Postdoctoral fellowship opportunity

Freie Universität Berlin has recently announced 20 postdoctoral POINT fellowships, which are allocated to focus areas within the university. Our lab is a member of the Dahlem Center of Plant Sciences focus area, and we participate in the call with an opening for a postdoctoral fellowship with the broad topic of ecology and biodiversity of plant-soil interactions.

You can read the full announcement and all conditions here. The deadline is 13 March 2015. Make sure you carefully read the eligibility criteria.

We are hoping to attract some very good candidates that work on topics related to those currently researched in the lab. Examples are work on ecological synthesis, root colonizing fungal communities, Sebacinales, arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, or root parasitic fungi. You have to prepare a project plan as part of your application, so it is worthwhile contacting me in advance.

Even though the fellowship is for 18 months only, in the past there frequently has been follow-up funding from other sources.

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New lab project on trait-based ecology of soil fungi and soil aggregation

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) recently funded a new 3-yr project in the lab dealing with saprobic fungi and soil aggregation.

We are using a set of 30 soil fungi (containing mostly Ascomycota, but also Basidiomycota and Mucoromycotina), which we all isolated from our favorite local grassland site in Mallnow, Germany. In the project we are planning to measure a number of characteristics of fungi (a.k.a. traits) that we want to correlate with different aspects of soil aggregation, namely aggregate formation, stabilization and also disintegration. This research is pursuing a trait-based approach in order to achieve a greater degree of generalizability of results than would normally be possible with standard comparative approaches, based on a few strains of fungi. Thus, we hope to be able to come to a better understanding of how soil fungi build and stabilize soil aggregates, that is the ‘crumbs’ that are so important for setting the stage for life in soil.

This project is part of a larger lab strategy to establish trait-based views of fungal ecology.

How to do good ecology? Things to think about when starting a new project or study

This is a problem with which we deal on a daily basis, struggling for the best experimental design once a question has arisen, or when it comes to refining a question. Sometimes it is pretty obvious, but we found that there are a number of traits that we tend to find appealing in others’ work (like when we read papers in our journal club), and we have – over the years – assembled a list of aspects which we strive for also in our own studies. The list is pretty general, and I also use it in some of my courses; perhaps other folks also find it useful or can add their own ideas. And: we don’t always live up to our own expectations. But, much like AM fungi, we always try 😉

Traits of good ecological research or Things to think about when starting a new project/ study

  • be aware of the fundamental tradeoff in empirical work: mechanistic resolution vs. ecological realism; you can’t optimize them both.
  • strive for maximized ecological context given the demands on your experiment (in our case this typically means using soil, plants, and soil biota from the same ecosystem when setting up a greenhouse experiment, for example)
  • when you have a choice: ask general questions of interest to mainstream ecology, e.g. about diversity, community ecology, etc.
  • seek firm grounding in applicable ecological theory
  • become intimately familiar with a group of organisms or a system
  • pick a system that is suitable for the question you want to answer; this may mean deviating from your ‘favorite’ system (this often remains a noble goal….but we’re trying)
  • become intimately familiar with quantitative analysis methods using ‘R’ (everybody knows this)
  • strive for high external validity (i.e. the degree to which your results can be generalized)
  • think carefully about the sampling and experimental design; for example: replicate at the right level (avoid pseudoreplication at any level, including taxonomic), randomize treatments, when feasible conduct power analysis. Think about this before you begin with your study, not when you have to analyze the data.
  • think about data management and archiving (does anybody want to look at my cute collection of 3 1/2 inch floppy disks from my Ph.D.?)
  • consider setting up experiments that last for longer periods of time to access long-term effects (I remind myself of this every year…sigh!)