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From France to Australia: the story of a remote postdoc studying sea turtles and the ecology of cancer.

Dr Antoine M. Dujon, Twitter: @AMDujon

Deakin University, Geelong, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Centre for Integrative Ecology, Waurn Ponds, Vic 3216, Australia.

CANECEV-Centre de Recherches Ecologiques et Evolutives sur le cancer (CREEC), Montpellier 34090, France

CREEC, UMR IRD 224-CNRS 5290-Université de Montpellier, Montpellier, France 

My career as an international scientist started in France. For my Master’s degree in marine biology I travelled to Mexico to study the movement of queen conchs, an endangered marine snail. From that experience I had caught the travel bug, so I began looking for PhD programs outside of France. I wanted a project with a strong quantitative component which I found at Deakin University in Australia; I would use new tracking and drone technologies to understand the migration of marine vertebrates. Moving from France to Australia went relatively smoothly, as the two countries are not that different. After a short period of adaptation immersed in an English-speaking country, I switched my way of thinking to English, learned to understand Aussie slang, and I was good to go!

My PhD was fully quantitative, and quite intensive. I spent three years analysing and modelling various data on marine migratory species and it took up most of my time – as PhD programs tend to do. During the final year of my PhD, I met my girlfriend, also a PhD candidate, and with my doctorate diploma in my pocket I had to make a choice that many international PhDs graduates have to: move back to the other side of the world once again and start over or figure out a way to stay in this new life I’d built. Luckily, I am very curious when it comes to science and the skills I learned in quantitative ecology during my PhD could be applied to lots of different topics. I applied for postdocs in Australia as I would get bored without doing any new research, but without much luck as it is very competitive. However, I recontacted one of my French Master’s collaborators, Professor Thomas Stieglitz, who needed someone to analyse data for him and I landed my first postdoc! I was able to do this remotely, based at Deakin University, Waurn Ponds.

Credit: Kostas Papafitsoros (loggerhead sea turtle); Frédéric Thomas and Beata Ujvari (Tasmanian devil)

 

During this postdoc, I continued collaborating with one of my PhD supervisors, Dr Gail Schofield, and I learned extra quantitative skills in machine learning to study sea turtles. One day I gave a presentation to showcase the results of a machine learning model I had trained to detect sea turtles in drone videos. After the presentation, I talked with Associate Professor Beata Ujvari – one of those casual chats you often have in the corridor of the university during a busy day between two tasks. We discussed how machine learning could be applied to cancer research (Assoc. Prof. Ujvari’s field) and the conversation led us to an idea to use my quantitative skills to determine how scientists organised themselves into international teams to study transmissible cancers (a special kind of cancer that behaves like a parasite after evolving the ability to infect multiple individuals, as for example, in the Tasmanian devil). It was an interesting question and being an international scientist myself, I started to datamine papers to answer it. A few social network analyses and weeks of work later, I had written a manuscript. Well, I had spent all that time learning those new quantitative methods and I wanted to get something else out of it! At that time, Professor Frédéric Thomas, a France-based specialist of the ecology and evolution of cancer was visiting Deakin University, hosted by Assoc. Prof. Ujvari (they share a substantial collaborative history). I showed him my manuscript, we had a chat over coffee, and a few weeks later Prof. Thomas and Assoc. Prof. Ujvari offered me a postdoc as part of the Cancer Ecology and Evolution laboratory (CANEVEC), with half the team in Australia, the other half in France. I would bring to the team my quantitative skills to use a mix of tools and concepts from landscape ecology, machine learning, and epidemiology to study the effect of cancer on species and ecosystems. I have since had a productive collaboration with this team doing a semi-remote postdoc.

I think that remote postdocs, in this age of the internet, will become more common particularly for projects that are primarily driven by data analysis, because collaborators are often spread over different continents. The main challenge in obtaining a remote postdoc is to find collaborators who are comfortable with and support this way of working.

A network of collaborators who know you well is important to facilitate this mode of employment; a remote postdoc researcher has to be relatively independent and proactive, so collaborators have to trust your skills and productivity. Often, you have to do most of the troubleshooting inherent to scientific research yourself because you cannot have that many chats over a cup of coffee as a remote researcher. From my postdoc I also learned that researchers should not be afraid to reach out to additional experts for advice to save you a bunch of time while you conduct your research and doing this might also form some additional collaborative relationships.

This article was first published in the ESA Bulletin March 2021. 

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