BIOL 515 - Advances in Aquatic Ecology

Course Content and organization:
This course is designed to allow senior undergraduate and graduate students to become intimately acquainted with the key primary literature in aquatic ecology and the major issues challenging the field, while also stimulating them to develop their own ideas on how to overcome these and expand the discipline.

The classes are a combination of:
- lectures,
- workshops (e.g. how to use library and database e-resources effectively & scientific writing),
- guest lectures
- student presentations

There are four main student exercises in the course:

1) a discussion of primary literature;
2) a critical review;
3) a meta-analysis
4) a grant proposal.

These exercises are designed to encourage independent thinking, to give students an appreciation of how different types of investigations are initiated, how innovative approaches emerge, and how novel theoretical concepts are synthesized in the area of aquatic ecology.

1) Discussion of primary literature
The students will discuss a pair of papers, one of which will be among the most highly cited papers on this topic and the second of which will be of approximately the same vintage and contain interesting approaches or findings but will have had more modest citations. 

2) A critical review (oral presentation and abstract).
Students should critically analyze a paper by addressing its strengths and weaknesses, asking what questions remain unanswered and how additional questions might be addressed.  Students should also take a historical view to the critique by developing an appreciation of the studies which formed the foundations of the paper in question. 

3) Meta-analysis (oral presentation and extended abstract)
The literature regarding many basic questions in aquatic ecology is full of similar studies that have reported small – moderate effects, but often there is no quantitative synthesis (aka meta-analysis) to identify a general pattern.  Students will be given a background in meta-analyses in the form of a lecture and background readings.  For the meta-analyses assignment, each student will be responsible for identifying a topic, conducting an appropriate meta-analysis of the available literature and presenting this analysis to the class orally. 

Examples of meta-analyses conducted by students in 2009:

- Lake denitrification – Does lake size matter?
- A meta-analysis of cyanobacterial dominance: Teasing apart the importance of natural versus anthropogenic drivers of change
- A meta-analysis of trophic cascades recorded in lake sediments

4) Grant proposal (letter of intent, written proposal and abstract)
Identifying exciting new avenues for research and building on existing literature is a major activity of any research scientist. The goal of this exercise is to build on our earlier discussions identifying emerging areas of research and understanding what makes for a successful project. 

This grant proposal project will be conducted in two steps.  First, each student will submit a one-page letter of intent that clearly outlines their question, set in the context of existing literature, and provides some details regarding their approach (e.g. lab experiment, field experiment, and/or field survey).  Students will then receive feedback from an external grant panel (faculty members in aquatic ecology) such that they might further develop their ideas.  The students then have the opportunity to integrate this feedback and present their proposal informally to the class (this presentation is not for marks, but rather to help crystallize ideas). The final project is written grant proposal.

Examples of grant proposals by students in 2009:
- The role of in-lake nitrogen cycling on global eutrophication
- Cyanobacterial variability and dominance in lakes: Synthesizing the role of land use and climate change
- The effect of elevation on the strength of trophic cascades as recorded in lake sediments

Note for students from other universities: If you are registered in another Quebec university, you can take the course as a CREPUQ transfer student without having to pay additional registration fees.

Readings from journal articles will be assigned

Additional recommended reading:
Inland Water Ecosystems: a textbook of Limnology by J. Kalff (Prentice-Hall, 2001)
Limnology by R.G. Wetzel (Academic Press, 2001)
Limnoecology: The Ecology of Lakes and Streams by W. Lampert and U. Sommer (Oxford University Press, 1997)

Method: Two 1.5 hr seminars per week

Evaluation: Based on: 1. student-led paper discussion; 2. tracking an idea - oral presentation and abstract; 3. meta-analysis - oral presentation and extended abstract ; 4. grant proposal - letter of intent, written proposal and abstract; 5. general class participation.

Webmistress: Carole Verdone-Smith, Department of Biology, McGill University
Photos: Courtesy of Katherine Velghe