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  • Writer's pictureEleanor Jennings

Starting a PhD in the MANTEL project (or Being a MANTEL-ist)

By CLEO STRATMANN, Early Stage Researcher, MANTEL Project 10

Photo: MANTEL ESRs and Supervisors during a networking session at the first MANTEL Training School held in Tartu, Estonia in September 2017.

Becoming part of a PhD program should be a well-thought out decision, as most doctoral programs run for three to four years and require commitment, motivation, skills, and knowledge for the respective field of research. The MANTEL Project (Management of climatic extreme events in lakes and reservoirs for the protections of ecosystem services) deals with a new ‘hot topic’ in the field of Limnology – Extreme Climatic Events (ECEs).

MANTEL is an EU-funded Marie Skłodowska-Curie European Joint Doctorate Innovative Training Network (MSCA EJD ITN) which funds 12 different PhD projects focusing on the impacts of ECEs on freshwater ecosystems. The 12 PhD candidates (or Early Stage Researchers: ESRs) will address a variety of questions concerning how ECEs may, or may not have an effect on lake ecosystem functionality. To do this, the ESRs will employ various experimental approaches ranging from big data analysis, mesocosm experiments, and whole lake perturbations. Working in cooperation with “Marie-Curie” means not only high standards, but also high expectations for the ESRs, and to be part of such an important and renowned project is exciting.

MANTEL is unique, not only because it addresses a pressing issue by using state of the art research approaches, but also because it is a consortium which includes eight universities and research institutes spanning Europe. For me, the most outstanding aspect is the way the MANTEL project is approaching and integrating the ESRs. The project offers unique possibilities of collaboration with industry partners. Each student has at least three supervisors and will conduct six months of the research during a secondment in Europe. With both industry and academic project partners involved in MANTEL, there is ample stimulation and support to learn and to conduct sound research. In addition to our research, we are required to attend international conferences to disseminate research findings and network with other colleagues. Some of us recently attended the GLEON conference held in the United States in November 2017, gaining experiences in poster presentation, outreach, and collaboration (read Jorrit and Maggie’s blog post on GLEON here).

Another unique aspect of MANTEL is that it offers extended and exceptional training possibilities and an extended network to its students. Every five to six months, the MANTEL team (PhDs and supervisors) meets for a workshop, where the PhD candidates are trained by experts in their fields on high-frequency data technology, lake and reservoir ecology, climate and physics, ecosystem services, and statistics (see information on MANTEL Training here). These hands-on workshops teach us how to use crucial and novel methods in limnological research. At the same time a relaxed working atmosphere is produced among the team which makes all the hard work seem much easier. All the MANTEL ESRs come from different parts of the world and most of us had to relocate to another country in Europe to begin our MANTEL journeys. Being an international and multidisciplinary group will benefit the project and the ESRs. Hard work, intensive discussions, shared interests, and close teamwork, combined with many different and special personalities and creative minds, makes us a powerful team by being able to jointly tackle the research challenges of the future.

The challenges in freshwater research are nowadays often coupled to climate change, because many impacts are climate-driven. One recognition is that ECEs (storms, heatwaves, rainfall) are occurring more frequently and with greater intensity. Extreme hurricane-episodes, such as those that occurred between April and November 2017, or heatwaves such as the one dubbed “Lucifer” that plagued Europe last summer are examples that fit this trend. Amongst many important issues worldwide (i.e. melting of the ice caps, the loss of biodiversity, and deforestation), freshwater ecosystems are of special interest, as they provide us with drinking water among other essential services. It is important to understand how ecosystem functions and services are affected during and the after ECEs. For me personally, this topic is interesting because it encompasses multiple dimensions (past to future) and spheres (e.g. soil runoff to air temperature), but focuses on freshwater systems, which always have fascinated me and which are so important for our well-being.

My own MANTEL Project (ESR Project 10) for example, deals with how mitigation techniques can be used to try and negate negative effects of ECEs on lakes and reservoirs. I am located at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO), a well-known ecological research institute equipped with unique mesocosm facilities, which I will benefit from using for my research. An expert in the field of ecological restoration and statistical modeling, Dr Lisette de Senerpont Domis is my direct supervisor. Moreover, I will collaborate with a Dutch Waterboard (BrabantseDelta), working with high frequency monitoring data and in catchment areas which have ongoing rehabilitation. In addition, I will spend six months in Spain at the Catalan Institute for Water Research (ICRA) with my co-supervisor Rafael Marcé focusing on modeling aquatic ecosystems. Lastly, I will spend study time with my co-supervisor and expert in the field of cyanobacteria and lake restoration, Mike Lurling, at the Wageningen University and Research (WUR) in the Netherlands.

Since I began my MANTEL career in September, I have been meeting many new colleagues, attending weekly department seminars learning about various topics (looking outside the box), taking university courses, and preparing my first experiments. Also, adapting to another country, culture, language and settling into a new workplace is an exciting time for any young person. A PhD life can be very busy and demanding sometimes, but the MANTEL project offers great opportunities to realize your research with the input of field experts.

Discovering aquatic ecosystems, while generating new, crucial knowledge, bringing research forward and contributing to solutions towards sustainable water management is a huge motivation for me in this PhD. It may seem idealistic sometimes, but I like to say: set your goals high. Being a MANTELer (or MANTEL-ist!) is an honor and a challenge, professionally and personally, and will undoubtedly encourage the development of current research in the field of ECEs and aquatic systems. Finally, this project will generate expert young scientists with the motivation to disentangle future challenges in limnology.

Cleo Stratmann received her BSc degree in December 2012 and her MSc degree in March 2016 from the Technical University of Berlin in Environmental Science and Technology. From February to June 2014, she studied at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (Barcelona, Spain) with the ERASMUS programme. Following her MSc (investigating enzyme activities in lakes) at IGB, she worked as a scientific assistant and later research assistant in the field of limnology. Cleo joined the MANTEL Project in September 2017.

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