The Realities of Research (from a PhD student’s perspective)

October 14, 2014

Someone once said that we are all born mad, and when I quit a good job to go back to Uni, I wondered whether I had remained so. I was giving up job security and a decent wage, and for what? PhDs are unpredictable – research is unpredictable – so enrolling for a PhD does not mean you will necessarily get one. Just over a year since I started, it seems appropriate to mull over what I hoped to achieve in this project and whether I am likely to do that.

I mentioned in my first blog that I am studying dune slacks, which are a little obscure as habitats go. To get a feeling for what a dune slack is, you need to go to the seaside. Imagine you are standing on a beach with your back to the sea, looking at the sand dunes rising in front of you. The sand under your feet is damp, firm and sticky. As you walk up and into the dunes, the sand gets progressively drier until you descend in to a depression, surrounded all round by dunes. Here, if you scuff away the vegetation underfoot, you will notice that the sand is damp again, and the plants are different from those of the sand hills all around. You are in a dune slack. What is not immediately obvious is that the water that keeps the sand wet here is fresh or slightly brackish, unlike the water on the beach. Nor will you be aware that if you come back to this spot in winter, you will be standing in a small lake. Before the water recedes in spring, insects will have colonised, laid eggs, hatched, matured and flown away.

We know from research that the water quality and length of flooding are important for maintaining the characteristic vegetation of dune slacks, but there are still some mysteries about their hydrology and ecology. We know relatively little about their fauna and there is room for a lot of work on how water enters and leaves the slacks, the interplay between surface water and groundwater and the effects of soil chemistry.

When I started this project last September, I wanted to answer three main questions.

1. We know that mini-beasts like beetles and snails can live in dune slacks, but how do they tolerate the disturbance of flooding and drying out? What type of invertebrates can survive?
2. What are the main factors affecting the invertebrates and plants that live in dune slacks? Do the same impacts affect both plants and invertebrates in the same way?
3. Finally, I wanted to investigate what kind of impacts human activities were having on the groundwater of dune slacks, and how these affected the plants and creatures living in them.

So, a year on, how close am I to achieving these goals?

At this point I have made and revised numerous project plans. This has partly been due to the issues described in my first blog, but it also relates to the nature of research. As you learn more about a system, it makes sense to tweak the plan. It looks as though I am on a track, even if that track is a bit poorly defined. I decided to pick two groups of invertebrates to represent different survival strategies: water beetles and snails. I have carried out vegetation surveys and sampled snails at 25 sites around Ireland, started my literature review and placed wells with monitoring equipment into six sites in Donegal where I hope to address questions relating to dune slack hydrology. It is slightly disheartening that my entire year’s achievement can be summed up in three lines.

Next winter, I will survey water beetles and aquatic snails in dune slacks, and take surface water samples. Then I will have to identify all my snails and beetles (there will be hundreds of these) and test my water samples for a range of chemicals including salt, nitrate and phosphate. Over the course of the next year, I will download information on water level and conductivity from the wells in Donegal. This is undoubtedly the most exciting part of the project, where information about groundwater, surface water, plants and invertebrates will hopefully knit seamlessly together. Once the data are in, I will mainly be running statistical analyses and writing up results. I will have to start writing in earnest pretty soon, if I am going to manage to get this whole project finished within three years.

I have a huge amount of work ahead of me, mainly made up of tasks I don’t really know how to achieve. Until now I have never surveyed for aquatic invertebrates, never identified snails and beetles, never interpreted hydrological data and never analysed water samples. I should be gibbering with fear over the prospect, regretting the overweening optimism which lead me to believe that I could look at plants and invertebrates and hydrology and management effects all in one project. However, right now, I feel relatively calm. I think this is probably because I have realised that panic is a limited resource. It has great power in the face of immediate deadlines, but must be rationed for optimal performance. I will undoubtedly fail at some of my tasks and have to revise my revised plans, and I will be taking my resolve right out of Beckett. I will try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Aoife Delaney

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