Suz Everingham coordinates a worldwide research network, the Bug Network, from Bern. The unusual story of a young biologist who moved from the ocean in Australia to the Aare.
By Kaspar Meuli
How does climate change affect the interaction of plants and pests? Answers to this question are currently being sought by a Bernese research project with offshoots all over the world. Eric Allan, Professor of Community Ecology at the University of Bern, and Anne Kempel from the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (WSL) in Davos came up with the idea. And then, just over a year ago, Suz Everingham joined BugNet, as the scientific network is called. Her task: to put the idea into practice.
The Australian biologist had responded to a call for applications for a BugNet postdoc position funded by the Oeschger Centre. Not least because the interdisciplinary research environment at the OCCR appealed to her. And she had exactly the right specialist background: she wrote her doctoral thesis at the University of New South Wales on "Responses of plant traits to climate change". Among other things, she tried to quantify the changes already caused by climate change.
And there is something else that distinguishes Suz Everingham's career: she is a shrewd communicator with a regular presence on social media. "I've always been very active in science communication," she says. "I consider communicating knowledge an important part of my career." Among other things, she is active with an organisation called Skype a Scientist, through which she answers questions to school classes around the world.
And now, Suz Everingham has been living in Bern for a year. It's her first time living abroad - and it wasn't an easy start in the middle of Corona time. Not to mention the unfamiliar climate and the homesickness for the ocean. "Luckily there's the Aare in Bern for swimming," she says with a smile.
But it is not only the quality of life that has made the biologist settle down in Bern. Above all, she is on fire for her work at the Institute of Plant Sciences. "The responsibility I've been given," she explains, "is quite extraordinary for a first postdoc position." Suz Everingham coordinates the work of around 100 BugNet staff in 16 countries on six continents. They have responded to calls in various ecological societies, scientific networks and Twitter threads.
The coordinator keeps in touch via Zoom meetings, or even visits the field work in person, as was recently the case in Greece and Romania. And she evaluates the data that arrive in Bern from all over the world. For example, 25,000 insect samples, some of which first have to be identified as species. Above all, however, the data concern the inventory of plants and pests - more precisely insects, pathogenic fungi and molluscs - from what are now 69 research sites. And they document the damage done to the plants. "We get excellent data material," emphasises Suz Everingham. In return, the network's volunteers - from students to established professors - can look forward to co-authorship of the planned high-profile publications.
In order for the data to be compared at all, detailed protocols were first drawn up, according to which the project workers must proceed when recording the plant and pest population. These protocols include, for example, how exactly to select the ten 1x1 m trial plots, or how to collect pests with the help of a leaf blower - the instructions are also available as a Youtube film.
And finally, Suz Everingham is doing field work herself as part of the BugNet at a site in Münchenbuchsee. The areas studied are typical of grasslands in the Swiss midlands with species such as upright trespass, woolly honey grass or field widow's-flower. On the studied plots just outside Bern, 1053 insects were found, including many spiders, grasshoppers, beetles, flies and ants. Other Swiss experimental sites can be found in the Jura and in Davos.
The Swiss sites demonstrate the strategy of the entire project: the BugNet not only maps different geographical regions, but also different altitudes and vegetation types. This is the only way to say something about the consequences of climate change without having to rely on decades of observation series. "We trade time for space," explains Suz Everingham. In other words: Looking at conditions in southern Europe, for example, shows what conditions plants and pests will face north of the Alps in a few decades. "This allows us to predict how, for example, the way plants are attacked will change with climate change."
Among other things, the comparative study wants to find out how important the direct effects of climate are compared to the indirect effects that are evident in changes to the plant community. In addition, BugNet wants to find out when insects, fungi and snails have the strongest effects on plant communities - be it on productivity, community composition and diversity. And finally, the researchers also want to know whether pests differ in their effects on plant communities. The first results are to be published in 2023.
Suz Everingham's personal future is far less clearly planned. Her postdoctoral position in Bern is limited to three years. She would like to remain in research after that. "I like the freedom in academia to be able to ask questions," she says. "But where this will be possible in the future, I don't know yet." Suz Everingham is only at the beginning of her exciting journey into the wide world of science.
ABOUT THE OESCHGER CENTRE FOR CLIMATE RESEARCH
The Oeschger Center for Climate Change Research (OCCR) is one of the strategic centers of the University of Bern. It brings together researchers from 14 institutes and four faculties. The OCCR conducts interdisciplinary research at the cutting edge of climate change research. The Oeschger Center was founded in 2007 and bears the name of Hans Oeschger (1927-1998), a pioneer of modern climate research, who worked in Bern.
Further information: https://www.oeschger.unibe.ch/index_ger.html
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kaspar Meuli is a journalist and PR consultant. He is responsible for the communication of the Oeschger Centre for Climate Research.