March 2015 is approaching to an end and I realized that it has been quite a while since I wrote an entry on this blog. Since my last post, I managed to keep myself busy, especially by the various academic duties of a PhD student/candidate at the University of Missouri Saint Louis (UMSL).
It all started with the completion of the qualifying exams (aka quals or the comprehensive exams) that all phD student have to take during their second year. Most PhD candidates would argue that the quals are the most uncertain, stressful and time-consuming aspects of their graduate studies and I concur. The format of the exam is quite variable between universities and even between programs of the same university but they are all meant to test one’s knowledge in the chosen field and determine whether he/she qualifies to continue at a higher degree with his/her research. At UMSL, the exam consists of a series of five written essays on different subjects such as conservation biology, community ecology, systematics, evolution, animal behaviour and population biology followed by an oral examination. My friend Camilo and I had to tackle the Janzen Connell Hypothesis, Allee effects, polyploidy etc… Coral diseases have no more secrets to me (at least at the current state of knowledge), I can tell you about negative density dependance, ecological speciation and why certain group living species may be doomed when they reach certain population size. But thanks to the quals, I also know a lot more about time management and how I can work more efficiently. In summary, the questions (of #qualshell) were interesting, challenging and pushed us to our limits (often) but we managed and I am glad that this is all over now. The quals also mark the end of the coursework, which are “time-hungry”; all I have left to complete my degree is my research project and it all starts with a sound research plan that fulfills the originality and applicability requirements of a PhD in biology with a focus on conservation biology and disease ecology.
Since the quals, most of my time was devoted to developing a research proposal and submitting grant proposals to fund the project I have in mind. I aim to evaluate the potential for and understand the dynamics of disease transmission between introduced and endemic animals in Betampona natural reserve ecosystem using microbial genetics as well as some advanced spatial and epidemiological analysis. What kind of diseases may wild and domestic animals transmit to each other (and to humans) in this ecosystem? Are animals more likely to share pathogens because they share the same habitat, or are social encounters more important? Are there individuals or species that occupy central position in the transmission network of microbes and can act as “super-spreaders”? Should/could we target specific individuals to limit the spread of certain diseases in that ecosystem? These are some of the questions that I aim to answer through this project with the help of my field team and guidance from the dissertation committee.
This past week, I gathered my dissertation committee for the first time, defended my research proposal and received some constructive feedback that will hopefully improve the overall research plan. My committee is composed by experts from various background and loads of expertise in disease ecology, community ecology, conservation biology, wildlife medicine and include Drs Patricia Parker (my advisor), Robert Marquis, Robert Ricklefs from UMSL, Dr Matthew Gompper from the University of Missouri-Columbia, Dr Eric Miller from the Saint Louis Zoo and Ingrid Porton from the Madagascar Fauna and Flora Group (MFG). Fortunately things seem to be on the right track, I can now get into the more logistical part of the project preparation and hit the ground full speed when I get to Madagascar this summer.