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.

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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.

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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.

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Team Shrub strike out across the Highlands.

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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?

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

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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!

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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