A week in the life of an ecology PhD student

Ecology
One of Bridget's favourite things about studying ecology at uni is the variety of work she gets to do.

Keen to create a career from your love of STEM + animals? Becoming an ecologist could be for you

Studying animal science at university won’t necessarily limit you to a career as a vet! There are loads of tertiary options that offer up the versatility to work in fields as diverse as conservation, agriculture and marine biology.

Ecology is one of these exciting fields – and with our global ecosystems threatened by climate change, they’re more in demand than ever!

Ecologists examine the relationships between animals and their environment, to understand things like extinction risk or the impact of commercial industries on local wildlife. Here, we chat to The University of Tasmania ecologist PhD student Bridget White – about what her average day on the job involves.

Meet an ecology student

“Hi! My name is Bridget and I’m a Kiwi ex-pat studying freshwater ecology in Tasmania! Freshwater ecology is the science of the life of freshwater bodies, and how that life interacts with each-other and its environment. I’m especially interested in the bugs that live in rivers — macroinvertebrates — and how they recover from stressors like flow reduction. In fact, I am so interested in these river bugs that I moved to Tasmania especially to do a PhD on them!”

An invertebrate from one of Bridget’s samples – Ecnomus tilliyardi.

Monday

“Monday this week is a laboratory day! One of my big jobs at the moment is to identify water bugs from some samples I took last year. I preserve bugs in ethanol out in the field and bring them back to the lab to look at them under the microscope, because it is hard to tell them apart with the naked eye. Often they are a millimetre or less in size – but they have some amazing patterns!

“I tip a sample into a sorting tray, and sort the bugs into vague categories, before using a key to figure out what species each one is. One of my favourites today is Ecnomus tilliyardi- a free living caddis fly with a beautiful pattern on its head capsule!”

Tuesday

“Tomorrow I’m planning to go out into the field to take my experiment down. Four months ago, I built mini dams in four different streams just outside of Hobart- two in more agricultural landscapes, and two in forested sites.

“I left the dams in for a month and kept an eye on what the bugs, leaves, cotton and algae were doing in each stream, and then removed them! Since then I have continued to keep an eye on each site, going out monthly to take samples to try and see how long it takes for the bugs, and for the things that bugs do, to bounce back.

“This is super important because rivers play lots of different roles – from bringing us water and providing us food, through to being important for our spiritual and physical wellbeing. Activities that remove water affect a river’s ability to do those things, and through bugs I’m seeing how water removal interacts with other land-use changes to alter the things that rivers do.

“It’s July now, and the rivers are getting high, so it’s time to take my equipment out. I need to do some paperwork, and then I check all my gear – my waders, net, quadrat, water quality metres and jars of ethanol.

“My quadrat is a clear Perspex box that I used to make sure each sample is collected from the same area – but it’s had a rough few months and it’s falling apart! I use some duct-tape to hold it together. Duct tape really is an ecologist’s best friend!”

Wednesday

“I get to uni early and load up the ute. It’s an hour and a half to drive to my site, which is at the bottom of a farm. The driving gets a bit spicy on the farm tracks- we had a lot of rain recently, and the tracks are very washed out! Luckily I did a four-wheel drive course as part of my field training, and we bounce and slide our way down the tracks, and across a turnip field to the river.

“It’s pretty chilly and I’m stoked to put my thick neoprene waders on. We also wear these in 30 degree heat, and that can get rather sweaty!

Bridget enjoys a drive through a turnip field.

“We carry our equipment down, and I grab the duct-taped quadrat and the net so we can collect some bug samples. We remove little bags of leaves, bits of cotton, and tiles covered in algae from the stream bed to measure later, and then start to pull the experiment down.

“There’s a big rock wall we built separating two halves of the stream, so I set to work demolishing that, while my field assistant pulls out star pickets. It doesn’t take too long, and we find some fascinating animals – a short finned eel, a fishing spider, big dragonfly larvae!

“We load the car up, have a well earned lunch break, and head back to uni to get started on one of the weirder tasks – washing leaves.

“We weigh the leaves before and after being in the stream to see how much they decompose, however lots of algae and dirt get caught up on the leaves- so we have to clean them off! We then pop the leaves in a low-temperature oven to dry. It’s a big day- but a good one!”

Thursday

“It’s a lab morning! The leaves will take a couple of days to dry, so I get back to sorting my bugs under the microscope. The afternoon is different though – I have some teaching work.

“A common job PhD students get is demonstrating for classes, and I am teaching statistics! It’s almost time for their group projects to be done, so I’m helping to fix their code (we use a coding program called R to do statistics) and explain what’s going on. It’s a full-on afternoon, but very rewarding!

“After teaching, I go to work on some of my own statistics – figuring out how bug diversity changes with agricultural change. It can be a little frustrating, but it is so rewarding when some results pop out!”

Bridget and her team left a cotton strip in a stream for a month!

Friday

“Time to weigh the leaves! I use a balance and very carefully weigh and pack up all my leaves, recording the information as I go. I then take the cotton trips we removed from the stream, and clamp them into a machine called a tensiometer, which measures the breaking force of material. To see how much the cotton decomposed, we see at what force the cotton breaks. It’s quite a fun job!

“Today is also Crib Night – an annual Biological Sciences event, where we play a card game called Cribbage as a giant tournament. It’s disco themed – lots of staff and students alike start appearing in bright colours, flared pants, sequins, and one is even on roller skates! Of course, I pull on a sequinned top and gold pants and go join the fun.

“One of the things I like best about university is the community – we all look ridiculous, but we look ridiculous together!”

Such a cool field of study, right? If you want to learn more about ecology and working with animals head here.

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STEM Contributor

Author: STEM Contributor

This article was written by a STEM Contributor for Careers with STEM. To learn more, please visit our contact page.

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