Research – Make It Up as You Go Along 

Article by Éamon Ó Catháin  (Laidlaw Scholar 2021, Environmental science)

You won’t know what to do until you start doing it. So the only logical thing to do is to begin. Then you can make sense of it afterwards.  

During the summer of 2021 I carried out a research project in which I measured the carbon content of an Irish salt marsh. A salt marsh is a vegetated coastal environment which is flooded periodically by the tides. They store large amounts of carbon (for reasons I won’t go into right now). Looking back on the project now, I’ve realised a valuable lesson. I didn’t have a clue how to carry out a project like this when I first came up with the idea. Not even when I wrote my research application. I put the words down. I mentioned things like ‘Loss on Ignition Protocol’ and ‘Elemental Analysis’ but I didn’t understand the process. If somebody had asked me to do a ‘Loss on Ignition Protocol’ at that point I wouldn’t have been able to tell them where to even start. But instead, I started at the beginning. I took my samples in the field, I brought them back to the lab and worked through the steps one by one. I overcame obstacles as they arose. There is no other way to do it. If you refuse to begin until you understand the entire process, in order to guarantee that you’ll never make a single mistake, then you’ll never begin.  

It was only while actually carrying out my project that I began to realise what I really wanted to study. The marsh is covered in different vegetation types which form zones (something I didn’t know before starting). Each zone has completely different characteristics and therefore has widely varying carbon storage potential. Some are made up of a complex assortment of native species and are slow growing. Others contain non-native species, often forming a monocultural sward. At the beginning of the project I thought I simply wanted to measure the carbon content of the entire marsh. To come up with a single figure which says: this is how much carbon is in these soils. But in the end I was drawn, simply out of interest, into investigating a much more complex and more useful question. I measured the difference in the carbon sequestration potential of native species and non-native. And I found some interesting results! The non-native species actually sequester far more carbon. They sequester less per meter squared but as they cover roughly three times the area of any other vegetation zone the total carbon sequestered is more. This means that from a carbon drawdown point of view, encouraging the growth of these easily introduced non-native species could have a huge effect. 

I had no idea that I would be led in this direction when I started the project, and that’s the beauty of it! I think that in the moment, in the depth of your research, you come up with much more interesting research questions than you possibly could at your desk, six months earlier, before you had even started. So what I’ve learnt is, follow your instincts. Start the work and let the work lead you. That’s the only way I think you’ll get anywhere.  

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