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Ilona Kater: Report on placement at Umeå University

The placement which I undertook as part of the DurhamARCTIC doctoral training programme with the Leverhulme Trust was done in Umeå University in Umeå, Sweden. This was originally planned to be from 13/01/2020 until 20/03/2020. However, concerns about the spread of COVID-19 and its impacts on travel, as well as wishing to follow guidance to work from home and to undertake social distancing, led to the decision to return from the placement early on 15/03/2020.

I was officially hosted at Umeå University by Dr Johan Olofsson, who has extensive research experience working with reindeer grazing, which ties in strongly with my own studies. Many official meetings and informal discussions with Johan occurred during the placement, which helped me gain a far greater understanding of our shared research field. It was also very beneficial to receive comments and advice about my own research project from an expert in this area. Aside from discussions with Johan, I also met with other relevant researchers both at Umeå University and at SLU University nearby during my time on placement. These meetings were very educational and engaging, and I appreciated the opportunity to get to know more of the people working within my field. I was also able to take the opportunity to assist a post-doctoral researcher in further developing a comic book about permafrost and Arctic ecology in the Saami language, which is being used as a science communication/educational tool in a variety of languages.

Whilst at the university, I was invited to give a talk to the environmental research department about my PhD project, titled “Understanding the complex ecology of reindeer in a multiple-use landscape”. This was a 20min talk followed by questions, and was given to around 25 people as well as being streamed online for anyone else who wished to attend from afar. This helped me to develop and improve my science communication skills. I was further able to do this by holding a workshop for an interdisciplinary group from the Arcum Research Centre. This was a 25min talk entitled “The Role of Experiential knowledge in Ecological Research”, followed by a 25min facilitated discussion about some of the opportunities, experiences and challenges involved in scientists and local and/or indigenous people collaborating in ecological research. Both events allowed me to improve my speaking skills, workshop facilitation skills, and led to interesting discussions with those who attended and participated.

The physical location of the placement also proved valuable in a number of ways. Umeå is closer to my research sites than Durham, making it easier to undertake a few days of winter fieldwork studying snow conditions in reindeer grazing areas. The northern position of Umeå also allowed me to experience winter in this environment over a longer period of time than I had experienced before, and though the climate in this coastal city differs somewhat from the climate further inland where my research sites and most winter reindeer grazing occurs, the broad weather patterns were similar.

Finally, spending an extended period of time at Umeå University gave me a chance to experience how academia is undertaken within another country and another institution. Learning about the different styles and formats of research and of academic life was valuable and eye opening, and I appreciated the chance to converse with staff and students from across the university and from various fields, some of whom I had both met in the past and others who were new to me. Overall, this placement has allowed be to develop some of my soft-skills in academia, undertake research, as well as through both formal and informal discussions greatly improved my understanding of my own field. This paired with the opportunity to undertake some extra fieldwork and to make new connections with researchers in my field has made it an interesting and worthwhile experience.

--- Click here to see Ilona Kater's Durham ARCTIC Student Profile ---