BIOS3061 - Student Perspectives

Please enjoy a collection of student perspectives about BIOS3061 - Plant Ecology.

Plant ecology: Going out on a limb and finding the fruit!

by Meena Sritharan

You can follow Meena on Twitter (@MeenaExplorer) or LinkedIn.

“Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?” - Frank Scully

Plants – they are perhaps not the very first thing that comes to the minds to many as a captivating topic of exploration and study. To be honest, I thought I had my mind set on studying the ecology of terrestrial mammals until I undertook Plant Ecology; a subject I picked initially by going out on a limb as someone who had little knowledge of plant biology. Plant Ecology, however, was one of the most intriguing and insightful courses I have taken as a BEES undergraduate student and has consequently sent me down an inconceivably wonderful pathway into the magnificent world of plants.

Steven and Jhansi out collecting Banksia cones for their research project. Photo by Bianca Marino.

The course runs quite differently to your typical first and second year courses. Gone are the days of listening (or falling asleep) to over 100 hours of lectures and writing notes for a ridiculous final exam. Instead, this course gives you great perspectives into the world of research, allows you to develop skills in critical thinking when examining scientific literature and provides you with ability to carry out your own group research project, quite like a mini-honours project. It is run by two course conveners, the lovely and incredible plant nerds, Angela Moles and Stephen Bonser; who aren’t afraid to display their passion for plants and science with great enthusiasm. It’s also a fantastic course to test the waters on deciding whether to follow through with pursuing honours or a career in research. For me, the course became a strangely enjoyable experiment in deciding where my passions in ecology lie as well as affirming my desires to pursue research.

Students taking some downtime between collecting sample to take in the views at the beach. Photo by Lynn Le.

Classes involved a two hour block – and quite a breezy but action-packed two hour block it was.  Everybody attending would form groups of two to three students and takes turns to lead group discussions on various aspects of plant ecology. These discussions, however, were anything but listening to someone talk for an hour. The discussion groups allowed the entire class to take part in all kinds of fun from  hilarious and/or philosophical debates, heated arguments (especially between the two course conveners), coming up with unconventional hypothetical experiments to even breaking out into a rap battle, all on the multifaceted world of research with regards to plant ecology.

Claire undertaking some lab work after collecting plant samples in the field. Photo by Lynn Le.

The research and fieldtrip component was the icing on the cake of this course, allowing you to get out into the field, carry out your own research project and form friendships with the entire class. Prior to the field trip (during allocated lab time), students were able to meet and form their own groups to develop their own research project which is then carried out at ANU’s Kioloa costal campus field station.  Due to the wealth of different environments and vegetation types present, students can carry out their research on topics ranging from plant-herbivore interactions, pollination and seed dispersal, plant ecological strategies or simply because you want to spend as much time as possible down at the beach doing research.   The fieldtrip isn’t structured with any compulsory activities or lessons, giving you complete freedom to work in a way that suits your group and research project - which can be both a blessing and a curse, so ensure you pick your group partners wisely! The academics/demonstrators that also come along to help you out are a fantastic bonus, bringing with them their wealth of experience and knowledge. They are there to help you out with any hiccups in your projects, providing you with sage advice and tips as rarely do your research projects ever go pan out perfectly in the field.

Karen and Claire looking at estimating herbivory of plant specimens for their research project. Photo by Prof. Angela Moles.

My group project involved looking into the defence strategies of Pittosporum multiflorum.We wanted to test the idea that the vegetation density in which P.multiflorum grew influenced an investment into the physical plant defence of thorns over growth, and if different environments facilitated a trade-off between defence and growth. This involved trekking through wet sclerophyll forests to collect plant samples, getting pricked by the numerous thorns on this plant, discovering leeches under our shirts, working in both intense thunderstorms and shine and spotting adorable swamp wallabies. The experience really did give us a wonderfully accurate taste of what it would be like to carry out ecological research in the field, despite it being only for a week. In the end, we found that vegetation density and differing environments do not result in a trade-off between defence and growth. Nevertheless, the study sparked my curiosity into examining plant defence strategies and the presence of trade-offs in relation to plant defence and herbivory.

The field trip isn’t just all about working hard conducting your research projects. Students all do get some downtime to go swimming at the nearby beaches, go spotlighting, bushwalking and having marshmallows by the campfire. There are great chances to chat to the staff and students over a cup of tea, crackers and cheese, hearing about their travels and research, particularly during the after-dinner talks which made for some inspiring insights into variety of opportunities you have as a student. It’s not too long before, those classmates of yours become great friends as everyone bonds over mutual aspirations, causalities faced in the field, hiccups present in experimental procedures and playing card games late into the night.

Finding a locally wild wombat on an evening beach walk after a hard day's work collecting data. Photo by Lynn Le.

So while picking this course was for me, initially, going out on a limb, I discovered the most excellent pieces of fruit by the end of the course and beyond. Not only did I learn about the weird and wonderful world of plants, I was able to strengthen critical thinking skills in evaluating scientific literature, made some great friends, pursued a research internship with one of the course conveners, Angela Moles, and have ended up undertaking my honours research year with her too! So, to my fellow keen science student reading this, if you are not sure about picking plant ecology as a subject; go out on a limb too, whether you love, like or know nothing about plants as you’ll never know where it may take you!

Text is by Meena Sritharan, photos are individually credited above. Meena completed BIOS3061 in 2015, and submitted this perspective 24 February 2017.