“…be prepared to ask questions, heed the advice given, and use the time of their [your] mentor wisely”

My thesis examined the biogeography of symbiotic arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi in ephemeral incipient sand dunes, their tolerance to NaCl and disturbance, and seasonal changes in abundance. AM fungi are associated with 90% of terrestrial, vascular plants including dune plants, exchanging nutrients and water for carbohydrates. Ephemeral incipient dunes are an extreme and environmentally stressful ecosystem, encountering strong salt-laden winds, sea water overwash, and low nutrients, and these dunes are subject to a frequency and magnitude of storm action that foredunes are not.

My research involved field work, microscopy, DNA, and nursery experiments with NaCl and introduced AM fungal inoculum, to monitor changes in AM abundance in dune grasses. This work is important to the conservation and restoration of sand dunes, which are the buffer between land and sea, the first line of defence against sea level changes. Sand dunes also support fragile ecosystems, which in Victoria include the nesting scrapes for the endangered Hooded Plover (Thinornis rubricollis), and the burrows of Little Penguins (Eudyptula minor).

I established that coastal AM fungi have life history strategies that clearly favour the most robust mutualists, and that the temporal dynamics of the fungi change seasonally as soil temperatures influence microbial populations. Further, disturbance specialist AM fungi rapidly recolonize plant remnants following storms, aiding in the recovery of dunes post-storm events. The knowledge generated by my research provides a greater understanding of the robust subterranean ecology of sand dunes, and highlights the biogeography of the coastal AM fungi at my research site on the southern coast of Australia.

Why did you participate in the IMNIS program?

I participated in the IMNIS program as I do not intend to work as an academic when I have completed my PhD. I would prefer to use my expertise in a more practical environment.

What was the most important aspect of this professional relationship for you?

The most important aspect of the IMNIS program was the hands-on advice I received from someone ‘out in the real world’.

 How often did you meet with your mentor and did you prepare for these meetings? What was the best piece of advice you received?

I met with my mentor once every 6 or so weeks, at my instigation. The best piece of advice I received was to have an ‘elevator speech’ and business cards made, for my attendance at Conferences.

Would you recommend participating in the IMNIS program to your peers?

I would recommend the IMNIS program to anyone not intending to work in academia, however they would need to be prepared to ask questions, heed the advice given, and use the time of their mentor wisely. This is not a passive journey.

What was the most rewarding aspect of the IMNIS program for you?

The most rewarding aspect of the IMNIS program was having questions answered from real-life experience, rather than a text-book response.