Author: Le Beagle Admin

Travel story: Internship to improve risk management of Lyme disease for outdoor workers

Travel story: Internship to improve risk management of Lyme disease for outdoor workers

By Erica Fellin, a PhD student at McGill University

In April 2023, I was lucky enough to participate in a three-week internship at the Centre d’enseignement et de recherche en foresterie (CERFO) to develop my statistical modelling skills. CERFO is a College Center for Technology Transfer (CCTT) that offers environmental research services, knowledge transfer, and training across Quebec. Although they specialize in forestry, they work with a plethora of businesses and organizations to contribute to technological progression within the lens of sustainable development. As a graduate student working on the movement of Lyme disease and potential risks associated with its spread for outdoor workers in Quebec, their values and perspectives on environmental research greatly aligned with the goals of my project. 

In Quebec, many outdoor workers are employed in areas where these ticks are abundant, putting them at high risk for Lyme disease, which can be passed on by tick bites. As the global climate warms, there is an increased potential for workers to encounter blacklegged ticks, thereby increasing their risk for Lyme disease. The goal of my thesis project is to assess the effects of the environment (climate, land use, and tick establishment) on the prevalence of Borrelia burgdorferi (the causal agent of Lyme disease), while uniquely integrating social factors such as age, industry, and education level of these at-risk workers. To do this, I am performing spatial statistical analyses that will include ecological modelling and machine learning to create a risk map for outdoor workers. With the results of my project, I will provide a public health prevention tool that will inform these individuals of areas where they may be at greatest risk of Lyme disease infection via exposure to tick populations. 

Providing employers with knowledge on Lyme disease risk areas across Quebec creates opportunities to better inform their workers, improve their working conditions, and implement effective prevention methods to reduce the risk of tick-borne diseases. With the help of CERFO, specifically, their remote sensing team, I was able to enhance my knowledge in spatial statistics and map-making to improve my overall research project. Since all my work is concerned with Quebec’s environment, CERFO was also passionate about my project, so they took great interest in assisting me with the statistical skills needed for my research. As a student at McGill University in Montreal, it was essential to have effective collaboration with CERFO by going in person to their office based in Quebec City. It would not have been possible for me to do this without the support of the QCBS Excellence Award I received. The skillset of the CERFO team greatly improved the quality of my research, particularly since they are experienced with using large datasets for environmental projects. The expertise of their team members, who have extensive knowledge of GIS and machine learning, was indispensable. Since working with them I have published one research article, and I am in the process of submitting another. I am immensely grateful for the contributions made to my project by CERFO, and the support provided by QCBS for this opportunity. I hope that as I continue with my work, I can pass my efforts and knowledge on to those who need it.

About the author: Erica Fellin is a PhD Candidate studying spatial and disease ecology at McGill University and the Redpath Museum in the Millien lab.

Benjamin Mumford

Benjamin Mumford

Rôle sur l’équipe Beagle: Éditeur
Role on the Beagle Team: Editor

Ben Mumford is a Master’s Student at the Université de Montréal in the Department of Biological Sciences. Supervised by Professor Chris Cameron, his area of interest and research is in the evolutionary development of invertebrates. His master’s is focussing on the microstructural and compositional properties of stereom, the skeletal structures of echinoderms. Outside of studies he enjoys exploring the outdoors through wildlife photography. 

Ben Mumford est étudiant à la maîtrise au Département des sciences biologiques de l’Université de Montréal. Sous la supervision du professeur Chris Cameron, son domaine d’intérêt et de recherche est le développement évolutif des invertébrés. Sa maîtrise porte sur les propriétés microstructurales et compositionnelles du stéréome, le squelette des échinodermes. En dehors de ses études, il aime explorer la nature en photographiant des animaux sauvages.

Adithi Rao

Adithi Rao

Rôle sur l’équipe Beagle: Éditrice
Role on the Beagle Team: Editor

Adithi Rao is currently a master’s student in McGill University, Montreal. She studies the behavior and neuroscience of freshwater fish, specifically how, when, and with which individuals they group. She also partakes in numerous student outreach and education activities in Quebec. When not thinking about fish, she is usually birdwatching, playing music, or running.

Adithi Rao est actuellement étudiante en master à l’Université McGill, à Montréal. Elle étudie le comportement et les neurosciences des poissons d’eau douce, en particulier comment, quand et avec quels individus ils se regroupent. Elle participe également à de nombreuses activités de sensibilisation et d’éducation au Québec. Lorsqu’elle ne pense pas aux poissons, elle est généralement en train d’observer les oiseaux, de jouer de la musique ou de courir.

Laura Lardinois

Laura Lardinois

Rôle sur l’équipe Beagle: Éditrice
Role on the Beagle Team: Editor

Laura is a PhD student at McGill University co-advised by Drs. Rowan Barrett at McGill and Matthieu Leray at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. She splits her time between Montreal and Panama, where she studies the microbiomes of tropical coral reef fish and their responses to environmental change, leveraging the unique marine environments found on either side of the Isthmus of Panama. She’s happiest outside, be it swimming in the ocean alongside the fish she studies or backpacking in the Appalachian Mountains, although curling up with a good book, embarking on ambitious baking projects, and trying to capture fragments of the beauty of the natural world with watercolor are close seconds.

Laura est doctorante à l’Université McGill, sous la supervision des docteurs Rowan Barrett (McGill) et Matthieu Leray (l’Institut Smithsonian d’Investigations Tropicales). Elle partage son temps entre Montréal et le Panama, où elle étudie les microbiomes des poissons de récifs coralliens tropicaux et leurs réponses aux changements environnementaux, s’appuyant sur les environnements marins uniques qui se trouvent de part et d’autre de l’Isthme du Panama. Être dehors la rend heureuse, que ce soit à nager dans l’océan avec les poissons qu’elle étudie ou à faire de la randonnée dans les Appalaches – bien que disparaître dans un bon livre, entreprendre des projets de pâtisserie ambitieux, et essayer de capturer des fragments de la beauté du monde naturel lui apporte aussi beaucoup de joie.

Embracing Experiential Learning: A Journey Through Conservation and Hope

Embracing Experiential Learning: A Journey Through Conservation and Hope

By Anonymous, a PhD student from McGill University

My lifelong tenet is that learning follows experience. This tenet has kept me moving throughout my career as an ecologist. If the chance for a new experience presents itself, I will take it nine times out of ten. This tendency has given me experience in wildlife conservation, teaching, park management, backcountry leadership, and learning on the job. During “gaps” in my academic resume, I kept occupied by dozens of odd jobs. Though still young, my willingness to experience has taken me to Alabama, Maine, California, Washington, Honduras, Colorado, Barbados, Panama, Quebec, and many places in between. 

This semester, I experienced the Neotropical Environment Option. This program, designed to give students a diverse knowledge of social and environmental topics in Panama and the neotropics, delivered. We traveled daily between deep lowland tropical rainforests, high cloud forests, Pacific and Atlantic. To experience the discomfort of heat, biting insects, stinging corals, salt, sun, and chaotic schedules was expected. All to be savored. All to bring us fully into the contrasting moments of equal and opposite wonderment. Wonderment for botany, coral ecology, fish behavior, entomology, paleontology, history, environmental justice, forest management, ethical social science, natural resource management approaches, inequality, natural history, climate change, and the connections between it all. 

And what did these experiences teach me? Luckily, I journaled every day so as not to forget. 

  • Field work is difficult no matter what taxa you are studying or in what terrain.
  • Rest days are always necessary. Take care of your body and mind first.
  • Bees are more intelligent, diverse, and fascinating than you think.
  • There are ALWAYS more questions to ask.
  • A career is not a prison. You can always change.
  • Marine field work requires intense specialized knowledge, physical stamina, and skill.
  • Walking around a town is the best way to get to know a place, even if you do not speak the language.
  • Sustainable agroforestry is possible. 
  • There are so many knowledgeable, diverse, and kind people out there who are passionate to share their expertise. 
  • Free diving is my new favorite activity. 

This list is far from exhaustive. I am still coming up with new lessons from this experience. The most substantial lesson, the one that I needed to learn more than anything: There is hope to turn things around and preserve what is there. No matter how bleak the state of the natural world seems. Despite the feelings of futility that all conservationists feel. 

NEO showed me that there is a huge community of passionate, intelligent, determined people who are dedicated to making positive environmental change. Although conservation is a daunting and sometimes lonely career, we as conservationists are not as isolated in our passions as we think. To be able to call conservation your career is a privilege. Let’s use this privilege to do the best that we can. And giving our best is enough. 

About the author: The author has requested to publish anonymously.

Travel Story: Can one find the answer to one’s research questions on the bottom of a pint of Guinness? No, but I’m glad I tried at the Annual Meeting of the British Ecological Society in Belfast, December 2023

Travel Story: Can one find the answer to one’s research questions on the bottom of a pint of Guinness? No, but I’m glad I tried at the Annual Meeting of the British Ecological Society in Belfast, December 2023

By Anna Lippold, a PhD student at McGill University

Just a few weeks before Christmas 2023, I travelled to Northern Ireland to participate in the Annual Meeting of the British Ecological Society (BES); funded by a QCBS Excellence award. The BES is a large society composed of ecologists not only from Great Britain and Europe but spanning the globe(heck, I even met someone who travelled from Japan!). For those of us who travelled from afar, we were often met with the sincere exclamation, “You really came all the way [from Canada] for this?”.  A thousand plus researchers presented their research there, in sessions ranging from classic ecological fields like population dynamics and species dispersal to emerging fields like urban ecology and rewilding. Apart from the excellent talks from scientists, we had one plenary speaker, Isabella Tree, walking the audience through one of the first (or the first?) occasion to consciously turn farmland in the UK into wilderness by letting plants grow wildly and introducing larger herbivores like horses, deer and pigs that represented a pre-Anthropocene fauna. The room was packed, the talk inspired, and later sparked heated debates in small groups about whether it is ethically ok to allow non-native species in a rewilding project (Isabella says yes, “we are not precious about invasive species, if an ecosystem is strong enough, they won’t have much impact anyways”), and why no carnivores are introduced into these rewilding project, or, why, in Europe or the UK, it is so awkward to discuss animal population control (e.g., hunting).

At the conference, I had the opportunity to present my own research that explores the drivers of variation in spatial behavior within a population. To answer this question,  I studyI a quite spectacular breeding colony of Ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis), where about 33 000 pairs breed yearly on a small island in the St-Lawrence just north of Montreal. Using GPS data from tagged birds, we’ve found a large spectrum of spatial behaviours, from some birds stay close to the colony, foraging at one (or very few) locations (often landfills or dumps), to others feeding up to 70 km away from the colony, travelling in intricate patterns over the vast agricultural fields outside Montreal.  It is not quite clear where this variation comes from – is it that some birds have better spatial memory than others? Or a better sense of navigation? Do they have differences in the brain related to spatial abilities? Are anthropogenic contaminants and heavy metals affecting their brains to different degrees? Is it competition, allowing more bold and aggressive birds to defend closer, potentially better foraging sites, while the shyer ones have to avoid the bullies and go search elsewhere?

At the BES conference, I presented research that examined whether there are differences in navigational ability between birds, and whether that would drive differences in how the birds would naturally move through space. To test these questions,  last spring I took a bunch of ring-billed gulls from their nests, equipped them with finely tuned GPS loggers, and drove them almost 100 km eastwards of their colony, where they were released and tasked to find their way back to the colony. This experiment was excellent fun (at least for me!), some birds flew back in an almost straight line, while others got very, very lost (although don’t feel bad, every single one of them made it back to their nests within a day). There was more variation in how my birds mastered this task than I expected. However, contrary to my hypothesis, their ability to navigate from an unknown location did not predict how they would move through the landscape naturally for foraging. This could suggest that foraging decisions are influenced by a number of factors, of which the ability to navigate unknown terrain is not the strongest. Following my presentation, I was quite frankly very (positively) surprised and almost overwhelmed by the interest and helpful suggestions I received. I left my session with a list of ideas of what else I could include in my analysis, and a list of people whose research I can study to better understand how and why birds navigate (I’m actually very new to this topic). Truly one of the most rewarding conferences I have participated in. And there was beer. Guinness of course – and a friendly waiter told me in no uncertain terms that it was not alright, actually rather an insult, to mix Guinness with cider, as I’ve seen (and enjoyed!) in some of Montreal’s Irish pubs. Alright, Sir! Sometimes you even learn something about the place you come from when you travel…

About the author: Anna Lippold is a PhD candidate at McGill University, studying potential drivers of variation in spatial behavior in ring-billed gulls, such as neuroanatomy, contaminant exposure and navigational ability. Before starting her PhD, Anna studied how foraging ecology changes trends of environmental contaminants in polar bears in Norway.

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