A short history of a sitka spruce common garden

In the mid-aughts, the Aitken lab started a Sitka spruce common garden that has featured heavily in the lab’s research. Makiko Mimura, PhD 2010, and/or Washington Gapare, PhD 2009, first obtained the seed and established raised beds. Due to the value of the collection, and the trouble of keeping plants alive at high density, the experiment in the raised beds was thinned, then half of it was propagated vegetatively, (2006), outplanted in a new trial (2008), thinned again (2015) and here we are in 2019…

Sitka common garden in 2010 –


In 2013 with some dear labmates –


In 2015 after thinning about 50%


And in 2019



Project management tools and approaches

What does it take to successfully manage a project?

Linkedin learning (available for any UBC employees, but also any Vancouver residents through the Vancouver Public Library) has a lovely, short module called “Project Management simplified” by Chris Croft. I recommend it. I have foregone official project-management training because a lot of it is common sense and getting overly attached to procedures is not an advantage in the research world, where things can change a lot and quickly. Nonetheless, there are a few tools you need.

Helpful tools.

You absolutely need a written project proposal, a detailed budget and a Gantt chart. The team needs to have a great idea (proposal) but also the means to carry it out (budget) and the planning to finish within a given time frame (Gantt chart). The larger the project, the more you need them. They are time-consuming to create, but they are worthwhile investments. The more detail they have, the better. Despite the fact that the details will change, they force principal investigators to hash out the practical aspects. The three products need to match up with each other, which will convince the funding agency you have the skills and organization to pull it off as well as help you manage the project.

Personal skills.

Here I can only give my own opinion. I believe that the project manager is paid to worry. I always look for the things that could cause delays, go wrong, might be forgotten, or might not have been clearly assigned to anyone. After all, for large research projects, the people still need to be hired, the tasks are new, and many tasks are multi-disciplinary so it might not be clear who is in charge.

At the same time, to be able to do this worrying or planning with grace, it cannot consume you.

The “Ten Commandments for a Long and Peaceful Life” by Elodie Armstrong have been pasted to my notice board for many years now, to keep me uplifted. These three in particular are useful to me:

Thou shalt not be fearful, for most of the things we fear never come to pass.

Thou shalt face each problem as it comes. You can handle only one at a time.

Thou shalt not cross bridges before you get to them, for no one yet has succeeded in accomplishing this.

Interpersonal skills.

I try to develop some personal rapport with as many team members as possible. I contact them to add their names to a mailing list and welcome them to the team.

I assume the best intentions and ask questions if I don’t understand what’s going on.

In an attempt to solve problems at early stages, I always invite people to share any difficulties that will inevitably come up, without attaching blame. I ask what they need to be effective. That is not the same as committing to providing it, which I may not have the authority to do, but it can lead to advocating for them.

I liberally sprinkle reminders all over. Professors are really busy people and are glad for any help they get with staying on track.

I build safety margins into my reporting deadlines, so that there is still time to send reminders and react to missing pieces, before the materials are really due.

Reporting is an opportunity to find out what are potential areas of concern, within the team as well as for any oversight committees. It can be a stressful time, but also exciting to see the project come together.

Financial success.

Going over budget is not an option for this type of research project. In the second half of the project, lots of small changes have begun to accumulate and it becomes difficult for me to answer the question “do we have money for xyz?” After all, we may be late with ongoing commitments,  so it may seem like we have extra money when we don’t. I take my time answering these questions, because the ramifications of getting it wrong are huge. Providing a status update to principal investigators of funding amounts left in their accounts is useful. In the last project year it is time to look at all the existing commitments and figure out how (and when) to bring closure to the project. Each funding agency has their own requirements for this. Sometimes no-cost extensions are allowed, sometimes not.


At project’s end, it is useful to review the lessons learned, so that the next time, you can make new mistakes instead of the same old ones! Assume responsibility for what is under your control, let go of what is not.


Happy planning!


Dr. Pia Smets was the lab manager for the Aitken lab for many years and project manager for the AdapTree and CoAdapTree (Genome Canada LSARP) projects.


Trees we liked this summer

Summer is wrapping up and the Aitken lab is getting back to classes and lab meetings and all the regular routine of fall term. We spent our summer watering trees in the greenhouse, presenting at conferences, trekking around the field, and taking quiet vacations. Where ever we went, we found trees that delighted and soothed us. Here are a few of our favourites –

Susannah –

While wandering around Eves Provincial Park near Duncan, I came across the biggest bigleaf maple I’ve ever seen. The sign claimed it was the biggest maple in all of Canada. I’m not sure about that, but it was very impressive. When trying to verify the claim, I found there are 4 giant bigleaf maples in Stanley Park – practically in my backyard. Guess I know what I’m going to be looking for on my Stanley Park walks this fall! One of the things I love about bigleaf maple are how many epiphytes they support – their bark is just covered with mosses, lichens, liverworts, and ferns.
Bigleaf maple


Beth –

Bristlecone pine: wilderness survival expert

This is a Great Basin bristlecone pine tree (Pinus longaeva) from the protected Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the Inyo National Forest of California. The trees in this forest are some of the oldest on the planet; the oldest living tree is estimated to be over 5,000 years old. They achieve these great ages by growing extremely slowly; an inch of diameter growth can take up to 100 years. Their needles can persist for over 40 years (the longest lasting of any plant). As they age, portions of cambium die, leaving only narrow strips of active vascular tissue and bark, leading to their characteristically gnarled growth form.

GB bristlecone pine

Pia –

My favourite neighbourhood tree:  a large multi-stemmed pine on 14th and Trimble. It’s on my way to the swimming pool. Unfortunately, I don’t know the species.


ID anyone?

Sally –

European yew (Taxus baccata) on Mt. Olympus in Greece. Yews are rare in Greece as they are toxic to livestock and farmers cut them down, but this population survived because it is near a monastery.

Taxus baccata


Iain –

This summer took me from Waterton to Jasper and everywhere in between helping complete health surveys of permanent whitebark and limber pine plots. Whitebark and limber pine continue to decline throughout their ranges mainly due to the introduced pathogen Cronartium ribicola causing the disease white pine blister rust, but also from mountain pine beetle, fire suppression and subsequent encroachment of lower elevation species, and climate change. Started in 2003 by Parks Canada, these permanent plots are surveyed every 5 years to assess the condition of whitebark and limber pine in the Canadian Rocky and Columbia Mountains. Lucky for me, I was able to help with the 2019 surveys while working for Parks Canada and travel to remote parts of these mountains to assess the endangered trees. I can safely say it was the most physically exhausting road trip I have been on!

Whitebark pine by Iain Reid

Whitebark pine by Iain Reid

Rafa –

Saying goodbye to my little Douglas-fir babies – this was the last picture I took from my experiment at Totem Field before cutting the plants down two weeks ago for biomass measurements.

It was quite a close and intense interaction with these plants since they were sowed in May 2017. Many and many assessments for phenology, height and cold hardiness.

Doug fir growing at Totem Field


Summer 2019 conferences

Conference season is in full swing and the Aitken lab is travelling near and far to share what we’ve been up to.

Here’s a list of recent and upcoming conference talks by lab members and associates.

Evolution June 21-25

Combining exome capture and pool-seq: Lessons from three conifer species. Brandon Lind.

Evolution of phenology along elevation gradients: insights from different modeling approaches. Ophélie Ronce, Isabelle Chuine, Julie Gauzere, Sylvain Delzon, Luis-Miguel Chevin

Western Forest Genetics Association Conference June 24-26

Phenotypic and genomic patterns of climate adaptation in western larch to assess assisted migration strategies with climate change. Beth Roskilly, Brandon Lind, Mengmeng Lu, Sam Yeaman, Sally N. Aitken

A forest of information: Comparing phenotypic, genomic and climatic data for managing climate adaptation. Colin R. Mahony, Ian R. MacLachlan, Brandon M. Lind, Jeremy B. Yoder, Tongli Wang, Sally N. Aitken

SMBE July 21-25

Patterns of genetic diversity around protein-coding exons and conserved non-coding elements are explained by strong selective sweeps in mice. Tom Booker. Poster session.

Canadian Forest Genetics Association Conference Aug 19-23
Does local adaptation to drought need to be considered in assisted gene flow strategies for Douglas-fir reforestation? Rafael Candido Ribeiro. August 20 5pm poster session.

IUFRO World Congress Sep 29 – Oct 5

Does local adaptation to drought need to be considered in assisted gene flow strategies for Douglas-fir reforestation? Rafael Candido Ribeiro. In session “B2a Trees on the move: range shifts, potential for genetic adaptation and assisted migration”


What will your city be like in 60 years?

When Colin started publishing his papers on calculating climate similarity and novel climates, we wished for

 a tool that lets me plug in coordinates, a year and an emissions scenario and get a map of climate analogs and their associated ecosystems.

Looks like someone else was reading Colin’s papers and thinking along the same lines!

This week, Fitzpatrick and Dunn published an online map that lets you look at cities and their future climate analogues and along with a paper in Nature using the sigma dissimilarity metric that Colin et. al developed.

Be sure to turn on the climate similarity map option when you use Fitzpatrick and Dunn’s tool – it’ll show you how analogous the closest analogue city really is! Seattle is Vancouver’s closest analogue, but it’s not a good one. You’ll have to read this paper by Colin et al. on novel climates in BC forests to find out why!