Course Review: Spatial Analysis of Ecological Data using R

Based on my previous statistical rantings, it might not surprise many of you that my idea of a holiday involves a stats course.  But let me at least try to defend this…

Back in April, Phil and I took a “working holiday” home to Europe.  A ‘holiday’ because we got to see our families, attend a wedding, get engaged ourselves, etc etc…  But a ‘working’ one because we respectively had French work meetings to attend and a PhD to finish.  Just when we were deciding what date to fly over, we both received a glowing advertisement for a statistics course on the West Coast of Scotland.  With no hesitation whatsoever, we booked our flights a week earlier than planned and got instantly psyched up for a week of geeky fun!

The course was called “Spatial Analysis of Ecological Data using R (SPAE)“, run by PR Statistics.  If the title alone wasn’t enough to entice you, it promised to investigate analyses relevant to different types of data (transect, grid, point), examine species distributions, determine environmental drivers, and quantify uncertainty.  With your statistical appetite thoroughly whetted, you would then learn above applying the results of these methods to wildlife conservation and resource management.  Altogether, a biologist’s dream.

The Teaching

IMG_3200

Learning in action!

We hadn’t come across PR Statistics before, so were um-ing and ah-ing about how good the course would be.  But what really swung it for us was the instructor – Prof Jason Matthiopoulos.  As well as being an esteemed biostatistician, Jason was one of our professors back on the Masters course in St Andrews – so once we saw he was the primary instructor we couldn’t wait to get back in his classroom!  As it turned out, we were beyond lucky with all regards to this course.  As well as Jason, the other two instructors – Helen Wade and James Grecian – were fabulous.  Full of information and willing to help, I really enjoyed the opportunity to soak up their R knowledge and brain-storm my own data with them.

The Company

PR Statistics is a relatively new company, founded by Oliver Hooker during his PhD back in 2014.  Oliver’s aim was to draw on the experience of academic scientists with strong statistical backgrounds and assist them in providing high-quality ecology-based courses.  Since delivering the first workshop, PR Statistics now offers 12 courses, covering everything from spatial ecology to bioinformatics, genetic analysis  to Bayesian modelling, using a mix of R, Python and Linux.  A full list of the courses available are listed here.

The Experience

Can statistical knowledge improve your Jenga prowess?  Jason puts it to the test...

Can statistical knowledge improve your Jenga prowess? Jason puts it to the test…

Throughout my undergrad, I experienced a few wet and dreary field trips in Scotland, so was unsure what to expect at the Millport Field Station, located on the small island of Cumbrae.  But the accommodation was fabulous – clean, warm and brand-new twin ensuite rooms just across the courtyard from the teaching facilities.  I enjoyed most of the meals provided in the canteen (although there were some dark mutterings from those previously unacquainted with the idea of Lorne sausages and haggis for breakfast), plus there was a games room and “adults only” bar lounge to facilitate some fierce pool games and Jenga battles in the evening.  I wish we’d had this during undergrad!

The course lasted for seven days, with the first five days focused on a series of lectures and practicals, and the final two days based on discussion groups.  Jason has a remarkable ability to take the fear out of statistical modelling; he explains all concepts in an easy-to-understand manner, and his enthusiasm for the subject convinces you that this really is amazingly interesting stuff!  The lectures were short enough to be digestible, with an emphasis on getting to the practicals to put these new skills to use.  During the two discussion days, we broke into smaller groups to discuss problems specific to our particular research projects.  After six years in Australia, I’ve become used to a different research culture – everyone here seems more closed about their research, scared of sharing ideas for fear of theft, much more ‘us’ and ‘them’.  So being in a group of people keen to share ideas, help each other problem-solve, and have open discussions about their work was amazing.

The people were one of the best things about this course.  As well as Oliver and the teaching team being super friendly and helpful, the students were a lovely bunch – keen to help each other in class and socialise in the evenings.  My 30th birthday fell mid-course, and I had been a bit worried about having it with a load of strangers on a wee island…  But Phil secretly went into cahoots with Oliver to organise a great celebration – booze, cake, and a quiz night!  A very personalised, memorable birthday 🙂  My birthday also coincidentally fell on a “half day”, so a bunch of us went kayaking around the island in the afternoon.  Getting up close with the local harbour and grey seals was awesome.  We’d been watching these guys from afar, as the classroom’s sea-ward wall consisted of a series of windows, allowing us to keep an eye out for porpoises, seals and otters throughout the day.  In the evenings, groups of us would go out otter-hunting, and on the final day one was spotted from the classroom window – cue 25 biologists running from the classroom and haring across the woodland, to follow the otter as it foraged around the coast!  Definitely people with a similar mind frame!

The SPAE April 2016 Team!

The SPAE April 2016 Team!

So, all in all, I thoroughly recommend checking out the PR Statistics courses.  Not only will you come away with bounds of new knowledge and ideas for your own research, but you’ll have the chance to spend a week in a wonderful location meeting a great bunch of people.  Statistics at its best 🙂

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