Soft ecology

Ecologists are multi-talented folk (if we do say so ourselves!). A diverse set of skills are required to write grants, heft field-gear over mountains, code statistical analyses, run simulation models, draft manuscripts and chat with the media.

Less obvious, however, are the ‘soft skills’, such as emotional IQ, resilience, decision-making, flexibility and the ability to empower the talents of others. Nonetheless, these skills are fundamental to collaborative success in academia, government and private industry. For our first QAECO reading group of 2017, I hosted a discussion on Gibert, Tozer and Westoby’s ‘Teamwork, soft skills, and research training’ which was recently published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.  This post is adapted from a blog I wrote for QAECO about the discussion.

Gibert et al. compiled a list of 14 soft skills that they considered important for scientific collaboration and teamwork, and asked a group of influential research team leaders to review them. ‘Inspiring moral trust’ and ‘emotional intelligence’ were the skills most frequently ranked as important for effective collaboration. The majority of leaders thought that all 14 skills could be improved or learned (rather than just being inherent personality traits), and believed that they could assess soft skills during recruitment. Gibert et al. argue that graduate programs should include short training courses to increase young scientists’ self-awareness of the skills they currently possess, and ability to demonstrate these skills in interviews.

Our group agreed that these soft skills are very important for both academic and non-academic careers. In particular, bringing an open attitude and a talent to empower others was highly rated. People have experienced conflict within collaborations when these skills have been lacking, especially when there was a lack of trust in others’ conduct.

We concluded that, although these skills are important, they can sometimes be overlooked within the university system. More training in soft skill development, as well as skill awareness, would be highly valuable. As not all roles involve practising the full range of skills, other potentially useful opportunities for training could include:

  • Active participation in collaborations. Senior academics can help foster these skills in their students and post-docs by providing opportunities for them to actively participate in collaborations, and be involved with strategic meetings and decisions.
  • Mentoring. Whether this occurs formally or on an ad hoc basis, trusted seniors can provide guidance and advice on how to successfully manage professional relationships.
  • Online courses. Many universities, including ours, provide online training for staff, and providers such as Coursera also offer courses on leadership, conflict management, emotional intelligence, appreciative inquiry, and many other soft skills.
  • Workshops. At the next QAECO retreat, we plan to run an expert-led session on conflict resolution and peoples’ behavioural and learning styles.

Effective teamwork and collaboration are key to a successful and fulfilling career in ecology and conservation.  However, developing these soft skills can require sustained effort and self-analysis, as well as much empathy towards other people.

Which soft skills do you value most highly?  Find most challenging?  Look for in others?

Transmission recommences

Frantic typing.

[Crickets chirp in blog-land]

More typing.

[Crickets]

Typing.

[The un-climatic click of a thesis being submitted electronically]

Much driving for brief, wonderful holiday

[birds singing in flooded river, orcas tail-whacking as they cruise seal rocks, crunching noises of a bandicoot devouring carrot scraps]

Commencement of post-doc. Enlightenment about the commuter lifestyle.

[modulated voice-over from the metro train lady, apologising for any inconvenience caused]

Minor revisions of thesis approved within 30 minutes – did I really need to spend several months preparing them??

[thwunk as I drop two boxes of bound theses, narrowly missing my toe]

Futile scurrying around university trying to find someone (anyone??) who will accept my final hardbound thesis.

Joyous email, entitled ‘Completion Letter’

[Crickets fade as blog transmission recommences]

Ian Lunt reckons you should never blog in your PJs. He’s totally right.

But how about in your fox onesie?

onesie_blog

They wouldn’t all fit in the photo, but besides the onesie and the mug, this PhD has led to me being the proud owner of two pairs of fox earrings, one pair of cat earrings, two beautiful paintings of foxes, and one set of fox notepaper. Mum really wanted to buy me a fox statue last birthday too, but I talked her out of it. Lucky I don’t work on slugs!

Is anyone else the recipient of this study-animal-themed present phenomenon?  What’s your best gift so far?

Wimmera Biodiversity

‘Great Western? Do you know what’s happening with the trees out there?’ ask Lyn and Kathy at the office as I collect the uni car keys. ‘I heard they’re taking them all out, right along the highway. 400 year old redgums, just so the trucks don’t have to go round some bloody corner.’

I keep my eye out for stumps as I drive but just find trails of milk cartons, sheltering the roadside remnants of tomorrow. And strings of flags, marking off sections with trees, sections with drains, sections of paddock; at 110 km an hour it’s not clear whether they indicate the protected plants or the ones destined for removal.

In my Ararat motel room the next morning, I wake quickly, realise it’s 6:30 and snuggle down again. Then I remember that the radio interview I did the day before should be playing on ABC Rural any minute and scrunch barefooted through the puddles to the car. Continue reading

Reference library for camera-trapping images

‘How do you know whether it’s a long-nosed bandicoot?’

‘Well, it’s got a long nose…’

This isn’t this start of some awful Dad joke* but me, back in 2011 when I first started using motion-sensing cameras to survey wildlife. It was so exciting – after months of deciding which type of camera to purchase, nutting out a study design, scrub-bashing to put the cameras out and wandering around in circles in the aforementioned scrub to find them again, I finally had some cool photos of animals.

But then I had to figure out what they were. And field guides to Australian mammals were not as much help as you’d think. The critters hadn’t always aligned themselves for a nice profile pic, I couldn’t see beneath their feet to count their toepads, and really, how long is a long nose supposed to be? Continue reading

A shrub by any other name

What do you think about emotive language in science?

Are foxes invasive feral vermin, or simply introduced? When shrub cover increases, should we describe the process as shrub encroachment, invasion, expansion or woody thickening? Does it make a difference if the shrub species is indigenous?

In a paper now available in Austral Ecology early view, we looked at associations between native mammal occurrence and Yarra Burgan (Kunzea leptospermoides) canopy cover in a eucalypt forest. Yarra Burgan is native to the Yarra Valley, but has spread rapidly within Coranderrk Bushland Reserve over the past 20 years. Burgan grows to more than 10 m tall, shades out understorey plants and doesn’t appear to be eaten by anything much.

Kunzea leptospermoides

Areas ‘encroached’ by Burgan had a sparse, mossy understory and many fallen trees

Continue reading

A sacred moment

Have you ever heard a hissing tree?

It wasn’t quite a cicada, or a baby cockatoo. It went on and on, and I had no idea what it was.

One of the best things about finishing fieldwork and being stuck in the office writing stats code all week is that I feel like going hiking on weekends again. Somehow, when I was spending most of my time covered in mud and reeking of wet fox, I just wanted to stay warm, dry and clean during my time off – let’s go camping? Nah, how about we rent a cottage? Continue reading

Talking to strangers

‘Are your fox collars brown with a big black lump on one side?’ asked the woman on the phone.

‘Yup, sounds like them. Why?’

‘Umm, I’ve got one here. My friend found it on a dead fox on the road.’

Damn, damn. At that stage, I only had collars on two foxes and now I was back to one again.

I picked the collar up from her friend’s letterbox on my next field trip and sure enough it was Fern’s. Talk about a death-wish! The first fox I ever caught, she had been slightly too small to collar back in December, just an over-grown cub. Then I had re-caught her in late January and been so happy to find that she’d gained enough weight to fit with a GPS collar.

'Gully' - the other fox I had collared at the time

‘Gully’ – the other fox I had collared at the time

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Here be dragons. And waterholes

Burke, Wills and I got it wrong. Central Australia is not flat. Nor is it waterless. It is, however, quite warm.

I’ve just come back from Alice Springs. I couldn’t help myself – I packed a beanie, down jacket and raincoat, along with my swimming togs and sunscreen. The down jacket did actually come in handy – as a pillow.

My sister and I travelled out through the Western MacDonald Ranges, and then down to Uluru and Kata Tjuta. There are heaps of mountains. And beautiful waterholes: some for swimming in, others that are left clean for the wildlife and make wonderful places for bird-watching.

Kata Tjuta

Kata Tjuta

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Technological musings

We decided to call him Gammy.

He was a feisty old fox, with worn teeth and a stiff ankle where a once-broken bone had healed. It was the second-last day of my field trip and I’d been debating whether to pull the traps in as I drove up the road. We had already checked them at dawn and caught nothing, but here was Gammy at 11 o’clock in the morning – my fourth fox of the week.

Gammy after being fitted with a radio-collar (Photo: Lauren Engledow)

Gammy after being fitted with a radio-collar (Photo: Lauren Engledow)

Continue reading