The NTNU University Museum plays home to a number of diverse subspecies of academics: master’s students, PhD candidates, research technicians to name a few. I spoke to Malene Nygård, who has been all three over the last three years, about designing her own Masters and PhD theses, her international master’s course and getting past ‘winter depression’ in Trondheim.
Malene, you completed almost your entire Masters program down here at the University Museum, how did that come about?
I was part of the NABIS program, a Scandinavian Masters program in Biodiversity and Systematics. It’s a collaboration between 7 Scandinavian universities. I took online courses and wrote my thesis down here at the Museum.
How did you find your thesis project?
I heard they were going to start a project on Carex species (sedges), and I really love Carex. I was really fascinated by them during my floristics course. They’ve got a really complex history, there’s a lot of hybridisation between them. So once I heard they were going to start a project I made contact and told them I wanted to be a part of this.
Magni Kyrkjeeide, who now works at NiNA, she was a teacher’s assistant during that floristics course I took in my Bachelors. Magni knew that I was interested in Carex, so she contacted me and put me in touch with the right people.
In total it was one year, but the work took place over two years. I actually started my field work before I started my Masters. I said I wanted to be a part of the project during the last year of my Bachelors, so half a year before I was finished I knew the project I wanted to work with.
Was the project a deciding factor in bringing you to the museum?
Definitely, but I also knew I wanted to study Biosystematics, and that’s mostly done here, at the NTNU University Museum.
Tell me about the goals of your thesis.
It was a population genetic study of 2 threatened Carex species. People disagree about the delimitation of species within the Ceratocystis (a small group within Carex), where these two sedges belong. The largest disagreement concerns Carex jemtlandica and Carex lepidocarpa, whether they are one or two species. We wanted to study the population genetic structure to see if they are genetically distinct and if they are hybridising in natural populations. So I included almost all the Norwegian species in Ceratocystis, and it was a huge dataset. We ended up limiting the dataset so it didn’t get too big. I have plans to use all the data in future publications.
Did you manage to draw any conclusions from your research?
I found two separate genetic clusters that corresponded to two separate morphologies, which was interesting. Also, gene flow occurred between them. There was both hybridisation and introgression (when hybrids repeatedly back-cross with parental species) occurring between them, but they still remained genetically distinct, even in locations where they co-occurred. It’s difficult to say if we should consider them as species or subspecies, but they should definitely be considered as two genetically distinct clusters.
Who was your supervisor for the project?
Mika Bendiksby. We have a really nice connection, and Mika makes it really easy to open up and discuss your weaknesses. She turns it into a strength, by helping you overcome those weaknesses. If she’s not an expert on the area you’re working with, she will find the right person to help you. If she can’t help you directly she’ll find someone who can.
Your master’s course, were there opportunities to meet other students?
Yes, I had a course in Uppsala in Sweden as well, near the start of the course. It was the second course of the program. The first part was internet based, with individual tasks and exercises. Then we met in Sweden and had practical training and collected material. We worked in a lab, analysed the results, and got to know each other. It’s important to be able to put a face to a person if you’re going to be working together over a few years. There were 6 of us in my cohort.
I would imagine that would produce some pretty handy connections?
Sure. I still have contact with most of the people from the course. Some of the people from Sweden are now doing PhDs as well. I’m meeting one of them in a conference in Gothenburg. We discuss projects, we talk about different ways we’ve solved problems and such.
So what happened after you’d finished your Master’s?
Five days after I finished my thesis, I started work here as a technician.
How did you organise that?
Mika knew that I wanted to stay on at the museum and do a PhD, and she knew that it’s hard to stay in the academic circle if you don’t do anything academically. So Mika applied for money for different pilot studies for me to work on and I got the position as a technician. I worked here for 5 months, spending time in the lab, herbarium, and filling in for Mika a lot. We had to reorganise a lot of the herbarium material, and helped prepare for the installation of a new archiving system.
I successfully applied during the end of my Masters for a PhD, and that started in February.
How have the first few months of your PhD been?
I really like it. I get to design my own project, of course it’s hard when you have to build it from scratch, but I think it will help me be more interested in everything and build motivation, because it feels more like it’s my project.
I’ll be working with conservation genomics on red-listed plants in Norway, specifically the Trondheim area. In order to conserve the species diversity, we need to know what species exist and their ecological needs to maintain a viable population. I’ll be using a genomics approach to identify, describe and delimit diversity in different threatened vascular plants, and unravel processes that influence the genetic diversity within and between these species.
What’s the environment like at the museum?
It’s really good, especially now that we have a lot of new young people. It’s such a social environment, it’s a small institution so it’s more cosy, compared to Gløshaugen where you could walk by the person sitting in the office next to you and never really talk to them. But here you really get to know other people, what they’re like, what they’re working on. You can also learn more about other disciplines.
What brought you to Trondheim originally?
I’m originally from Kristiansand, but I wanted to study somewhere else, I wanted something new. I went directly from high school to university, and didn’t have the time to travel, so I wanted to experience something new while I was studying.
So how do you enjoy life in Trondheim?
Yeah it’s great! I had some problems after about 4 years, I had really bad winter depression, which made it tough. I was thinking about moving south after my Masters. But then the summer came back and all these bad thoughts went away. So now I take supplements during the winter and everything’s fine. I learned that every bad thought that I had put down to overwork was just a product of the winter.
Do you have any advice for people looking for a master’s thesis?
It’s important to find a supervisor that you can connect with and work really well with. It’s possible to complete a masters without that, but it makes it a bit more difficult. As long as you have a really interesting subject it’s easy to get focussed and be motivated.