Traineeship at SES-LINK

By Rodrigo Martinez

What is it like to do an traineeship at SES-LINK?

I got attracted to this traineeship because I was interested in doing my master’s thesis with the SES-LINK since I wanted to gain a more abstract perspective of coupled social-ecological systems. I thought that this traineeship was a good opportunity to know the group and decide whether I was really interested in their approach or not. But, the traineeship was related to an agent-based model and I knew nothing about it. So I was afraid of getting lost in programming technicalities and felt insecure about being surrounded by experts. Though, it ended up being a smooth introduction to both modelling and the work group.

My task was making a description of how a model that was developed by the group worked – AgentEx . The description was meant to be the content of the information tab of the model, which means that it needed to be clear and comprehensive so any user could understand it. Such a task led me to really understand how AgentEx was able to tackle a theoretical question – “what is the role of social skills and confidence in personal knowledge for forming collective action?” It also allowed me to grasp the conceptual model behind the model, which is the core idea that defines every part of its mechanism.

The way I got to understand this model – and I think models in general – was by going through a progressive and almost playful process. First, I read a couple of scientific papers my traineeship supervisor Nanda Wijermans gave me – they made me reflect on modelling before even witnessing a model. Afterwards, I started to play with AgentEx and simultaneously I read a previous technical description ODD+D. In parallel, during the weekly group meetings, to which I was invited to attend, I listened at researchers and PhD students discussing conceptual models. As they knew that me and other trainees were new in this field, they made space for explaining some pieces of theoretical background. And finally and most importantly, I had a weekly meeting with my supervisor. It was a space where she gave me specific input wherever I needed, and together we revised my progress.

The SES-LINK group made me see that in spite of a lack of knowledge on programming, one can contribute to discuss conceptual models since what it really matters is the ability to define the components of the problem that is being as well as the components of a question that is being asked. In this sense, my supervisor encouraged me to express my thoughts. Every time I had something to say she listened carefully and often included my comments in the decisions about how to proceed or what to do. After some weeks I realized that it was what she expected from me, and of course not knowing programming –it seemed pretty obvious then. It was really nice being actively included in the decision making of my traineeship and in the group’s discussions.

What did I learn during my traineeship at SES-LINK?

Yes, I learnt about models but what I find more important is that I learnt about how to do science with models, since such a way of working is useful for social-ecological research in general and, I am sure, for any kind of research.  That learning was regarding two aspects: systematic work and systemic thinking.

Systematic work has many angles; those that I learnt during my traineeship are related to communicability and comparability of research findings. The concrete actions that I practiced were: clarifying the concepts, making assumptions explicit, stressing out purposes, explaining why the method is relevant, and underlining limitations. I also learnt that one important part of research is developing standards for making finding communicable and comparable – such as the ODD+D.

Studying coupled social-ecological systems is tricky because both society and ecosystems have internal processes that affect the interaction between them, which feedback to internal processes.  Systemic thinking is necessary for disentangle this complexity. During my traineeship I learnt from the way AgentEx was designed, that even though it is necessary to integrate as much as elements as possible in social-ecological system research, for understanding them is convenient to add one element at the time. First, understanding each element of the system, then each connection between the parts, then all the parts put together, and finally how the system evolves if one element changes, then two elements, and so on.  Studying this in real life settings might require several years of careful observations within controlled environments, which is difficult to get. Whereas by using a model, several months of work can contribute to generate evidence that along with field and laboratory work can provide solid understanding.

I liked this traineeship because even though I still know nothing about programming, now I have a broader understanding of what agent-based models are, what they are useful for in social-ecological research, and I got at taste of the systematic work and systemic thinking that are behind them. Finally, I must say that from my traineeship time I can affirm that SES-LINK is a good example of a group where engaged discussions are carried on in a very respectful and fruitful way.

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Rodrigo – Conducting a pollination experiment in central Mexico