Urban Algae project was the last EFFS project lead by Susanne Stephan, Cleo N. Stratmann, Sonia Herrero Ortega and Mandy Velthuis. I interviewed them on December 2019 – January 2020.Urban Algae logo

a) What is Urban Algae about?

The  Urban Algae project aims to acquire novel knowledge about ecosystem services and the ecological status of ponds in urban areas.

Ponds are defined as standing freshwaters <5 hectares (sometimes <1 hectare) and are usually shallow. Although ponds make a large proportion of European surface waters, they are are not included in the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD). By sampling different ponds in many European cities, such as Berlin (Germany) or Sofia (Bulgaria) we want to investigate the ecological status of these small freshwaters. For this, we make use of the WFD evaluation criteria for the ecological status of freshwaters.

Special about Urban Algae is that it links natural science and social science to bridge important gaps between science, society and management of small freshwaters. In a second part of the project, we developed and conducted a citizens’ survey to find out how people value certain characteristics of a pond and if they would value the ponds we have sampled, according to their ecological status. For this, we included pictures of some of “our” ponds and asked people to rate them regarding certain ecosystem services such as the provision of habitat for animals or flood prevention.

Collaboration is the key part of the project and determines the way we work and the way the project is structured. We are ~100 people in our consortium, divided into 30 international teams. A multicultural setting, some interdisciplinarity and the aspect that we are in different stages of our careers (from master student to postdoc researcher) give us the opportunity for peer-coaching and we all benefit from it.

EFFS logo

b) Who funds it?

FreshProject 2.0 is funded and organized by the European Federation of Freshwater Sciences (EFFS), the European Fresh and Young Researchers (EFYR), and representatives of the Fresh Blood for Fresh Water (FBFW) meetings. In particular, the money comes from 8 national limnological associations in Europe: Austria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Spain/Portugal, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The FreshProject 2.0 project has a total budget of 8,000 €, with added support from the Netherland Institute of Ecology  and the Leibniz-Institute for Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in particular for the Urban Algae project.

 

c) What have you achieved so far?

At this moment (January 2020) we have achieved almost all milestones. In particular, the 30 Urban Algae teams have conducted the pond samplings in their cities (July-August 2018) and the water samples were analyzed for different parameters, like nutrient and chlorophyll-a concentrations). The citizens survey to assess how people perceive urban ponds has been developed, prepared and released in August 2019. The survey was online for about three months and we got about 2,000 responses. Now, the last important phase has started and encompasses data analyses, evaluation of results and finally the preparation of scientific output.

How did this collaboration start? 

a) Where did the leaders/coordinators meet and come up with the idea? 

The idea of Urban Algae was first created by Sonia Herrero and Cleo Stratmann and further developed together with Mandy Velthuis and Susanne Stephan. During 2016 Sonia and Cleo worked closely together. As Sonia has participated in the FreshProject 1.0 they have decided to participate in the next competition with their own idea. They had sampled many small water bodies before and knew that they were not considered in the WFD – that was the reason they decided to do further research on urban ponds – so the first idea was born. At this time, Susanne Stephan was also a PhD candidate at IGB and has also worked with Cleo and Sonia. Previously, Susanne executed her master thesis in the Netherlands at the NIOO where she worked together with Mandy Velthuis. We have all similar interests and expertise working with freshwaters, algae, macrophytes and nutrients and hence created the Urban Algae coordinators team.

 

b) Where did you submit this idea? 

Together, we wrote a project proposal, according to the EFFS criteria and submitted the proposal online in the middle of January 2018 to the EFFS board.

 

c) Had you thought of submitting to another society or funding institution if this call had not worked out?

No, we were only aware of the FreshProject competitions from EFFS and no further project competitions were known to us. Because we were being employed and in the middle of our PhDs and projects, FreshProject provided a great opportunity to lead your first own science project on a professional level, next to your everyday-science business.

What have you learned so far from collaboration and how has the networking helped you?

a) what setbacks have you encountered and how did you/are you planning to get over them?

Over the course of the project, we have encountered only a few setbacks. Working in such a big consortium can be a challenge and communication is very important. Finding a common medium for communication and working was the first obstacle and in the end we have found a way, by asking the members, trying things and improving them continuously. We can say that the time delay for the release of the citizen survey was a major set back. We underestimated the time needed to build the question structure and determine the right questions, to get answers that can be used scientifically. Again, working in a virtual workspace and with many different people is an aspect that needs to be considered for the timing. At some point, we decided with the team that we will not set a tight deadline anymore, but that we work to get it done as fast as possible with a more realistic time goal in mind. In the end, this strategy worked out well.

b) what has this experience taught you about international collaboration? What is/gets easier/ what is difficult?

Let’s start with good things and what is or is getting easier with time. With shared expertise and having such a diverse team, we were able to obtain high quality work. We share tasks, which helps to get a lot of work done and keeps up the motivation. Working in working groups is very efficient and makes a lot of things easier. Working in google drive as a shared workspace is very handy, too.

Time planning gets easier and you stop making “hard” deadlines, when you know it is almost impossible. Also, the insights and respect towards other people’s agendas create better understanding for an efficient and “positive” time planning (where it is actually possible to meet the deadline, so you feel good about it). A bit more difficult at the beginning is, of course, the time planning: Everything takes longer than you think. Urgent topics are harder to solve when more people are involved, because of the communication structure. It is definitely a convenience if you have a smaller project team and work at the same location, so you can have personal meetings.

The Urban Algae coordinators

The Urban Algae PI Team: Susanne Stephan, Cleo N. Stratmann, Sonia Herrero Ortega and Mandy Velthuis (in the tablet)

For us coordinators, but surely also valid for the other consortium members, finding the right balance between the project, work and private time gets easier with time and good organization – you definitely learn to prioritize. However, especially in hot phases with a lot of work, a project such as  Urban Algae can be demanding and it may be hard to balance. With the four of us working together, we are able to allow each other times of lower involvement, which is great.

Keeping track of how involved people are in working groups is also not that easy. Although we have an `activity-log´ it is not possible to assess who did more or less – and frankly, that is not the aim. But when it comes to publications, order counts (unfortunately, the place of your name in the authors’ lists is what you get mainly evaluated on in science).

When decisions are needed, leading qualities are needed. Sometimes, it is a challenge to determine who can and should make which decisions. We have found some situations, where we should have been clearer in giving responsibilities to other people and we learned from those.

Managing all the people: In general, and regarding the two points above, it is not easy to manage such a big team distributed widely over Europe.

Communication is always difficult and includes the use of media as well as the personalities of people. It is important to make sure everybody has access to the communication tools and to assess whether it works appropriate (sometimes this means just trying to find if it works or not). We often use skype or zoom and they are both good tools, but if not using premium version they have limitations (such as limited time for conference calls).

Writing emails with so many participants can bring some problem when it comes to keeping the email list updated (if people change their institutions for example).

 

c) what keeps you going through the difficulties?

We would say that there are three main ankers for us: One is the great team atmosphere among the coordinators. We have worked together and know each other personally. We are all four very different personality types and complement each other well.  Second, the responsibility towards our consortium. All people participating in Urban Algae have provided lots of their time and effort into the successful implementation of this project. Third, our passion for freshwater research and our curiosity. We want to find out if our hypotheses are right. Also, we are driven by the wish to contribute to scientific knowledge, that hopefully helps to improve the conditions for ecosystems and the peaceful co-existence of nature and humans.

What has this international collaboration achieved for your project?

a) How did you subdivide the workload? Was it organic or leader-based? 

Working groups were both organic and leader based – we tried to make create a subtle leadership. Working groups need to have a lead. We tried both ways and giving a bit more leadership in this setting works well. Especially with a complex work structure (team members distributed all over Europe, mostly virtual communication) structure is needed.

 

b) What has the citizen science part achieved? How was the turnout? (You don’t need to give results if you don’t want to, but a ballpark idea of participation would be interesting. Don’t answer this section if you don’t want to).

A citizen survey to assess how citizens perceive urban ponds and the water quality was developed in 14 different languages, and in total, we got about 2,000 valid responses from all over Europe.

The results suggest that there are similarities in the valuation of ponds characteristics, such as the shore structure e.g. whether it is natural or urban. Moreover, there might be similarities in the perception of the ecosystem services (such as flood prevention or carbon storage) and the knowledge about these ecosystem services in the first place. Unfortunately, we are not able to say more right now, because we are still in the process of analysing  the data. We expect to have first results in 2020, and a possible publication within the next 1-2 years. Keep following us on Twitter, Researchgate or save our website to your browser and you will always get the latest news and results.

     

c) What is this experience teaching you about Project management?

We learned that good project planning is half of the success, and planning needs time. Looking at our milestone plan, we achieved most of them by now, and we did not have any significant setbacks so far. However, we also came across some difficulties which we had so solve and from which we learned a lot about project management.

Would you encourage other ECRs to submit collaborative projects to EFFS or other funding organizations?

a) What does the funding mean to an ECR career?

A great opportunity, coupled with a big responsibility and a lot of work. You will definitely gain experiences, a new network and the chance to be a creative scientist. But also good teamwork, support and dedication are needed to do a good job.

b) What does it mean for the funding organization? 

Having an opportunity like FreshProject is amazing and we hope this collaborative project for young researchers will continue. The overall support for that kind of projects is great and reflects on the mindset of newer generations, to be more self-determined and independent at work. For future projects, we could encourage to build a peer-coaching structure, where the past FreshProject teams act as mentors and coaches for the new teams. In our opinion, this would enhance knowledge transfer from experienced researchers to the new teams and support them to overcome difficult situations.

c) What is the main output that you get from UA?

Scientific output is definitely a main goal for Urban Algae project. We thrive to get new insights into the linkage of perception of urban ponds by citizens and the ecological status. We want to contribute the data and other outputs to gain a better understanding of urban aquatic ecosystems and how they affect humans, and vice versa. With the main goal to publish the scientific results, all participants will gain authorships, which is great for their CVs.

Another main output on a professional level is the collaborative network for all participants. Beneficial connections, shared expertise, peer-coaching and learning from each other are major outputs for everyone involved in the projects.

Next to the professional outputs we assume, that we all have learned lessons on a personal level and hopefully have grown with them. Whether it was by working together with new people, committing free time to the project and being dedicated or by being creative and active in working groups.

Let’s see what comes next for the Urban Algae project.

  1. Urban Algae website: https://freshproject-urbanalgae.jimdofree.com
  2. EFFS and EFYR website – FreshProject 2.0 – http://www.freshwatersciences.eu/effs/index.asp?page=NEWS&Id=6&IdItem=229&p=#Content
  3. FBFW (website changes every years, because it is a volunteer-based event without a fixed leading team) – http://fbfw2019.okologia.mta.hu
  4. IGB article https://www.igb-berlin.de/en/news/urban-algae-european-young-scientists-project
  5. IGB https://www.igb-berlin.de/en
  6. NIOO https://nioo.knaw.nl/en