In early January I began a distance learning course run by a collaboration of the University of Idaho and the University of Toronto on the subject of Landscape Genetics. If you’re not familiar, landscape genetics uses population genetics and landscape ecology combined through spatial statistics to try and discover the effect landscape has on genetic processes. On the face of it, it sounds pretty simple, especially for someone like me with a background in population genetics. You just add in some landscape metrics, take into account the habitats, the mountains, the roads, and you’re there? Nope. Unsurprisingly, as with most science, it’s much more complicated than that, and I have a whole new long list of things to get to grips with.

Landscape genetics is going to make up at least a third of my PhD, so it’s clearly something I need to figure out early on! So, when in February the opportunity to join a group project within the course came up, I decided it was a good idea. So now I work with three other students and two senior academics on a landscape resistance simulation project with an aim to publish a manuscript in 2021. It’s the first time I’ve worked with academics at American and Canadian Universities and it’s fascinating to learn the differences between the UK and N. American systems and work with students with very different focusses. Amongst the four of us, one is working on African Lions, another on Salamanders, one on mink and me, on Malagasy rodents and fleas. It makes for an interesting group!

At the beginning of our meetings, I was pretty new to video conferencing for work, my only experience being the odd terrifying Skype job interview. Shocking as it seems in April 2020, I had never even heard of Zoom! I’ve always prided myself on my ability to relate to people in person, during meetings I can read body language well and feel much more comfortable. But international collaboration is an important part of academia and the project seemed like an awesome opportunity for some hands-on Landscape Genetics, so I knew I needed to give it a good go. At the beginning of the meetings, I went in pretty nervous but had a little spiel prepared explaining my population genetics experience, a description of my PhD and why I wanted to do the project. But when it came time for me to introduce myself, I forgot to say anything about population genetics, forgot to breathe properly and trailed off awkwardly. So yeah, not what I intended I must say. With the format of online meetings I find it hard to voice my opinion or say my piece sometimes, the spotlight seems on you in a different way than it does during a normal meeting.

A month and a half later, the imposter syndrome of not knowing anything about landscape genetics hasn’t gone completely (from talking to a number of senior academics in the field, I’m not sure it ever does), but I’ve got to know my group members pretty well and look forward to seeing them each week. Working across 4 time-zones is quite tricky sometimes, I’ve tuned into the meeting from all sorts of places: on holiday in New Orleans, the basement in Zoology, a train station and – now we’re in lockdown – in my parent’s house with a cat walking across the keyboard. I’ve learned that sometimes you have to jump in and get your point across, even if you accidentally talk at the same time as someone else, everyone does it! And that taking notes during the meeting really helps me to focus, as it can be easy to drift away in a video conference I find, it’s all about getting used to it.

In this rather odd time, trying to get used to working from home, I really like that there’s one part of my week that has always been online, so it hasn’t had to change. It has certainly prepared me for this lockdown-era of online working. Even though landscape genetics is hard, I’m learning a lot of new things and I’m so glad I jumped at the opportunity and joined the project when I did!