From Clueless to Co-author: A Coral Ecologist’s Amazon Adventure

by Kelsey Archer Barnhill, a first-year PhD student in the Changing Oceans Research Group at University of Edinburgh.

Kelsey is a coral ecologist who recently had a paper published in the Brazilian Journal of Botany titled ‘Morphological and allometric variation due to percentage of cover in Eichhornia azurea (Swart) Kunth (Pontederiaceae).’ This is the story of how a coral reef ecology student unexpectedly became a co-author on a tropical botany paper, and the benefits of experiencing research outside of your comfort zone.

Twitter: @KelseyBarnhill1

From Classroom to Field

I was putting my laptop away at the end of my Tropical Rainforest Ecology and Conservation course when the lecturer mentioned an upcoming fully-funded summer field course in Brazil. A Masters student in tropical ecology, my research was focused on Hawaiian coral reef resilience, but I wasn’t about to pass up an all-expenses paid trip to the rainforest! For months after this announcement was made, I would trek across the Norwegian University of Life Science’s campus once every few weeks to see if the lecturer or administration had any more information about the course. I spent an incredible summer in Brasília and Manaus during high school and was eager to return to the Amazon, this time as a scientist instead of a tourist. After a few months of persistent inquiries, the course website was live and I made a successful application to join the three-week excursion.

Field Course in Tropical Rainforest Ecology and Biodiversity was a collaboration between universities in Norway (University of Oslo & Norwegian University of Life Sciences) and Brazil (Federal University of Pará, Federal Rural University of Amazon, & Emilio Goeldi Museum). A total of 16 students were selected to participate and the eight Norwegian students, along with a handful of professors, were flown to Belém, Pará, Brazil. Feeling slightly jet lagged and trying to adjust to the heat and humidity, we were introduced to the Brazilian students and professors who would be joining us at the field station. While in Belém we explored the markets and local attractions, enjoying the local food and getting to know our friendly hosts. I had an especially eventful time as I ended up coming down with bronchitis, getting stung by a wasp, and breaking my nose (there’s often one unfortunate person on a group trip – this time it was me). After a few days in the city, we headed to the port to catch an overnight boat up the Amazon River to the Ferreira Penna Scientific Station in the Caxiuanã National Forest. Upon arrival, everyone tied up their hammocks in the station’s dormitories (with practical suggestions and assistance from the Brazilian students) and prepared for a few weeks in the jungle.

Rainforest Research

It was a Brazil completely different to the one I had experienced before. Instead of the embassies in Brasília and the guided eco-tours in Manaus, we ate fresh açaí that had been harvested from the palms that morning and swam in our field clothes in the river at the end of the day to cool off. We spent one late evening walking through the forest to see the nocturnal animals and listen to the calls of animals unfamiliar to all of us – including the Brazilian students from the city. Far removed from my familiar marine science environment, I learned how to dig traps for frogs and lizards, press leaves for botany archives, and sample lichens from trees.

Kelsey cooling off in a stream after taking water samples

The main deliverables for the field course were brief reports and presentations on two projects – one professor-led group project and one student-led partner project. Our professor-led groups were assigned alphabetically, which luckily placed myself ‘Barnhill’ with ‘Carvalho’ (Cintia) and ‘Cordeiro’ (Alexandre), two graduate students whom I had befriended in the days leading up to the project. Cintia and I nudged each other, excited to be partnered up, when I looked closer at the whiteboard and saw our topic was ‘Macrophytes.’

“Cintia, what are macrophytes?” I asked, scanning the list and wondering how I was placed in the one unfamiliar category among familiar topics such as ‘reptiles & amphibians,’ ‘ants,’ and ‘pollinators.’

“I think they are floating plants.” Cintia told me, leaving me a bit disappointed I wouldn’t get to spend the next two days wandering through the forest looking for butterflies, frogs or monkeys.

Eichhornia azurea in bloom

Early the next morning Cintia, Alexandre and I, along with three Brazilian aquatic biology professors leading the research, boarded a single-engine boat and set off downstream to Caxiuanã Bay. The professors briefed us on their project idea to look at a dominant species, Eichhornia azurea, as our guide and boat-operator Bigode, a native from Melgaço, navigated us to nearby banks where he knew the species grew. The professors’ initial idea to look at functional traits in response to light intensity was quickly scratched as nearly the same high value was observed at multiple sites along the river. Luckily, a clear pattern had appeared as we moved from one bank to the next: the fewer macrophytes there were, the smaller they were. Armed with a new hypothesis, we visually selected 11 sites with >70% macrophyte cover, and 11 sites with <20% macrophyte cover to sample. I leaned easily over the side of the small boat to snip off an emergent terminal branch; what a vast contrast to marine science where I was accustomed to ROVs being launched off a 60m ship in order to collect samples!

Despite the unfamiliar subject area, I immediately drew comparisons with my own research experiences. Instead of the point-intercept transects I had used in my master’s research, we used quadrants, and the probe we used to quantify water characteristics was similar to the YSI I had used in Hawai’i. By the end of the day, we returned to the field station, boat brimming with freshly-cut macrophytes. I had never worked with functional traits before, which involved counting the number of leaves and measuring petiole length, leaf thickness and leaf area.

Measuring functional traits

The following day our group got to work on some basic statistical analyses and compiled a short report before presenting our findings that evening. Pleased with the positive feedback our peers had given us, I assumed the project was over and began shifting my focus to the partner-project on cryptic lichen species Cintia and I would be working on in the coming days. However, after the aquatic biology professors read our report they asked to meet with Alexandre, Cintia and I, to discuss preparing a manuscript for a short communication. As the preliminary results we presented showed a significant difference in functional traits between sites with high and low species percent cover and since this type of research had not been done in the bay before, the professors thought we had a good chance at getting a paper accepted. I had never published a paper before and was nervous at the thought of preparing a manuscript for a topic I knew so little about. However, I felt excited about the prospect of being on a paper, especially once the professors said they would provide input and help us improve our drafts.

Preparing for Publication

With our time in the rainforest coming to a close, we enjoyed the final night at the field station playing different games and sharing Norwegian candy. As one last step remained in data collection to have a publishable result, the macrophytes journeyed back down the Amazon River with us to Belém. One of the professors prepared the samples for us by baking the leaves in an oven to get rid of all the water weight. On one of my final days in Brazil, I joined Cintia and Alexandre in weighing each leaf so we could quantify dry weight and calculate leaf mass per area. Before I flew home we each decided on our role for the manuscript: Cintia and I would be responsible for draft writing and editing, while Alexandre would be completing the statistical analyses. As the only native English speaker in the group, I also had the additional task of proofreading.

Once we had finished collaborating remotely and were satisfied our dive into a new field of literature had provided sufficient background for the introduction and discussion sections of our study, we submitted our manuscript to a journal six months after the field course. While it was not accepted, we received constructive reviews that Cintia and I quickly implemented in the text. I felt guilty as one of the key issues mentioned by both reviewers was incorrect terminology. I did not understand there was a difference between plant density and percent cover and had used the terms interchangeably. Since I was the native English speaker, none of my co-authors had questioned my wording. After ensuring our terminology was correct and running an additional analysis as suggested by one reviewer, we were ready to submit our improved short-communication to a new journal. After another unsuccessful submission, we finally received good news from the Journal of Brazilian Botany. The reviews were positive and suggested minor revisions. After a quick resubmission, our paper was officially accepted one month later!

Research team conducting boat-based fieldwork

Nearly two years have passed since my summer in Brazil and I remain so grateful for the opportunity to conduct tropical rainforest research and participate in a study so outside my comfort zone. Learning about the rainforest in Norway from European researchers who spent time in the Amazon was one thing, but working alongside Brazilian scientists in one of their national forests was an entirely distinct experience. While I wasn’t inspired to change my field of study and move from corals to plant biology, I thoroughly enjoyed working on a different project. The excitement behind learning and researching transcended scientific disciplines for me, despite not having an initial interest in the species. I found the research topic didn’t matter much, I simply enjoyed doing science and contributing to the larger body of knowledge.

Along with an unexpected botany publication and a permanently off-centred nose, my experience in Brazil left me with a new international network of friends, peers, and potential future collaborators. I imagine years from now, when I finish my PhD and hopefully have a significantly longer list of publications on my Google Scholar profile, I will scroll past my marine science papers and look back fondly on the sole freshwater botany research I have done. And just maybe, one day my research on cold-water corals will take me back to Brazil, albeit offshore and on a much bigger boat.

You can read Kelsey’s co-authored publication here: