Amphibians and reptiles on the edge: An interview with intrepid PLOS ONE authors


Amphibians and reptiles are among the world’s most extraordinary and most threatened animals. In this post, we highlight work recently published in PLOS ONE by Rivas and colleagues, which probes the diversity of species in an understudied region at the northernmost extremity of South America. We spoke with the authors about their research and its broader context.

What was the motivation for your study? 

Initially, the study aimed to understand the composition of the reptiles and amphibians of a region in northeastern Venezuela, namely the Paria Peninsula and surrounding mountains. However, along the way, many other questions stared emerging concerning the composition and faunal relationships of the whole region, so we aimed to compare the herpetological composition of all the northernmost coastal mountains of South America, ranging from northeastern Colombia through Venezuela to the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago, totaling about 1000 km east to west.

 Map of northern South America showing locations of the sampling sites. pone.0246829

How did you get to the sampling locations? Were there any challenges with the fieldwork? 

We sampled in eastern Venezuela (Paria Peninsula), which had already been visited by some of us for about 20 years. We visited some locations in central and western Venezuela, and we had exhaustive literature records and museum revisions at our hands. Similarly, records from Trinidad and Tobago were available from three decades of field trips carried out by some of us as well as through the University of the West Indies and Glasgow University students and staff members. This study was only possible though decades of expeditions and fieldwork in the region by several of the authors of this paper. There were many challenges, especially in Venezuela, such as those related to transport, lack of fuel, increased travel costs, insecurity and remoteness of some of the sampling sites. Fortunately, safety was always supported by local agencies and communities in eastern Venezuela. In addition, funding was at the time lacking or limited for fieldwork in Venezuela and Trinidad, and travel expenses at times were privately funded by ourselves.

Could you briefly describe the key findings of your study and their importance? Were there any surprises? 

This is the first study to address the biogeographic patterns of any vertebrates in the region at this scale. We ultimately recorded a total of 294 native species distributed above 200 m in elevation along all the mountain systems. The biogeographic composition supports close species associations for both reptiles and amphibians within regions, such as western areas (northeastern Colombia and western Venezuela) versus eastern localities (eastern Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago). Our biogeographical findings support the geological history, with the whole region once being a mountain chain that connected all the way up to Tobago, and biogeographical patterns following a natural topographic disposition. However, when we compared species at high elevations, the arrangements were more unstable, with lower numbers of species shared between areas and a minimal association between areas. This suggests that faunal patterns at higher elevations represent more exclusive species which are less useful to assess biogeographic relationships in the region. Overall, the high diversity of reptile species found throughout the study area reflects their dispersal capability and the presence of habitat generalists when compared to the more restricted and ecologically constrained amphibians.

Vegetation in Venezuela’s northernmost montane coastal systems. pone.0246829

What are the main threats to species and ecosystems in the region? 

In northern Venezuela the habitat loss is mostly due to logging, illegal crops, and livestock, and to a lesser degree mining, particularly in lower and medium elevations in some mountains. In eastern Venezuela, the most threatened environments are the cloud forest, and it’s increasingly common to find local crops, even within protected areas, putting pressure on the very much depleted hydric resources of some areas. We have encountered small-scale crops at elevations of up to 1500 m. More worrisome is the fact that several illegal crops do not even belong to local villagers but to farmers from the lowland towns, which are increasingly looking for higher and fresher locations for their crops. Low altitude tropical cloud forests such as those found in the Paria Peninsula and in Trinidad are among the most vulnerable terrestrial ecosystems to climate change. Some cloud forests have exceptional low altitudinal ranges and require detailed species inventories, population assessments, and the establishment of new, well-run national parks to protect biodiversity. In addition the lack of scientific funding in the region is limiting the understanding of this biodiversity hotspot.

How can scientific research help us better understand and protect biodiversity in this region? 

This and previous studies undertaken by some co-authors are increasingly important to understand the importance of these ecosystems on a wider scale. These mountains can be viewed as the northeastern natural extension of the Andes chain, but due to their relatively low altitude, they have been undervalued in terms of their biodiversity and biogeographical relevance. In addition, surveys help establish species checklists and report on endemism in the region. Taxonomic studies based partly on phylogenetic analyses are key to assess the high rate of cryptic species in the region. Through species descriptions, understanding of population ranges and biogeographic barriers can help establish new areas that need protection. Furthermore, there seems to be little research on ecological studies at a broader scale in the region. In addition, little is known in this region compared to that of The Guianas or Brazil.

Future research should have an important conservation component, as well as the involvement of citizen research. Environmental education with a strong conservation focus must be a priority and be consistently delivered to local communities, which also applies to most Venezuelan national parks. Finally, ecotourism could help establish new sources of income in the region, although the political, economic and safety situation in Venezuela, and to a lesser degree in Trinidad, are obstacles to its development. An important contribution to the preservation of the national parks would be to finish the zoning rules and increase the expansion of some parks. New surveys and effective and consistent monitoring of the parks and other areas are urgently needed in Venezuela.

Some Trinidad amphibians and reptiles. pone.0246829

What is the importance of Open Access for your field of research and the regions where you work? 

Without Open Access this research would be visible to a limited audience, mostly within academic institutions in the developed world, and not to local policymakers and scientists.

 What should be the priorities for future research in this area? 

As mentioned earlier the understanding of species distributions and identification is key to understand if the national parks’ delimitations are correct and if new areas should be protected. Application of molecular techniques will be a priority as much local research is based on the more traditional sciences, and there seems to be a lack of capacity in molecular techniques in Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela. Universities should benefit from a new generation of researchers that are specialized in contemporary ecological, conservation and molecular techniques. Throughout the elaboration of this study, we had to compile a great amount of available literature on the region and it soon became apparent that most works from Venezuela were on average several decades old and some pioneering works in the region had no follow-ups since their publication. This is a reminder of the poor understanding of biodiversity in the region, in part due to the challenging socioeconomic circumstances.  

Reference

Rivas GA, Lasso-Alcalá OM, Rodríguez-Olarte D, De Freitas M, Murphy JC, Pizzigalli C, et al. (2021) Biogeographical patterns of amphibians and reptiles in the northernmost coastal montane complex of South America. PLoS ONE 16(3): e0246829. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0246829

Featured image:
El Tucuche, Trinidad- Jamie Males.

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From Collecting Sediment Cores in Iceland to Mentoring Students: The Busy Life of an Early Career Researcher


Have you ever wondered what life as an early career researcher entails?

From managing a lab group and mentoring PhD students, to applying for funding and leading intensive fieldwork campaigns, scientists in the early stages of their career do it all.

Here, we chat with Dr. Margit Simon from NORCE Climate and Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research and recent PLOS ONE author to find out more about her exciting work.

PLOS: Your recent work, published in PLOS ONE, investigated stable isotope data from a new marine core collected off of Iceland – how did using data with such a high temporal resolution (1-2 years) impact what we know about water mass changes?

MS: Marine sediment cores that have such high-resolution are still a quite rare finding globally. For that specific area, it was a new finding that the upper core section – the youngest sediment part – could resolve the historic time interval so well. Mostly, that is only possible with schlerochronological records, of which there are a few around Iceland actually. We found a good correspondence with the measured phosphate concentrations within the water column – a comparison only possible because we have such high temporal resolution. Stable carbon isotopes in planktonic foraminifera are influenced by a variety of factors and are normally not so easy to interpret. By constraining the influences on the carbon isotopes by comparing to modern measurements, we were able to detect an intermittent 30-year cycle over the entire time series length, that is likely reflecting the ocean response to atmospheric variability, presumably the East Atlantic Pattern. That was not known or found before in that area.

PLOS: Has your data highlighted changes in climate over the past 150 years? What impact have these changes had on ocean variability?

MS: What I was intrigued to see was the long-term trend in benthic δ18O, a proxy recording the water mass properties in the intermediate waters at that location. It suggests that Atlantic-derived waters are expanding their core within the water column, from the subsurface into deeper intermediate depths, towards the present day. That there is greater Atlantic-derived water mass influence in the surface waters offshore of NW Iceland over the past 150 years is well known by now. However, until now, we did not know that this process is also influencing the deeper realms in the water column contemporaneously. That was a new finding.

PLOS: What are some of the challenges of being an Early Career Researcher? Do you feel that these are mitigated by the specific opportunities for ECRs?

MS: Well, securing funding short-term and long-term for my position itself, but also for my research activities is challenging, as the field becomes more and more competitive. Basic research has to be very innovative and impactful to get funding these days. Hence, I am wondering how sustainable the system is over time. I would wish for some more basic funding security or baseline funding in the private research institute section in Norway.

Image credit: Margit Simon

PLOS: You’ve done fieldwork in a number of exciting locations – from Iceland all the way to Southern Africa. Do you have a favorite location? Were there any sampling campaigns that were particularly challenging?

MS: They were all very special and exciting. Despite the Greenland Ice sheet probably being the most ‘exotic’ one that I have been to, my favourite place remains Africa, or specifically South Africa. The most challenging sampling campaign was in Mozambique as part of a wider trip from Zambia to South Africa with the aim to collect modern day river sediments.

PLOS: Field work in many research areas has been delayed or postponed in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Were your fieldwork plans affected? And if so, how did you regroup?

MS: I was part of a marine sediment coring campaign offshore South Africa in the beginning of 2020 and retrospectively, I am very happy that we managed to do everything as planned. How little did we know then what was coming! Parallelly on land in South Africa, my project partners did field work, field experiments and excavated archaeological sites that had to be stopped due to COVID-19. This affected me in the sense that I could not get the samples I had hoped for, and we will need to postpone that to approximately Nov/Dec. of this year (2021). It is obviously still unclear if then we can operate again with a kind of normalcy.

PLOS: Now that you have PhD students of your own, is there a particular strategy you take in mentoring them? How do you prepare them for to be Early Career Researchers themselves?

MS: Well, I don’t have a rocket science strategy in place, but I think it is important to be there for them for questions, reviewing and to bounce ideas. I think nothing is worse than when you don´t have someone that you can frequently go to and ventilate ideas and perhaps also frustration. I think when you are in your PhD yourself you might underestimate the value of someone actually taking the time to read your work and give thoughtful feedback back. I think further down the line of your career path that becomes rarer and you think back on those times where your supervisor always gave comments.

PLOS: The University of Bergen and NORCE are hubs of scientific research – how has being in such a diverse group of expertise helped your own work? Do you find yourself collaborating with people in different fields from your own?

MS: Definitely. Before moving to Norway and becoming a part of the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, I worked in smaller groups that are more specialised in one field. That is, of course for your own work, very beneficial. However, I recognised that the centre here and the diverse groups and topics really offer new opportunities to merge and reach out and broaden your topic. I have very much benefited and used that platform for my science ever since.

PLOS: What new projects do you have on the horizon?

MS: As much as I am fascinated by the ocean and reconstructing its past variability on various timescales, I am excited about my new project ideas that aim to reveal past climate information from land or specifically from South Africa itself. What is new is that I target specifically archaeological cave sites where we can extract environmental information from the same layer that the material culture information comes from. Key behavioural innovations emerged among Homo sapiens in South Africa around 120 ka ago and the drivers of this development remains debated. One hypothesis is centred around climate changes.

PLOS: As you know, PLOS ONE is an open access journal, and is devoted to promoting open science. We would be curious to know your thoughts and opinions on open access and/or open data and the importance of these concepts for researchers, particularly early career scientists.

MS: I think both are extremely important especially for ECRs, for different reasons.

It might be rather difficult if you are an “unknown scientist” to get access to data if that is not stored at an open access source. That might of course also cost you more time and delay the activity you are working on, while a more known scientist might have asked the same question and might have gotten the data already the next day. Especially currently, during COVID-19 times, universities are conducting more and more data synthesis projects as e.g., master’s projects for students since laboratories are closed. Hence, it is of vital importance to have access without barriers to this. I think data storage facilities like PANGEA are crucial and I think the movement in the community in the last years to use these platforms more and more is great and should be pursued. In this respect, I also appreciate and used recently myself the opportunity to publish data sets only in peer-reviewed journals. It ensures good quality control on the data published but does not force one to interpret the data. Still, one can gain credit for the work. Importantly, data such as this is also available to the community that otherwise might have been hidden in a drawer.

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Author Interview: Sacha Gómez Moñivas on student learning despite COVID-19 confinement


Using prior academic years as a control group, Sacha Gómez Moñivas and a group of fellow teachers and researchers found that despite the confinement caused by COVID-19, the learning habits of students became more continuous and ultimately led to better scores during assessments. Their study “Influence of COVID-19 confinement on students’ performance in higher education” was one of the highest viewed PLOS publications of 2020 with over 150,000 views. Read our interview with Sacha about his team’s initial response to the surprising results, the importance of providing details to replicate a study and the difficulties in collecting data on student learning.

Would you say this study is outside the scope of your normal research? How did you get involved in this study and why do you believe this research is important?

Our main research line since 2015 is related to new learning methodologies. Within this topic, we study in detail distant learning, among others. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced most of the students stay at home and change their learning strategies, we were completely prepared for this scenario because, by that time, we had already developed different tools and methods of distance learning already applied in our subjects.

We were involved in this study by analyzing and comparing the huge amounts of data obtained in previous years in our pilot experiences applying distant learning with the new data obtained during the COVID-19 pandemic. We were following the same research line as before, but in a new scenario.

This research is important because it is related to the Susta​inable Development Goal 4 of UNESCO. More specifically, this research helps us understand the impact of COVID-19 in education and students’ capability to change their learning strategies. It is also important because COVID-19 pandemic has many specific factors that can interact with the previously detected relevant characteristics of distant learning. For example, does student motivation behave in the same way in the pandemic as in a traditional distance learning setting?

I want to send an optimistic message in this case. We have demonstrated that, even in this very difficult situation, students and teachers were able to adapt their strategies in the learning process successfully

Read Sacha’s article

Did you find the results to be generally surprising, or were they relatively in line with your expectations?

Some results were in line with our expectations since, ultimately, distant learning is distant learning. For example, the limited access to technology by the students is a problem that was well-known before. Of course, it also appeared in the COVID-19 confinement. The problems that appear when preparing assessment tools are indeed also present in the pandemic.

There are, however, other elements that appeared and were a huge surprise. For example, the improvement in students’ performance was unbelievable. We spent a lot of time trying to justify it with arguments related to fraudulent behaviors, such as cheating or copying in different forms. For that reason, we discarded many subjects where we considered that we could not fully exclude the possibility of cheating. After that, we still had three subjects where we could be sure that only confinement was related to the increase in students’ performance.

Your Results state that “the new learning methodology is the main reason for the change in students’ performance during the confinement.” How important is it for leadership bodies at institutions and schools to provide teachers with resources to properly implement new teaching practices adapted for less face-to-face interactions?

It is crucial. The first step for a good teaching practice is having a good communication between teachers and students. If that fails, everything fails. In distant learning, teachers should have good multimedia resources and connectivity, at least. If not, it does not matter the amount of material developed by the teacher or how good the teacher is when explaining a lesson. I have seen a lot of very good attempts of developing new and very well-organized online courses that failed at the very beginning due to not having the adequate resources.

I note that you opted to publish a preprint when you initially submitted this paper for review, and that you published your peer review history alongside your PLOS ONE publication. What led you to these decisions and how important is scientific transparency to you?

We believe that scientific advances must follow FATE principles: fairness, accountability, transparency and ethics. Transparency is, actually, a key factor in the scientific method itself. If a scientific result must be replicable, it should include all details about experimental procedures, materials, etc. Obviously, transparency is a must. In the case of scientific publications, the whole peer review history is very important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that the article followed a rigorous peer review process. Second, it gives valuable information about the questions raised by the reviewers and how they were answered by the authors, which could lead in additional criticism by the readers, which can be also valuable.

Do you think your study could be easily reproduced in other parts of the world by other researchers interested in using your methodologies, or were there specific pre-existing conditions that allowed for this study to take place? How helpful would it be to have data from classrooms in other parts of the world?

The bigger problem is getting data. There are many factors that must be considered. Because of potential cheating by the students when working at home, we had to discard 80% of our data to be sure that this did not influencing in the study. This is the first and maybe more important problem, but there are others. For example, researchers must also take into account the differences between countries in the sense that different countries faced the pandemic with varying levels of confinement. This is important because conclusions should be related to those conditions.

At the very beginning, when we did our study, not many groups had the opportunity to collect and analyze reliable data. Now, there are more and more very interesting studies from many different countries. Soon we will have enough data to get conclusions about the success of different strategies, which will be very helpful for planning distant learning at all levels in the future.

If the general public were to take one lesson from your study, what should that be?

I want to send an optimistic message in this case. We have demonstrated that, even in this very difficult situation, students and teachers were able to adapt their strategies in the learning process successfully. We are going through some very difficult times, but we have been able to adapt and we must have the courage and energy to continue fighting until we overcome this pandemic.

Thank you to Sacha and his research team for their important work and taking the time to answer these questions. Their work was founded by CRUE, CSIC and Banco Santander.

Citation

Gonzalez T, de la Rubia MA, Hincz KP, Comas-Lopez M, Subirats L, Fort S, et al. (2020) Influence of COVID-19 confinement on students’ performance in higher education. PLoS ONE 15(10): e0239490. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0239490

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International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2021


Today, 11 February, marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. To celebrate, we speak to some recent PLOS ONE authors about their research and their experiences as women in science. Our interviewees study very different aspects of agriculture and food security, but all their work contributes to the development of more efficient and sustainable food systems for the future.

Kirsten Ball (KB)- Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Environmental Science, University of Arizona, USA

Author of “High-throughput, image-based phenotyping reveals nutrient-dependent growth facilitation in a grass-legume mixture”

Amaia Albizua (AA)- Associate Professor, Department of Didactics & School Organization, University of the Basque Country, Spain

Author of “Social networks influence farming practices and agrarian sustainability”

Paula Rendón (PR)- PhD Student & Research Assistant, Institute of Physical Geography & Landscape Ecology, University of Hannover, Germany

Author of “Assessment of the relationships between agroecosystem condition and the ecosystem service soil erosion regulation in Northern Germany”

Inderjot Chahal (IC)- Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Environmental Sciences, University of Guelph, Canada

Author of “Cover crop and crop residue removal effects on temporal dynamics of soil carbon and nitrogen in a temperate, humid climate”

Laura Van Eerd (LVE)- Professor, School of Environmental Sciences, University of Guelph, Canada

Author of “Cover crop and crop residue removal effects on temporal dynamics of soil carbon and nitrogen in a temperate, humid climate”

Could you tell us a bit about your research interests and what attracted you to your field of study?

KB: My research is driven from a desire to understand the impacts of agricultural management on soil health, and to increase industry adoption of sustainable production practices. I very much take a plant-soil feedback approach to that goal; I think it is difficult to examine soil health and plant health without considering the interaction between the two.

AA: I am a multidisciplinary scientist studying terrestrial social-ecological systems mitigation and adaptation options to global change. I aim to answer complex sustainability questions such as land use planning accounting for optimizing ecosystem services and social wellbeing under human-driven and environmental crises. I have a special interest in the nexus between land use decision-making processes and the multi-scale connections of land and water governance and other socioeconomic factors.

MI: I have been particularly drawn to research focused on soil fertility and on how it influences crop quality. This is because I believe that soils greatly influence the nutritional quality of all produced food and hence our nutritional well-being. My research on cassava and my work experience on a nutrition project also got me interested in the food and nutrition security of subsistence farming communities in rural parts of Africa.

PR: I am interested in sustainability, resilience and human-nature relationships. Since a very young age, I started to show an interest in environmental issues. But it was later during my studies that I became more aware of the importance of nature in humankind’s survival. I came across the concepts of “ecosystem services” and “ecosystem condition”, and I have been studying them since then.

IC: I study the impacts of sustainable soil management practices on enhancing soil health, soil biogeochemistry (C and N cycling), and crop productivity while minimizing nutrient losses to the environment from vegetable and grain cropping systems. I always had a passion for agriculture, specifically for soil health and fertility. Over the years, I had the pleasure to work and learn from experts in sustainable agriculture, which significantly contributed in strengthening my interest and developing expertise in this area.

What were the key findings of your recent PLOS ONE paper? Why are they interesting and important?

KB: My study used high-throughput, image-based phenotyping (HTP) to distinguish growth patterns, detect facilitation and interpret variations in nutrient uptake in a model mixed-pasture system in response to factorial low and high nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) application. HTP has not previously been used to examine pasture species in mixture; it was a useful tool to quantify growth trait variation between contrasting species and to this end is highly useful in understanding nutrient-yield relationships in mixed pasture cultivations.

AA: We found that most farmers were aware of their co-production of nature Contribution to People (NCP) through their land management decisions. We also found that farmers’ awareness about NCP co-production and their land management decisions were correlated with the structure of the social networks among the farming community. Rural network analysis can be useful for understanding the network configuration of rural farming communities to improve rural policy development since it permits understanding interactions between awareness, land management decisions, and knowledge/advice sharing at the landscape level. Considering that those modern farmers’ perceptions and their management practices are significant factors for the creation of the advice network structure, we should incentive structures that make farmers more aware of their contribution to climate regulation to take a more active role within their networks.

MI: In the article, which reports on a research project that I really enjoyed developing and writing up, we showed that cyanogenic glucoside production in cassava is influenced by plant nutritional status, similar to crop yields and well-known crop quality characteristics like fruit colour and taste. Amongst many other things, the study managed to highlight the important role of plant nutritional status (and soil fertility) in producing cassava that is safe to consume for the millions of people that depend on it for their staple food.

PR: We wanted to analyse the relationship between ecosystem condition and services in a regional case study. For this, we used the indicators proposed by the Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services (MAES) group of the European Commission to assess the condition of agroecosystems, and compare them against the supply of the ecosystem service erosion control. We identified some correlations between the indicators but also some limitations in the framework, as some indicators cannot explain to what extent ecosystems can provide specific services. These results are interesting because they trigger further research to find better ways to integrate ecosystem condition and services. Additionally, they highlight the need to make temporal and spatially-explicit data available at national and regional scales, that provide more thorough information for policy and decision making.

IC: The key findings of our paper were (a) cover crop adoption in the medium-term (6-yrs) enhanced surface C and N storage in a horticultural cropping system, and (b) cover crop and crop residue retention had an integrative positive effect on increasing soil C and N fractions. This study advanced our understanding of the synergistic effect of cover crop and crop residue retention on the mechanism of soil C and N cycling and increasing soil health in the medium-term.

Photo by Andrea Candraja on Pixabay

What are you working on now?

KB: I am currently working at the University of Arizona on an NRCS arid soil health program for cropping systems. I am prioritizing expanding understanding of what constitutes a ‘healthy’ arid soil, paying particular attention to the interaction of soil organic matter with soil carbonates. If we can describe a soil as healthy, what does that look like for arid systems? Further, if there is an achievable goal for soil health in arid systems, how do we quantify it? I currently have a variety of field trials in cropping systems including forage cropping and viticulture.

AA: I am currently Associate Professor at the University of the Basque Country, but the classes I am performing are quite far from my expertise. The way the system works to get a place at the university here demands you have good research background but also teaching experience and I am now getting such experience. At the same time, I’m collaborating with a colleague at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in a meta-analysis to understand the effectiveness of interventions to adapt to climate change in developing countries.

MI: I recently developed a tool that can be used to assess a subsistence farming community’s vulnerability to cassava cyanide intoxication. The tool is a decision support tool that will help highlight the risk of cassava cyanide intoxication in communities, and will also guide the selection of interventions. Since I had only conducted a pilot study, I am currently planning to have the tool validated using a larger study population.

PR: I am working on a similar study to the one we published in PLOS ONE, but this time at the European scale. We are looking at the condition of agroecosystems and erosion control and the variations of the indicators and their relationships in environmental zones with similar climatic and topographic characteristics.

IC: I am currently working on quantifying soil health and understanding the mechanisms regulating soil C and N dynamics in sustainable cropping systems. I am particularly interested in cover crops, crop rotation, tillage, crop diversification, and fertilizer N management. The major goal of my research is to provide valuable information for developing resilient cropping systems.

What has your experience as a woman in science been like?

KB: I had three female supervisors/mentors throughout graduate school; that representation helped me to build the confidence I needed to know I could succeed. As an early career researcher, a conventional avenue of elevating your position in academia is to align yourself (either in project or manuscript collaboration) with highly established and successful researchers: often white men. Unfortunately, this behavior reinforces and amplifies the underrepresentation of women and BIPOC folk, particularly women of color in STEM. I actively seek non-traditional avenues to create research partners, instead creating respectful, mutual, and equitable working relationships that enhance my knowledge and progression while elevating my peers; namely women of color and early career, female researchers.

AA: My experience has been pretty good but sometimes I have had the feeling of not being heard in the way a man would be. I am very aware of the fact that women tend to hold lower positions, have a less active and visible voice in scientific congresses and in the media and sometimes even charge less (perhaps because we demand less) for the same work. For this reason, I participate in networks that give women visibility into science as well as programs to empower and encourage girls to be scientific. The experience of working previously in Montreal, at McGill University, with a woman as a supervisor and a laboratory group in which most of us were women has been very stimulating and has given me a lot of confidence.

MI: I must say that it is difficult to say whether the challenges I have faced in science have been due to me being a woman or due to me being seen as a younger, less experienced researcher. But both women and younger researchers come up with great ideas and must be given credit, as well as support.

PR: So far, I have had a good experience in science. I found many inspiring women working in my field that have done great work and contributed considerably to science. I have not felt any rejection linked to my background or gender; on the contrary, I feel supported and encouraged by my supervisors and colleagues.

LVE: Fortunately, for 99.2% of the time my gender is inconsequential, as it should be. I could tell you about experiences that would make you wince and would surprise many male scientists. Many people like to think that things are better for the next generation of women in science and that is likely be true, but in my experience sexist, inappropriate comments or micro-aggressions still persist. What has improved, in my opinion, is that many people are better at calling out these behaviours.

Photo by S. Hermann & F. Richter on Pixabay

Has Covid-19 affected your work?

KB: I actually started my postdoc at the UofA from my kitchen bench!! I am mostly meeting people via Zoom, which is lucky because I almost always have pyjama pants on! While I have been able to be very productive working from home (I don’t have any small children to worry about) the social isolation creates a lot of stress. I was lucky enough to fit in some fieldwork at the end of 2020 which should tide me over for a few more months. I also hope to be able to get home and see my family in Australia within the next year, I miss them more than ever at the moment!

AA: Motherhood and Covid-19 have arrived at once so I wouldn’t know how Covid-19 has affected me but motherhood. When you become a mother, it is a year in which producing is done at a high price (physical, mental and emotional). Thanks to my mother’s help I’ve managed to keep publishing and pushing my research but sometimes it’s been really hard. I believe that women scientists who want to be mothers need greater protection so that maternity years are not penalized when it comes to getting scholarships or finding jobs. The first few years, or at least the first year, the time a woman must dedicate to the baby cannot be comparable to that of a man even if we are given the same amount of parental leave.

MI: While writing a research proposal I came to realise that I could not easily design a research project that could be carried out in another country, because of the Covid-19 travel restrictions. Covid-19 has also made within-country movements a challenge; one has to carefully think before planning to conduct a research in a rural area, for fear of carrying the disease there. Drawing up research budgets has also been impossible, as prices keep changing due to the economic disruption.

PR: I have been able to work remotely, so I did not experience a strong interruption in my research. In my institute, we try to keep in touch through informal virtual coffee breaks and weekly meetings. However, I miss the exchange of ideas I had with my supervisor and colleagues in the office. An aspect that I somehow underestimated before is the importance of keeping good mental health. The uncertainty of the situation and having family and friends seriously ill with the virus have taken a toll on my mental health and productivity.

LVE: Yes, like many across the world, my research, teaching and extension work has been greatly impacted. Let me be clear, that I am extremely grateful to be healthy and be employed. I have noticed that the requests for presentations, video and audio interviews have more than doubled, not to mention the additional paperwork. Remote teaching is an onerous time commitment that really limits the opportunities for feedback. I worry about my students well-being and learning experience.  Mostly I miss the meaningful connections within my research team, as well as colleagues and industry partners.

What change do you hope to see in the future of agriculture and food systems?

KB: There needs to be a recognition of the intrinsic connection between plants and soil, and a more holistic management framework that accounts for both. Further, we (white folk) need to recognise how detrimental it is that Indigenous knowledge and motivations of local communities have historically been taken for granted by scientists with a lack of reciprocity in relationships. As agricultural researchers we need to deconstruct historical understanding of agricultural development that ignored native principles of land stewardship, and pledge to seek knowledge from- and develop research programs alongside- indigenous farmers and researchers that recognizes the primacy of native values if we are truly going to look after our productive lands.

AA: I would like to see local, seasonal and respectful production systems. I would like governments to manage markets to regulate global competition.

MI: I would like to see subsistence farming communities able to produce enough nutritious food to feed themselves adequately throughout the year. I would like to see them well-supported with things like good agricultural extension, farming inputs and with access to markets. I feel that while they struggle to feed so many of us, they themselves are left with little as they cannot properly balance household food and income needs.

PR: I would like to see a system of agricultural production that is sustainable in the long term. One that is resilient to future pressures and the impacts of climate change, that considers local knowledge and practices, and that is beneficial for farmers, consumers and the environment.

IC: I hope that future food production becomes environmentally and economically sustainable. I hope the general public becomes more aware of the numerous agroecosystem benefits provided by sustainable land management practices. Growers adopting agricultural practices which enhance agroecosystem resiliency and minimize environmental degradation will be financially compensated. These changes will contribute to developing healthy soils, providing safe and nutritious food to people, and increasing environmental quality. 

LVE: I hope to see a time when the majority of consumers understand considerably more about agriculture and where food comes from. My dream would be an agri-food system where practices that enhance ecosystem services are valued and become the norm. With this knowledge, there could be great advances towards healthy soil, agroecosystems, and people.

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Meet the PLOS ONE Cancer and Oncology Authors

 

Today is World Cancer Day — a day for raising the voices of cancer survivors, loved ones, and the people who are working endlessly to find solutions. This year’s theme is “I am and I will:” a recognition of the power each individual has to make an impact.

Each year, PLOS ONE publishes more than 1000 new research articles in cancer and oncology from authors who have dedicated their careers to studying this disease. In celebration of this years’ theme, we’re sharing their stories which inspired the science we use to understand and fight this disease. 

 

Meet the researchers…

“My research group is mainly focused on the study of lung and pancreatic cancers, which are associated with high morbidity and mortality rates, worldwide. We use high throughput methods to identify new biomarkers and regulatory pathways and functional assays to improve our understanding of disease biology. 

Our ultimate goal is to improve patient survival, through better diagnosis, prognosis and treatment.”

— Patricia Pintor dos Reis, Faculty of Medicine, São Paulo State University – UNESP Botucatu, SP, BRAZIL.

MicroRNA modulated networks of adaptive and innate immune response in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma. Tainara F. Felix, Rainer M. Lopez Lapa, Márcio de Carvalho, Natália Bertoni, Tomas Tokar, Rogério A. Oliveira, et al

 

“Bioinformatics is my tool and cancer research is my subject. My dad and many other people died of cancer and I want to uncover what causes cancer. And I love math and computers, which attracted me to become a bioinformatician. Now I am working for NCI initiative Ras program at Frederick National Lab for Cancer Research, which tries to tackle the most critical and ancient gene in cancer biology: Ras genes.

My last paper on PLOS ONE is about common pitfalls often seen in the survival analysis in the field. We wish to first alert researchers about the pitfalls when they perform survival analysis and to provided a novel method that shall help avoid the pitfalls.

The curiosity in biology and the desire to make life better drives my career in science.”

 

— Ming Yi, NCI RAS Initiative, Cancer Research Technology Program, Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, Frederick, MD, United States of America

GradientScanSurv—An exhaustive association test method for gene expression data with censored survival outcome. Ming Yi, Ruoqing Zhu, Robert M. Stephens

 

 

“The goal of my research is to develop an agent that promotes apoptosis in cancer cells but not in normal cells. To accomplish this goal, I explored different protein targets and pathways that included but are not limited to matrix type-I metalloprotease I (MT1-MMP), tumor necrosis factor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL), and oxidative stress. 

I believe that the results and proposed future strategies will help to design potent and safe cancer treatments.

— Dmitri Rozanov, Department of Molecular and Medical Genetics, Knight Cancer Institute, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, Oregon, United States of America

Targeting mitochondria in cancer therapy could provide a basis for the selective anti-cancer activity. Dmitri Rozanov, Anton Cheltsov, Aaron Nilsen, Christopher Boniface, Isaac Forquer, et al

 

 

“I focus on H&N/Skull base cancers and mechanisms of treatment resistance within HPV positive and negative cancers.  Understanding mechanism of treatment resistance will enable us to target new pathways for improving patient outcomes.   

It is a privilege to work with folks and help the individual patient, but just as important is work on research that can possibly help the many.”

— Dukagjin Blakaj, The James Cancer Center, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, United States of America

Association of an intact E2 gene with higher HPV viral load, higher viral oncogene expression, and improved clinical outcome in HPV16 positive head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Nicole V. Anayannis, Nicolas F. Schlecht, Miriam Ben-Dayan, Richard V. Smith, Thomas J. Belbin, et al

 

 

“My particular area of research is the staging of colon cancer, it is important because colon cancer is a top 3 killer (of all cancer types) and we need new treatment strategies. However without accurate staging (i.e. determining how advanced the tumor is), it is nearly impossible to develop these new strategies. 

My goal is to increase this accuracy, or at least shed light on how accurate our current staging is.”

— Elias Nerad, The Netherlands Cancer Institute, Amsterdam The Netherlands.

The Apparent Diffusion Coefficient (ADC) is a useful biomarker in predicting metastatic colon cancer using the ADC-value of the primary tumor. Elias Nerad, Andrea Delli Pizzi, Doenja M. J. Lambregts, Monique Maas, Sharan Wadhwani, et al

 

 

“I have always wanted to understand the incredible organization of brain functions and how to cure patients with brain lesions. My research field focuses on brain anatomy, brain functions, neuroimaging and how all these aspects together can improve the treatment of patients with cerebral tumors. My work tried to change the standard topographical classification of brain tumors to a model including more detailed information regarding the tumor infiltration along the white matter fibers.

This model perfectly fits the open access principle because it is not based on expensive technology, rather on a basic idea merging anatomy neuroimaging and oncology. I believe that anyone in the world can reproduce this classification method with standard MRI pictures contributing to a more extensive and shared knowledge in this field.

I want to fully understand the interaction between brain structures and brain tumors to better cure my patients.”

— Francesco Latini, Department of Neuroscience, Neurosurgery, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden

A novel radiological classification system for cerebral gliomas: The Brain-Grid. Francesco Latini, Markus Fahlström, Shala G. Berntsson, Elna-Marie Larsson, Anja Smits, Mats Ryttlefors

 

Read More Cancer Research on PLOS ONE

Find out more about the causes of cancer and interventions to prevent and manage the disease in the PLOS Cancer Research Special Collection.

PLOS ONE will also be launching a Call for Papers for Cancer Metastasis research and invites submissions that report on the biochemical and cell biological basis of metastasis, including but not limited to cell adhesion, cell migration, cytoskeletal dynamics, cell polarity, tumour heterogeneity, tumour dormancy and the tumour microenvironment.

 

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