Each year the Tropical Resources Institute (TRI), an interdisciplinary program based at the Yale School of the Environment (YSE), sends students across the world to conduct research in the world’s tropical regions. That work, of course, has been disrupted during the COVID-19 crisis, as countries across the world continue to maintain travel restrictions and the University proceeds cautiously in how it re-opens research projects, even here in New Haven.
However, the student research will continue this summer, although perhaps not quite as anyone planned.
We caught up with Simon Queenborough, TRI’s director, who discusses the challenge of supporting international research during a global pandemic, how students have redesigned their research plans, and some of the unexpected new skills they’ve been able to develop.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the research of TRI fellows?
Simon Queenborough: There are two main effects. The obvious one is that students are unable to travel and do research in other countries. A less-obvious effect is the far-reduced interaction between students and their peers and professors.
COVID has limited the ability to meet with advisors and lab group colleagues, because ad hoc meetings are now almost impossible: Students are not able to pop in and ask a quick question. Instead, most discussions have to be structured and organized, and video interactions are limiting. Presenting research over video is also hard because the nuances of communication are lost. However, many folks are using instant messaging, email, and other electronic services much more to compensate.
TRI’s main focus is to help fellows develop original research projects in tropical regions. Yet, nobody is able to travel abroad this summer, although perhaps some local or domestic research might be allowed. But even then, we have to ask whether that is sensible. One of our lab motto’s is “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” For example, we take students on a yearly field trip to Panama. Many field stations and surroundings are remote and you could maybe run a field course with little risk to anyone on the course (if we were permitted to travel). But, it doesn’t mean we should. There are good reasons why you cannot have people traveling and gathering; everyone needs to stay home to keep us all safe.
What kinds of alternative research plans have students created?
Queenborough: Different people are doing different things. Some Ph.D. students are postponing their field work and plan to travel over the winter or during the next spring semester, if that is possible. But students in the 2-year Master’s program face more of a time crunch, so they need data or information from somewhere else.
Some students are working with existing data that was already collected on a similar project or at the same field site, doing meta-analyses on their study system. For example, one of our Fellows was planning to collect soil samples from different agroforestry schemes in Panama. That is not possible right now, so instead she is working first with older data and will do a time-series analysis, adding new soils data if she is able to go back.
Other students are using data from remote-sensing images, online databases and repositories, or pulling together information buried in the literature for their thesis. For example, some students are collecting data on leaf, flower, and fruit characteristics of plant species that they will combine with existing data on the abundance and distribution of those same species. Since they can’t visit the field sites where these plants grow, the Fellows are looking for data on these ‘functional traits’ using scanned images of herbarium specimens available online. This is a big change for them.
It’s a different skill set to be able to mine information and build and organize a database. Many careers are increasingly using such skills. Being able to search for, clean, aggregate, merge, manage, and correctly analyze large data sets with a scripted programming language is increasingly valuable in ecology and beyond. The YSE Environmental Data Science initiative is also focused on helping students attain these skills.
How have you been able to respond to student concerns?
Queenborough: It’s hard to know how or when people will be able to return to their field research. And the farther you want to travel from campus, the more logistical, political, and legal issues there are to deal with. Different countries will likely open up at different times, and flexibility and good communication will be key.
Most students had two concerns at the pandemic’s outset: Could they even complete a thesis? And, how could they support themselves financially? I spent a lot of time with students thinking about and developing projects that can result in a good research experiences. While all projects change when you get to the field, it was really important to give students a well-defined experience that will provide a skill-set as similar as possible to that which they would have acquired by field work.
Many students also had financial concerns because they use their research funding to cover room and board over the summer. TRI, and many other Yale funders, were able to be flexible with funding requirements, which in our case are tied to field work. This flexibility allowed TRI to fund 25 students to perform remote research over the summer, with the hope that we can also support them to go the field later.
People may also now have other commitments in terms of care, work, and schooling, that they maybe were not planning for this summer. As funders, colleagues, advisors, and students, we all need to show compassion, flexibility, and understanding as we navigate this situation together.
How do these challenges affect the relationship with collaborators at field sites?
Queenborough: As in many areas of society, COVID-19 has exacerbated and highlighted many aspects of academic relationships.
When local partners know you are there for the long haul, the value of the long-term collaboration is increased and there is more flexibility and good will on both sides. But it’s easier for faculty who have more resources, than students who may only there for the summer.
For example, I have worked at the same field site in Ecuador since my Ph.D. days. I can now employ field technicians who worked with me back then, mentor local students, and teach short courses at the university there. The good social and professional relationships that we have built up together over the years has meant that the pandemic has been easier to deal with than might have been the case.
From the outside it is easy to view the impact of COVID-19 on ecological research as a minor temporary inconvenience compared to what many people are going through right now in terms of employment, health, and isolation. But the socio-economic effects are similar—field stations, universities, and other academic institutions in the U.S. and abroad all support a larger network of people and communities and it is important that those connections of relationships and financial support are maintained.