About teamshrub

Exploring how climate change is altering life in the tundra

Our Google Earth Engine adventure

We love big bold questions. Synthesising data over large spatial and temporal scales and bringing together information from different sources to support our findings. Along the way, we have our trusty SuperShrub (our mini-supercomputer), but there are some things even SuperShrub can’t handle, or can’t do in the most efficient way. So how can one extract NDVI, land cover, climate data and more over thousands and thousands of kilometers and across many, many days, months and years? Why with the Google Earth Engine!


Hanging out at the Google Academy in London – where life is a beach!

Last week, Isla, Jakob, Sam and Gergana headed to London to attend a training workshop led by Noel Gorelick and Nick Clinton. A rainy morning in London with travel delays for some and generally long train rides for all wasn’t a particularly promising start, but it turns out we were off to the beach. We escaped the cold and rain at the Google Academy, where there was a strong beach theme, with colourful beach balls, giant beach chairs and even sand and faux sea grass in the corners of the room. With dreams of working with MODIS, Landsat, Hansen data and more, we were ready to tackle JavaScript and see how we can use the Earth Engine to expand our research horizons. And what did we learn??? Read on to find out.


They even have inflatable unicorns at the Google Academy!

The Earth Engine is fast. Very fast!

Gergana: Being able to quickly access and extract land use information for thousands of locations around the world is a key part of my PhD research on the drivers of biodiversity change. I had heard the Earth Engine is fast, and I knew that one of the datasets I am working with, the Hansen et al. Forest Cover Database, is accessible through the engine, but I am also stubborn and I love R! So many a day were spent trying to push R and SuperShrub to their limits… and well, the code never finished running, as I stopped it after a week of waiting! That is why I was pretty excited to see the Hansen database mentioned in the presentation prior to the workshop, and I couldn’t wait to try extracting information. I adapted some of the code we learned in the workshop and a bit of code I found online, and what do you know, 42 seconds (only 42 seconds!) later, I had a csv with thousands of rows specifying the forest loss and gain in 2001-2014 for the areas I was interested in. Amazing!


A zoomed in view of forest cover change based on the Hansen et al. database. Red is loss, purple is loss and gain and blue is gain.

The Earth Engine is flexible!

Isla: In a one-day workshop, we covered a lot of ground – from pixel classification, spectral unmixing to phenology analyses. We had a chance to explore the greening of our focal field site Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island all the way up to the greening of the Arctic! We knew that the Earth Engine was a powerful platform, as some of us had dabbled before, but it is great to finally get a better understanding of what the possibilities are. The Earth Engine could be a game changer for earth observation. Below you can see MODIS NDVI trends for our focal research site all the way up to the Western Arctic at 1 km resolution, all calculated in under 10 minutes.  You can see pixels with active coastal erosion and permafrost thaw slumping getting browner and the less disturbed tundra vegetation getting greener at the local scale and the patterns of greening and browning in the Western Arctic region.

Greening Arctic

The greening of the Arctic from Qikiqtaruk to the entire Western Arctic calculated using the Google Earth Engine. Green pixels are sites where the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) is increasing (robust regression), brown pixels are where the NDVI is decreasing. You can see browning pixels in areas influenced by active coastal erosion and permafrost thaw slumping at the local scale plot and greening pixels where we have evidence of tundra vegetation change. And at the larger scale you can see the strong greening pattern in the Western Arctic near our field site.

Taking time out of our usual routine to learn new things is important.

Team Shrub recently met to discuss our New Year’s resolutions, and one of our general life goals – “to keep learning new things” – was pretty high up on that list. It’s not always easy to make time for new things in our busy lives, but sometimes it is just something that you have to make happen. Even if it involves taking many trains and feeling motion sick on every single one! As much as we love coordinating Coding Club and teaching students quantitative skills at the University of Edinburgh, it’s also nice to be the one being trained and getting to attend a coding workshop from time to time!

So, for Team Shrub, harnessing the power of the Earth Engine might allow us to expand our horizons from scaling from plots to landscapes to the entire tundra biome and to quantifying the drivers of biodiversity change around the planet.  And now that the training is over, we can’t wait do dig in deeper and explore our earth observation research questions in a whole new way.

By Gergana and Isla

5 (More) Steps to Becoming an Awesome Field Assistant

Being a field assistant for the first time isn’t always easy. Following on from Izzy’s recent post, here are five more great tips from Cameron on how to be an awesome field assistant (and to have an awesome time).

1. Apply for funding

Being a field assistant costs money. In many cases you might be employed by an organisation, research group or researcher to carry out the role, in which case they will be covering your costs. However, you may be required to (or want to) provide funds yourself. But don’t fret! There are plenty of funding opportunities hidden out there for the proactive field assistant to find. Most funding requires you to submit a proposal outlining what you will be working on and how much you think it will cost. Once you have drawn up a proposal for one funding application it is easy to tailor it for others. Keep an eye on the submission deadlines and apply to as many funds as possible. In my experience, funds for undergraduates aren’t very competitive, so make use of them!

Information for funds available for University of Edinburgh Students can be found here. 


Cameron fishing for funds

2. Take good equipment

When you are setting up experiments in a snowstorm, or climbing mountains before breakfast, you quickly learn to appreciate the value of good equipment. However, if you haven’t been in the field before it can be hard to figure out what sort of stuff to bring with you. For me, the most important bits of kit are good waterproofs, a decent backpack, and an excellent pair of walking boots (we had a pair fall apart this summer). If you are going to spend a lot of time in the field you should treat yourself to some nice gear. It’s totally worth the investment and good quality stuff can really improve your comfort and safety. Why not add the cost of a beautiful jacket and boots into your funding application (for health and safety reasons, of course)?

3. Ask lots of questions

“Why are we digging up old tea bags from the ground and what’s the deal with all of these dead leaves?”

Take the opportunity to learn as much as you can from the people you are working with. Asking questions and figuring out why you are doing a task can really help you get more out of your time in the field and cement knowledge learned in the classroom. You will also likely be working with people further on in their career than you. If you are thinking about a career in academia, take this chance to pick their brains about all aspects of academic life.


Haydn showing us the ways of the shrub

4. Take the bad with the good

 Hopefully you will experience many great things during your time as a field assistant but you might also experience some pretty bad lows. The work can be gruelling and the days long. A healthy mentality is key to enduring the bad moments and enjoying the good. Make sure to talk to your team if you are having difficulties, and look after yourself. It really is worth it at the end.


Conquer your mind and you can conquer the tundra

5. Let yourself be enchanted…

Fieldwork can take you to some truly special locations. We get to explore hidden valleys, shadowy forests, and secret little places far from any path. Please take some time, in-between sampling and recording data, to fully appreciate the wonderful environment and people around you. Not only does this add to your overall experience, it can also turn you into a passionate advocate for these incredible areas. Tell the stories of these places anyway you can, be it on Facebook, in prose, or down the pub. The more people know about your field site, the less likely it will fade into obscurity and be lost.


Soaking up the view

By Cameron

Team Shrub – 2017 in Review

It was a big year for Team Shrub in 2017.

Like an Arctic willow in the tundra sunshine, we soaked up the beautiful rays of knowledge and delved further into the active layer of understanding. We grew taller and bushier as new members joined the team, and branched out into new areas of research. We bore fluffy research paper catkins, for our ideas and findings to be spread on the breeze of scientific discovery, and we put down new roots, to support, work with and learn from others in the future. And, of course, we had a thoroughly enjoyable time doing it all.

So as we look forward to all that 2018 brings, we are taking some time to revisit the year gone by, our favourite blog posts, and just how far we came in 2017.

Looking ahead: After a politically turbulent 2016, who could know what 2017 would hold? We spent the start of the year looking ahead with some trepidation, some anticipation and a good dose of excitement.

Decomposition in the cold. We kicked of a busy year as Haydn and Isla headed on a tour of Denmark and Sweden to attend the Oikos symposium on Decomposition in Cold Biomes (https://globalsoilbiodiversity.org/content/oikos-satellite-symposium). It was appropriate as the temperatures had dropped that week and it was quite snowy and chilly in beautiful Lund, Sweden as we chatted about cold-weather decomposition while cosy inside.


Taking a tea break in Umeä

To Aberdeen. In March, it was our first Team Shrub trip to Aberdeen. We had a beach coding holiday and attended the Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation conference with Gergana, Haydn and Sandra presenting. We teamed up with Francesca Mancini from the Aberdeen Study Group to lead a coding workshop on efficiently analysing and visualising big-ish data in ecology.


Jumping for joy at the thought of more coding!

Glimpses of our future? By April, we had a wee glimpse into what 2017 might have in store for us through a traditional Bulgarian pastry dish with our fortunes inside!

Tundra Greening and Browning. Also in April, After a lab trip to Durham, Haydn’s home town, to talk permafrost for a day at Durham University. Andy and Isla went to the home of the Crucible, the land of snooker, the (real) region of Robin Hood, and the heartland of the only English football team named after a day of the week. (Also the home of the Arctic Monkeys – who incidentally haven’t spent much time in the Arctic). If you haven’t guessed yet, we went to the town of Sheffield for the ‘Arctic Browning Workshop’. The Arctic is warming and satellites have shown a fair bit of greening, but recent evidence suggests a decrease in the rates of increasing greenness at high latitudes and some browning events. The theme of the workshop was exploring that Arctic browning and what might be causing it.

A trip to the Highlands. Also in April and before the field season, Team Shrub headed to the highlands to show our visiting scholar Jeff Kerby and our summer drone pilot Will Palmer the beautiful countryside in our own backyard.


Traits. In June, Haydn, Anne and Isla headed the deep South of the UK to almost tropical temperatures at the University of Exeter. We were at the New Phytologist 39th Symposium on Trait covariation. Whether in the symposium sessions or out on Dartmoor, we had a great time pondering plant traits from the tropics to the tundra.


Team Shrub strike out across the Highlands.

Traits. In June, Haydn, Anne and Isla headed the deep South of the UK to almost tropical temperatures at the University of Exeter. We were at the New Phytologist 39th Symposium on Trait covariation. Whether in the symposium sessions or out on Dartmoor, we had a great time pondering plant traits from the tropics to the tundra.

The Field Season. Suddenly it was the field season. Team Shrub divided into two teams: Team Drone and Team Kluane to concurrently conduct our data collection on either end of the Yukon. From drones, tea bags, phenology, stories, sounds, smells, feasts, birding, to reunions many adventures were had and a ton of data was collected. We managed to capture over 100,000 images or more than two TB of data with our drones, to dig out over 300 tea bags from the ground, and to fill several field books or iPad spreadsheets with numbers and notes. It was a productive period and we are still working away on processing the data.


Team Shrub together at last!

New beginnings. This September marked the start of Mariana’s and Gergana’s PhD research. Mariana is modelling how plant species distributions will shift under climate change at two extreme biomes – the tundra and the savannah. Gergana is quantifying the effects of land use change on global and local patterns of species richness, abundance and composition. Sam, Claudia and Matt have joined Team Shrub for their honours dissertations. The data presents will soon be rolling as new student projects come together and our first three Team Shrub PhD students finalise their dissertations over the coming months.


First day of being a PhD student for Mariana and Gergana!

Coding. Coding Club celebrated its first birthday! Coding is a big part of our work on Team Shrub, we use coding in our research, teaching, our lives in general… where would we be without it. Perhaps a bit less constantly frustrated, but also without those moments of glory when everything runs error free! We even made up a fictional journal for the Conservation Science course that Isla organises and Gergana and Mariana are tutors on. You can find out more about AQMCS (Advanced quantitative methods in conservation science) here – Same data – different results? ConSci 2017 introduces AQMCS!

Conservation in the Cairngorms. In early October, members of Team Shrub took our annual pilgrimage up to the highlands of Scotland for the weekend fieldtrip on the Conservation Science course. With all sorts of weather, mountains, drones, delicious cake and an epic music jam, fun was had by all!


Learning about conservation in a majestic landscape

Biodiversity, the New North and the science/policy interface. Also in the month of October, along with keen undergraduates from the Conservation Science course, we went along to the Spotlight on Scotland’s Biodiversity conference. For the undergraduates involved, it was their first ever conference. It was pretty inspiring to see the next generation of conservation scientists getting the opportunity to talk with the Scottish experts in the field. A few weeks later in November, we headed to the “Scotland and the New North” policy forum, where Isla got to hold the door for Nicola Sturgeon! A new focus looking Northward for Scotland could mean new things for Team Shrub research in future.


What will Scotland’s new focus northward mean for Team Shrub?

Also in November, Mariana attended two  policy-related events: the EEB Changing Landscapes conference in Edinburgh and the BES “Understanding science policy in Scotland“ workshop in Stirling. The first was a high-level event where major conservation organisations discussed the future of nature in Europe; while the second zoomed into Scotland to understand how science can feed into the policy-making process.

Writing. In November, Team Shrub had our first official writing retreat. We have been talking about having a writing retreat for years and finally things came together with a chance to focus on our writing goals, away from distractions. We were so inspired that we are planning on having a residential writing retreat sometime in the Spring of 2018 – where we can go from one day of super high productivity to hopefully a long weekend.

Dual Conferences. In December, Team Shrub headed to two big conferences happening at the same time! You can read about our parallel conferences experiences here. At Ecology Across Borders in Ghent, Belgium, Anne, Mariana and Gergana joined over 1500 ecologists to take in lots of exciting science, go to workshops, meet new people or catch up with old friends. Gergana and Anne gave talks, in sessions happening at the same time!

At Ecology Across Borders, we also led a Coding Club workshop, titled “Transferring quantitative skills among ecologists”. We shared our approach to teaching coding to keen participants from the conference. All of our workshop materials are online: Transferring quantitative skills among scientistsYou can also check out the Coding Club website to find all of our tutorials as well as information on how you can join our team and organise workshops at your home institution.

The other half of Team Shrub, Isla, Sandra, Haydn, Jakob, Andy and Jeff went to Quebec in Canada for the penultimate ArcticNet meeting – Arctic Change 2017. You can check out the daily round-up blog posts about the conference here – day 1day 2, day 3 and days 4 and 5. A pinnacle moment for Team Shrub was Haydn and Jakob winning the top two prizes from the conference elevator pitch contest!

Rejections. When we drafted our goals for 2017, we also set out our rejection goals. The idea behind rejection goals is that if we never get rejected, then maybe we aren’t aiming high enough. We decided to collectively aim for 50 rejections. So how did we do? We counted 23 rejections out of our goal of 50. Now perhaps we didn’t manage to count every single rejection this year, some of them we would rather just forget, but can we count the fact that we didn’t achieve our rejections as one additional fail?  Then technically we are at 24 out of 50?


Team Drone on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the Northern Yukon.


Team Kluane at Outpost Station in the Southern Yukon.

Outreach. At Our Dynamic Earth, we shared the excitement of using drones for science. At the Edinburgh Science Festival, we explored art as a way to communicate science. We put together the photography exhibit “Arctic from Above” and developed collaborations with Simon SloanArchie Crofton to explore how art and data interface and ASCUS looking at tundra shrubs as time machines. Then at Curiosity forest, part of Explorathon 2017, we used drone simulators and cool dendrochronology samples to learn about how to study Arctic change.


There were also many jolly meals and trips to the pub. Many heated debates as we discussed science in lab meeting or over lunch. There were many moments of coding frustration followed by a sense of achievement as we worked through our scientific goals.

Team Shrub Lab Meeting 2

One of many lab meetings!

So those were some of the Adventures for Team Shrub in 2017.

What will 2018 hold? We already have some exciting things to share with you over the coming months, and many more in the pipeline. Hopefully we will also have some fantastically fluffy catkins this year: keep your eye on the breeze.

So from all on Team Shrub, a very happy new year and we look forward to sharing with you, working with you, and learning from you in the year to come.

By Gergana, Isla and Haydn

One day, 12 795 words: The Team Shrub Writing Retreat

12 795 words in one day! That is a dissertation right there pretty much. And members of Team Shrub wrote those words over a mere four hours of structured writing time. How did we do it? To find out more read on…

We have long loved the idea of a writing retreat – setting aside time to just write. No distractions, no emails, even no coding, just pure writing. It always feels hard to focus just on writing – little urgent tasks creep in and next thing you know, the day is over and that Word document is still blank. Writing retreats are a fun combination of peer pressure and peer support. Nothing like the sound of many people writing to make you realise that you really should be writing, too! We all have things we could be writing right now – a manuscript, an assignment, a thesis chapter, a blog post (a great distraction from what I really should be writing right now, but hey, this is still writing…). It’s great when we have a special occasion when all those things do get written – the Team Shrub writing retreat!

In November, Isla organised a writing retreat, right here in Edinburgh, so a convenient location for all of us. It was quite the fancy setting, with a particularly inspirational ceiling in our writing room!


The fancy setting of our writing retreat!

We started off the morning by laying out what we would like to achieve during the day and in the specific one hour writing sessions ahead of us. We shared our writing goals, Isla told us a bit about how writing retreats work, and with an alarm set off to ring in an hour’s time, we began writing! The break between the writing sessions gave us the chance to refuel with tea and coffee and chat about how our writing is going. And then another one hour of solid writing followed.

Next, we moved onto a delicious lunch in a nearby cafe, followed by a casual work session with even more delicious lattes, flat whites, mochas and such! Our cafe visit gave us the chance to chat about our writing projects, how they are progressing, and ponder over any questions we might have. We liked the combination of the more strict writing sessions in the writing room with the casual cafe session – the best of both worlds!

We also pondered what kind of writers we are and what our strategies for success at the writing retreat were. Do you edit as you write? Do you write everything that comes to mind and edit later? These questions, and many more, are covered in Stephen Heard’s great book “The Scientists’s Guide to Writing”. I particularly like the chapter on writing behaviour. I over-analyse to a fault, so if I give in to the temptation to really discuss or write about writing behaviour and writing strategies, I’d never write anything else! I may or may not be wondering whether there is a test online about writing personalities, but alas, I shall be strong and focus on this.

We wrapped our writing retreat feeling very accomplished. So how did we do it? Here are a few of the elements that came together to bring our writing successes, though of course, everyone is different and everyone writes in a different way.

  1. Make the time. Most of us could have been doing different things that Friday, some of which important, but with writing, often one really has to make the time to make it happen, which sometimes involves some tough decisions and prioritising writing over all the other tasks on our to do lists.
  2. Set specific goals. It’s hard to asses progress if you are not quite sure what you are aiming for, so being specific always helps. How many words would you like to write, or are there particular sections of your writing project that you would like to finish before the day wraps up?
  3. Share your goals. Here comes the peer pressure and support again. Sharing your goals makes them more real, which can motivate you to really achieve them, and knowing that someone else is watching and knows what you are meant to achieve, can provide a dose of healthy pressure to write.
  4. Track progress and adjust your goals as you go. At our writing retreat, we had one hour writing sessions, followed by a break where we could reflect on how we are progressing with our goals. Things don’t always go to plan, some things are easier, others harder than anticipated, and that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. On the contrary, being able to accurately asses your progress and adjust your goals is a great skill to hone.
  5. Just write. We had a few rules for our writing retreat, which I think helped us all focus more on just writing. We had to do our reading and note taking in advance, so that during the writing retreat, we focused on just writing.
  6. No internet, no phones. Sometimes writing retreats are purposefully in places with no internet, so that you don’t get stuck answering emails and constantly having to restart your writing process. In our case, we were right in Edinburgh, so the internet was there, so it was up to us to decide whether or not we turn it off. But the peer pressure was there to not check one’s phones during the writing blocks.
  7. Save, back up. Make sure you save often and that your work is backed up – it would be a shame for all that writing to go to waste! Isla had a complete computer melt down in one writing session with her reference software, but she managed to get things back on track and rewrite that paragraph that got deleted!
  8. Reward yourself. Writing retreats are intense and it’s always nice to have a little reward at the end. The satisfaction of having done something you’ve been postponing for ages, a nice hot drink, a delicious meal with the jolly company of your lab mates.
  9. Follow up on your writing projects. Especially if you are the kind of writer that leaves a lot highlighted text saying things like “insert reference, add link, double-check this is true”. Setting aside a full day or more to pure writing is great and it can be really efficient, but it’s also important to remember your writing projects and to try making the time to work on them in between all our other daily tasks.

We all thought the writing retreat was great, we wrote a lot, and we’ve said we should have writing retreats more often, so here’s to a happy and productive 2018 and more writing!

By Gergana

Arctic Change 2017 – Wednesday round-up


Another day of snow in Quebec City, another day of Arctic conferencing at Arctic Change 2017. Another packed plenary, hearing from Larry Hinzman on how we can and must adapt as not only the climate changes, but many other factors as well. We heard the fascinating, and certainly complex debate around the ownership and use of the northwest passage. Finally, we stood together to celebrate the work of Dr. Michel Allard, winner of this year’s Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research.

Team Shrub was well represented in the first session of Monitoring, Modeling and Predicting Arctic Biodiversity. Isla made a convincing case for detection of various components of vegetation change and their attribution to warming. Jeff then demonstrated the scaling issues we have when going from ground-based to satellite observations – impressing the audience with drone footage at the same time.

In this session we also heard from Paul Grogan of Queens University with a fascinating talk on birch expansion driven by a decrease in herbivory rather than by increased temperatures. Last up was Pascale Ropars (who first taught me the art of digging shrubs up many years ago), presenting a whole-food-web approach to predicting biodiversity change in Northern Québec.

After a delicious lunch (the food here!) which peaked with three helpings of profiteroles, it was time to go back to the second part of the Arctic Biodiversity session. Katriina O’Kane showed us how species move individually rather than as a community during succession at a glacier’s edge. Cory Wallace and Jennifer Baltzer from the Forest Ecology Research Group at Wilfrid-Laurier also took us on a tour of alder shrubs, topographic variation, and the factors controlling black spruce abundance.

Finally, eyes starting to itch and brains hurting from a day packed full of new knowledge, we heard from Caroline Coch on the role of small catchments for dissolved organic carbon inputs, and from Dustin Whalen on how drones are being used to map coastal erosion in the Arctic.

Haydn, Jakob and myself were still on duty by our posters in the evening. Between lively scientific discussions and running into old friends, the two hours flew by and our team set out hungrily in search of poutine. Unfortunately, my insider knowledge of Québec didn’t extend to knowing Ashton’s opening hours, so the door shut in our disappointed faces. We had to turn to (highly satisfying) falafels eaten on the street in -10 degrees C weather to get back to the conference centre in time for the first screening of Breaking Ice, a documentary that took us on the Canadian research ice-breaker the Amundsen.


I suspect Haydn, Jakob, Isla and Andy are in various stages of anticipation for their Thursday talks. Good luck all!

By Sandra

Arctic Change 2017 – Tuesday round-up: Blizzards, Biodiversity and Beluga Snot

The second day of Arctic Change 2017 hit town like the snow storm raging outside the Centre des congrès de Québec. Today the main hall was full, packed right to the edges, as we were welcomed by ArcticNet, Laval University and the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

After the welcome and official opening, Raleigh Seamster from Google Earth, and Joel Heath and Lucassie Arragutainaq from ArcticEider/SIKU demonstrated the power of remote sensing and its potential for community based environmental monitoring in the Arctic. The speakers clearly had to battle the inquisitiveness of researchers as hundreds reached straight for their laptops and phones to immediately check out these awesome tools! Louis Frontier, scientific director of ArcticNet, followed with a reminder that cutting carbon emissions remains paramount for tackling all issues around Climate Change. Anyone not from Norway or Paraguay might have left feeling a little bruised, but despite the world being only 5% of the way towards its renewable goals, there was still a sense of optimism. And indeed, the plenary closed with optimism in full swing with a touching short film on the Schools on Board project of the Canadian research icebreaker Amundsen and the potential future leaders of Arctic policy change.

Refreshed after heaps of pastries and coffee, the conference headed into the first topical sessions. Alas, we can barely scratch the surface of the vast array of talks on offer here. Justine Hudson method’s of assessing Hudson’s Bay’s beluga whale stress level using snot samples was much discussed on twitter and made an engaging talk with videos of curious belugas “donating” their snot to science. Memorable also were Benjamin Lange’s findings that multiyear sea-ice supports much more algae life than first year ice. We on Team Shrub appreciated hearing about Zoe Panchen’s research on tundra plant phenology showing that microclimate matters more than latitude or elevation for flowering in the Canadian High Arctic.  And Team Shrub was also a fan of Esther Frei’s work on plant trait change over time and her beautiful figures!  We also really liked pondering future fox housing using Florence Poulin’s new index of Arctic fox den vulnerability.

The scientific part of the day concluded with the first poster session, with legions of well designed posters (every conference should have such a great reward for poster awesomeness!) and an astonishing amount of great science. Ruminating in front of our fake log fire we remember Jeffery Saarela and Paul Sokoloff’s enthusiastic poster presentation – working with the Canadian’s Museum of Nature, they are sampling plants all across the Arctic islands to improve our understanding of high Arctic biodiversity. Also sticking out was Sarah Shakil’s poster on chemical composition of slump discharge on the Peal Plateau in the Yukon and Christine Anderson’s beautiful poster about her exciting proposed PhD research on shorebirds in a changing Arctic.

Now we are all tired from a long day of sciencing, talking at our posters, braving the still raging blizzard and running away from snow-spitting Quebecois snow ploughs on our way home to the apartment. After two exciting days, we’re looking forward the great Arctic science to come and take up Allen Pope’s challenge to kick him off the top of the twitter leader board. So keep your twitter ears pricked and see you tomorrow!


by Jakob and Team Shrub

p.s. You can also catch up here on what’s happening across the pond at the the Ecology Across Borders conference in Ghent.

Arctic Change 2017: Monday round-up

It is snowing in London. Roll on the inevitable British winter – the blocked roads, the cancelled flights, the closed schools and the queues at petrol stations. Outside our «charmant appartement» here in Québec City we look out on snow piling high on church towers, listen to the sound of crunching boots and catch our breath in the -15°C air. Winter may have arrived in La Belle Province, but the Arctic Change 2017 conference is in full swing.

We arrived this morning in the huge Centre des congrès de Québec to the chatter of Arctic researchers of all ages – from the long stockings and tartan skirts of schoolgirls to the suitcase wheeling suits of professors. Everything about a conference was soon underway. Bonding over velcro in the poster hall. Unexpected feedback in the plenary. A sudden lack of technical support at the critical moment. In a room full of excited scientists, none of it really matters.

Today was the ‘Student Day’, a chance to warm up after the main event kicks off tomorrow. The highlight for us by far was the student elevator pitches – one slide and one minute to sum up a research project. We were blown away by the quality and range of work underway across the Arctic, and the quality and range of talks! Ukelele songs and caribou cams, teabags and drones, Facebook, fishing, birdsong, belugas…the list goes on.

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One minute, one slide

The rest of the day unfolded in a series of meetings, workshops and panel discussions. We enjoyed learning about international collaboration, data management and policy making, among others. Most of all, we enjoyed the chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones (still looking for two months at sea anyone??), before retiring to the Arctic-themed pub quiz to end the day.

It’s now 10pm and the snow is still falling. Bring on tomorrow.


Enjoying snowy Québec!

If you want to meet any of Team Shrub or find out about our work, you can catch us at:


MON06 – I. Monitoring, Modeling and Predicting Arctic Biodiversity
(Wednesday, 10.30-12.00, Room 203)

10.45 – Isla Myers-Smith: Attribution of ecological change to warming across the tundra biome – a summary of recent data syntheses
11.15 – Jeff Kerby: Meso-scale Arctic ecology: Leveraging the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network (HiLDEN) to address longstanding knowledge gaps

MON05 – I. Arctic Remote Sensing: Improving Arctic Monitoring of Sea Ice, Snow, Glaciers and Permafrost for Wildlife Preservation
(Thursday, 10.30-12.00, Room 302 B)
10.45 – Jakob Assmann: Drone imagery reveals scale mismatch between satellite-observed tundra greenness and on-the-ground vegetation monitoring

ECO13. Arctic Tundra and Vegetation
(Thursday, 10.30-12.00, Room 303 A)
10.45 – Haydn Thomas: Changes in plant functional traits across a warming tundra biome: Linking vegetation change to ecosystem function

MON05 – II. Arctic Remote Sensing: Improving Arctic Monitoring of Sea Ice, Snow, Glaciers and Permafrost for Wildlife Preservation
(Thursday, 13.30-15.00, Room 302 B)
14.30 – Andrew Cunliffe: Monitoring Arctic changes with drones

ECO14 – II. Arctic Wildlife
(Thursday, 13.30-15.00, Room 301 B)
16.15 – Cameron Eckert: Identifying key wildlife movement corridors on Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park

INT03. Arctic Cooperation in Action – the UK-Canada Arctic Partnership, 2017 Bursaries Programme: Aims, Results and Next steps
(Thursday, 15.30-17.00, Room 303 A)
16.45 – Isla Myers-Smith: Quantifying the drivers of rapid tundra vegetation change – increased productivity and permafrost thaw


156 – Sandra Angers-Blondin: Reading between the rings: How does competition affect the climate sensitivity of shrub growth?

158 – Haydn Thomas: Decomposition patterns across the tundra biome: Litter substrate explains more than environment.

159 – Jakob Assmann: Snow-melt and temperatures – but not sea ice – explain variation in tundra spring plant phenology on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island

5 Steps to Becoming an Awesome Field Assistant

Going into a field season for the first time can be a bit overwhelming. You’re about to spend a couple of months in a strange land, doing strange tasks with very strange people. You might feel like you’ve suddenly forgotten everything about science, or that you’re definitely not up to walking up that mountain. Do you have the right gear? The right attitude? Are you even the right person for the job?

To help you out, here are Izzy’s top five tips that will help you have the best and most productive field season.

1. Be prepared to work weird hours

In most cases you will be living on the same schedule as your supervisor. That means work will keep going until you’re finished. From late night trips to the lab or waking up to shrub talk, you never know when you might be needed. At first in can be overwhelming, but it’s a great way to engage with the material and experience. You also end up feeling really hardcore and proud of yourself after a long day!

2. Take advantage of every opportunity (sleep when you’re home)

Living in a new place with new people will definitely bring a lot of opportunities to take advantage of. Whether it be going on a hike or taking a tour of the nearby ice-fields, you can always find something new to try. I think saying yes to everything (within reason) is the best way to go about your field season. You will end up meeting a lot of new people and seeing a lot of new things along the way. I have to say, some key memories of my field season are things I have said yes to: going to a lecture with Charley Krebs and seeing my first grizzly bear on the way, and going on a tour of the ice-fields – absolutely amazing. Just say yes!

Related to that, you are only in this new place for a few months out of, quite possibly, your whole life. There’s no reason to go to bed while the northern lights are out – you can sleep when you’re home!


Feeling on top of the world (and a little bit cold)

3. Do things before you’re told & be confident in working independently

Often times the supervisor you’re working with has countless things to do that need to be delegated. If you really pay attention and engage with the tasks at hand, you’ll be able to help them along the way by clearing up any bits that may be left to do. Furthermore, being able to work independently will greatly improve your confidence way beyond the field. I know that for me, I was not a very confident worker and would often seek clarification more often than needed. Being in an isolated location might mean you don’t have the luxury of always asking for help, so you end up having to trust what you think is right. This is definitely frightening at first, but even after the field, I’ve noticed that I trust my knowledge a lot more. Being able to help organise tasks on your own is a great skill to work on and you’ll also be removing a bit of your mentor’s stress!


Izzy Rich (the common garden bed. Also the field assistant.)

4. Challenge yourself

Going to the field was undoubtedly one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. I kept telling people “wow who knew I was such a city kid,” but it turns out I am. Being in a remote location, where sometimes I only saw one other person, was extremely shocking to me. It was an incredible learning experience to learn to be alone so intensely. Taking part in long hikes was another shock. Some people may say the hikes I did were not very long, but for me, I was genuinely climbing a mountain in reality and my mind. The emotional barrier of trying such drastically new things was hard to break, but everything you learn and the way you develop as a person when you challenge yourself is something that you will carry for the rest of your life.


Scaling literal and metaphorical mountains

5. Take a lot of pictures

Take a lot of pictures so it doesn’t all feel like a dream!

By Izzy

Team Shrub goes to Curiosity Forest at Explorathon 2017

At the end of September (this semester has flown by, hasn’t it?), Team Shrub took part in the Explorathon – a weekend celebrating research in Scotland in the wider context of  European Researchers’ Night. We transplanted our shrub knowledge from the Arctic to the Curiosity Forest, where the public got to experience our research from different angles: from above and inside out!



Alongside us in this inviting, cheerful woodland were our friends from GeoSciences showing fossils, molecular biologists encouraging you to take a “cell-fie” photograph of your own epithelial cells, and several other groups from the physical and social sciences showcasing their research in interactive ways that got young (and not-so-young) participants drawing, making blueprints, controlling lasers with their voices, and much more.

Our stall took people through the journey we make collecting and processing data to investigate vegetation change in the Arctic. Participants flew highly successful missions on our drone simulator, then were shown what the pictures our drones take look like. They were then invited to have a much closer look at the shrubs we see as dots on our aerial pictures, by handling wood samples and looking at thin sections through the microscope.


Before leaving, children were asked to find the ring corresponding to their date of birth on a giant print-out of a shrub stem section. Sadly I am too old to fit on this shrub!


This wee Arctic shrub was much older than most of our visitors!

Thanks to Lisa and the Explorathon Team for having us!

By Sandra


Team Shrub’s Tips: CVs & Job Applications

Last week we all applied for our own job.

Well, sort of.


In preparation for this week’s lab meeting on CVs and job applications, Isla asked us all to apply for the position of Team Shrub lab manager. The job is unfortunately fictional for all of you getting excited out there, but here is what we received in our inbox on Tuesday morning.


Data/Field Manager position on Team Shrub

Team Shrub at the University of Edinburgh, a dynamic and friendly research group focussing on global change ecology, is hiring a lab and field data manager.  We are looking for someone with data management skills including experience programming in R and using statistics such as hierarchical modelling.  Experience in version control using GitHub would be an asset.  The position will also involve fieldwork in the Canadian Arctic.  Some outdoor experience is a requirement and any background leading or providing logistics to expeditions would be an asset.  We are looking for applicants familiar with computers, scientific data and ecological fieldwork.  Diverse applicants from a range of backgrounds are encouraged to apply.  To apply please bring a 1-page CV to the next lab meeting to be discussed by the job application committee.  We will be in touch with all qualified applicants to set up an interview.  Application deadline: Friday, 3 November 2017 at 2pm.  The job will be full time at a pay scale commensurate with the experience of the recruited applicant.


And so we arrived, CV’s at the ready and slightly nervous, ready to discuss exactly what it takes to get your dream job. Here is a summary of our thoughts trying to encompass jobs from an undergraduate summer position, PhD or postdoc through to an academic job.

Some topics we didn’t necessarily all agree on – particularly with respect to the increasing importance of online content. But overall the general message applies across the board: you won’t get a job if you don’t apply, and putting in some advanced thought and work will put you in a much better position to submit a strong application when your dream job does come along.

Team Shrub’s Top Tips

1) The CV

The CV is the way that you communicate your skillsets and experience concisely to the rest of the world.  It can be a very important document making the difference for whether you get considered for a job or not.  Try to do your best to sell yourself in your CV.

  • Keep your CV/job applications as up to date as you can – because you never know when your dream job might be advertised.  You will never get a job or funding if you don’t apply, but try to put your “best foot forward” when you do submit those applications.  Sometimes it is better to not apply for everything and target your time towards the jobs you really want.
  • Update and restructure your CV/job application for every job that you apply for. Think about the key skills or set of experience that the job is looking for.  Make sure your application is tailored to those skills and the specific job.  Think about who is doing the hiring.  And use the actual words in the job ad in your application.  Make it clear that you have done your research and how specifically you are a good fit for the job.
  • When comparing CVs, we thought that the ones with the skills sets really clearly indicated on the first page were most successful for a field assistant/lab assistant type job.  This might be less important for an academic job when publications and funding might be most important.  Tailor the content of a CV and the structure and formatting to each job you apply for making sure that the most important stuff always comes at the top and on the first page.
  • You can format how you like but think about choosing an easy to read but nice font – feel free to choose something that you think does a good job of representing you!  Try to use headings, lines and formatting to cluster the text into different sections.  Use whitespace to your advantage – make sure you have a nice concise summary of your qualifications, but that you also don’t overwhelm your reader.  People mostly skim CVs so you want the important stuff to really stand out!
  • You should go back as far as seems relevant for the position you are applying for.  Try to tailor the content, but when in doubt it is probably better to include something rather than leave it out.  When you are in your undergrad, include your high school marks and awards.  When you are a PhD student include your undergrad marks and awards.  When you are a postdoc start to focus more on your PhD achievements and beyond.
  • Include the information that makes you look more impressive or will make you stand out from the other applicants.  You can include particularly high marks on courses or assignments that are relevant for the job you are applying for.  You don’t need to include everything, but you do need to sell yourself.  Never lie in a job application, but do be selective and edit your information to present the best version of you!
  • Keep your CV to the appropriate length: 1-2 pages for most jobs, but can be much longer for academic CVs depending on your career stage.
  • Don’t forget to include your name, email, address and other relevant contact information really clearly.  Your age/birth date, citizenships, whether you have a drivers license or other personal information could be appropriate depending on the job/application.
  • We thought that it is probably a good idea to include your referees on your CV, as this makes things more concrete and makes it look like you are confident about your referees’ assessment of you.
  • Do consider including some other interests or less conventional elements to your experience.  Are you an award-winning photographer?  Do you write a well-read blog?  Do you volunteer for a charitable organization?  If so include that information towards the end of your CV as that might make your application unique and allow you to stand out from the other applicants with similar skill sets to you.
  • Think about the file names for your CV and all other job application documents.  Make sure it is something that identifies you and the date and perhaps the job as well.  Submit all documents as PDFs, as the formatting of Word files can get messed up on different computers.  Try to combine multiple documents in one application package.  Include page numbers with the total pages (e.g., page 2 of 15) and put your name, the date, and other info in the header of each page, so that if anything goes missing it is easy to put your application back together again.

Shadow CVs: We all agreed that it’s very useful to look at other people’s CVs, especially as an undergraduate and early career researcher, to get an idea of what to include and what formatting to use for different types of job applications. Looking at other people’s achievements, though, can sometimes get you down, as we inevitably compare ourselves to others. A few years back, people started talking about shadow CVs as a way to show that people do fail sometimes, and that’s okay. A shadow CV is a record of all the positions you didn’t get, your unsuccessful grant applications, etc. Tenured scientists shared their shadow CVs online as a way to show early career people that failure is part of the process. Some have even went as far as suggesting we should have rejection goals – one can ask, if we are never getting rejected, are we aiming high enough?

An example of Haydn’s CV, applying to be on Team Shrub


2) The Cover Letter

The cover letter allows you to express why you are applying, why you are passionate about the job, and why you are the best candidate out there.

  • Always submit a CV and cover letter unless you are explicitly asked not to, even for applications for PhDs or Postdocs.  It probably won’t hurt your application, and it might really help!
  • Write your cover letter on letter head or format it professionally.  Include your contact information, the date and an electronic signature.
  • Always address your cover letter in a gender neutral and appropriate way.  Try to address it to the specific person who is doing the hiring.  If in doubt, use something generic like “To whom it may concern:” or “Dear Colleagues,”.
  • Start the letter off with a very short generic paragraph explaining what you are applying for.  Indicate that there are 3 (or more) reasons why you are highly qualified for the position.
  • Have a series of short paragraphs with clear numbered headings on each of those reasons (e.g., “Track record of high-impact publications, Evidence of funding success, Commitment to teaching and mentorship” or “Experience with statistical programming, Three field seasons conducting ecological research, Evidence of leadership and independent working”, etc.).  You don’t have to follow this structure, but it is an effective way to structure a cover letter that can be easily skimmed for key content.
  • Finish with a short paragraph indicating your enthusiasm for the position and your willingness to answer any questions.

3) The online profile

A lot of the information about you that an employer, award committee or future colleague will access is now online. From LinkedIn, Google Scholar, Twitter, Facebook, and more we all have some sort of online profile now. Make sure you are in control of that online profile somewhat, putting out the content that you want people to associate with you.

  • Google yourself. Your web presence might surprise you. Make sure to put private browsing on, so that your search engine is not pre-trained to find content about you. Some people are more Googleable than others because their names are more unique or they have a larger online profile. Think about what content you want to be linked with your name and whether your different websites or social media sites do justice to you.  It is up to you how visible you want to be online with your own website and social media such as twitter.  Over time slowly work towards making your online presence stronger to sell your skills and career niche better.
  • A shout out to LinkedIn: we discussed LinkedIn and how it is a must for much of the business world, but isn’t used much in academia.  Therefore, it is probably worth maintaining a LinkedIn page if you don’t know what career you will end up in or just to be on the safe side.

4) The website

Websites are critical if you are aiming for an academic career and are thinking of applying for fellowships or academic positions.  We had some discussion about it, but some Team Shrub members feel that websites are now replacing the business card as the way people can find out your contact information and a bit about your job profile.  Alternatively, for careers with large companies, you might want to keep your online presence quite minimal.  If you are thinking about doing any independent consulting, starting your own business, getting involved in a start up, or going into communication in some form, your online presence is what will or will not get you the job/contract. Make sure to think about what you are putting on your website and online in general.  Many (if not most) people will google you when hiring, they are looking for content that will impress them about you, but might also be influenced negatively by what they see online.

The Academic website is becoming a more and more important part of your profile as a researcher.  I think that you should be looking to start to build your online content during your PhD, but potentially before.  Think about how you are branding yourself and your research interests. Make sure to format your website in an eye catching and not too busy manner.  Use beautiful photographs to illustrate the text.  Keep things simple but relatively comprehensive.  A website is always a work in progress.  It doesn’t have to be perfect when you first post it. Build your branding, profile and online content over time.

  • About page/team page: When building an academic website include a page about you with your professional contact information and a brief description about your research interests.  Include a photo that is recognisably you, but make sure it isn’t too large or overwhelming or too small and unidentifiable.  People will start to make assumptions about you from looking at your website, so you want to leave the right impression.  Include any other members of your research team if appropriate.  You want your website to appropriately reflect your career stage and to demonstrate the trajectory that you are on.  For example, if you co-supervise dissertation or PhD students, put that on your webpage.
  • Research: Include a page about your research interests – update this overtime to reflect your current interests.  Think about how you want to pitch your own research.  A lot of academic websites start with the statement “I am generally interested in a broad range of topics in ecology (and evolution).” This is a throw away statement.  If you weren’t generally interested, then you probably shouldn’t be in the field.  Start with a statement that is specific to you and sets you apart from other ecologists.  Don’t include too much text here and do include pictures, conceptual diagrams, etc.  Make it easy for someone skimming your webpage to know what your research is all about.  Indicate your funding somewhere, particularly if you applied for that funding yourself.
  • Publications: Include a page of your publications – try to provide some additional content here if you can about your papers and provide a link to your Google Scholar and ResearcherID/Orchid accounts, etc.  Try to make it easy for someone visiting your website to get to know what your research is all about and also your publication stats, particularly if they are impressive for your career stage. Consider making in prep or submitted manuscripts available via your website using pre-print archives such as BioRxiv (https://www.biorxiv.org/).
  • Code/Data: In the world of open science, you will get bonus points for making your code and data publically available. I am always looking for evidence that people are participating in open science best practices when assessing job applications or research grants.  Use your website to share this information with the world, though it is best to host your code in approved repositories (e.g., http://datadryad.org/) and your code in a version control platform such as GitHub (https://github.com/).
  • Teaching/Outreach/Media/Social Media: Include a page or more than one about your outreach, engagement and teaching interests.  These are becoming more and more important parts of the academic profile.  If this is an area you have invested time in, make sure you do justice to that on your website, as it could set you apart from the other applicants for a job.
  • Links/Networks: Consider providing links to relevant other groups that you are associated with – try and illustrate your professional network.  Link to your collaborators or large research projects that you are associated with.  Put your own track record into a larger academic context.
  • Other stuff: Consider including other stuff on your academic website that isn’t strictly academic.  If you do photography, if you make films, if you do art or music this can feature on your professional website if it contributes to your academic/professional profile.

5) Making contact

If appropriate, get in touch with the person doing the hiring in advance to ask about the position.  Set up a Skype call if appropriate to introduce yourself or meet in person for a quick chat.  Show your enthusiasm and demonstrate that you have thought carefully about the position and how you might fit into the group/business/organisation.  Always get in touch via email before applying for PhD positions or postdocs that you are well qualified for – this will put you at a major advantage and most academics are expecting some sort of contact in advance of the actual application.

Think about that first email contact and make sure you demonstrate your specific interests in the position, but keep things brief and to the point for the first contact.  Expect with busy people that you might not hear back right away.  Feel free to contact them once again if you hear nothing after about a week, but if you still don’t hear back, perhaps this is not the job for you.  Think about other ways to network with potential employers – like talking to people at conferences, meeting with the seminar speaker, getting in touch with lab members in the group, etc..  People are more likely to hire people they have met before or have some sort of established connection.


In summary, it is never too soon to start thinking about your academic or job profile and trying to put together that dream job application. There is still some debate out there about how best to sell yourself in our increasingly online world, but many things such as how to format your CV haven’t really changed much over time.  If you have put some thought into your job application in advance, you are in a much better position to apply for that dream job when it comes along!

Oh, and we all got the job.

By Team Shrub compiled by Isla Myers-Smith and Haydn Thomas