PhDs we support: Soils and woodland

We’re involved in multiple research projects as part of our research programme.

Justin Byrne is working on a PhD with us and Newcastle University to help establish a better understanding of soils in woodlands.

We asked him some questions;

1. What subject area is your PhD project on?

My research focuses on understanding soils in woodlands. Historically soils have been very hard to understand; the things that live in them are small, the interactions between species are hidden underground, and they aren’t as charismatic as some environments. I will be using modern genetic tools to try and get past these problems by identifying the species present on decomposing leaf material.

2. What stage in your PhD are you at?

I am a first year PhD student, nearly halfway through my first year. Currently I am selecting sites to conduct my study at later in the year. A PhD requires a really firm understanding of the previous research in the area and related topics, so I have been reading hundreds of papers over the last few months. I have begun writing up what I have learnt in a literature review, which may be turned into a publication of its own so that people interested in researching similar projects can benefit from the work I have done.

3. What made you want to do a PhD?

I have a longstanding interest in food webs. When I was young I loved the TV cartoon The Animals of Farthing Wood which depicted the struggles of the woods creatures following the uprooting of their homes by man. A Windows 95 game was released accompanying the series, which included a puzzle centred around building a food web, it isn’t really an exaggeration to say that I have been drawn to them ever since. I think that these “networks”, depicting interactions between food webs, provide a unique perspective on ecosystems and relate to fundamental truths about life on earth. So I’ve been trying to learn more about them for most of my life, maybe I’ll stop when I’ve answered all my question but there is so much we don’t know about them.

4. Why did you apply for this PHD?

Soils are incredibly complex biologically. They contain so many species, and those organisms interact in a complicated cycles of nutrients and energy. Once genetic methods identify what is living in the soil, a network representation of that information (like a food web) is required to handle that complexity without losing information. My laboratory at Newcastle University contains some of the best people in the country for using these methods, and the Woodland Trust provides support and direction. The combination of people and passion surrounding the project was a fantastic opportunity.

5. What do you hope to discover?

At Newcastle University we have a history of using science to investigate real world issues, but researchers also believe that by progressing with a pure understanding of the rules that structure natural systems we are better equipped to solve life’s problems. On a practical level we would love to be able to develop a way for the Woodland Trust to monitor the diversity of their soils with genetic tools. Also, we will be investigating how communities of soil species differ between young and old woods. Being able to show what makes old woodlands special or unique is an important step forward for guiding how we conserve and manage woods of different ages.

Theoretically I am interested in the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem services. Woodlands provide services that we often don’t think about until after we have lost them, such as water retention during a storm that prevents flooding downstream. When these services are lost it can be catastrophic. Species provide ecosystem services and one question scientists try to solve is “what is the relationship between losing species and losing services?” Is it one to one? Can you lose lots of species before you see an impact on services they provide? If we don’t know what the relationship of risk is we can’t answer questions when it comes to setting policy. Soils provide an ecosystem service in decomposition, and I would like to know how that relates to the shape of an ecological network.

6. Name one unexpected thing you’ve always wanted to achieve

I have always wanted to publish a collection of poetry.

7. What’s a typical day doing research for your PhD?

Through the course of my PhD my typical day will vary greatly. I shift from mini-project to mini-project within my PhD and try to vary what I do each day to keep myself working effectively. One project will be dominant for a while, and then as I finish that I will shift focus to a new, often entirely different task. For example, for a month or so I was reading and annotating research papers nearly all day every day, then as I got through the bulk of that work, I started planning and undertaking writing my review, then I spent some days preparing a presentation, or spent a few afternoons thinking about experimental design. Some days I am in my lab’s office, some days I am away on training events, some days I am attending meetings with the Woodland Trust. Often I attend training events at the university to develop soft skills surrounding my academic training.

8. What’s the strangest thing you’ve had to do for you research so far?

In a previous research project I had a lot of tense moments while conducting bird surveys in Uganda. I think the strangest moment was atop the Virunga Volcanoes trying to demonstrate my identity to the commander of a Rwandan military base using the information my packet of antimalarial drugs after being ambushed by a number of Rwandan soldiers. That’s probably the strangest moment.

9. What’s your favourite biscuit for when you’re out and about doing field work?

While hiking in the Albertine Rift for my master’s research, I really got to like knock-off “NICE” biscuits after snacking on them. They weren’t nearly as tasty as anything you can get back home, but they helped break up the day’s walking.

10. How could the findings from your research help the Trust?

It would be really useful for the Woodland Trust to have a way of monitoring the biological component of soils to determine which species are present and if invasive species or pests have arrived at their sites. It would also be useful to have more evidence that identifies what makes the soils of ancient woodlands unique.

Find out more about our involvement with other PhD projects.