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People using TERN: Siân Howard

An honours student at the University of Adelaide is using TERN’s collaborative data and research infrastructure to progress important national research

Meet Siân Howard. Siân is an early career researcher who is investigating the potential of using the waxes contained in leaves from a range of Australian environments as biomarkers for indicating climate. The particular wax compounds Siân is studying, n-alkanes, are not only persistent in leaves but also in the soils where they accumulate from surrounding plants. With only a year to complete the study and requiring access not only to leaf samples but also detailed soil information, the traditional option of collecting field samples was out of the question.

Luckily for Siân, the types of tools available to help researchers in positions like this are becoming more accessible and sophisticated. Open access to online data, data visualisation tools and sample collections are now enabling ecosystem science researchers, like Siân, to discover, visualise and analyse Australia’s ecosystems from their desks like never before.

One such tool that does just this, and enabled Siân to undertake her important research, is Soils to Satellites (S2S).

The tool, developed collaboratively by TERN’s Eco-informatics facility, the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) and the Australian National Data Service (ANDS) – all part of the Department of Education’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) – brings diverse datasets together into an easy-to-use interface that enables visualisation and comparison. Available datasets include: ecological data, collected by TERN facilities AusPlots and the Australian Transect Network (ATN) and supplied via ÆKOS; metabarcoding data, via the BASE project; remote-sensing data, from AusCover; and spatial and biodiversity data from ALA.

The S2S tool enables researchers to explore and display relationships between disconnected datasets in ways that were not previously possible. For example, researchers are able to display layers of Australian environmental data such as elevation, temperature or soil type, then drill-down to compare vegetation and genomics data across those layers, and perform subsequent analyses across the combined datasets.

Siân used S2S to identify the dominant species at a range of TERN AusPlots and ATN study sites spanning an ecological gradient from the south coast to northern Australia.

‘I used S2S to quickly get information about the different sites I’d selected for my study,’ says Siân. ‘In an instant, I was able to determine the top three dominant plant species at each site so that I could subsample these, as well as get detailed information about the character of the soils that I subsampled at each site.’

Siân was then able to combine the published data from S2S with thousands of vegetation and soil samples collected from over 330 1-hectare sites generated, stored and made available by TERN’s ATN and AusPlots facilities. She accessed the samples and was able to extract leaf-waxes from dried plant and soil specimens for her research sites.

‘As an honours student, I only get a little under a year to begin and complete my project. S2S allowed me to avoid time consuming field work, which given the scope of this project, would have been impossible in the given time frame. S2S is also really easy to use and contains a lot of very useful data. As well as this, the people behind it all are very supportive and have been eager to help me with my questions,’ says Siân.

Siân’s supervisor and ARC Future Fellow Dr Francesca McInerney is also impressed by the sample collections available.

‘Being able to access these collections means we were able to significantly expand the scope of this project,’ said Francesca. ‘This is an amazing resource provided by TERN. I only wish we had similarly available and well documented collections in the United States!’

Without access to data discovery tools like S2S and openly accessible sample collections it is highly unlikely that Siân’s research would be achievable in such a short time frame. And with such important project outcomes, not having research like this would a significant loss to the ecosystem science community.

‘I am hoping to find out whether these plant biomarkers can be used as a tool for determining past climate conditions, and in doing so, assist with paleoclimate reconstruction,’ says Siân. ‘Our climate is ever changing, and if we are better able to understand past climates, we are better placed to manage the impacts of a changing climate today.’

University of Adelaide honours student Siân Howard used the Soils to Satellites website to identify the dominant species at a range of AusPlots and ATN sites spanning an ecological gradient from the south coast to northern Australia (photo courtesy of Siân Howard)

Published in TERN newsletter August 2014

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