Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Research 101 - It's a Long Process

Research at its core is simple. Be it physics, engineering, anthropology or wildlife ecology you have a question or an idea about the world and you test to see if it holds any water. Regardless of what question you ask, there is always lots of stumbling around as you try to figure out the answer. As a graduate student, a big part of my job is doing research and based on many interactions I've had most people don't know what research actually means and I've found this ambiguity around 'research' creates confusion within the birding and conservation communities. Questions which often sound simple (why is X species declining?) aren't simple to answer. Complex answers take time and the lag between question and answer frustrates many because they want to have answers now, especially when those answers could help us make better decisions. I appreciate the frustration and hope by understanding how research work we can understand each other better.

One thing which might strike you as strange about the coming paragraphs is I'm going to say 'we' a lot. "We are interested in X..." "We did X, Y and Z." I use the word 'we' because my project, like almost every research project, is a multiple-person affair. Research is complicated stuff and often takes the expertise and the manpower of many people. So I refer to 'we' because it's not just me who does 'my' research.

Currently we're working on trying to figure out what kind of wetland management provides the best habitat for both rails and waterfowl. To answer what sounds like a simple applied question required a lot of leg work before I was even hired as a graduate student.

Before I arrived in Arkansas in Fall 2012 my adviser applied for and received a grant to support my project. Having a grant receive funding was no small task. The grant writing process can be tedious and time consuming. He had to write a detailed proposal, and talk to people at a variety of state and federal offices to receives letters stating if the project was funded they would agree to work with us. He submitted the grant to a federal agency and it was funded, which is pretty remarkable in our current funding environment. Even with all the effort put into writing a grant application the funding rate is low (in some cases less then 10%! but often less then 50%). So I consider myself very lucky to be able to work on a project I like so much. Once the grant was funded he had to hire a graduate student (me) and then we actually started the research.

Just collecting the data can take a long time. (Leslie Brinkman
Every fall I am in the field collecting data, that leaves the rest of my year to take classes, analyze my data, and plan for next year. Classes aren't a direct part of my research, but they are all tied into my education and helping me become a better scientist. Classes also aren't what is slowing down the answers to our questions. Part of the reason it is taking so long for us to understand what is going on is because natural process have variation between years.

In 2012, Missouri, where I do my research, was under a heavy drought. In 2013 it wasn't. Yearly variation impacts the birds and as a result we need to collect data across several years to understand the variation. I'll have another field season in 2014 and 2015. By collecting data across those four years we hope to be able to understand the 'average' habitat use of these species. A longer-term study would give us better results, and there are some fantastic long term studies out there but for a PhD project it's not realistic.

Once I have completed all my field work we have to analyze the data. Long gone are the days when we can just watch a birds behavior and write about it like a letter home to mom. Statistical analysis can take anywhere from weeks to years depending on the question and the size of the data set. My analysis should be on the shorter end of that spectrum.

Once we have results we're responsible for writing them up and spreading the word about what we've learned. Science is always building off the work of those who have come before us. If we don't tell others what we've done someone else might do it again, which wastes time and precious money. As fun as it is surveying rails at night on ATVs it would be more useful to go out and answer the next question. We spread the word by writing up our results in peer-reviewed journals and presenting them at conferences. We also write up pieces for other outlets and do presentations for organizations.

Peer-reviewed publications are the currency of science. Without them its hard to make it far in your research career. These publications are not easy things to make happen. They have to be carefully written and rewritten. Often they have several authors, which can make the writing process challenging. Once the paper is complete it goes through a long process of peer-review by other scientists. Depending on what those scientists (our peers) have to say about our paper the journal might decide not to publish it. They may also come back to us with changes that they want made to the paper. If we get rejected we get feedback on why they are rejecting it, and then we can work to fix those problems and submit it to a different journal.

Between forming ideas, writing grants, collecting data, crunching numbers and writing the whole process often takes at least 2 years, if not more. Even the research of a masters student, who is in school for two years might take an additional two to get their research out into the journals. Remarkable isn't it?

The process is long and odd at times but it is important. Better understanding the world around us lets us better manage our limited natural resources and develop better tools to monitor the world around us.

Don't let the long time between question and answer discourage you from asking the questions, that is often the most exciting part!! So take a closer look at the world around you and see what questions it raises, then throw them my way. If I don't know an answer, I'll see if I can find someone that does or find someone who might want to try and find the answer.

- Auriel