PhD peers, we are not alone

Posted by Carolina Lara @carislaris

I graduated from my masters in 2012 but sadly it was a difficult emotional experience. This was because I had poor academic support from my supervisor and that I could not accept that I was suffering depression. It took me almost two years to overcome that experience and to decide to do a PhD. Little did I know what I was getting myself into. Don’t take me wrong, my PhD experience has been rewarding but not easy, and I’m sure that I can speak for many colleagues.

I know what it’s like to live with high levels of anxiety and stress due to study. Seeing other peers “calmly” navigate the sea of PhD in my first year made me extremely anxious “I am the only one feeling like this?” I eventually found I’m not. A few months ago I read this article strikingly pointing out “one-third of PhD are at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder”. PhD peers, WE ARE NOT ALONE.

Anxiety monster

Toby Allen draw different mental disorders as monsters and found this to be a healing process

Of course it’s not easy to open up about how we feel or even think what we are feeling can actually be diagnosed as a mental disorder. The sense of vulnerability involved can be overwhelming. In the end it’s often easier to isolate ourselves and put on a (fake) smile.

Self-care strategies can be of great help when dealing with a mental disorder but the efficiency of different practices will vary from person to person. Seeking professional help then might seem the best option, but this is not straightforward for everyone. Probably the most important thing when feeling emotionally unstable is to talk to a friend or family member, or even your supervisor. I have a deep respect for amazing supervisors who not only act as an academic guide but who are also able to see a person before a student.

This journey has not finished for me yet, but I can proudly say I have learnt a lot (both good and bad things) about myself while doing a PhD. This often makes me think that as much as a PhD is about science, it’s also about personal discoveries. I wish my degree could state that as well!


Carolina Lara M. is a PhD Candidate within the Centre for Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. Her research interests focus on seed dispersal networks within fragmented landscapes. She is supervised by Margaret StanleyJason Tylianakis, Karine David, and Anna Santure.


Unhappy taxonomists

Posted by Darren Ward @nzhymenoptera

If you’re short of ideas for a blog, then look no further than the twittersphere for inspiration, or at least something to rant about. In a world of covfefe it’s generally not hard to find something annoying. This week’s winner was the muppets who wrote “Taxonomy anarchy hampers conservation”, published in Nature.


They state: “…the scientific community’s failure to govern taxonomy threatens the effectiveness of global efforts to halt biodiversity loss…” really? I thought greed and hunger would be more important to global biodiversity loss?

Their solutions to ‘taxonomic governance’ border on the absurd; that taxonomy should be controlled by the International Union of Biological Sciences (who?). A four step process is suggested: i) effective leadership (covfefe?); ii) a commission, iii) a commission with subcommittees; and finally iv) a commission with subcommittees with a judicial committee. Yeah that will work, like all the other global commissions with committees and subcommittees.

The only good point about the article is that it [inadvertently] raises the issues of ‘the role of taxonomy in todays society’, and also the age old questions of ‘what is a species’ and ‘the process of speciation’. The role and value of taxonomy in the modern world is important to consider, especially in times of widespread funding cuts to natural sciences, museums, and the environment in general. Yet the authors are very naïve about the taxonomic process. Those working in the disciplines of biodiversity and conservation (and also the other biological sciences) are end users of taxonomy and names. But, fundamentally, taxonomists must have the ability to undertake science without interference. This must apply to all sciences.

The authors mention the importance of science debate (giving the example of whether the Anthropocene is real), yet they then fail to see the importance of debate for taxonomy and species concepts. They also fail to mention that other science disciplines also struggle to define the natural world by simple terms; what is a “habitat”, an “invasive species”, is Pluto a planet? Not everything fits into a well-defined box.

This is the reason I don’t publish in Nature.

Darren Ward is an entomologist, Head Curator at the New Zealand Arthropod Collection at Landcare Research, and a senior lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland.


An ecologist’s love life

Posted by Julia Schmack PhD student at the University of Auckland @julia_schmack

Being back in Europe for a couple of months is great. It’s summer over here, I’m visiting family and friends all over Germany and I’m freeing their gardens from Vespula wasps.

It’s a busy life since I started my PhD at the University of Auckland six months ago, but apart from collecting wasps, I’ve collected more air miles than any time before in my life. A conference in Scotland, a lab visit in Wellington, meeting my co-supervisor in Christchurch…

A giant’s footprint

The picture of a giant’s footprint in the beautiful black West Coast sand makes me swallow. How many trees would I have to plant to mitigate my carbon sins?
Naturefund’s CO2 Calculator – Flying determines:

27 trees for the return flight from Auckland to Frankfurt + 2 for the flight to the conference + 1 for driving the car up to 1000 kilometres = 30 trees



I am relieved to get such a straight forward and feasible recommendation. Also, 30 trees would be a fair start for the meadow orchard I am dreaming of; nevertheless I am suspicious about this ecological ‘letter of indulgence’.



The article How to reduce your carbon footprint in The Guardian sums it up. ”The easiest way to make a big difference [to your carbon account] is to go by train or not take as many flights.”

What a dilemma!

Do you know these situations?

The idealistic ecologist in me insists: “Stay at home, research those bored cows next door, feed yourself with veggies from the compost garden and invent international conferences using skype – nobody really needs all those handshakes and nibbles!”

Also, scientists are supposed to be more believable when reducing their own carbon footprint. It seems obvious that I should stick to the cows next door.

The love story

I love nature. But I haven’t found the catharsis in this romance yet. If nature was my lover, I would tell him “I want to spend time with you, I want to be close to you, I’m intrigued by your power and I want to understand you. I want to be there for you when you are weak and I want to protect you from harm.”



Isn’t that romantic?

Yet, he wouldn’t be too wrong replying: “But you rarely take the time to hang out with me. You always have an agenda. But the worst thing is, that you are too selfish to resist those temptations that are really hurting me. You’re creating a bad atmosphere by travelling around as if you wouldn’t have a home!”

Touché, mon amour!

Passionate intents

His words are bothering me, but they linger around in the blurry part of my consciousness – together with pictures of politicians who should never be in power to influence global climate agreements and the intent to start rebelling against them before it is too late.

As I said there is no catharsis, it’s more like real life love life – passionate intents and restrained promises.

My contribution

I’m using the bike as often as possible, I choose seasonal and regional food and I eat meat only twice a week. It might not make a big difference compared to the carbon boost produced during one flight between New Zealand and Germany, but it is what I can do right now. Also, I am going to plant this orchard one day. And love is said to be patient.

Your feedback

It would be great if you would like to share your thoughts on that topic with me. Feel free to send me an email or a message.

ny @julia_schmack

Julia Schmack is a PhD student at the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is researching the ecology and control of Vespula wasps, supervised by Jacqueline Beggs, Darren Ward and Mandy Barron (Landcare Research). Her PhD is funded by the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge.


Using remote sensing to detect impacts of past droughts on NZ native forests

Posted by Kshama Awasthi

The 2013 drought in New Zealand cost $1.5 million to the economy through lost agricultural production but the impact on native forest is unknown. Drought-induced forest mortality is a global issue but droughts can also have sub-lethal impacts on trees. Water stress, vulnerability to pathogen attacks and reductions in productivity are some other examples of drought effects. Here in New Zealand, more than 80% of plant species are endemic but we have very little information about the impacts of drought on our vegetation. There is serious need for monitoring the effects of drought on native forest because the conservation value of native flora is globally significant. Hence, this study aims to study the effect of drought on the native forest vegetation in New Zealand using remote sensing techniques. I will be integrating Normalised Differentiation vegetation index (NDVI) and Drought severity index (New Zealand drought index, NZDI) methods. These two methods will be able to assess effects of historic droughts in 1992, 2010, 2013 in comparison to wetter and average rainfall years on diverse types of vegetation. The results that I will obtain are expected to detect temporal and spatial vegetation profiles that will be related to soil moisture profiles. I will also assess if there is any recovery period after drought year. I have selected eight different sites from across the country for analysis. This will help us identify vegetation that is vulnerable to drought impacts for future intensive study.


Image: Ministry for the Environment

While droughts in New Zealand are not severe on the global scale, the vegetation is used to mild and relatively moist conditions and may not be well prepared for drought. A remote sensing approach is ideal for this study because it allows us to look at historical drought impacts in remote areas across the country. This research will help us identify forests vulnerable to drought.


kshamaKshama Awasthi is an MSc student supervised by Cate Macinnis-Ng and Jay Gao.