“A unique experience” is probably the best way to describe, likely any course at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Center (BMSC), but most definitely the Ecological Models and Data course. Set in the small marine village of Bamfield, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, BC, the BMSC provides a temporary home to researchers and students from all over Canada and beyond. Nestled behind the Broken Islands within Barkley Sound, the BMSC sits between epic forests and the Pacific Ocean. The campus offers outstanding views, all from the comfort of “The Rix” (Rix Centre for Ocean Discoveries) and the library, where we spent about 85% of our time, because this was a computer-based course. We did get the chance to visit some of the amazingly beautiful beaches, hike a bit of the West Coast Trail, and play around in the intertidal zone to see the plethora of marine life surrounding us. Beyond the scenery, this course uniquely offered an intensive three weeks of mathematical modelling, computer programming, ethical discussions on p-values and scientific philosophies, random row boat trips to get ice cream, late nights at the library, and random bouts of sleep-deprived laughter.
The view from The Rix
(Photo credit: Jody Reimer)
The view from the library
Trips to the beach for paper discussions
(Photo credit: Jody Reimer)
The intensity of the course not only created an atmosphere of bonding between the students, but an opportunity to learn through teaching, something I was not expecting. What I mean by this, is that there was a wide variety of backgrounds among the students, ranging from undergraduate students who have never used R to PhD students that use R every day, or are in the math department and learning how to use ecological models. When we would work on our labs together, we would all, at some point during the course (usually late at night in the Rix or the library), would take what we knew and teach it to our fellow classmates, so we would all successfully complete the labs on time. The learning curve associated with this course was high, and the instructors knew it; they were outstanding at being there (some even during the night) to help us through, and guide us. Though the workload was high, and the timeframe short, I believe that being at the BMSC and being away from the business of home helped to provide the best learning atmosphere. The collective knowledge of the instructors and the TA were impressive, and they all presented an incredible ability to teach and relate abstract concepts to real world problems.
This course benefits my professional development in more ways than I expected. I had originally thought it would be a great way to finally learn how to use R, the most widely used computer program for ecologists, and this would be the greatest benefit for my future career. While, yes, I did definitely learn how to use R, I also learned a great deal about statistics, about ethics in publishing, about how learning isn’t always best done by someone telling you exactly how to do something, but rather helping someone to figure it out on their own, and that hard work really pays off. I learned a great deal about getting out of my “comfort zone”, and dealing with complex problems in a short timeframe. I have no doubts that these lessons have impacted the way in which I view a career in science/research, and that they will improve my chances at success in both my current PhD research, and in my future career as well. Having a greater understanding of best practices in ecological research and modelling has already changed the way in which I am considering the analyses I will be using on the data I have collected, and how I communicate that to other students in the lab.
The best quote to summarize the Ecological Models and Data course came from our first lecture. It was “See the ecological forest through the statistical trees. Because if you don’t… there be dragons!!”. This quote not only made it to the back of our class t-shirts, but serves as a reminder that statistics can often be misleading, and we can often use them wrongly. It is important to have a strong understanding of the statistics and models you’re using, because you could be missing what’s really going on, or misinterpreting the true patterns.
The dragon part comes in because every time we learned about “the wrong way to do things”, ‘Hurlbert’ the dragon would appear.
My only advice to other students interested in taking this course would be to come into it knowing that the intensity is worth the payoff.
I’d like to express my sincere thanks to HPI and the University of Alberta for helping to fund this opportunity through professional development awards.