for Drew's decomposition study and also opening pit-fall traps for Kika's study. The pit-fall traps are filled with ethanol and antifreeze. The solution is then left there for one week during which time hopefully lots of bugs and lizards fall into it. (Sounds cruel, but the amount of specimens collected is quite small compared to what is actually out there. The collected animals give scientists a good idea of what is living in the forest at that time of the year.)

It poured down rain on the way to the study site. A study site which, I should mention, is 30 miles from the nearest town and down miles and miles of 4-wheel drive roads. Some of which aren't maintained - as we discovered when we drove around a bend and saw a downed tree in the road. We grabbed the hack saw from the back of one of the trucks and proceeded to spend the next three hours slicing through the massive branches. This was a tiny glimpse of the work that we had ahead of us. (Let is be noted that this gal recommended that investing in a chainsaw might be a good use of research funds.)

What followed was three days of carrying around heavy equipment in hot, muggy conditions.  And have I mentioned the funnel web spiders (which can kill you) and the red-bellied black snakes (which can kill you) and the jack jumper ants (which can kill you)? By the end of the trip, I was more scared of the ants than the spiders and snakes. When their colony is disturbed, the ants all swarm out and hunt down the offender. One day, Kika and I riled up a colony that was living right next to a pit-fall trap. We immediately backed up several feet. Kika then picked up a long stick and continued to try to open the trap so we could put solution in it. Meanwhile, I kept an eagle eye out on the ground and warned her every time an ant was trying to climb up her leg. The ants attacked the stick she was using, jumping on to it, and they even climbed the nearest tree and tried to drop on us that way, too. In retrospect, it makes me laugh, thinking about us hopping around and flailing sticks. At the time, though, we were not laughing. :-(

Caution: Scientists at work
In addition to the lethal animals, we had to deal with biting flies. Insects in Australia must be on steroids because these flies were ruthless. Even 100% DEET wasn't enough to keep them off. We also had to contend with the mozzies (mosquitoes) which had thoroughly enjoyed the wet spring and were in feeding frenzy mode.
The Wog Wog Kitchen
Okay, since I'm going back into the field in May, let's take a moment and remind myself why I volunteered for this. 
  • I get to see lots of cool animals. On the February trip, I saw wallabies, lizard eggs, kookaburras, and a goanna.
  • I get to camp under the Australian stars and enjoy the Southern Sky constellations. Orion is upside down here and so is the moon!
  • I get to eat bush tucker. Why is it that food always tastes so much better when you are camping? Field margaritas are the perfect end to a long day, and chocolate is a necessity to replace all of those calories that were burned off while hiking.
  • I get to participate in sometimes serious and oftentimes silly scientific debates. Why are the flies more attracted to this blue tarp?[Commence 40 minute discussion of fly eye morphology and evolution.]
  • I get to spend all day hiking. Not sitting at a desk or staring at a computer.
  • I get to spend my evenings relaxing by a river. It's more of a stream, but the water is deliciously cool and perfect for washing the day's grime off my face and relaxing my tired muscles.  
When all is said and done, most scientists (and this non-scientist) will agree - a day spent in the field with friends is far better than any day spent in an office.

Playing with Kika's fancy camera.  You can just make out my silhouette behind the 'G' - I used a headlamp to write WOG in the air while Kika set her camera to capture it all in one shot.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

So, why did we move to Australia?

My Research at CSIRO
by Drew
Back in November of 2010, I saw an advert from two of the professors at the University of Colorado where I’d been studying for my PhD the past 5 years.  The advert was for a position as a post-doctoral researcher in Australia studying soil microorganisms in a forest fragmentation experiment.  After discussing options with the better half, I decided to apply.  Eight months later we were flying across the Pacific, with everything we owned packed into 7 boxes and 4 suitcases, to a continent neither of us had ever even visited.  If you’ve been reading our blog, you know we’ve been having a fabulous time exploring the culture and the landscape.  But what about the work that brought us here?

My current research project is at the Wog Wog Forest Fragmentation Experiment in New South Wales, Australia.  The experiment was started 20 years ago when the some of the State Forest was being converted into pine plantations.  Researchers here at CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the Australian equivalent of the US Geological Survey + US Forest Service + US Department of Agriculture) took the opportunity to preserve a few small squares of native eucalyptus (the biggest patches are about 200 yards on a side and the smallest are 16 yards/side).  The goal was to see if native plants and animals could survive in small fragments of forest that were surrounded by the non-native pines. 
Pine forest on the left - notice the straight lines of trees, evidence of tree planting; Eucalyptus forest on the right
Photo by Kika, one of Drew's colleagues.
(Pinus radiata is the pine species.  It is originally from a very small part of California but is now planted all over the world!) 
People have primarily looked at insects so far at Wog Wog, and they have shown that very few species have disappeared from even the smallest patches, although which species are most abundant has changed when compared to nearby old-growth forest.  Picture an abundance of earwigs in the fragments versus lots of lady-bug beetles in the eucalyptus (the actual beetles that have changed Wog Wog aren’t quite so distinctive).   

But Drew, you said that you were there to look at soil microbes, what about them?
Old photo from when the forest was clear cut 20 years ago.  The square patches are the Eucalyptus forest that was left standing.
First off a bit of background...  Soil microbe is a broad term spanning fungi, bacteria, and microscopic animals such as mites, round-worms, and rotifers (a cross between an anemone and a caterpillar).  For the past 7 years I have been trying to help us understand how individual species of microbes contribute to rates of decomposition and, ultimately, the health of the larger plants and animals in a landscape.  My current study looks at soils across the fragments, the pine plantation, and the intact old-growth forest to see if microbial species have changed and if they are linked to changes in decomposition rates.  I can figure out decomposition rates because I’ve set out bags of leaves across the different forest types and am looking to see if some areas decompose faster than others.  I can figure out (roughly) which microbes are there by collecting soil samples, grinding them up (microbes included), extracting their DNA, sequencing it and, in a manner similar to the human genome project, identifying bits that are unique to known microbes.
Google Earth image of the Wog Wog site as seen from above.  Notice the square patches of Eucalyptus forests.
All this “research” may sound fairly simple so how does that translate into a 40 hrs a week job?  One thing they don’t tell you in science class is that most of a scientist’s job is writing and sifting through large numbers of results for strong patterns.  So, I spend 70% of my time writing articles/project proposals/responses to collaborators’ questions, reading background articles to understand what other people already know about whatever environment I’m currently working in, and calculating statistics on large spreadsheets worth of results.  The other 28% of my time is spent in the lab and about 2% of my time is actually spent outside moving about leaves and collecting soils. 

Progress on the project thus far is that I’ve deployed my leaf decomposition bags and have collected a good 100 lbs of soil.  Currently I’m spending my time in the lab grinding up soils and extracting DNA.  Hopefully by September I’ll be able to tell if soil microbial species have changed as compared to the old-growth forest control sites.  Next year around this time is when I’ll be collecting the leaf bags and will know if decomposition has changed.  

Well, I trust you enjoyed our little jaunt into scientific research.  Post a comment or send us an email if you have any questions.  Ta ta for now!

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Day at the Royal Canberra Show

Before the rains started, we spent a sunny Saturday at the Royal Canberra Show.  Boasting livestock competitions, rides, games, exhibitor booths, and much more, it's the equivalent of a state fair in America. Here are a few pictures of what we saw that day.

Cute little girls in sundresses.

A lumberjack competition.  We stayed for three different events and learned all kinds of interesting facts about how the steel axes are made and what type of wood is used.  The wood they are chopping in this picture is silver top ash.

Fresh juice stands and grizzled guitar man.

Giant cows. And I do mean GIANT - this Holstein Friesian named Fonzy is over 6 feet tall and he last weighed in at 2 and half tons!  Alpacas are big here, too, and I kind of fell in love with them.  Have you ever seen one up close?  They have the biggest eyes.  I particularly liked this dread-locked fellow. The judges did, too.  He later won a blue ribbon.

Lots of fluffy sheep.  And beautiful horses.  (I dragged Drew through almost every horse stable on the fairgrounds.)

More beautiful horses and shaggy cows.

My favorite picture of the day - a baby cow is trotted out after its momma.

As you can tell, we mostly stuck to the livestock areas.  I didn't get any pictures of the rides.  And I looked everywhere for a Fairy Floss stand but didn't see one.  (Fairy floss is what they call cotton candy here.) 

I did get to wear my cowboy boots though.  And the entire day reminded me of home.  What more could a girl ask for?  :-)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Rainy Days and Mondays

It rained here for eight days straight.  The bottom fell from the sky and torrential downpours ensued.  It was a toad strangler, a gully washer.

Dams overflowed in Canberra and near Sydney.  Pastures and roads flooded.  Homes were evacuated. 

We went for runs in the rain, not wanting to be cooped up for another second.  We danced in the rain (well, I danced and Drew laughed). My favorite umbrella, which languished in a closet for six years in Colorado, finally got a lot of love.

And today the sun came out.