PhD: Investigating the feedbacks between abiotic and biotic processes of litter decomposition in tropical dry forests
School of Natural Sciences, Bangor University
Prior to starting my PhD in Ecology, I talked with multiple trusted friends who have been or are close to being awarded their doctorates. I asked them how they found the PhD process hoping to get an idea as to whether a DTP was the right thing for me. Their words of wisdom were that a PhD is an extremely long, arduous process that will push your limits to and beyond the bitter edge. I thought to myself, if this is so, why would anyone embark on such a journey.
For me, it stems all the way back to childhood. Exploring the world through the starey eyes of a child I was always engrossed by nature. My Saturday mornings consisted of watching Steve Irwin and Austin Stevens rummaging through the wilderness, wrangling snakes and alligators, lusting for nature. I would follow in their footsteps, making homes for spiders out of bricks in the garden shed and filling jars full of crickets, all so I could discover how they worked.
Fast forward a decade and a half and I arrived on the foothills of Snowdon, ready to embark on my undergraduate degree in zoology at Bangor University. Throughout my undergrad, I flip-flopped between degree titles so I always had the choice of modules which excited me the most. I was lucky enough to take a year out between my second and third year to work as a conservation research officer at Echo, a yellow-shouldered Amazon Parrot conservation organisation on the small Caribbean island of Bonaire. It was here where my true passion for research was ignited. Alongside my many other roles, I had the opportunity to design and run my first independent research project investigating the feasibility of a novel watering technique for small scale reforestation projects. Taking the project from the design phase through to write up I realised that scientific research is hard! My dissertation gave me a profound respect for many researchers at my university and beyond, it inspired me to undertake my MSc by Research in Environmental Sciences where our small team aimed fill a knowledge gap in our understanding of litter decomposition in drylands and to investigate the feedback mechanisms between abiotic and biotic processes of litter decomposition. In particular, we aimed to understand what structural, biogeochemical and microbial changes are caused by exposure to UV light over the dry season, and how ultraviolet exposure affects subsequent decomposition throughout the wet season.
This was my first experience studying soil science and I loved it. Towards the end of the MSc our team realised that, although we had learnt a lot about the process, there was a lot more to uncover. This planted the seed which was to blossom into the PhD project I am currently working on. We realised that a novel, humidity-mediated mechanism operates within dryland litter decomposition whereby non-rainfall water sources can activate microbes in the early morning and evening, allowing high decomposition rates in the absence of traditional water sources. For the purpose of this blurb, I won’t dive into the mechanisms too deeply, you can read my MSc to find out more. What is important is that, from this, we realised how best to move forwards and hopefully chip away at the problem. Utilizing a combination of field experiments across a forest humidity gradient in Panema and laboratory-based studies, our team aims to elucidate the mechanisms and feedback loops underlying litter decomposition in seasonal forests. We hope that, by delving into this issue we will be able to more accurately predict carbon budgets for dry forests and determine how climate change will affect forest carbon release.