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Gaining specialist knowledge about mountains in the heart of the Alps

By Byron Gray, PhD candidate, University of KwaZulu-Natal, based at SAEON’s Grasslands-Forest-Wetlands Node
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Byron presents his PhD research to the Natural Hazards group in Obergurgl on the Tuesday morning

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The Alps became our classroom during the field session on the Wednesday afternoon

Mountain environments are important source areas for the world’s water resources, especially to lowland regions.

But these environments are among those most susceptible to the effects of environmental change.

This combination highlights the significance of mountain regions for water supply, but also as biodiversity hotspots and important areas on which to focus environmental change research.

Students 4 Students Summer School

An important place to be in September 2019 for researchers in mountainous regions from all disciplines, was Innsbruck, Austria.

I was provided the opportunity to attend the Students 4 Students Summer School hosted by the University of Innsbruck. This summer school was a part of, and took place the week before, the International Mountains Conference (IMC) 2019, also hosted by the University of Innsbruck.

The summer school took place over a week. From Monday to Thursday we were located at the university research facility in the ski town of Obergurgl; where better for PhD students all working in mountainous regions around the world to meet than in the heart of the Alps?

On the Friday we went back to the University of Innsbruck campus, where we presented our experiences, ideas formed, and outcomes collected from our week in Obergurgl to experts in our fields. There were 80 students from South America, Australia, Africa, Asia and Europe, split into three groups – Biology, Tourism and Natural Hazards.

The groups would work individually during the day, with a joint session at night, where interdisciplinary discussions could take place. The summer school provided a great opportunity to network with other PhD students at a similar stage of our careers working across several different disciplines, all with a common link to research in mountains.

We had the opportunity to present our work to the rest of the group, as well as challenges we were facing with our research and PhD life in general, which was a valuable exercise.

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Friday morning in Innsbruck, presenting outputs from the summer school to the experts

Byron presents his PhD research using a poster at the IMC 2019, Innsbruck, Austria

International Mountains Conference 2019

Following the Students 4 Student Summer School, I had the privilege to attend the International Mountains Conference 2019 in Innsbruck like many of the other PhD students. Here I presented a poster on my PhD research and received positive feedback and interest from both fellow students and professionals within the mountain community.

I also attended several workshops, including one around climate change in mountainous regions and bringing together methodologies and knowledge systems, and other disciplines outside of my own, such as tourism. This amazing experience demonstrated the value of such a diverse and interdisciplinary event as the International Mountains Conference.

Being a workshop-format conference, I found it a unique experience, and one in which participants were able to get involved. The outcomes from the coming together of so many leaders in their respective disciplines were evident, which is not common in the standard conference format.

I would like to thank my supervisor, Dr Michele Toucher, for the opportunity to attend both the Student 4 Student Summer School and International Mountains Conference 2019. I would also like to thank the organisers of the International Mountains Conference 2019 for giving me a travel grant as well as covering my Summer School registration fees.

Finally, I would like to thank the University of KwaZulu-Natal for providing me with a Conference Funding Grant, which covered my remaining costs for attending the International Mountains Conference 2019.

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Innsbruck, Austria is in South Tirol, right in the centre of the Alps

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