By Vanessa Poirier, PhD Student at Université du Québec à Montréal
I walked into the 9am plenary talk at the American Ornithological Society conference with the expectation of learning something interesting about birds, that was hopefully easy enough to digest before my coffee. The hour that followed surpassed every expectation. I listened to a story of hope, innovation, perseverance, and strength. It was a story of building a community that would share knowledge, inspire action, and empower women; a truly amazing tale about bridging the sometimes seemingly insurmountable gap between problem and solution.
Named the “Stork Sister” by her community, a title now recognized world-wide, Dr. Purnima Devi Barman is truly a loving sibling to the Greater Adjutant Stork (Leptoptilos dubius). A bird facing extinction in the early 2000s is now thriving with the help of the Hargila army. The Hargila army is an all-women conservation group founded in the Indian state of Assam that intertwines culture and science communication.
I was particularly inspired by the moment which marked Dr. Barman’s path: a man cutting down a tree causing a stork’s nest to fall in its wake. She asked the man why he would do such a thing and he laughed. In other words, she was a ‘tree-hugger’; a term meant to inspire shame. In truth, she was the honorable defender of these mistreated creatures. These tall birds with vulture-like bald heads and long-hanging throat pouches were interpreted as ugly. In fact, the storks were regarded as bad omens and carriers of disease and thus generally detested by the community. Dr. Barman, however, saw their importance to the native ecosystem and wondered how to get everyone else to see their beauty.
Dr. Barman found that the key was community values. A great example of this being the Hargila Army’s stork baby showers: a traditional celebration of song and prayer usually reserved for fellow humans but offered to the storks instead. We have all heard the stories of storks ushering in a new baby, but never of humans returning the favor. It was a true symbol of unity with nature. Once you have blessed a baby stork, you surely cannot turn around and cut down its home. The relationship between human and stork did not stop there; the Hargila Army gathered for ceremonies, cooking and biodiversity classes. Word spread of the storks and so grew their reputation as sacred birds.
Not only this, but the Hargila Army is an empowering movement for women. The conservation group generates income by selling traditional clothes with Hargila motifs on them, allowing the women involved to become more economically independent. This, in turn, is another example of blending culture and conservation.
As I left the auditorium, the story of the Hargila Army stuck with me. The idea of transforming a whole community’s way of thinking seemed nearly impossible only an hour prior. Our modern problems seem to stem from the values ingrained in our culture and so a proper solution should equally come from a change in societal ideals. This is an idea that I will take with me in my future endeavors as a science communicator. I hope this story has inspired you as much as it has me.
About the author: Vanessa Poirier is a PhD student at the Université du Québec à Montréal studying urban ecology and ornithology.
Ogden, Lesley Evans. “How Baby Showers Are Helping to Restore an Endangered Stork’s Sullied Reputation.” Audubon, 1 Feb. 2023, www.audubon.org/magazine/spring-2020/how-baby-showers-are-helping-restore-endangered.
Pinto-Rodrigues, Anne. “Mobilising Assam’s ‘Hargila Army’: How 10,000 Women Saved India’s Rarest Stork.” The Guardian, 9 Feb. 2023, www.theguardian.com/global-development/2023/feb/09/assam-hargila-army-women-saved-india-rarest-stork-greater-adjutant.
By Danielle Mac Rae, MSc Student at Concordia University
With the social pressure to continue higher education, young adults are entering graduate degrees in a rush. Before jumping into the first biology lab you can find, in a hurry to start the long and strenuous journey of graduate school, here are some things to consider.
Check out the job market in locations you are interested in living. Having a background in biodiversity is broad, but job requirements can be specific to where you are living.
Know the qualifications for entry-to-intermediate level jobs. Higher education doesn’t guarantee a job in biology/biodiversity studies. Requirements like GIS, advanced statistics knowledge, extensive field experience, can all be essential to land a gig.
Talk to current graduate students in the lab you are interested in joining. Learn about their research and their relationships with the supervisor and department.
Get involved in extracurricular activities. Building a foundation or support system while in graduate school is essential for survival. Also having extracurricular activities could be helpful when looking for a job someday.
Rush in. It’s okay to take your time choosing a lab and finding the right fit. It’s important to feel passionate about the research you are going to do, because you’ll be wrapped up in every minute of your life for the next 2-3 years. Taking time off to gain work experience before starting your degree can be extremely valuable, and you may find that having a graduate degree isn’t even necessary (see Do’s 1-2)!
Accept a masters position without understanding your prospective supervisors expectations. How much guidance will they provide? Do they have the appropriate amount of funding for you? What are their strengths in regards to biodiversity topics?
Expect to breeze through. Take all the free workshops you can, attend the seminars, take courses that will help you establish as a scientist or pertain to your project.
Ignore your mental health. Take breaks, enjoy your evenings and weekends, do your best to create a work-life balance that allows you to decompress. Grad burnout is a real thing.
Biodiversity is a broad topic, from field studies to simulations and beyond. Choosing a project that will keep you motivated and interested will help keep you sane as you sift through the endless databases of articles and data that is now available at our fingertips. As I’m sure you’ve heard it before, networking is a huge part of how you will learn about opportunities in your field. Keep your head up and talk to your labmates, professors, committee members, and other students studying biodiversity topics.
About the author: Danielle Mac Rae is a recent Masters graduate from Concordia University, Montreal. She got her degree in Biology with Dr. Eric Pedersen’s Quantitative Fisheries Ecology Lab. They are currently working on publishing the second chapter of her thesis.
The ISME symposium brings together top researchers in microbial ecology from across the globe to share their recent and/or unpublished work, as well as providing a space to discuss emerging trends in microbial ecology via their roundtable sessions. It is one of the largest not-for-profit international meetings on microbial ecology in the world, with an average attendance of 2200 delegates from over 50 countries.
I was grateful to be able to attend this well-regarded conference with the generous support of QCBS. One of the main reasons I wished to attend ISME18 was with the intention of networking to find a future postdoctoral position in Europe, preferably in a French-speaking country. I set this as my goal because I want to perfect my French. Though I was born in Montreal, and my ancestry is primarily French Canadian, I never learned French because I grew up in Arizona in the United States. Since starting my PhD at McGill, I have taken French courses with the Continuing Education department to reclaim this part of my heritage. However, classes could only get me so far. I knew I needed a truly immersive experience to fully grasp the language. As such, I thought I could combine my goal of becoming fluent in French with my desire to diversify my scientific skills by landing a postdoctoral position in a French-speaking European country – where, unlike in Montreal, I would not be quite as tempted to simply “get by” with English.
At ISME18, I had the opportunity to attend stimulating lectures on various aspects of microbial ecology, including Philip Engel and Emma Slack’s fantastic keynotes on the honey bee gut microbiome and secretory IgA in the intestinal mucosa, respectively.
I also had the chance to network with scientists during the breaks and poster sessions. This can be a very daunting experience for those attending (international) conferences for the first time. However, I have a trick or two up my sleeve! If your other colleagues or your PI are also attending, ask them to introduce you to other researchers they know or have met at the conference. If you’re attending alone, I’ve found that one of the best ways to interact with people and make connections is to come up to speakers after their talks. Not only will you be able to connect with the speaker themselves, but also with other people who are also interested in the speaker’s research. Another sure-fire way of finding people who are in your field or adjacent to it is to have discussions with people at posters that interest you. If you’re unable to browse the posters on some days because you’re presenting your own, don’t fret! Some conferences have abstract booklets that you can use to find posters that interest you; you can then follow up with the presenter via email, or at least find their other work or their lab online.
When I presented my poster, I received insightful feedback on the work I presented: see the poster here! For instance, I was continually asked by different people if I had found more taxa of interest during inflammation than what I presented in my poster. I then had to explain that I couldn’t fit all of the relevant taxa onto the one graph and, thus, chose to only highlight a few. This led me to start thinking about different ways I could better summarize my data. After the conference and with a lot of thought and the help of my labmates, I have figured out a cleaner, more efficient way to present the same data – using heatmaps instead of line graphs to represent changes in the abundances of certain taxa over time (see the updated poster here). I also had the chance to introduce myself as a prospective postdoctoral fellow for several labs, which I intend to follow up on upon completion of my degree. It was very uplifting to receive interest in my work from my peers and potential future employers.
If I were to give advice on speaking with people who visit your poster, or with whom you happen to sit or stand next to at any point of the event, while it can be nerve-wracking, remember they are human and treat them as equals. It helps to have genuine curiosity in the person and their work, rather than putting them on a pedestal or assuming they’re irrelevant to you based on their field or experience. Any interaction you have could lead to a collaboration, a future position, or even a friend – you never know who might link you to those opportunities! So I find it crucial to treat people with respect and to be honest about yourself and your work. You may be surprised – by doing this, your discussions with other scientists may go smoother and be a lot more enjoyable than if you try to boast or “sell yourself”.
One last piece of advice, if I may, is to make the most of your conference experience! Many conferences, especially larger ones and those of an international scale, host a variety of fun social or art events outside of the conference itself, which are almost always worth checking out. For instance, ISME hosted an event called “Discover the Microverse,” in collaboration with National Centres of Competence in Research (NCCR) Microbiomes. The purpose of this event was to interest and engage a wider audience in microbial ecology research. This included an “Ask a Scientist” booth, as well as scientific images and short films. I was astounded and impressed at the high-quality art and videos that my fellow ISME members created. There was even the launching of a new video game called “Microbiomes“, created by the NCCR Microbiomes team in collaboration with Koboldgames. This game is fun and free to download on Android and iOS mobile devices – I’d highly recommend checking it out!
I also greatly enjoyed the concluding event of the “Discover the Microverse”, which was a panel discussion on science communication, called “Explaining the Microverse”. This discussion was led by Stephan van Duin, science communicator at The Online Scientist and consisted of several science communication experts of varying backgrounds — including Remco Kort, the curator of Micropia (a museum of microbes in Amsterdam); Emma Hodcroft, a postdoctoral fellow in molecular epidemiology at the University of Bern; Dr. Katharina Weikl, an artist and Deputy Head of Graduate Campus at the University of Zurich; and Beat Glogger, a science journalist and founder of Higgs magazine. Throughout the discussion, the panelists addressed issues relating to scientific communication strategies and how they’ve addressed them. One particularly interesting discussion revolved around scientific art as a means of communicating science and how it can be both a simple and beautiful form of communication for a general audience. The scientists on the panel saw art as a tool for scientific communication, whereas the artist (Dr. Katharina Weikl) tried to emphasize her perspective of having art for its own sake. There was a clear dissonance between the purely practical mindset of the researchers and the more exploratory viewpoint of the artist. For me, it was an informative peek into how the varied goals and backgrounds of individuals in a group can radically change how each person approaches and thinks about the same project.
Overall, I gained exactly what I had hoped I would at this conference and even more. I had eye-opening and helpful discussions about my work and the work of others, met some passionate and intelligent peers, received helpful feedback on my work, publicized myself as an up-and-coming researcher and received interest in my future career, and generally enjoyed the myriad of discussions I had on topics ranging from the human maternal milk microbiome to the importance of looking for plasmids in metagenomic data.
None of this would have been possible without the funding provided by the QCBS Excellence Award. To the members of the committee which granted me this award, I extend my heartfelt thanks! This event has paved a future for me post-graduation, beginning with a postdoc in Europe. I hope to bring back to the Quebec community the knowledge that I gain abroad, to further enhance and diversify the research being conducted here.
About the author:
Eve Beauchemin is a PhD Candidate in the lab of Corinne Maurice, PhD, at McGill University in Montreal, Québec, Canada. She first became interested in the gut microbiome and its importance to host health in an introductory microbiology class during her undergraduate career, and has stuck with it ever since! She now has a particular interest in viewing the gut microbiome through the lens of microbial ecology and host-microbe interactions.
You can find the website of the Maurice lab here: http://www.mauricelab.ca/
Par Laura Lardinois, étudiante au doctorat à l’université McGill
Petite, la mer, pour moi, était une étendue d’eau froide aux reflets tantôt gris fer, tantôt vert Véronèse…
Une ligne d’horizon entrecoupée par les acrobaties des oiseaux marins.
Cet été, dans le cadre de ma recherche, j’ai eu l’occasion d’y plonger moi aussi.
Ma mission : découvrir les communautés microbiennes – c’est-à-dire, les bactéries, archées, champignons, et virus microscopiques qui se trouvent dans l’eau ainsi que sur – et à l’intérieur – des animaux marins, formant leur microbiome.
L’objectif : étudier les interactions entre l’environnement (l’océan), les conditions environnementales (température, nutriments, oxygène), les animaux marins (les hôtes), et leurs microbiomes dans les récifs coralliens.
Les microbes ont des super-pouvoirs : leur capacité de se multiplier rapidement, de partager du matériel génétique (un peu comme des élèves qui font passer un copion entre eux pour réussir un examen), étant de petite taille mais ayant de grandes populations, disposant d’une variété impressionnante de diètes (métabolismes), leur permettent de s’adapter à des changements environnementaux rapides et de tolérer même les environnements les plus extrêmes.
Nos actions menacent actuellement les écosystèmes marins partout dans le monde : le réchauffement climatique, la surpêche, la pollution – tous ces éléments de stress anthropiques mettent la pression sur nos océans. Dans les récifs coralliens, des havres de biodiversité abritant toutes sortes d’espèces uniques, nous voyons déjà des signes avant-coureurs de mauvaises nouvelles ; au fur et à mesure que les océans se réchauffent et que le taux en oxygène diminue, la fréquence et la sévérité des phénomènes de blanchissement des coraux (une réaction de stress qui peut entrainer la mort des coraux) augmentent.
Cependant, les communautés microbiennes associées à des animaux marins, par l’intermédiaire des services qu’ils fournissent à leurs hôtes (nutriments, protection contre les pathogènes…) pourraient être clés dans l’adaptation et la survie des animaux marins aux changements environnementaux.
L’endroit: le Panama – un petit pays en Amérique centrale qui recèle des milliers d’espèces.
L’Isthme de Panama – cette petite bande de terre qui connecte le reste de l’Amérique centrale à l’Amérique du Sud – a séparé, il y a environ 3 millions d’années – une grande mer en deux océans; l’océan Pacifique et l’océan Atlantique.
Du coup, les animaux marins se sont trouvés face à une barrière terrestre infranchissable, ayant pour résultat la création d’une série d’espèces sœurs de part et d’autre de l’isthme qui se sont adaptées aux conditions différentes des deux océans.
Du côté Pacifique, le Golfe de Panama subit des changements saisonniers dû à la remontée des eaux; pendant quelques mois chaque année, des vents déplacent l’eau chaude en surface, faisant remonter de l’eau froide, riche en nutriments et faible en teneur d’oxygène.
La grosse question : par quels moyens les animaux marins et leurs microbiomes ont-ils survécu à ces grands changements environnementaux – l’un à échelle temporelle géologique (formation de l’isthme de Panama : très lent), l’autre saisonnier (remontée des eaux : rapide)?
Étudier cette question dans un milieu naturel nous permet de mieux comprendre la capacité des organismes à s’adapter à des changements environnementaux afin de mieux savoir protéger le monde marin face au changement climatique.
L’auteure : Laura Lardinois est une étudiante en doctorat à l’université McGill qui s’intéresse aux microbiomes et à leurs rôles dans l’adaptation et la résilience des animaux face aux changements climatiques. Elle étudie actuellement les interactions entre les hôtes et les microbiomes dans les poissons tropicaux au Panama et essaie toujours de trouver un moyen d’intégrer l’art et la vulgarisation scientifique dans sa recherche. Grâce au prix d’excellence du CSBQ, elle a pu obtenir son brevet de plongée PADI pour nager aux côtés de ses poissons.
By Brian Gallagher, PhD Candidate at Concordia University
As a PhD student at Concordia University, I was fortunate to attend a conference entitled “Advances in the Population Ecology of Stream-Dwelling Salmonids” (http://www.troutsymp.com/) with support from a QCBS Excellence Award. The conference was held from in Palma, the largest city on the beautiful island of Mallorca in Spain. After a long winter and (mostly) cool spring, I was thrilled to experience the warm Mediterranean climate before the peak tourist season. My time in Mallorca got off to a great start after a long day of travel, as my plane landed just in time to see the sun set over the Serra de Tramuntana, the impressive mountain range just beyond the city.
Photo of the Serra de Tramuntana at sunset taken from my airplane window after landing in Palma.
The conference was the sixth meeting of researchers studying salmonid fishes around the world, ultimately attracting presenters from 14 countries across North America and Europe. Despite this range of backgrounds, the conference was small and intimate, with only 60-70 people in attendance and all presentations held in the same room. I saw many fantastic talks throughout the week, spanning a diverse range of species and locations, but a common theme was the impact of human activities on salmonids (and freshwater biodiversity in general) especially dams, aquaculture, and climate change. Although I have enjoyed attending much larger conferences in the past, the small setting had the distinct advantage of allowing me to meet almost everyone there and talk to them at some point during the conference, while sharing a meal or while taking a trip outside the city (see below). For this reason, I think small conferences like this are fantastic for networking with people who you didn’t know before, and the beautiful low-key setting helps facilitate this process.
Catedral de Santa María de Palma at sunset, with mountains in the distance.
As an avid traveler, one downside of going to such a beautiful place for a conference is that I didn’t get to explore the city as much as I would normally want to. Nonetheless, I found some time to walk around Palma alone and see some breathtaking sights, including its iconic cathedral. Additionally, on the third day of the conference, we left the city and took a bus to the eastern side of the island. With the driver acting as our tour guide, we learned about the surge in tourism in recent decades (apparently Palma has the busiest airport in Spain, with more arrivals than Barcelona or Madrid), the agricultural history of Mallorca, the local industries in the town of Manacor, and the background of tennis star Rafael Nadal, the island’s most notable celebrity. After a beautiful drive, we ended up in the scenic town of Porto Cristo, where we saw some of the most famous beaches on the island (Cales de Mallorca) and walked through interconnected limestone caves containing one of the largest underground lakes in Europe (Cuevas del Drach). We sat down for a long lunch overlooking the beach in Porto Cristo, then headed back to Palma in the evening, relaxed and ready to take in more presentations during the next two days.
Blue water and rocky shoreline around the Cales de Mallorca in Porto Cristo.
At dinner on the last day of the conference, I talked to dozens of people about how amazing the meeting was. We all raved about the quality of the presentations, how easy it was to get to know people, the fantastic food and scenery. The last item on the agenda was getting some ideas for where the next conference should be in two years, and whether it should continue to be in Spain or move elsewhere. No matter what the organizers decide, it seems like everyone can’t wait to come back. If given the choice after my experience in Mallorca, I would rather attend another small and highly specialized conference like this one instead of a larger meeting with hundreds of people. The combination of networking opportunities, like-mindedness, and a beautiful setting is hard to beat.
A chandelier-like set of stalactites hanging from the ceiling at the Cuevas del Drach (Dragon Caves).
About the author: Brian Gallagher is a PhD candidate at Concordia University supervised by Dr. Dylan Fraser. He is fascinated by within-species biodiversity, and studies how this diversity impacts responses to climate change in brook trout and other salmonid fishes across multiple spatial scales.
By Alexander Boucher, MSc Candidate at Concordia University
Have you ever listened to the grunts of deer, moose and reindeer during their rut and wondered how researchers go about studying their vocalizations? Probably not. But over the decades, a few Cervidae enthusiasts have.
In 1859, Charles Darwin noted that sexual selection is a driving force in species evolution. He stated that traits would be sexually selected for or against as part of an individual’s reproduction cycle. In turn, it has been shown that vocalizations play an important role in these selections for a plethora of species, and many animals have evolved a menagerie of different vocalizations to attract the opposite sex.
Beyond mating rituals, individuals additionally use acoustic signals to convey information and regulate multiple types of interactions. For example, the emitter can share diverse information for danger avoidance, peer recognition, and social learning. Identifying and understanding the contents of these vocalizations has been a central focus of bioacoustics.
Figure 1. Picture of an adult male reindeer from our study site in Finland wearing a collar with a GPS locator and audio recorder.
In the past, researchers studied vocalizations by conducting in-person observations and the context for which these vocalizations occurred (think of the who, what, where, when and why of these vocalizations). However, many researchers have now begun to record these vocalizations and conduct computer analyses. With the appropriate acoustic analysis software, researchers can quantify several different aspects of vocalization such as vocal range, frequency, and call rate. Although finding the vocalizations within hours of recordings, especially if researchers continuously record the animals’ environment, is challenging.
In recent years, researchers have collaborated with computer scientists to apply machine learning techniques to the field of bioacoustics. With machine learning networks, an algorithm can be trained to identify vocalizations within a series of recordings. For my research, we used convolutional neural networks to predict vocalizations within recordings; that is to say, our algorithms learned to identify grunts within images. To do so, we transformed the sounds from our recordings into spectrograms and taught the network what a reindeer vocalization did and didn’t look like. Once we had our trained network, we began analyzing our recordings to describe the vocal activity of reindeer over several age and weight classes throughout their rut.
Figure 2. Spectrograms of sounds collected from our on-animal recorders. A) and B) represent the vocalizations of reindeer, while C) is the sound captured by the recorder as it scratched against some branches and D) is the sound of wind.
Figure 3. Picture of a collar with an audio recorder and GPS locator.
Overall, we found fine-scale differences between the different age classes. We found older, heavier males typically spend more of their time grunting. This doesn’t mean younger males don’t grunt, but rather that their vocalization activity is opportunistic, and they grunt only when competition from older males is diminished. We also found that young and old males spend little time resting during the peak, as described by their movement patterns, as we listened back through their recordings Some days, males might spend as little as one hour at rest, but on average spend about four and a half hours at rest a day, and many of their breaks during the day are thirty minutes or less at a time. To put things into perspective, a full-grown, male reindeer can lose 30% or more of his body weight during a given rut, meaning that grunting and attracting a mate becomes a main priority. Male reindeer put a lot of time and effort into reproduction, mainly during the rutting season.
Figure 4. Picture of a group of female reindeer with some young.
Although vocalizations of reindeer are quite intricate and may present more fine-scale differences than our study sought to understand, research must start from somewhere and with the rapid advancements of technology today, many novel approaches for studying the behaviour of animals, amongst many other disciplines, continue to be inundated with new techniques every year. As researchers, we must determine the efficacy and utility of these different and new approaches. To date, recorders have been rarely attached to animals, and even more seldom have researchers used machine learning to predict the vocalizations of animals using these animal-borne recorders. We were the first researchers to try and map the rutting activity of a mammal during its rut using these devices and techniques. While animal-borne recorders may sound trivial initially, developing a recorder that withstands the tortures of a reindeer’s environment is no easy feat. Of the recorders we deployed, one failed after only three days, and only a couple lasted more than fifteen days (a typical rut lasts about one month). Despite these challenges, with our deployed recorders and machine learning model, we demonstrate the utility of these novel methods to further the understanding of male reindeer vocalizations during the rut.
About the author: Alex Boucher is an MSc candidate at the Weladji Lab in the Biology Department at Concordia University. Working under Dr. Robert Weladji, he is using machine learning and animal-borne acoustic recorders to study the mating activity of semi-domesticated male reindeer in Kaamanen, Finland using their vocalizations during rutting season.