Matthew Aiello-Lammens Ecologist at Work

Benefit of side projects

Ever since my first year of graduate school, I’ve worked on a side project or two. Jeremy Fox at Dynamic Ecology has written about the benefit of side projects, and I definitely agree with what he had to say. Side projects have really helped me broaden my thinking, build my network of collaborators, and learn about new technique or new applications of old ones. However, I think one key difference in the projects Jeremy Fox described versus many of my side projects, is that I’m not always heading up these projects. That means, I’m not lead author on most of the pubs resulting from them. I think this is because as a grad student, most of these projects were things I connected with through my adviser in one way or another. There are definitely exceptions to this, for example work I’ve done on climate change and distribution modelling, but there’s several where I contributed a relatively small amount to the project. Lately, I’ve been giving a lot more thought to things I get involved in, and honestly, have done a lot less. I want to focus as much energy as I can to understanding plant communities of the Cape Floristic Region (my main research right now) while I can. My side projects are mostly writing up my PhD chapters as papers at this point. So why do I do side projects at all? Because every time I do, I learn something new to bring back to my main focus. And here’s my most recent example. I helped develop an application to interface with GBIF and build species distribution models for a submission to the Nielsen GBIF Challenge a few weeks ago. I had a great group of collaborators on this project, who I hope to work with again. I’m not sure how much time I devoted to it, but I think it was on the order of a few days. Here’s our entry if your curious. What I took away from this is really how powerful Shiny Apps can be for helping a broader audience interface with ecological data. I’m planning on using similar apps to help support our broader impacts goals on the grant I’m funded under now and those I’ll presumably be funded by in the future. Without this side project, I don’t think this application of Shiny would have dawned on me - definitely not as recently as it has. So once again, the side project ends up benefiting my major project as well!