Northern Lights: Team Shrub Hosts Real Scientists

Real Scientists is diving into the fascinating world of northern ecosystems with Team Shrub! That’s right — we have THREE scientists on deck this week! Team Shrub (@TeamShrub) is the lab of Dr Isla Myers-Smith (@IslaHMS), Chancellor’s Fellow in the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh. She’s joined by PhD students Gergana Daskalova (@gndaskalova) and Elise Gallois (@e_gallois). They talked to real scientists about their life and work so far:

Welcome to Real Scientists! How did you get started in science?
Isla Myers-Smith: My parents were ecologists, so you could argue that ecology is the family business. My parents have always been my most important scientific mentors. Even though my own career has led me in new directions, whether it was counting tent caterpillars or finding sparrow nests, my parents provided the foundation and inspiration for my own scientific career.

Dr Isla Myers-Smith

Gergana Daskalova: Way back in sixth grade, a friend of mine said she saw a woodpecker over the weekend. I got intrigued and read a bit about woodpeckers, went to visit my grandpa in the countryside hoping to spot one, and then kept returning to the village for the birds, the nature and the garden. In ninth grade looking through a guide of uni degrees, I stopped at E — for Ecology — and didn’t look any further. I liked learning more about the natural world and many of the things which science can combine — writing, discovery, math, data, fieldwork. I didn’t start my degree thinking “I want to be a scientist”, but along the way, I fell in love with the thrill, challenge and excitement of science. Over the years, I have found that in ecology, I can combine many of my passions — science, writing both academically and creatively, photography, outreach, teaching, mentorship, data science, web design and so on. As someone with many passions, it’s exciting to have found the thing that lets me combine most of them in my day to day life.

How did you arrive (figuratively and literally) in the Arctic?
IM-S: My love of the Arctic was first inspired by a family trip to the Yukon and time spent on the tundra when I lived in Alaska. There is something magical about the lands beyond the treeline that has always captured my imagination. Being up North and watching sometimes dramatic change play out before my eyes has captured my scientific curiosity. In my research, I want to figure out how tundra ecosystems are changing as the climate warms so that we can better predict the future of our planet.

Elise Gallois: I love identifying and solving problems, and I also love getting outside and exploring the world — becoming a field ecologist just made sense. I ended up in Arctic ecology because the Arctic is so vulnerable and rapidly changing and the tundra is such a unique and under-studied ecosystem. I really wanted to be at the forefront of this research.

What does your work involve, and where does it take you?
IM-S: The research group that I lead is called Team Shrub. We measure plants growing in long-term plots, sample shrub stems to count growth rings and fly drones taking images across tundra landscapes to compare with satellite records.

My research takes me north to the Arctic each summer and sits me in front of the computer most of the rest of the year. For me, the most fun parts of being a scientist are collaboration, getting out in the field experiencing change first hand and analysing data to reveal the results of scientific questions that have been burning in my mind for years.

GD: I am a global change ecologist — my work focuses on how the variety of life on Earth — the planet’s biodiversity — is being altered by land-use change, climate change, land abandonment and other types of environmental shifts. In my work, I harness the power of the recorded observations of hundreds of scientists and volunteers to find the answer to the question — how does global change influence biodiversity? From forest cover change around the world to climate warming in the Arctic and more, I am studying how the world’s ecosystems and the millions of species they support are changing over time.

EG: I research tundra ecosystem change across microclimates and spatial scales, and my current research projects orbit the themes of belowground plant growth, reconstructing past ecological change and investigating the abiotic drivers of plant growth and reproduction across the Arctic.

PhD student Elisa Gallois

What keeps you motivated and what do you want the public to know about your work?
IM-S: The Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the planet and dramatic changes are already reshaping the northern extremes of life on Earth. Increasing tundra vegetation, permafrost thaw and altered carbon cycling could create climate feedbacks that warm the planet as a whole. My team’s research is focused on capturing the change as it happens and explaining why we are observing the changes that we see to inform future projections. From understanding why a tundra plant flowers when it does to what the greening seen from space means on the ground — our research is providing insights into one of the most understudied places on the planet. One thing that does inspire me is working with local people and youth. For me, being a scientist is not about hanging out in the Ivory Tower, it is about anyone applying knowledge and curiosity to the world around them. Many of my important collaborators are not academics, but they have a huge amount of both knowledge and curiosity and are real scientists too.

GD: We live in a time of rapid ecological changes. These changes matter because each species has a function — a role in a complex web of life. As biodiversity change progresses around the world, not only are we hearing different songs in forests, seeing different species on our walks, but the whole way in which ecosystems work is being altered. And changes in ecosystems bring along shifts in the services that they provide to human societies — clean air and water, soil to grow our food, tranquil places to ease our worries and more. Knowing how and why biodiversity varies over time and around the world can help us understand what these changes mean not just for the natural world, but for our world too.

PhD student Gergana Daskalova

EG: The Arctic is warming at a much faster rate than the global average, and this warming is triggering potentially huge landscape changes including widespread accelerated plant growth. While this sounds like a ‘good news story’, these changes have the potential to further alter the climate system even more as a greener Arctic will absorb more of the sun’s heat. I think the public should care about these processes because what happens in the Arctic does not necessarily stay in the Arctic, and also because the tundra ecosystem is really cool and misunderstood!

What do you get up to when you’re not in the lab or in the field?
IM-S: I play folk music. Out in the pubs of Edinburgh and up in the Arctic jamming with collaborators and friends. Once I told a newspaper reporter from the Daily News Miner in Fairbanks, Alaska that I played music because sometimes “biology is boring”. Of course that was the quote that made it into the newspaper article. Biology is NOT boring! And a surprising number of scientists have music as a hobby!

GD: I lead an initiative called Coding Club with the goal of helping people develop data science and quantitative skills. All of our tutorials are free on our website and we recently started an online course. I like making macrames — knots with thin rope to create hanging baskets and other types of art or practical items. Gardening and growing food, for me, I feel is beyond a hobby, it’s a big part of who I am. Recently I’ve been enjoying making videos on both science topics like how the Arctic is changing with warming, but also about my garden. I have been fortunate to visit special places around the world like the Arctic and experience many fieldwork adventures, some of which I have shared on my website .

EG: I love writing and performing stand up comedy! I’ve recently started performing ‘science comedy’ — stand up sets about my research. I believe that communication is a core skill for all scientists, and that where possible, scientists have a duty to disseminate their research to multiple audiences in order to educate, inform decision making, and inspire change — especially within fields as pressing and as pervasive as climate warming and global ecosystem change. As such, I dedicate time to pursuing different forms and media of outreach.

Finally, what does a perfect day off look like?
IM-S: For me, science is an integral part of my life. One type of ideal day is up in the Arctic doing fieldwork. Ideally, my day doesn’t start too early — I am not a morning person. During the day, I would be out on the tundra collecting new data while watching wildlife such as belugas swimming by. In the evening, we would relax by sharing a meal, playing some music and then maybe the day would end with watching a beautiful sunset-sunrise in the land of the midnight sun.

GD: Right now I am living in an old house with an overgrown garden in a small village, so my ideal day off would be a mix of gardening, planting new vegetable, fruit or decorative plants, fixing old things, going for a bike ride around the village and taking some photos of birds, plants and whatever else is around as the golden light of the late evening spills over the fields. Maybe with a nap in the sunshine sometime during the day and some time to write. There aren’t many people coming to villages these days, but it’d be nice if some of my friends or family come over on said ideal day off as well to share the garden harvests and chat as we go through garden tasks. On the flipside, an alternative ideal day off would be somewhere I haven’t been before, learning something new. So in sum, I like the two extremes of being right in, and right outside, of my comfort zone.

EG: Outside of lockdown? — A long rambling stroll to and from the beach, pub in the evening.
Quarantine day off? — A jog, followed by learning a new skill and baking cakes.

Team Shrub, welcome to Real Scientists!

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