A quick round up

Well November seems to have flown by! I’ve spent most of this month sitting in front of a computer wrestling with large data sets while trying to extend my knowledge and skills in R use.  I was, therefore, pleased when I got the chance to spend a morning looking around a couple of Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust’s sites. In the company of one of my supervisors and another researcher from Lincoln I went to look at the newly acquired Woodhall Spa airfield site. We were met by the knowledgeable and extremely enthusiastic Mark Schofield ( mschofield@lincstrust.co.uk) who introduced us to other colleagues on site. Mark told us that the trust had recently bought the site which was once the home of 617 Sqn RAF and that they had a raft of plans to restore it to its former glory. Thanks to the penchant for record keeping that exist among the British the trust has some amateur naturalists notes that describe how the site looked and what the species assemblages may have been at the end of the 19th century. Sadly the site has been quarried since the ’70s and it seems that insufficient thought may have gone into remediation when these operations began, as a result the soil types may have been mixed and soil chemistry is uncertain, this will make restoration a greater challenge. Despite this the trust have big plans for the site which could see it return to its former priority habitat status. I for one think that the trust deserve enormous credit for the vision that they have shown in taking the whole site in one go! I wish them well with it and hope that I might be able to get involved with a bit of plant species monitoring as the project evolves.

On the subject of our historic obsession with writing things down I followed my trip to Woodhall Spa with two days at the NBN conference held at FERA in York. This was a new thing for me, but I was pleased to be treated to a couple of days of interesting and informative talks from data gatherers and record keepers of all types. I was truly impressed by the recording skills of some of the junior recorders who have shown real dedication in the amount of records that they have logged in their short careers, this made me think that I should do something to facilitate my own children in making a start as recorders, a pledge which I kept when I took them to Treswell woods last week to have a go at identifying and recording some fungi. Ont the subject of Treswell the highlight of the NBN conference for me was listening to the indomitable Chris Du Feu regaling the audience with his tales of tree slug recording in the aforementioned wood and how he had managed to get this subject 7.5 minutes of R4 airtime, reducing the PM to 1.5 minutes into the bargain!

It was with a heavy heart that I read the details of the deliberate poisoning of the Masai Mara’s marsh pride of lions (made famous by big cat diary and other TV documentaries). According to National Geographic the local herdsman regularly graze cattle in the reserve under cover of darkness and the poisoning was a revenge attack after some cattle were killed by lions. Intuitively one would think that the Mara in general and these famous animals in particular would be a source of such revenue to Kenya that there would be a big incentive for local people to protect the wildlife but questions are (again) being asked about how much of this revenue trickles down to the local people.


Male Lion (Google images)

Perhaps the biggest problem with this type of crime is that it is completely indiscriminate; so vultures and other scavengers are also affected. The poisoning of lions is worrying given that it comes against the backdrop of a recent paper by Bauer et al. which makes the assertion that, African lions, already listed as critically endangered in West Africa, are in such decline that in Eastern and Central parts that they ” may no longer be a flagship species of the once vast natural ecosystems across the rest of the continent”. Worrying indeed!


Back in harness with some book reviews

It has been a while since I last put pen (so to speak) to paper and produced a blog post. I got caught up in writing up my MSc by research thesis and then took some time away from university to gather my thoughts and prepare myself for the forthcoming PhD (now started in earnest). While I’ve been away I have kept myself busy (either earning money or overland travelling with my family in our classic Land Rover) but it is amazing how quickly one gets out of practice when it comes to studying, and how tiring it is when you return to reading!


The revised version

My current project is largely computational and I have had to re acquaint myself with R, it is shocking just how much gets pushed to the back of the mind over the course of a year and it was an eye opening experience to sit in front of a PC and think “I am sure that I know how to do multiple regression in R, if only I could remember where to start!” I am pleased to say that a few hours with a trusted text has brought all of this back to me and I am now pushing ahead and learning new techniques.

The testats1xt that I have found most helpful in getting back to using R has been Mark Gardeners “Statistics for Ecologists Using R and Excel” . This excellent little book leads the reader nicely through the basics. Starting with how to down load R and getting data into the programme through exploratory statistics and into basic analysis with a section on reporting results which includes visualising data. It also makes it easy for the reader to synthesise R and Excel and there is extra help and sample data available on the free companion webpage if needed.  I recommended this text to the university library as well as to colleagues at my student workshops on R. Although I  initially bought this book when I wanted to discover R I actually also learned new techniques for data manipulation and management in Excel. I am given to understand that this book is being revised by Gardener  and look forward to seeing the new version.

My new project will include some community ecology and a good deal of spatial analysis. I was looking around for a decent GIS text when a colleague pointed me in the direction of Brunsdon and Comber’s “An introduction to R for spatial analysis and mapping” . As a GIS novice I have found this book really useful although the data in the examples may be less overtly biological. I really like the way that the authors do not assume that the re reader is an expert in R but show where basic tuition is freely available rather than filling the book with very basic techniques. The book tells the GIS student at which level in R they need to be to start and this allows it to lead more or less  straight into the spatial content, it then combines this with more advanced R use such as writing functions and programming. Again data is provided via the companion website and the book is packed full of illustrations and code snippets, many of which have been added to my personal library for future use!

The final text that I have been using recently is another offering from Mark Gardener in the form of “Community Ecology, analytical methods using R and Excel”. In the interest of openness I should tell you that the publisher sent me a copy of this book and asked me to review it. This is a fairly substantial work from Gardener at well over 500 pages and the publishers say that it is aimed at advanced undergrads and post grads/ researchers beginning in community ecology. Without a doubt there is a challenge here since Gardener seekComm-Ecol-Covers to enlighten the reader about both community ecology as a topic (although he admits in the foreword that this is not exhaustive) and the analytical techniques needed to successfully study it. This is a feat which I felt that he managed reasonably well. I find his style easy going and he does well at not assuming the reader has expert knowledge. The book follows a logical path and is packed with reassuring screen shots and coding advice. The fact that it is written by an ecologist makes the data relevant to biologists and it all seems easy to follow, specimen data are again provided on the website. Gardener offers alternative analyses for each type of data, explains clearly when he thinks a particular analysis is most useful and then encourages the reader to ‘have a go’. I do have a couple of small criticisms though, firstly the book starts with a very basic introduction and I felt that it would better to point the reader to another source for this and secondly I have personally found that since using R for analysis my use of Excel has been limited to storing, manipulating and basic visualisation of data. With this in mind I found that the explanations of how to use Excel and then R, for the same analysis, were superfluous and that I skipped past the Excel parts to find how to do it with R. That being said, I guess that it is better to have too much information than not enough! Overall I found Community Ecology to be well written, useful and informative, and, as with the other volumes here I would recommend seeking it out.

A look back at the fellowship.

UFS 13/14 at the careers conference

UFS 13/14 at the careers conference

So February 10th, the date of the BES undergraduate careers conference, came and went. The conference was well attended and went pretty well, even if I do say it myself! The plan was to try and have speakers that the delegates could relate to, or who were in positions that the delegates could aspire to. I think that we achieved this in the main and we added in a couple of “big hitters” just for good measure.

Prof Bill Sutherland did the morning plenary slot for us and was as inspirational as ever! Telling the audience that although times may be hard there will always be a need for new blood in ecology and that those who are able sell themselves well will find a place. Prof Dave Raffaelli from York was next and talked about the science / policy interface and also had a few specific tips for the mature students in the audience. Robin Bisson from the science media centre was next followed by Jonathan Green from Liverpool who talked about academic careers; Jonathan had some particularly interesting points to make on the work /life balance.

networking 2 NetworkingUndergraduate conference delegates and UFS members network over coffee.

Coffee was followed by talks on the voluntary sector and ecological consultancy and the morning wrapped up with a panel session featuring the morning speakers. The afternoon session kicked off with a plenary offering from Julia Clause from the University of Rouen and INNGE. Julia was very charming and enthralled the audience while telling them how reflection is her major strategy when it comes to managing her “modern ecological career”. Julia was followed by Ross Mounce from Bath who spoke about using social media to manage an ecological career and raise your profile. This was the second time I had seen this particular offering from Ross but he is always good value and there is always something to gain from his talks.

A round of short talks from Sarah Blackford (can you have a Life Sci careers event without Sarah’s name coming up?), Dominic Andradi Brown, Myself and Julia (who spoke about INNGE this time) was followed by fun networking session and a final panel session. Then it was time to wind down with afternoon speakers making themselves available for an informal chat over a glass of wine.

I would like to personally thank Katherine Maltby for all of the help and support that she gave us. I also want to thank the other Fellows for the effort that went into the conference. Inevitably some of our number were away on research trips or had gained jobs and were keeping the wolf from the door, whilst poor Katie was having a knee op! and so not everyone made it to the event, but they still helped massively with the planning and tweeted their support from various locations on the day.

UFS 13/14 at INTECOL

UFS 13/14 at INTECOL

The careers conference is the final event in the fellowship calendar and we are left to look back on a pretty cool year while Karen and Katherine appoint the lucky undergraduates who will replace us. The fellowship is not about being spoon fed with opportunities but does give you a pretty good insight into the world of the BES. It lets you meet some fairly senior people you might otherwise find it difficult to meet, gives you experience of how the Society operates but most of all introduces you to a bunch of other like-minded individuals (including the fellowship alumni) with whom to go on a journey. Would I do it again?  YOU BET!

Thinking about output and health and safety.

As an early career ecologist I seem to spend a bit of time generally ruminating and mulling over ideas whilst making decisions and choices. Recently I have been thinking about the output that my current project might generate and . having recently developed an interest in citizen science I think that if we are to use data collected by the masses then we should at least make the output that is generated accessible to any interested party who had a hand in generating the data. This means writing in a manner that is intelligible and interesting (see Sand-Jensen’s  How to write consistently boring scientific literature)  but also publishing somewhere that people can access the stuff! So one of the things I have recently been pondering is whether to try and persuade more senior co-authors that we should publish work in open access journals such as f1000 research which is publishing ecology papers free of charge until the end of this year. The whole open access debate has been focused to some degree by the recent ‘who is afraid of peer review article in Science Magazine. Responses to this article seem to range from quiet approval from those happy with the print journal system to this blog post by Jeroen Bosman with Bob O’Hara writing what seems to be a moderate and well thought out response in the Guardian. You don’t need to be Einstein to look at the author pays model to work out that it is readily open to abuse and that  junior scientists who are keen to get work published and are perhaps more naive are susceptible to being targeted.

I wrote in a recent blog post about Hoffmann discovering the effects of LSD by taking some and then going on a bicycle ride. Thinking of this while considering COSHH, risk assessments and ethics forms for my current project my attention was drawn to Micheal Mosley’s current BBC 4 series Pain Pus and Poison. With no mention of health and safety, Mosley details how, in 1815 Friedrich Serturner had isolated some crystals which he and his  lab group tried in different doses to see what effect they might have. It is staggering enough when you realise that the crystals  that they were gaily knocking back were morphine but Mosley goes on to detail how  Serturner and his colleagues were dissolving these opiates in alcohol to aid ingestion! Now there is a risk assessment I would like to read!

As conference season draws to a close I had the good fortune to attend my first BES special interest group meeting. This was organised jointly between the computational ecology group and the International Biometric Society and it looked at species distribution modelling, my thanks go to all who were involved in organising this informative event.

Rock pooling with Yorks branch Society of Biology

My trip to London followed hot on the heels of a weekend visit to the N. Yorks coast for, among other things, a  day of rock pooling at Boggle Hole with the Yorks branch of the Society of Biology. Thanks go to Clive Tiney and others for organising this and to all of those who attended with more knowledge than Henry and I and who helped to make this an enjoyable day by selflessly sharing their time and knowledge. Henry (aged 8) has decided that he wants to be a marine ecologist because “crabs are really cool”

I’d like to finish by mentioning a funded studentship at Lincoln with Anna Wilkinson on social cognition and reminding the students out there that you can get a years free membership of the BES here this applies to undergrad / masters level and again for PHD.

Making sense of all that science or maybe not?

With INTECOL firmly behind me (phew) and my research project stretching out in front of me I found myself sitting at my desk today wondering what my next blog post should contain.

I was thinking that perhaps I should revisit some of the notes that I took at conference and write a second INTECOL post when a blog about taking the most from conferences arrived in my inbox. Now, while this advice may be a bit late for me this year, it did make me think. The main plank of the advice proffered seems to be that the social aspect of conference (networking and team building rather than just drinking for its own sake!) is by far the most important. It is true enough that anyone wishing to get more detail on the science presented at a conference need only Google the author and get a PDF from the horses mouth.So perhaps my time was well spent on those late nights after all!

As a junior scientist at the end of my first conference season it is not really the detailed science which is vexing me, I have an altogether bigger problem! I started the summer with interests in a couple of different areas and hoping that I would narrow this down and find a subject to specialise in but I have been exposed to so many interesting people that I now have broader interests! Just how do you choose, or perhaps you wait to be chosen!

Finally my kids went through the stuff I bought back from London and Henry (age 8) saw the INNGE badge and asked what it stood for. When I told him he said “did you bring that for me because I am the next generation of ecologists?”  “Of course” I replied. He is already working on his French for 2017!


A view from INTECOL and beyond.

This year I have been privileged to gain a place on the BES undergraduate fellowship and this allowed me to attend  the annual meeting which was held, in conjunction with INTECOL,  at the ExCel in London. It was particularly poignant since this is the centenary year

UFS 13/14 at INTECOL

UFS 13/14 at INTECOL

Things started a few days before conference with access to the useful online app which allowed remote viewing of the whole conference programme. The UFS met with Fran Sconce on Sunday afternoon and made our way to Docklands and the ExCel, a venue so large that it has 2 DLR stations. For us the afternoon was taken up with pre-registration workshops run by Karen Devine and the ever helpful Tom Ezzard  and his colleagues from the International Network of Next Generation Ecologists (INNGE). Meanwhile others attended parallel sessions on forest ecology and eco trips in and around London. This was all followed by a mixer which gave an opportunity to meet up with old colleagues or to be introduced to new people.

I don’t intend to talk about the specifics of the science here, there was too much for one thing and I need time to digest it all, so perhaps I will talk about some of that in forthcoming posts. So how did I find the conference? Firstly it was bigger than I could ever have imagined, I mean really big! It wasn’t the first scientific conference that I had attended but it was the first with multiple parallel sessions and it was difficult to decide where to go next at times. Some of the talks left me reeling and wondering if other delegates were similarly lost, I am a junior ecologist and some of the topics were very narrow and completely new to me. Having said that it was really friendly and people were easy to talk to.

I liked the way that the days were structured with two plenaries interspersed with symposia, workshops and poster sessions. Having the plenary up first gave an extra incentive to arrive punctually and usually got the mind working with something insightful or thought provoking. I thought the choice of plenary speakers was interesting especially on the final day with Martin Nowak presenting some, perhaps controversial, thoughts from his 2010 paper “The Evolution of Eusociality” in the morning and Tim Clutton Brock coming at the same topics from a different angle in the afternoon, this was an invigorating way to end the week and I remember thinking at the time that it was a shame that a number of delegates had obviously left early and so missed it.  Besides the plenary speakers I saw some truly inspiring speakers amongst whom Corey Bradshaw  and Barbara J Anderson  stood out as excellent communicators. However my top marks for presentation must go to Alexandra Sutton who, when beset with technical gremlins, presented her PHD research from memory with no AV support at all! There really was a lesson for early career scientists about the importance of honing presentation skills and this was driven home when Joel Cohen  spoke so engagingly  for 45 minutes about Taylor’s law. With this in mind I have booked a place on the mastering ecology symposium where I hope to get practice presenting my own research.

A further highlight was the way that twitter was used at the conference (#INT13) with plenary questions taken on the hashtag and many people (myself included) live tweeting from the parallel sessions. One downside here though was the lack of available charging points for hand held devices in the symposium rooms. Kathryn Luckett (@DExtER_Exp) used twitter to great effect to highlight the disparity between the numbers of male and female speakers at the conference , this was particularly noticeable during the panel debate where all 4 speakers were senior male scientists (Granted that one female was invited but dropped out through illness). Live tweeting turned out to be a real challenge; firstly a junior scientist needs to pluck up the courage to put their interpretation of the talk out there, then you need to get around the fact that you always thought it was rude to be using a mobile device while somebody was talking to you and finally you need to be able to do 3 things at once (listen, interpret and communicate). However once I got the hang of it I did find that tweeting helped me to engage more with the science and I was genuinely excited to see some of my tweets re tweeted!

I found the week to be thought provoking and inspiring in equal measure and the social events each evening were often second to none, particularly the final bash to celebrate 100 years of the BES on which the committee deserve hearty congratulations .  On a personal note I was also pleased to see Libby John, who has made a real difference at Lincoln University and who encouraged me to join the BES, receive an award for her service as erstwhile chair of the education committee.

I owe the BES a genuine debt of gratitude for a very memorable week, THANK YOU!

Next year’s meeting is in Lille, hope to see you there!

It is probably worth repeating here that the BES offers a years free membership if you join as a student.

From LSD through job hunting to hungry bears

I recently read a fascinating account by Mike Jay in Nature http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v497/n7450/full/497435a.html which celebrated the legacy of Albert Hoffmann who discovered LSD some 75 years ago. Jay describes how Hoffmann was searching for a cardiovascular stimulant and thought that LSD might do the trick. However the drug originally appeared to show little promise and so was shelved until Hoffmann recreated it on an apparent whim. Working with LSD Hoffmann noticed a feeling of dizziness and mild psychoactive effects and so decided to take what he thought would be an imperceptible 250 micrograms of the drug, before cycling home, to see if it was causing these symptoms. Jay goes on to talk about a wildly hallucinatory bike ride of a lifetime, complete with a “kaleidoscope of fantastic images”, the rest as they say, is history. Imagine writing the funding application in today’s climate! But I suppose a few free samples might help.

I’ve been thinking about open access recently with organisations like the BES (@BritishEcolSoc) making their journals open access after 12 months and I got to thinking how expensive it would be to  access  journals without institutional privileges. This led me to enquire whether the university ( http://www.lincoln.ac.uk/home/) might provide better facilities for alumni wishing to use electronic resources for research. It seems that the university is willing but at this moment in time the cost is prohibitive, personally I remain convinced that this is a facility that institutions should be offering to enable their alumni to remain current.

Laura Drake emails to say that The Mammal Society is holding its second student conference at Stoke on July 15, unfortunately I have a prior engagement but some tickets are still available here http://www.mammal.org.uk/student_conference.

For those who are graduating from university good luck with the job search and here is a list of UK wide vacancies in the environmental sector. http://www.environmentjob.co.uk/jobs

Finally  to  an article on declining elk numbers in Yellowstone by Middleton and coleagues : http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/280/1762/20130870. It seems that introduced lake trout have caused a decline in native trout, the introduced species spawns on lake bottoms out of the reach of hungry grizzlys. This may have caused a cascade of effects leading to increased grizzly predation on elk calves. Just when everyone thought that the re introduced wolves were responsible for declining elk numbers.