This post is part of a series on what goes into getting a PhD around the world. In this post, Ivon Pelliza talks about getting a PhD in Argentina.
Where are you getting your PhD?
I am getting my PhD at Centro Universitario Bariloche, Universidad Nacional del Comahue, in San Carlos de Bariloche, Rio Negro province, Argentina. Bariloche is a city in the region of Argentinian Patagonia and it is located in the Nahuel Huapi National Park. Its natural reserves, which include lakes, forests and mountains, and its outstanding ski resorts, are the main attractions. Bariloche is also one of the most important scientific and technological poles in the Americas, including the Bariloche Atomic Research Center, the Balseiro Institute and INVAP, an Argentine high-tech company that designs and builds nuclear reactors, radars and satellites, among others.
How long does a typical PhD take where you are located?
The Doctorate in Biology career has a duration of 5 years. A typical PhD takes from five to six years because one of the limitations is the supporting paper, a scientific publication with some results of your research that is mandatory for PhD completion. You must also present annual reports, as a kind of registration to the PhD.
Tell us about the process of completing your degree (e.g.; must you sit in front of a panel? Is it a formal defense or more casual? Is your thesis examined by reviewers?). How “important” or “weighted” is your defense for your graduation?
The thesis is revised by three local expert reviewers and after acceptance of the written thesis, there is an oral and formal defense, first just with the reviewers and then with the public. This last instance is very important because it defines the final qualification.
Tell us about your research.
My thesis is titled: “How does livestock influence the germination and genetic diversity of plant species with different characteristics? Applications for the restoration of an arid ecosystem”. My research aims to assess the indirect effects of herbivory by exotic livestock on the germination and genetic variability of plant native community, both in standing and offspring (next generation) populations, along a grazing gradient. I want to apply this knowledge to improve restoration strategies in the Patagonian Monte Desert, an ecosystem heavily degraded by overgrazing.
The sampling sites are at NW Patagonia, in Neuquén province, 400 km from Bariloche. The vegetation belongs to the phytogeographic province of Monte, dominated by bushes and considered as a xeric zone with high temperatures, low rainfall and strong winds. In summer, I carried out the collection of leaves and seeds of the species under study. Then all samples were processed in “ECOTONO” Laboratory. The seeds were sowed in a greenhouse and, once seedlings emerged, I collected 1g of leaves of each species to assess the genetic variation of the offspring populations. To evaluate genetic variation I used hypervariable markers of nuclear ADN (microsatellites). The DNA extraction and PCRs were performed in the laboratory and then, the samples were sent to sequencing with a company in South Korea. I also carried out several revegetation experiments with the native species grown in the greenhouse to determine the best strategy to restore these overgrazed arid environments. Specifically, the tested strategies included growing species associated between each other, the use of hydrogel, and the use of natural fertilizers, among others.
I carried out germination experiments of ten native species from ten fields with different stocking rates. In addition, I analyzed the levels of genetic variation in two bush species of the Patagonian Monte highly consumed by livestock. These species have different characteristics; one is an early-succession stage species, the small pioneer shrub Atriplex lampa (Moq.) Gillis ex Small., and the other is an intermediate-succession stage, the large shrub Prosopis alpataco Phil. I analyzed the genetic variation in the parental and the offspring populations from paddocks with contrasting stocking level (low and high), and I estimated the existence of inbreeding, genetic divergence and genetic bottlenecks, using microsatellites. Finally, I also conducted an experiment addressing different restoration strategies and taking into account the life history of native species and their genetic diversity. With these results I will develop suggestions for sustainable management.
Aside from research, what else are you expected to do as part of your PhD?
Aside from research, throughout the PhD, the student must complete 40 required credits which imply a total of 400 hours of classes, which are obtained by taking approved courses and/or subjects. You must also present and approve progress reports, at least an oral presentation in workshops and the publication of a paper supporting the PhD research.
Are there any particular challenges with obtaining your PhD where you are?
Some of the challenges in obtaining a PhD in Argentina are the limitation of economic and human resources, especially to do sampling trips or to establish experiments in the field. In my case, there was a lot of effort invested in carrying out the restoration experiment because I did not have funds and assistants, so I had to use my own scholarship money for it. Other major challenges are the scientific writing and the statistical analysis of data, probably because of the scarcity of postgraduate course associated with these topics.
What do you like about your PhD and the PhD process?
I like the personal challenge of constant learning, in different aspects and not only academic. I also enjoy doing experiments, both in the laboratory and in the field. I really enjoy working with plants and learning about their amazing characteristics, adaptations and uses. I believe that the contribution to knowledge is important, especially in undervalued and under-researched environments such as arid ecosystems.
Why did you want to get a PhD, what are you hoping to do with it, and what did you not realise going in?
In Patagonia, arid environments provide a range of ecosystem services essential for sustaining human life and the development of productive activities. However, land use change due to the introduction of exotic livestock has led to the unsustainable use of drylands, decreasing the livelihoods of local communities and leading to habitat degradation, key factors for biodiversity loss. Therefore, the high desertification levels affect both dryland ecology and social components by reducing ecosystem services, highlighting the need to restore and sustainably use these ecosystems. For that reason, I was very interested in restoring arid environments and the contribution of genetics for long-term conservation. I believe that a better understanding of anthropogenic impacts is critical for decision making on conservation and management of ecosystems, especially those that are impacted by overgrazing. So, if I could be a researcher, I also would like to apply scientific knowledge to strengthen and promote environmental education giving workshops to local communities. In addition, I would like to promote the production of native plant species by local people for alternative economic purposes and for ecological restoration.