November 12, 2020, by Andrew Edwards (Ed)
Reconstructing the ecosystems of the past – An interview with Annegreet Veeken
Annegreet Veeken is a PhD student on the Palaeobenchmarking Resilient Agricultural Systems (PalaeoRAS) project
Why did you decide to do a PhD? What were you doing before?
I had a year between ending my masters and starting my PhD. During that year, I worked part-time at a Dutch environmental NGO as a project assistant in water quality and biodiversity.
Doing a PhD felt like a natural step after ending my Masters in Sustainable Development. I grew towards the idea in the last years of my undergraduate degree in Biology, when I discovered science was a career option. I was lucky enough to do research internships at a couple of different institutions in Sweden and the Netherlands, where I could really discover what my interest are.
What do you study? Why is it important?
I want to know how agriculture has changed ecosystem functions like nutrient cycling and carbon storage. Plants are at the core of these processes and their form follows their function. In my research, I make use of functional traits, which are measurable properties of species that relate to ecosystem functions. I combine plant traits and pollen records to reconstruct past agricultural landscapes and make inferences about past changes in ecosystem processes.
The past is a place of learning about the long-term sustainability of our agricultural practices. The palaeoecological tool kit allows for extension of the observation windows of modern-day ecology by reconstructing past ecosystems using nature’s own archives – the layered sediments from, among other places, lakes and bogs. The micro- and macroscopic fossils in every layer tell its own story about the time it was deposited.
My research is significantly aided by the large amount of open source data that is available on plant traits, as well as the wealth of published pollen records that are accessible for synthesis.
How do you explain your research to non-scientists?
I reconstruct the agricultural landscapes of the past and study how those ecosystems changed. Agriculture has been shaping the earth’s ecosystems for over 9000 years; this means 9000 years of trial-and-error from which we can learn!
How is your PhD going? Any highlights or successes?
I am now two years into my PhD. I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot of new skills, especially in data analysis. I’ve been able two present at two international conferences and work with my external supervisor in Zurich. I have also been happy in the Geography department as it is a nice, stimulating, supportive environment to work in.
How do you cope with the pressure of doing a PhD?
I find keeping a regular schedule and setting clear goals are great ways of coping with the pressure, which doesn’t mean I always do that!
Also, making sure I have time off PhD-ing, to go for walks, runs, climbs and to explore the beautiful landscapes of the UK really helps.