2021 Images of Research

It’s not a photo I ever thought I’d take, but I am honoured that “Academia in Unprecedented Times” has been selected as the winning image in the Research In Action category of the University of Saskatchewan’s annual Images of Research competition.

After a year of working from home on my PhD and teaching a class remotely as a sessional instructor, this is my side of the video call – the chaotic, messy, multi-tasking, interrupted-by-cats side that reflects on how I’ve experienced academic work in the pandemic, as opposed the to the more curated background I present to those I meet with.

Please read my caption at the link above as well, as it tries to capture the emotional side of what this year has brought and taken. And, importantly, please take some time to look through all the other submissions and winners of this year!

Spring 2021

As my second term teaching BIOL 302 Evolutionary Processes remotely comes to a close, a few updates:

  • I am incredibly proud of the 302 students for all their hard work this term. It certainly has not been easy for anyone, but interacting with the students in live sessions, one-on-one, or through messages is what brought joy to an otherwise very lonely teaching experience this term. Hopefully some day I’ll be able to teach an entire course in-person…third time’s the charm?
  • Personal note: my brother and I lost our grandfather recently (we are cousin-less!), and not being able to see him due to the pandemic over the past year was awful already, but grieving from a distance and not being able to be with family following this has well and truly sucked. I am very grateful to all the support and messages offered; however, some interactions have reminded me that we often do not make space for grief and other personal circumstances in what we do. Sending a bit of love to all those who are missing family, have lost family, are seeing too much of family, have welcomed new family, and all other ways that our personal lives have been stretched and warped this past year.
  • My good friend and fellow PhD student Paul Boyce has launched a podcast called Talking Feral, in which he chats with scientists about all kinds of topics. I had the pleasure of recording an episode that was so long it got split into two, but you should check it out for the other episodes! https://talkingferal.com/listen
  • I am excited about some current collaborations on topics such as teaching during a pandemic, how we do long-term research, and some natural history work, and hopefully will have some results to share on those fronts soon.
  • I am now writing up thesis chapters on beast-mode, and looking forward to presenting this work at various virtual meetings over the summer. Stay tuned to find out when/where you can find answers to questions like:
    • Do early-life factors like birth date, litter size, or maternal ID influence how many cones a juvenile squirrel caches?
    • How fat are red squirrels really, and how does that compare with hibernating critters?
    • Is cone caching behaviour a heritable trait?
    • How does territory quality influence food caching success, and how does that relationship change with fluctuating food abundance?
  • Finally, a bit of good news – my submission entitled “Academia in Unprecedented Times” has won first place in the Research in Action category in the University of Saskatchewan’s annual Image of Research photo showcase & competition. I think the chaos of a home office (and home office mates) will resonate with a few people; I hope it won’t be long before I can see people in person, instead of through a grid of glaring screens! https://research.usask.ca/our-impact/highlights/images-of-research/gallery/2021/academia-in-unprecedented-times.php

Positions and projects

A few updates from my home office as I continue to work from home:

  • I am looking for some help counting cones from photos of spruce trees. It can be done remotely with free software, if you are interested in helping out clicking on cones from your couch please send me an email!
  • I am grateful to have been awarded a Mitacs Research Training Award to help fund and train me in handling biologger data this term. I’m wrangling years’ worth of squirrel movement data to help answer questions about resource use and activity!
  • As of September, I have completed my tenure as President of the University of Saskatchewan’s Biology Graduate Student Association (BGSA), a role now taken up by my labmate and fellow squirreler Dylan Baloun. The full report summarizing what we did this past (totally wild and unpredictable) year, including my President’s report, can be read here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1nbsCljGiRNkR0ihJsh0VEYssdkx1kAAyEvjHv_hCKV0/edit?usp=sharing
  • Since June, I have been serving as one of two Student/Postdoctoral Councilors for CSEE, along with Sharon Wang at Guelph. Lots of new initiatives and changes coming!
  • I am now a voting member of the University of Saskatchewan’s Faculty Council, and am looking forward to the first meeting of the academic year this afternoon
  • Working on a really fun manuscript coming to a preprint server near you soon with entomologist Dr Morgan Jackson
  • I’m looking forward to teaching BIOL 302 again for the second time next term! Learned a lot of lessons from my first time around as a sessional lecturer (with a pandemic thrown into the mix), and am planning how to help create a good and effective experience for students learning evolution remotely come January.
  • I’ll be delivering a guest lecture later this month to the University of Central Florida on sex ratios based around our 2018 Proc B paper “Is biasing offspring sex ratio adaptive? A test of Fisher’s principle across multiple generations of a wild mammal in a fluctuating environment” . I think this is the second time one of my papers has been on a course syllabus!
  • I am indeed still working on my PhD thesis among all this!
  • That being said, I am beginning to search for the next chapter in my journey, so if you think I might be a good fit for your postdoctoral positions or job openings, please get in touch!


Autumn in Saskatchewan

This is the first year since 2015 I won’t be conducting fieldwork on food-caching red squirrels in Kluane, Yukon. While I miss that population of squirrels immensely, this year offers me the chance to observe the preparation for winter in a different locale. Recently I took a day trip up to Prince Albert National Park into the very southern edge of boreal forest, and I was delighted to see the squirrels in black spruce and jack pine forest gathering snacks for their larders. While Kluane squirrels live in white spruce forest, the biology of black spruce and jack pine are different enough that squirrel tactics are a bit different and the forests aren’t as familiar to me. Nevertheless, I got to meet a champion food cacher along the Waskesiu River Trail caching cones and watch it hucking dirt as it hollowed out tunnels to store the food underground.

Being about 10 degrees in latitude further south than I typically am this time of year, it’s interesting watching the shift between summer and fall, those annual timings of the natural world referred to as “phenologies”. Here in Sask, the canola is mostly swathed, ducks are beginning to flock together again, and squirrels are a bit more visible as they run around to stock up on energy (eating lots to put on fat for hibernation in the case of thirteen-lined ground squirrels in Saskatoon, and gathering non-perishable foods like seeds to eat throughout the winter for non-hibernating animals like my favourite red squirrels).

As for me, I’m preparing for a long, cold, Saskatchewan winter by ensuring I’m getting outside lots now while the days are still long, harvesting honey from our bees, making jam from our raspberries, and planning out some hikes now that I don’t have to gather data on everything I see this fall – even though I know I’ll keep spending hours watching red squirrel antics anyways.

Red squirrel sitting on a log
North American red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) after chowing down on a jack pine cone. August 2020 Prince Albert National Park, Fisher Trail.

Waskesiu River, Prince Albert National Park

Tree trunk with a squirrel midden
Red squirrel middens are characterized by piles of discarded spruce or pine cone bracts that squirrels rip off cones when trying to get at the tasty seeds inside. These “garbage piles” create a soft surface in which squirrels dig underground tunnels to store new, unopened cones that can be retrieved and eaten in winter months. Some squirrels will take advantage of the structural integrity provided by tree root systems to help support these tunnels – plus, they can live in the tree, so it’s a quick trip downstairs for a snack.

A bit of a blurry photo thanks to my old camera phone and zooming in from the boardwalk, but in the centre of the photo those little brown pellets are actually black spruce cones that a squirrel has gathered and piled up on top of the midden. The piles of cones will eventually be buried underground by the squirrel. Here, it wasn’t long after taking this photo that the squirrel who defends the territory came back with more cones and began excavating tunnels that will be filled with cones soon enough.

Summer meetings, fall seminar, and upcoming venues

EDIT: So much for 2020 conferences! Please stay safe and I hope to see you in the near future. –A


A bit delayed, but here is the poster for my recent seminar in the WildEcol seminar series, presented jointly by the University of Saskatchewan and Environment Canada in Saskatoon, SK.

Next weekend I’ll be heading to Edmonton, AB to participate in our annual collaborators meeting (“Squirrel Meeting”) to work through 2019 data and review the past field season. You can follow @KluaneSquirrels on Twitter to see what we’re up to.

I’m planning on attending at least the following two conferences in 2020; if you’re looking for speakers for your symposium in these or other meetings, get in touch!

  • Canadian Society of Zoologists in Saskatoon, SK (May 11-15 2020)
  • Canadian Society for Ecology & Evolution in Edmonton, AB (May 28-31)

This past August, myself and Dr Jeff Bowman co-chaired the symposium Collecting data across generations: the inaugural symposium of CSEE’s Long-Term Research Section at the annual CSEE meeting in Fredericton, NB. In addition to catching up with friends, enjoying the seafood, and seeing fin whales in the Bay of Fundy, I presented the results of my survey of graduate student experiences within long-term research projects (“Here for a grad time, not a long time: graduate student experiences and perspectives in long-term ecological research”). Many thanks to all of our invited speakers and the attendees who participated in our panel discussion! Stay tuned for something new for LTR-CSEE next summer in Edmonton. You can register as a member (free for now!) and find out more about the section at https://www.ltr-csee.com/.

SURVEY INVITATION: grad student experiences in long-term research

Hi all!

I am conducting a research study entitled: Graduate Student Perspectives and Experiences in Long-Term Ecological Research Projects and would like to invite you to share this survey invitation with your current and former graduate students who have conducted graduate research on long-term ecological research projects, and if this criterion applies to you as well I encourage you to participate yourself!

The purpose of this survey is to investigate the experiences of current graduate students and former graduate students who conduct(ed) graduate research in conjunction with long-term ecological research projects, defined here as projects that follow individual organisms within a wild population and measure the same core data types (variables) over many years and which typically generate long-term data suitable for answering questions about changes in wild populations (of plants, animals, or other living beings) and environments. This survey seeks to gauge the range of perspectives and experiences of graduate students involved in such research, to be discussed in a symposium regarding data management in long-term ecological research.

Eligibility: Participants must have conducted some graduate level research in conjunction with a long-term project as described above. Further details, including the participation consent form, can be found following the survey link hosted by the University of Saskatchewan through Survey Monkey.

Ethics: This study has received approval from the Research Ethics Board at the University of Saskatchewan.

Survey link: https://www.surveymonkey.ca/r/ZXVVH8D

I’m looking forward to sharing the results at our upcoming symposium on data management in long-term research at the CSEE annual meeting in Fredericton, New Brunswick in August 2019.

Field research opportunities

We will be looking to hire field research assistants for the June-October Cache Crew working with North American red squirrels in Kluane, Yukon soon! Get in touch with me (andrea dot wishart @usask.ca) to find out more, or watch this space for more details!

A male red squirrel feeds in a spruce tree.