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PhD in a pandemic: from wading through ponds to wading through large datasets | Ali North

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

This writing was adapted from a ‘student perspectives’ initially written for the Summer 2020 World Congress Herpetology newsletter. The World Congress of Herpetology promotes research, education and conservation in herpetology by connecting individuals, organisations and societies. You can learn more and check out their most recent newsletter here.

In mid-March I remember sitting at a lab bench frantically pipetting. I had a thousand Eppendorf’s left to fill with ethanol before preparations for the first field season of my PhD were complete. My van was packed, brimming with funnel traps, bamboo canes, collapsible ‘field furniture’ and enough belongings to see me through the next few months. I remember feeling uncertain about the situation at the time - COVID-19 had been the main topic of discussion in the office for a while now - but I tentatively continued to prepare my equipment. Government permits, ethical approval and risk assessments had been given the go-ahead, my new accommodation was sorted, and the landlord was expecting me in Wales the next day.

Smooth and alpine newts captured at the study site during a field recce in 2019. The alpine newt has a distinctive orange, spotless belly [featured left]. Bottle traps are a useful way of monitoring newts [photographed right].

My intended destination was a network of ponds scattered amongst grazed fields and small land holdings in rural Wales, UK. Here, native palmate newts Lissotriton helveticus could be found alongside apparent high numbers of smooth Lissotriton vulgaris and alpine newts Ichthyosaura alpestris, both of which were non-native to the area. Alpine newts are found naturally across mainland Europe, but a large number of wild breeding populations have now been reported across the UK. The native range of smooth newts spreads into Wales but they are not thought to occur naturally in the study region. Anecdotal reports have highlighted potential impacts of non-native newts on our native amphibians, but empirical evidence is limited. Invasive species are one of the main drivers of amphibian extinction worldwide; an understanding of the ecology & impact of introduced species is important for categorising invasiveness and for informing management, policy and public awareness campaigns. My first year of surveys would utilise skeletochronology (a method of newt aging from a tiny clip of a toe tip) and morphometric data to look at the phenotypes and demography associated with invaded vs non-invaded ponds, and to see if I could identify the leading edge(s) of invasion. 

As I sat at the lab bench filling the last of my Eppendorf’s, my supervisor was making phone calls across the university. The government had increased the threat level for COVID-19 across the UK and only essential work and travel was now permitted. The next few months started to unravel as I learnt that the university was closing and had now issued a ban on all field work both overseas and in the UK. The seriousness of the issue was hitting full force as I headed home to unpack my van. Although fully understanding of the decision, I was still worried about the impact this would have on my research – newts are seasonal breeders and a missed breeding season meant a whole year lost for data collection. As the severity of the situation unfolded in the following weeks, I quickly came to terms with these concerns, and was increasingly grateful for my health and the health of my friends, family and colleagues.

With more time to reflect, read and reshuffle my research plans, my supervisors have helped me shape an avenue of research that I can pursue from home. I am now delving into the realms of ecological niche and species distribution modelling and am utilising some very large environmental datasets. Like many, lockdown brought less than ideal home working environments and prominent dips in productivity. I was checking the news constantly, developing random new hobbies and the urge to grab some fresh air from a house with no garden only grew stronger.  I definitely didn't expect to be going from wading through ponds to wading through large datasets and code scripts, but this year has definitely forced me to try and embrace change and dive into new challenges. Surely that's what a PhD is all about, right?


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