Training and data management strategies from a multi-year experimental plant demography project involving teams of undergraduate researchers
The value of long-term ecological studies is well-recognized, as are some of the challenges associated with establishing and maintaining them. A particular challenge in long-term studies is the logistics involved in recruiting good assistants (usually annually), training them efficiently so they collect consistent and reliable data, and establishing protocols to manage the resulting data. We developed transferable strategies related to these logistical issues in the context of a multi-year experimental plant demography study. We describe key aspects of these strategies here, focusing particularly on recruiting and training undergraduates and data management.
Our project involved both seasonal and full-time assistants who were recruited both locally and nationally. Unsurprisingly, field seasons were most effective when we had an exceptional technician who stayed for more than one summer. It was also crucial for new technicians to overlap with experienced ones during transition periods to facilitate a strong institutional memory; it was well-worth paying two salaries during that period. We filled out our field team with undergraduates (some REUs, some local paid workers or volunteers), graduate students, and post-docs. We offered professional development to our undergraduates (including a seminar and opportunities to carry out independent projects), which helped create an enthusiastic and large team that could also assist on other projects in the lab, which in turn helped graduate students and post-docs have time to participate. We developed tools to ensure data quality among observers and years, including daily checks of inter-observer consistency and data completeness. Critically, we also developed protocols for managing data files and meta-data so that key information was reliably and clearly recorded in an easily accessible format. We believe these tools are broadly transferable to other long-term ecology studies.