Travel Time!

Packing up and moving house is always a chore, it’s also always a bit sad – but it’s a different kind of sadness that’s not easy to explain, perhaps more a reflection on the past year and the people I’ve met. But it’s the best excuse to do some cleaning and re-purposing of things I don’t need. So really, I actually appreciate it.

So I’ll be headed off first to a friend’s wedding and then finally to Fiji to (hopefully) get back to my fieldwork. I say hopefully since I am still waiting for my visa to be reapproved. BUT I need to throw a big shout out though to Sarah Pene and Siteri Tikoca who so graciously agreed to help me lodge my permit with the Immigration Department. Actually this research wouldn’t be possible without a whole slew of people supporting me every day and backing up my research. This won’t be the post where I list everyone though, but I will post at some point.

So back to packing up… People often ask me, how can you afford to travel, or what do you do with all your stuff, and you must miss your family, or… yeah, no that’s actually it. Answer is, as a PhD student, and especially one living alone, you are traveling because of your research and because you love your job and the people you work with, not necessarily because you have personal resources to do so. You don’t typically have as much ‘stuff’ as maybe your peers have accumulated, again out of lack of finances and because generally it gets given away every year or so (or my amazing friends and mentors offer to store some it for me). And yes, of course I miss my family and friends, they are often the only ones who keep me going, but I make trips to see them whenever I can and make sure that I don’t miss any important life events (like weddings!). So in truth, these are often not really questions that cross my mind. The real questions that cross my mind as I get ready to leave are:

What can I present back data-wise to the people I have been working with that will be interesting and useful for them?

Are the communities able to receive me when I come back (i.e. have there been any recent natural disasters that are effecting communities)

Have I fulfilled all my legal obligations and sent in all the reports to the Ministries that support my work?

Have I said goodbye and thank you to my friends and family here!?

So this week will consist of packing and giving away my stuff, next two weeks will be family and friends time, and then off to Fiji for more work AND catching up with friends and family there.

Last, as a very quick aside, some of you may have noticed the eruptions happening on Big Island (Hawaiʻi Island). If you can please take a look at ways you can help the Hawaiʻi residents and community. My friend and labmate who lives on Big Island recommends the Food Basket for East Hawaiʻi.

Preparing for fieldwork in Fiji

I thought I'd take a break from posting about my fieldwork in Hawaiʻi and give a little bit of information about what it takes to prepare for my research in Fiji. But before I go on, I should give a bit of (read very limited) background on the country of Fiji as well.

 

Home to around 900,000 people, Fiji is composed of atleast 300 islands, not all inhabited. As the hub of the South Pacific, Fiji's population is also extremely diverse, with people coming from all across the Pacific to work, study, and find refruge (for example from environmental/climate change and destruction). There are three primary and official languages spoken in Fiji, the standardized indigenous Fijian language (na vosa vaka Viti), Fiji-Hindi, and English. 

The history of European contact is extensive, varied, and deeply tied to the language situation today. While I won't delve into it extensively here, the British are responcible primarily for the introduction of the English language, as well as indirectly responcible for the use of Hindi today. After Fiji was ceded to the United Kingdom by the (then) Chief of Fiji, Ratu Cakobau, the British began building a major sugar industry in Fiji that remains to this day. However, the British also brought over indentured laborers from India to work on the sugar cane plantations at this time. Although the laborers had the option to return to India after their period of labor, most stayed in Fiji as they had already built families, communities, and had access to land, things that would not be available to them in India or possible for them to return to India with. Because of this, Hindi, which later developed into a special Fiji-Hindi, is now heavily spoken in Fiji, especially in city/town centers and in agricultural areas such as Nadi.

 Main road in Nadi town, Fiji. Photo courtesy of FijiOne.

Main road in Nadi town, Fiji. Photo courtesy of FijiOne.

Preparing for your own project can be significantly more difficult than preparing for your fieldwork duties as part of another group's projects. As I start to get things together for my research in Fiji, I am reminded again of how much work it is to put together and execute fieldwork, especially when interdisciplinary, and even more so when it's in a foreign country.  

First on my list of things to do was to find another research assistant to help me in the field and for planning the trip. Last year I was extremely fortunate to have Mesulame Tora and Rosi Batibasaga help me in my first field season. These two were (are) invaluable and pivotal to the current success of the project, I am so grateful for their time and input (and again, read more about them here!).  

 Original team photo from 2014. Pictured from left to right: Mesulame Tora, Natalie Kurashima, Rachel Dacks, Shimona Quazi, Rosi Batibasaga, and Una Vuli. Photo credit: Rachel Dacks

Original team photo from 2014. Pictured from left to right: Mesulame Tora, Natalie Kurashima, Rachel Dacks, Shimona Quazi, Rosi Batibasaga, and Una Vuli. Photo credit: Rachel Dacks

With the same tone of gratitude, I am excited to announce that Una Vuli will be (re)joining the project for the 2018 field season. Una, like Mesu and Rosi, was a part of the project from the beginning in 2014, before I officially joined. I will be updating the People page in the coming months to reflect the new team member addition. 

With this critical step figured out, I now need to renew my research permit for Fiji. Research permits in Fiji are not given for more than 6 months at a time and only can be renewed twice – for a total of 18 months allowed in country. However, before even getting to this stage, a new researcher needs to get an approval letter to conduct their research from the Ministry of Education to submit to the Immigration with their visa application. And in order to get this letter, letters of approval for their research must also be obtained from the Permanent Secretaries of any of the ministries the Ministry of Education deems relevant to your research. In my case this was the Ministry of Health and Medical Services, the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Forests, and the Ministry of iTaukei Affairs, again the multitude of ministries involved in my research is a reflection of the interdisciplinary nature of the work.  

passport.png

With these letters of approval, and a support letter from the Ministry of Education that includes my additional field seasons, I will be submitting my research visa application soon and hopefully it is approved again.  

Once I reach Fiji, I will begin to liaise with the villages to organize when Una and I can travel and stay in each village. Una is critical to this as my Fijian language abilities are not strong enough to communicate formally with elders. I will also purchase all the necessary supplies for the field, which ranges from first-aid kit supplies to drinking water (to not exhaust local resources). Thankfully for this stage of the research, I do not need to purchase or transport the larger equipment used in the agroforest surveys.  

My plan is to spend about one week in each village and finish this stage of the field season by September. This will give me enough time to process some of the data, prepare for the final stage of the fieldwork, and complete my comprehensive exams (which I had to postpone).  

I am still in the re-planning stages at current, but the field season is soon approaching and other important tasks also need to be completed, such as preparing presentations for people in the villages, as well as in government and academia in Fiji. I look forward to updating you all on this progress as I check off the various boxes. But until then, happy April!

And now we add olives!

IMG_20180225_095449100_HDR.jpg

 

Okay, so they aren’t really olives, but they are in the Olive family, Oleacea. I’m referring to olopua, also known as Nestegis sandwicensis. This tree is a long-lived endemic species to Hawaii, sadly inedible, found in dry to mesic forests. So what does all that mean?

Well, a long lived tree is one that does just that – it lives a long time! Typically greater than 5 years. An endemic species is one that can only be found in a certain region or area. These plants (and animals) are often vulnerable to extinction because of their small range; however, olopua is currently not listed as threatened. These trees grow in dry forests, literally meaning forests with little annual rainfall, or mesic forests, which have moderate amounts of rainfall. Inedible of course meaning we can’t eat them :(

This is the second tree species we are adding to our experimental plots to study predation and germination, along with the lama. Strangely though, we can’t find any ripe fruit! It seems as though they are all being eaten by predators in the trees themselves before they become ripe and fall to the ground. Similar to an olive, you will know when the fruit is ripe when it turns purple/black. All the ones we find are still hard and green. (See picture above for image of the fruit, the darker one has begun to decompose, but its not ripe).

Our experiment requires that we use ripe whole fruit and ripe fruit that has had the pulp taken off. However, for weeks we have been waiting for ripe fruit to drop and it still hasn’t, so we decided to go ahead with the trial with the unripe fruits, but only setting up 50% of the plots.

IMG_20180225_123356503_BURST0012.jpg

Useful Tip!

Always make sure you are on the same page with everyone on the team! Otherwise you may have to re-set or re-do experiments. I accidentally covered the fruits with leaves in their plots when we set them out two weeks ago, which we weren’t supposed to do. We re-set them this weekend. Pictured here is the corrected plot setup.

This week we were lucky to have a few extra people joining us to remonitor and reset plots. This included my advisor, Dr. Ticktin, and her daughter. As well as my labmate, Georgia, and her husband, Gil.

In addition to setting out the plots, we also did a little more exploring. Here is a little collage of people and plants I took over the past two weeks. 

Follow-up of Fieldwork at Home

So here’s an update to the Hawaii research project I have been participating in.

We have been going back to the site to re-monitor the plots, checking to see if the fruit or seeds have been eaten by other animals, or if they have actually germinated and are starting their next life cycle, or if they have succumbed to some other fate.

This trip we were also accompanied by Tressa Hoppe, an undergraduate research assistant working in our lab. Tressa has been helping to set-up and monitor these plots, as well as set up some germination experiments to assess germination in a controlled environment – meaning in an environment where we can keep as many factors as controlled as possible (i.e. amount of water, sunlight, soil type).

 Zoe Hastings giving us our field instructions. 

Zoe Hastings giving us our field instructions. 

 Tressa Hoppe preparing her notebook for data collection.

Tressa Hoppe preparing her notebook for data collection.

The day started out by splitting into two teams. Zoe Hastings, who is leading the project with my advisor, Dr. Ticktin, went off by herself to monitor the plots, and Tressa and I set out together. We found some interesting results!

Many of the seeds, and even some of the fruit, had started to germinate. First off, germination just means that the seed, which is dormant, has started to develop a root and will soon be developing its first leaves – the arms and legs if you will. We didn’t see much germination occurring, but where we did see it, it was mostly in plots where the seed had been separated from the pulp of the whole fruit. We were excited to see a few instances though where this was not true, and some seeds still inside dried up old fruits, had also begun to germinate.

  Diospyros   sandwicensis seed germinating.

Diospyros sandwicensisseed germinating.

One unfortunate fate of the seeds, although interesting to us, is that some of them have succumbed to a mysterious blue mold, or we assume it is a mold. A very pretty color indeed, however, not such a great ending to the seeds we are trying to monitor as this renders them unviable (i.e. unable to germinate and grow up into a tree). We don’t know what it is yet, but we are going to send them over to some folks in the Plant and Environment Protection Sciences who graciously have helped us identify these types of things in the past.

 Infected seed.

Infected seed.

In order to try and see what kinds of critters may be eating our seeds, and since we can’t keep an eye on our plots all the time, we installed cameras at a few select places in the area that will take pictures every time there is a disturbance in the field of view. We haven’t analyzed these photos yet, but it will be exciting to see what we capture.

 Camera trap in place.

Camera trap in place.

Unfortunately, there is not much else to share in terms of exciting outdoor field work and activities. For now I am mostly studying for me comprehensive exams, trying to prepare for fieldwork in Fiji, and staying a healthy grad student. We are currently hiring new faculty at our Department though, and as a Graduate Student Representative, I am assisting in getting other graduate student feedback of the potential hires. Perhaps this will be the topic of my next blog post! Until then, J

Vanuatu, Two Years After Cyclone Pam

Happy New Year!

As promised, I am here to tell you a bit more about Vanuatu, and the amazing people I get to work with, and what I do there.

To get started, I want to give you a brief history about the country and where it is in the world. Vanuatu is a country of about 280,000 people and home to around 80 islands just to the West of Fiji in the South Pacific.

 

One might be surprised to know that Vanuatu has the highest concentration of languages per capita in the world. For those of you who were thinking I am mistaking this with Papua New Guinea, Papua New Guinea is actually the most diverse, but given its geographic size, it can’t claim the title of most linguistically dense. What this means though in Vanuatu is that in every village you go to, they will most likely have a distinct local language that is not used in a village only a few miles away. In addition, due to Vanuatu’s history as being jointly governed by the French and the British, many people also speak either French or English with some people speaking both. Beyond this even, Vanuatu has developed a local language that almost everyone speaks and is a combination of English, French and various local languages. This language is called Bislama and is fairly easy for an English speaking individual begin to understand, as the words are largely of English origin. In turn, the people of Vanuatu, Ni-Vanuatu, are often bi-, tri-, or quadrilingual, and sometimes speak more than this!

Much of what we know botanically about Vanuatu comes from the Northern most islands, however, the work I am a part of is focused in the Southern islands. Some of the communities we work in also speak French, and I don’t speak a lick of French. Thankfully, many of our team members do speak French or Bislama and there are a number of people in the communities that we work with who also speak English.

 Just a few team members from our recent trip.

Just a few team members from our recent trip.

The project is large and diverse, which is also an accurate description of our team. Composed of folks from Vanuatu’s Department of Forests and Cultural Center, the New York Botanical Garden, California State University, Swarthmore College, the South Pacific Regional Herbarium based in Fiji, and the University of Hawaii, together we are a team of students, professors, researchers, and professionals specializing (ethno)botany, mycology, linguistics, and ecology. Parts of the project focus on language documentation, especially of plants and other tools, and then also information about what plants are important for medicine, construction, ceremony, crafts, and other uses. The mycologists on the team focus both on macrofungi, or what we think of typically as ‘mushrooms’, and microfungi, which are microscopic fungi that can live in places like our soils or on plants. Others of us look at native forest biodiversity and recovery after major cyclone disturbance, cyclone Pam of 2015 being our example of disturbance.

 Members of team University of Hawai'i! Left to Right: Tom Ranker, Tamara Ticktin, Ashley McGuigan, Andre Boraks

Members of team University of Hawai'i! Left to Right: Tom Ranker, Tamara Ticktin, Ashley McGuigan, Andre Boraks

I work both on the documentation of plants important for health, specifically women’s reproductive health, and on how the forests are recovering after cyclone Pam. This December trip was focused on the native forest recovery part of the project and as such, I’ll talk about this work in this post, saving a description of my other work for another time.

So how do native forests recover after a major disturbance like a cyclone? Well, we don’t fully know. We can make educated guesses and hypothesize how they will recover based off of studies done in other parts of the world, such as in the Southeastern US, the Caribbean, and South America for example. However, these studies are less applicable to the South Pacific as these countries’ infrastructure systems are dramatically different, the types of plants and environmental conditions are not always comparable, and most especially, the cyclones themselves have been historically different in intensity and frequency. Furthermore, there are only a handful of studies in the South Pacific that have looked at how cyclones impact forests and their recovery, and even these have only looked at indirect cyclone impact. Our research represents the first study to my knowledge to assess what happens to forests after the direct impact of a large (category-5) cyclone.

Now, we have to have ‘before’ data in order to compare what happens ‘after’ the cyclone hits, right? We have to know how many trees there were, how tall and round they were, how much did their branches shade out the ground below, etc., in order to know how much changed based on measuring these things after the cyclone. One reason why these studies are few and far between – we just don’t know more than a few days ahead of time when and where a major cyclone is going to hit. And I sure am not going to run out in front of a storm to try and collect this data, even if there is a few days warning. Amazingly, this was data that was collected just prior to the cyclone, the last of which literally was collected just a day before Pam hit! This is also a good example of the dynamic (and sometimes dangerous) nature of fieldwork. Originally, the project aimed to document the biodiversity of the native forests in the Northern island of Tanna, but when the cyclone came, it presented a new opportunity to also assess how cyclones change biodiversity and the kinds of damage cyclones can inflict on various types of trees using these established sampling units called, transects.

transect.jpg

Before I became involved on the project, the team had set up 8 transects, with 8 10m x 10m plots to a transect, across Tanna in three different communities to record the biodiversity and size characteristics of the trees and other plants. They recorded how much of the sky was covered by foliage and shading out the ground below (canopy cover), as well as how much of the ground was covered by smaller plants (ground cover). When I entered the project, we decided to set up two additional 1m x 1m seedling and canopy cover photo subplots within each plot of the transect, placed randomly in the corners of these plots, to record how ground and canopy cover, and seedling diversity changed (see diagram above).

Seedling: when seeds and begin to grow, they are called seedlings as they emerge from the ground.

 Nancy and I taking a canopy cover photo in 2017. In 2015 her older sister, Nellie, helped me in the field.

Nancy and I taking a canopy cover photo in 2017. In 2015 her older sister, Nellie, helped me in the field.

With the help of people from the local communities and some of my other team members, we set up these subplots in each of the transects in November of 2015.In each subplot I recorded the species (or type) of seedling growing and how tall it was, and assigned it a number which I wrote on an aluminum tag and attached to each seedling using a metal twist-tie placed like a loose belt around the seedling’s stem. Often times many seedlings will sprout at once, however, they can be fragile and, competing for limited resources, many don’t survive. Because of the sheer density of seedling growth after the cyclone, we focused only on seedlings of woody plants, primarily trees. I also took photos of the canopy at this time using a hemispherical fish-eye lens. This bubble-like lens shape attached to the camera allows me to get a 180 degree view of the canopy above and assess how much light is allowed down to the ground for seedlings to use to grow.

 

 Laurance and Mary helping set up subplots in 2015

Laurance and Mary helping set up subplots in 2015

There were a lot of seedlings to tag in 2015! This was thanks to the increased light allowed in from the damage the cyclone had done to the canopy. However, by the time we returned this December 2017, the canopy had closed up considerably as new branches had formed and new leaf growth covered in the gaps formerly seen in the canopy from the wind damage. As you might expect, there was also a dramatic decrease in seedling density this past trip. Many seedlings had died, however, a few had made it and were now growing taller – on their way to becoming saplings, the next larger size class in tree development. I also took photos of the canopy again, noting how much less sun I could see coming in to the photos.

 Canopy cover photo from 2015. Much of the canopy, which consists of tree branches and leaves, is open, allowing sunlight to shine down to the ground below and help seedlings grow.

Canopy cover photo from 2015. Much of the canopy, which consists of tree branches and leaves, is open, allowing sunlight to shine down to the ground below and help seedlings grow.

As we begin the new year and the next semester, we will enter this data and an undergraduate student researcher will begin to analyze the differences in canopy cover between the two years. I will also begin preparing for my comprehensive exams, which involves loads of reading and eventually writing, to hopefully become ABD, or all but dissertation. More on that in the next post! 

Fieldwork at home!

The places I usually get to work are in Fiji and Vanuatu, but our lab, the Ticktin Ethnoecology and Conservation Lab, carries out many different kinds of research projects both individually and as part of Dr. Ticktin’s on-going collaborations right here at home. One of the projects my fellow lab mate, Zoe Hastings, is working on with Dr. Ticktin is a dispersal, predation, and germination study of the lama tree (Diospyros sandwicensis) as part of a larger, long-term study looking at the population dynamics of common mesic (moist) forest trees in Hawaii with the Board of Water Supply.

This past month, Zoe and another labmate, Reko Libby, drove across island to the leeward side to collect lama fruit in a protected valley, which aptly look like mini persimmons, their far away cousin, and set up plots to assess what happens to them over time.

P1070755.JPG

Some of this fruit was de-pulped, or the flesh taken off to expose only the seeds, while others were left whole. This was done to see if the fruit germinated more readily if it was left whole, or if some removal of the fruit was helpful to it. Next they placed the fruit or seeds either in cages, to keep rodents and birds out, or left them out in the open to record what kinds of insects and other animals interacted with them, if any. These scenarios are called treatments and are monitored over time. The four treatments being: whole fruit in a cage, whole fruit with no cage, de-pulped seed in a cage, and de-pulped seed with no cage. Each of these plots are spaced out at a set distance from each other and randomly assigned a treatment.

 

The following week began the fun part, observing what happens! Which I happily got to help with. The last two weekends of November I came along with the team to help remonitor the plots and record what kinds of activity had gone on since they set up the experiment.

P1070764.JPG

The first week, Zoe and I observed some exciting changes to the fruit and seeds. In some cases it looked like small rodents had nibbled at the seeds and fruit in the cage-less plots, and in others, ants and other insects had started to de-pulp the fruit as well.

This remonitoring will continue each week to look for additional predation and de-pulping, as well as germination of the seeds. However, I will have to take a break from assisting on this project for the next few weeks as I return to Vanuatu in December and will be continuing to work on a natural forest regeneration study post-cyclone Pam of March 2015. I’m looking forward to updating this blog after I return and sharing all about that project.

Funding Opportunities as a Grad Student

Hello and welcome to my blog! I am excited to begin sharing with you my research and some aspects of life as a PhD student.

Being my first blog post, and that it is most definitely “funding season” for those of you looking for funding, I wanted to share with you all a little about the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden, their Botany in Action Fellowship, and how I found out about this and other funding opportunities for graduate students.

First of all, Phipps Botanical Garden is one of the most beautiful gardens I have visited. I was extremely impressed with their attention to detail and the amount of thought that was obviously put into each of the exhibit’s designs. However, what was even more impressive was Phipps’ dedication to sustainability. The building where we spent the majority of our time during our workshop, the Center for Sustainable Landscapes building, is one of the greenest buildings in the world, generating all of its energy on site. To learn more about what all this entails, visit their webpage on the building and certifications by clicking the link above.

IMG_20170916_155458282.jpg

The reason of course that I had the opportunity to visit the gardens was through the Botany in Action Fellowship I was awarded to help fund my research and development as a researcher and science communicator. As a part of the grant requirements, each awardee keeps a blog of their research and other aspects related to being a PhD student. This is a venture I have wanted to start for a long time and I am extremely grateful that I was chosen to begin this with Phipps where I was able to learn more about engaging the public with my work. Not to mention all the wonderful students I met in the program, the original founders of the fellowship, and those who carry on its legacy today.  To follow other students' blogs, find those links on their profile pages here.

DSC_0265.JPG

So perhaps the most useful bit of knowledge for my fellow grad students, or grad students to be is, “how do I get funding?” The answer is not simple, but finding those opportunities is step number one and google-fuing is probably your best skill here. There is a lot of searching you have to do to find the kinds of grants, fellowships, scholarships, etc., that you qualify for and that you can use towards your research. And its important to keep in mind, all of these funding types mean something different! (Some have different requisites both prior-to and post award).

Some of the most well-known fully-funded fellowships include:

National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program
Ford Foundation Fellowship
Fulbright Fellowships for International Studies and the Fulbright-Hays Dissertation Fellowship
National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship

Some of the most well-known botany-related grants include:

Richard Evans Schultes Research Award
Botanical Society of America Graduate Student Research Award
The Garden Club of America Awards in Tropical Botany
The Explorers Club Grant

Of course there are many other opportunities, and not all funding calls fall nicely into one category or the other. Take the Botany in Action Fellowship for example, it is both a fellowship and a grant. Other places to look for funding include your institution, small clubs and local organizations, and within different societies you are a part of. Creativity is often key here but with a little time spent googling and talking with other students and professors in your field, you undoubtedly will amass a list far larger than the one I have presented to you today.