Ph.D candidate, Biology
Amanda Tracey doing fieldwork in Westport this Fall. Photo courtesy of Kari Knowles
A True Labour of Love
by Sharday Mosurinjohn, December 2013
For Biology PhD candidate Amanda Tracey, volunteering isn’t just what has made her time meaningful at Queen’s over the course of three degrees, it also may be what got her into grad school in the first place.
Tracey is glad to call Kingston home now, but when she was finishing up high school in her small hometown in the Niagara region, she was sure she’d go on to study Health Sciences at Hamilton’s McMaster University. Her second choice was the same program at Western, followed by Biochemistry at Mac, and then, in last place, was Queen’s general Science program. When acceptance letters came out and her top pick was no longer an option, remembers Tracey, “my best friend and I sat at the local Tim Horton’s one night and put the remaining names in a coffee cup. We pulled out Queen’s, and off we both went.”
It was in Tracey’s third year population ecology course when she got to go up to Queen’s biology station on Opinicon Lake for the first time. It was a weekend of workshops, experiments with chipmunks, measuring plants, and setting up mist nets. During the trip, one TA told Tracey she needed help counting leaves for her project about leaf size. “I don’t know why I thought that was interesting,” reflects Tracey, “but I did! And I helped her count 100,000 leaves over the semester.” By her own admission, Tracey “didn’t have stellar marks” but she put in the time because, for her, studying the natural world—especially plants—was a labour of love.
Tracey went on to enroll in Biol 537, the department’s honours thesis course, and got hooked on plant biology research in the Lonnie Aarssen Biology Lab. Every winter term Tracey works as a TA for a third year course whose students she tries to get interested in that thesis opportunity. “The undergrad thesis is the best test of whether or not you will like grad research,” she advises. “You do your experiment in the summer and then work with that data over the rest of the year. You can also get paid for RA-style work helping out grad students in the lab.”
Tracey’s undergrad thesis, MSc, and PhD have all been through Dr. Aarssen’s lab. “He’s a great mentor for me because of his wide interests,” she observes. “My own research is curiosity driven so it’s vital to have his support and funding in a time when the academy tends to be more focused on instrumental lines of inquiry.”
This research, spanning plant ecology, evolutionary biology, and field biology, looks at the implications of plant species body size for reproduction, recruitment, and fitness. “Specifically, my question is this: does plant species body size predict the success of seedling establishment in herbaceous vegetation, like wildflowers and grasses? My prediction is that smaller is better.” Traditional theory holds that bigger is better because larger body size ensures greater access to resources like sun, soil, and water. Yet, size distributions within flora, within species, and between species are all “right–skewed, meaning the majority are really small.” So why, asks Tracey, do the findings run so contrary to the predictions?
Although Dr. Aarssen has long been interested in this question, Tracey’s dissertation project marks the first time his lab has set up an experiment to address it. “Experiments can be expensive, laborious, and riddled with failures,” remarks Tracey, with the wisdom of someone who has spent the better part of a year digging and planting 200 experimental plots. Her hypothesis hinges on the concept of reproductive economy. In other words, “when plants are competing aggressively— which is most of the time—smaller species still produce some seed despite being severely suppressed by competitors, perhaps because they are clonal, or maybe because they can reach maturity at a smaller size. These are some hypotheses.” Accounting for the help of two field assistants (each putting in work for their undergrad theses) helping her collect seeds from 50 wildflower species, plus the materials for containing each plot (unwieldy aluminum cylinders shoved into the ground, cookie–cutter style), and the travel from Kingston back and forth to the (literal) field in Westport, Tracey reckons this is the 70,000 dollar question.
While she carries out this project, which will run for three seasons, Tracey also collaborates on thesis projects of some of the lab’s undergraduate students and serves as the co–chair and secretary of the Biology graduate student council. Outside of her department, she writes for the School of Graduate Studies’ student blog Gradifying. She has been a regular attendee at the SGS Expanding Horizons workshop series, where she is close to achieving a certificate in professional development. She is in talks with the SGS Manager, Recruitment & Events about developing a new workshop centered around volunteering. Tracey has also recently started a teaching and learning discussion group inspired by her experience enrolling in the course SGS 901: Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (offered by Queen’s Centre for Teaching and Learning).
Amanda Tracey with her Little Sister Becky
Outside of Queen’s, Tracey is involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters KFLA. Over the past year and a half she’s spent three or four hours each week with a Little Sister who loves to craft, bake, and play games. Just in time for the snow, the two “made incredibly cute snowmen out of socks stuffed with rice.” “I loved it!” exclaims Tracey, “It’s the perfect break from doing what I do every day and I would never have done that by myself.” She recalls hearing about the program on the radio while driving to the field one summer day. “I was already doing a bunch of volunteer stuff but nothing really with kids. Having a kid in your life makes you see life differently.”
Tracey also loves animals. After having her cat for five years she wanted more animals in her life, but her space was limited. Instead, she began volunteering with humane society. “I’m a ‘cat cuddler,’” she explains, smiling. “I go in and play with cats to help socialize the animals.” There are also annual events like ”Adopt–athons,” and “Photos with Santa” at Petsmart, for which Tracey may be dressing up in the big red suit again this year. “Initially,” she remembers, “I thought going in to see the animals for just a short time would be sad and I wouldn’t be able to do it. But then I saw how much they benefit from human interaction I couldn’t not go back.”
This year, Tracey also started with an organization called “Planting Science” funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation. It’s an online community of mentors, including grad students, professors, and other researchers, who get paired with kids from grades 7–12 working on a school science project. “I got paired with 5 boys from Jersey,” describes Tracey, “and they have a forum we can chat in, and where I give them feedback on their ideas.” She was also paired with a group of grade 9 girls and boys in a special needs class in Georgia, too. “I’ve enjoyed working with special needs kids in my role as a Big Sister and at an Easter Seals camp where I volunteered one summer, but this is the first chance I’ve had to do so in an academic setting. The girls are so funny, and so involved.” With great fondness, Tracey recalls how, during a Skype meeting when the group intended to vote on which project idea to pursue, the students showed their mentor “Miss Amanda” just how much they appreciated her guidance by insisting she get two votes on the matter.
Only now in the second year of her PhD, Tracey has already contributed widely with her science training and the many other skillsets she has developed, all involving knowledge translation and communication in one way or another. Some of these opportunities she credits to developing a history with Queen’s and getting to know its structures and people over the years. But most important of all, Tracey believes, “if I had never started volunteering, I wouldn’t be here today.”