Tribulations of a young scientist

Lately I’ve been participating at a few scientific events within the framework of my master’s degree and it has been a very busy and stimulating couple of months. Approaching the end of my journey in my supervisor’s lab, the pressure to produce enduring results is increasing steadily: I’ll need notably to write one or two paper(s) to publish. So in the meanwhile, I had to share with the scientific community my results so far and their meaning in the grand scheme of things.

Since I’ve not yet introduced properly my work on this blog, let’s get rid of that now. Doing a master’s degree in the biological science department of Université de Montréal (Québec, Canada), I’m interested in the invasive species systems where populations of wild animals or plants are experiencing a great range expansion across the territory, colonizing new habitats. More specifically, I’m studying the impact of range expansion on the population genetic structure of the Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae).

USDA

Source: USDA

For those of you who are unaware of this little beetle, it’s a small insect (about the size of a grain of rice) native of pine forests of western North America (from British Columbia to north of Mexico). Found in great numbers during an outbreak, these beetles mass attack several pine tree species and drill holes in their bark, laying eggs underneath it. The larvae then develop while eating the phloem (the living tissue of the tree): this herbivorism along with the introduction of pathogen fungi species rapidly kill the host tree. When there’s millions of these beetles across the landscape, the forest stands swiftly turn from green to red.

DJ_Huber

Source: USDA

Historically, the Canadian populations of the mountain pine beetle have been secluded by the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia and have been part of a natural equilibrium of forest regeneration. However, since the beginning of the current outbreak (early 2000s), populations have undergone a massive range expansion, crossing the mountain barrier to Alberta and heading northward to the Canadian territories and Alaska.

pathway

Present and historic distributions of mountain pine beetle and pine species. Dotted arrows represent potential expansion.

Several agents may be in cause: climate changes allowing warmer winters and higher survivability of the beetles, forest industry’s logging methods homogenizing the stands properties, upper atmospheric winds transporting beetles kilometers away, etc. Of course, we can’t tell for sure what’s behind this new behavior. One hypothesis researchers attempt to verify is the possibility of an evolutionary process granting beetles the sufficient tools to continuously expand their range through novel habitats and novel tree hosts. Unfortunately, current statistical methods aimed to answer those kind of questions perform poorly on populations experiencing a massive range expansion. My humble task in this story is to identify the conditions where those statistical methods can’t be trusted and when it is important to analyse genetic data with more caution.

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So going back to my recent scientific “twists and turns”, here’s an overview of the meetings I have been attending.

2016 US-IALE Annual Meeting in Asheville, NC

USIALE

The International Association of Landscape Ecology (IALE) is a huge association of academic and governmental researchers mostly working in USA and all working on various questions related to landscape ecology and spatial analyses. For example, I assisted to presentations sessions about spatial connectivity in fragmented landscapes, on natural disturbances such as forest fires, on landscape genetics… Even on thermodynamics! This great variety of subjects vulgarized by more than 200 participants made my first week of April a stimulating one. I had the opportunity to chat with specialists in my field of research: people I’ve been reading papers since two years now! On top of that, I gave a presentation on the first morning and it went very well, my English coming out better than I would expect. I received interesting questions and commentaries, and some of the attendees seemed quite involved with my project.

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Great place to have a taste of the vast selection of local beers!

And of course, I can’t skip saying two or three things about the meeting’s location. Leaving a cold and harsh Montréal, I was quite surprised and glad to step out of the plane in a sunny and springlike Asheville. Trees were blossoming and temperature was perfectly cozy. My colleagues and I had a great time each night picking which of the hundreds of bars and micro-breweries we would try and wandering around the atypical streets of this booming city nested in the forest and mountains. Although being quite busy all week, we had the chance before leaving to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and have a peak at this vast wild landscape.

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Snowy and windy at the top!

10th Annual Conference of the CEF

Back in Montréal, I attended a short meeting of two days at Université de Québec à Montréal (UQAM), reuniting a wide range of people working in the forest industry in Québec: among which many researchers, students and forest engineers. The Conference was good, but a bit far from my personal work interests for me to be really engaged during the talks. In spite of this, my presentation went really well again and I had a good time interacting with other students and my lab colleagues.

TRIA-Net Annual General Meeting

Shortly after the previous conference, I had to take a flight to Edmonton (Alberta) where I had to present along with a colleague a scientific poster. This meeting regroups a network of Canadian researchers trying to figure out together what we could do about that mountain pine beetle situation in Canada. It was my second presence to this meeting and it’s always great to see again all those interesting and competent persons working every day directly with this insect. I didn’t had the chance to explore Edmonton, but the University of Alberta campus and its surroundings sure are much nicer than our own campus at Université de Montréal.

P1100602

Source: TRIA-Net, University of Alberta

FCM Summer School

I had to cut short my participation at the TRIA-Net meeting to go to a summer school a bit north of Montréal, after taking a red-eye flight from Edmonton. This formation is offered by the Forest Complexity Modelling program who financed my researches last year. The one week formation happened this year at the Station de Biologie des Laurentides, a research facility owned by my university in a wild setting, not far from Montréal.

MCF

Source: Virginie Angers, UQAM

Arriving on Wednesday, I was a bit groggy after the night flight but I soon recovered and was able to take part in discussions with other students attending the course. Through the rest of the week, we had good presentations from researchers on various topics, mostly about the modelling of forests ecosystems. My colleague and I quite enjoyed the spot,that we know very well by now, although there were lots of black flies.

Paul

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