My personal research interests are terrestrial coastal ecosystems - sandy beaches in particular. The quantitative methods I use are a combination of traditional ground-based plant ecology and phytosociology methods, and GIS and Remote Sensing. I also keep a research journal following the style of Joseph Grinnell, in which I've described about forty beaches along California's coast and the Big Island of Hawaii.
I tend to use open source software in my research for several reasons. First, I find that often times, this approach to software development produces cutting-edge analysis tools more quickly - for example, data analysis packages in R. Second, getting help is pretty quick. Third, it's free, which fits my limited budget. I use R, Quantum GIS, SQLite Manager, PostGIS, GRASS, SAGA, ArcGIS,... the list goes on... for my analysis. My philosophy is basically to use the tool that works the best for the task at hand.
Why, you might ask, do we care about beach plants? Most people seem to like the idea of having many different kinds of plants and animals around. But aside from that, beach plants are useful for people. No, you can't eat most of them, but they have an amazing capacity for holding sand in place, which means that they can reduce beach erosion during storms and potentially protect houses that sit very close to the ocean.