My Veski Fellowship experience

I was fortunate to receive a Veski Fellowship, which allowed me to travel overseas this year for five-months visiting researchers and managers in Mediterranean regions of the world, as well as a few extra countries with specialists who are doing researched aligned to mine.

A sunset in Spain

I am beginning to try to capture this incredible experience by the written word, and will be posting a series of blogs about my trip. To start with, below is a brief overview of places I went, people I met and things I did.

I began my journey in Los Angeles, California, USA.

The first of many friendly and generous ecologists I met with was Phil Rundel, who is a Distinguished Professor within the School of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA. I was very fortunate to benefit from Phil’s hospitality and I enjoyed a tour of the magnificent grounds of UCLA, sat in on one of his field lectures that took place in the impressive Mildred E. Mathias Botanic Garden and enjoyed a fieldtrip with Phil, benefitting from his botanical knowledge, into some of California’s Chaparral.

Some Chaparral in The Santa Monica Mountains

It was also a pleasure to meet Sarah Ratay, a Californian botanist and current PhD student of Phil Rundel. Sarah introduced me to Steve Laymon, another Californian Botanist and the three of us went botanizing over a weekend to Wind Wolves Preserve an impressive Conservation Area in an ecologically unique region of California. We were hunting a particular Genus in the Onagraceae, Clarkia, which Steve is currently compiling a field guide for.


Two species in the genus Clarkia in Onagraceae, which we hunted in Wind Wolves Preserve.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Martha Whitter, a manager for the National Parks Service in Los Angeles. She showed me a patch of her favourite chaparral, which included an interesting herb field and we discussed fire management in LA and the similarities and differences attitudes, approaches and available data in connection with ecological management between Victoria and California.


Some Californian species and an example of a herb field moving into a patch of Oak woodlands, before becoming Chaparral in The Santa Monica Mountains.

I met with John Keeley, who works with the United States Geological Survey at the Western Ecological Research Centre which is located at the Sequoia and Kings Canyon Field Station in the National Park . I also met with many of the other friendly and interesting folk who work there, including Nate Stevenson and Tony Carsarcio. This was an excellent opportunity for me to chat with fire managers as well as fire ecologists about fire management within the National Park. I was also fortunate to fit in some more chaparral botanizing, as well as a trip with Jon to visit those Giant Sequoias. It was a pleasure to meet Melanie Keeley who runs the indigenous plant nursery within the National Park and see her propagation skills in action.


Some fabulous plants of Sequoia National Park, including a Giant Redwood.

I took a drive into the central Californian Valley and went to UC Merced to visit Associate Professor Emily Moran to speak about the kinds of demographic data that are used in complex multi-species plant models, the various places these data may be sourced from and the evaluation of hierarchical models.

I then drove through the Mojave Desert, stopping to look at some Joshua Trees, to UC Riverside, where I met with Professor Helen Regan. By this time, I had explained my research to quite a few scientist and managers, but it seems like everyone has a slightly different research focus and therefore slightly different questions of comments on my research. This was undoubtedly one of the most useful aspects of my trip, having to explain my research over and over and respond to a diverse range of constructive criticism. I really valued my chat with Helen and it left me with a couple of points in my notebook to think about and address in future papers.


Joshua Trees in the Mojave Desert

I happened to be in town for the 25th Graduate Student meeting of the Californian Botanical Society  and I was asked to be a student judge that day. This was a great opportunity to hear the types of botanical research that is happening in California and it was a pleasure to talk botanical talk in the evening at the Conference Dinner.

I then travelled over the East Coast of The USA, to visit Patuxent Wildlife Research Center . This was a fabulous place to visit, not only to pick the brains of the excellent decision scientists who work there, but also because it was the site of much of the research that was written about in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. During my stay I learnt a little about Decision Science with Michael Runge, Jim Nicholls and Sarah Converse. I had seriously helpful discussions about evaluating hierarchical models with Bill Link and Andy Royale and chatted about designing useful field optimization functions with Jim Hines.   From here I travelled to Michigan to undertake a course in Structured Decision Making at The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. This was not only a fabulous course, taught by Sean Blomquist and Pat Heglund, but also a fascinating opportunity to listen to reserve managers who were keen to implement the SDM framework into their practices.


Some ecosystems at Patuxent, it was the beginning of Spring and everything was starting to bloom.

I travelled from The USA to Dublin, Ireland to meet with Professor Yvonne Buckley at Trinity College, Dublin. I am interested in the kinds of data that are used when people research, or use the term ‘reproductive maturity’ in relation to plants. At Trinity College I accessed the species matrix models and worked on code to calculate aspects of reproductive maturity for the species contained within this dataset, such as ‘reproductive value’ and ‘net reproductive rate’.


A gorgeous Irish Violet

Whilst there I also had the pleasure of meeting Anna Csergo, a post doctoral fellow at Trinity College who steers the Plant PopNet project, which is a global demographic study of Plantago lanceolata (Planataginaceae). An incidental, yet very fortunate opportunity also came to meet Antoine Guisan and Olivier Broennimann. There was another Southern visitor too, Ronny Groenteman from Landcare Research in New Zealand. Ronny works on bio control and is interested in integral projection models of Hypericum perforatum (Hypericaceae) also known as Saint Johns Wart.


The Burren – a diverse area of Ireland

I went to Valencia, Spain to meet with Juli Pausas  at Centro de Investigaciones sobre Desertification, a fire ecologist who has published extensively on fire persistence traits in Mediterranean ecosystems. Whilst there, we began writing a paper together on the proportional change of functional groups over a productivity and disturbance gradient, which is an extension of an earlier paper of his. We are going to be including changes in phylogenetic and functional diversity as well as consider multiple fire related functional types in this new analysis.


Ivy called Yedra in Spanish, also the name of the lovely Yedra Garcia!

The lab that he works in happens to also be full of other excellent people, and it was a delight to meet Miguel Verdu, Patricio Garcia-Fayos, Jose Navarro Cano, Matra Goberna, Alicia Montesinos and Eduardo Perez. I also had the pleasure of spending some time in the field with Yedra Garcia, helping to collect data for her PhD.


Some burnt Spanish vegetation

From Spain, I jetted South to Cape Town, South Africa.

I went to The University of Cape Town to meet with Emeritus Professor William Bond and Professor Jeremy Midgley. There, my work focused on discussions around the concept of plant reproductive maturity and what it means in different Mediterranean regions for fire management. I was very fortunate to get some field time with both William and Jeremy, and this provided an excellent opportunity for me to see the South African Fynbos, Renosterveld and Savannah ecosystems and compare plant strategies across these different ecosystems, but also to the other Mediterranean ecosystems I had previously visited.  A particular highlight was to visit Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in the North East of South Africa, and help out with some fieldwork with two of William’s students; Josh van der Ploeg and Huyam Altayeb, both of whom are working on plants in savannah ecosystem.


One of around 900 Erica species, many of which look small and pink.

Whilst at UCT, I also met with Ross Turner, an exceptional botanist and an Erica specialist, Heath Beckett, a PhD student of William Bond studying forest-thicket-savannah dynamics and Tristian Charles-Dominic a Post Doctoral Researcher studying plant architecture and functional types in Savannah plants.

Whilst in Cape Town I also visited SAEON – The South African Environmental Observation Network, and I met with Dr Jasper Slingsby who is both a lovely person and an excellent botanist! It was a pleasure to hike over Table Mountain botanizing and collecting climate data with him.

Of course, all of this was interspersed with many walks in the stunning Kirstenbosch Gardens.


Oh Fynbos… how I miss you.

The final destination of my trip was to Grenoble, France, to practice my French speaking skills and visit Dr Wilfried Thuiller at Laboratoire d’ecologie alpine (LECA) in Grenoble. Here, I discussed using and calculating phylogenetic and functional diversity with Wilfried and Dr Loic Chalmandrier, a recently finished PhD student.


Some French and Italian Mountains and plants.

Thanks to Dr Amelie Saillard, I was able to visit Lautaret Alpine Botanic Garden, and meet the organisers, botanists and volunteers who keep the gardens running. I was also fortunate to experience a day in the field measuring the demography of Eryngium alpinum (Apiaceae) with Irene Till-Bottraud, the director of LECA and Ceres Barros and Brad Carlson, PhD students of Wilfried Thuiller.


Eryngium sp. (Apiaceae)

It was fabulous opportunity to see the French Alps and here about Cere’s work with the FATE model. I also got some alpine botanizing done in Italy, with a visit with Dr Matt Tullato, a post doc in LECA to Gran Paradiso National Park. A lovely coincidence occurred and one of our very own Qaecologists, Dr Laura Pollock is now working as a post doc at LECA. We had a productive time together constructing a phylogeny for some of my study species and finishing off a paper on the influence of functional traits on Mallee eucalypt species distributions.

Needless to say, a trip like this is hard to capture briefly! Please stay tuned for some more in depth posts, particularly about the ecological systems I saw and all those plants I photographed!

A huge thank you to everyone who I met overseas, those already mentioned and many un-mentioned here.  One big lesson I learnt, was that the world is packed full of friendly and generous folk, and from my sampled data there seems to be a strong correlation between being an ecologist and being a most excellent person.


Mimetes sp. (Proteaceae) South Africa.

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