Radio Ga Ga Science

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In the midst of the media circus surrounding our paper “metabolic rate and body size are linked with perception of temporal information”, I was invited to speak about our work on several radio shows. What followed was a mixture of immense excitement, nervous trepidation, deflation and all round good fun. This is only the third time I have spoken about research on the radio, but this time there was so much exposure that I really learned a lot – mostly how to manage my own expectations and general sanity with the whole bizarre affair.

It starts with excited phone calls with producers of the radio shows. They tend to call you at ungodly hours and want to chat with you about the work. I get the impression this is as much to sound out what you are going to say and how you will come over on the airwaves as it is to let you know what the focus of their on-air discussion will be.

What followed for me was a very exciting and bleary-eyed 6am trip to our national broadcasting headquarters RTE in their Dublin studios where I would do a “link up” to the British BBC radio stations for their various breakfast shows. Since I was just there to use their facilities, I was shepherded down to the basement to sit in a tiny studio cubicle beside their engineering and IT department. Were it not for a very nice, interesting and friendly sound engineer (lots of engineers I know are “sound” but this guy was both – its an Irish thing) Kevin Cronin, I would have been lonely and bored indeed.

First lesson – you get mucked about. I don’t think a single time-slot I was given was kept strict, so you end up sitting around not quite sure who you are going to talk to next. Then, suddenly, the earphones go live with the sound of the radio show you are going to link with, and a producer’s voice comes over to check the line and give you a few minutes warning alerting you to the go-live. Next thing, typically following some grim story unfolding from somewhere around the world, you are introduced by some typically odd segue and off you go. Talking to what could just as easily be a few million people as a few thousand. They will take liberties with your time, so if you need a break, tell them you can’t talk at a certain time. Don’t feel beholden to them – although if it’s a big show then probably you should make the effort.

Second lesson – the presenter is in charge. Make no bones about it, you are there to answer their questions, not to talk about your actual research. They will have read your press release if you are very lucky, else they will have garnered the gist from the producers notes or worse still from whatever news article they read about your work on the way to work – a chinese whispered, now long-since bastardised version of your science. In my case, I ended up talking about how best to swat a fly, not the tiger beetle that runs so fast it runs blind, or the swordfish that speeds up and slows down its visual processing abilities as and when required. No. Fly swatting. I don’t work on flies, never have, likely never will. I don’t mind though, it’s not up to me to say what’s interesting in my work for other people, just as it’s not up to the artist to determine what people should see in their painting – Jesus face on a piece of toast for all I know.

Third lesson – it gets boring. If you find yourself doing a few of these in one day, you will likely be over the excitement after the first few. Then repetition and boredom sets in. Same questions, but now, more aware of what’s happening and determined to get my point across I try to steer the topic back to the actual work we did and away from flies. Nope. Remember, the presenter is in charge. You can sense their desire to cut you off when you start to drone on, and you are back to flies. It also gets tiring, so remember to eat and load up on coffee.

It gets easier. Once the first nerves die off (I wasn’t particularly happy with my first interview of the day on BBC Radio 4 with John Humphries), and you stop trying to second guess what you will be asked, you find yourself just going with the flow. It has certainly helped me with my “elevator pitch” and I would like to think I would be more confident if and when this kicks off again sometime in the future.

It was a mad day, typified by having loud conversations on my phone in the tea room in Zoology along the lines of “yeah, no, I can’t do that slot, I’m with BBC world service at 12.30, I can probably fit you in after though…”.

Best parts – I got to chat with John Humphries live on air, shook Ryan Tubridy’s hand (I just stopped him in the corridor and gave him no choice!) and I got to talk to “Daddy Ray” (Ray D’Arcy from my childhood favourite Zig and Zag show The Den). My parents are proud to say the least, various people high up in College seem happy, and my PhD student Kevin Healy has had a whirlwind start to his academic career – on 16th September 2013 he won the internet.

Last pointer – don’t get flippant or try to be funny if you are anything like me. At the end of my piece, I took a swipe at Ray D’Arcy’s audience with a bit of a pun joke saying that some of them had too much time on their hands with their over-thinking of how to swat a fly.

Author:

Andrew Jackson, @yodacomplex, a.jackson[at]tcd.ie

Photo Credit:

Kevin Healy

Dear students (part 2)

Dear students

Part 2 of our lecturers’ letter of advice to their students …

Dear students,

We really enjoy teaching you but there are some things we wish you knew…

6. We don’t want you to fail your exams

Every year people come out of the exams complaining (or sometimes weeping!) about how they’ve definitely failed and the lecturer was clearly being mean on purpose so everyone would fail. This upsets us because it shows that you don’t trust us to be decent human beings and/or professional educators. Generally speaking, everyone does fine on the exams we set. If, for some reason (and its rare) everyone does obviously badly on an exam then it may be the case that something was misunderstood or an inappropriate question was set. When this happens we usually re-mark the exam or change the marking scheme appropriately to make it fair, and so that the number of people who pass is in line with the other exams.

7. Getting 59% overall for the year doesn’t mean you were 1 mark away from a 2.i

Your final year mark is made up of all the coursework you’ve done, plus your exams, and comes out of a total of about 1000 marks. So 1% is not equal to 1 mark. For example, if 50% of your course was continuous assessment and you got 60%, you still need 60% in your exams to get 60% overall. Often a single percent overall means finding 10% more from an exam, the equivalent of changing your grade for an essay from a 2.i to a 1st. Sometimes it is possible to find an extra mark or two but 10% suggests that the person marking the exam made a serious error, which is very unlikely. At Trinity College Dublin everything in the final year is marked, then checked by at least two other people, one of which is an external examiner who keeps standards level with those across Europe. The project is independently marked by at least two people, as well as being checked by the examiner.

8. Collective success might be more akin to collective mediocrity

Studying as part of a group can be a fun way to revise for exams, and provide a challenging environment where you can bounce ideas off each other and learn. However, there is a potential downside. Exam study groups can often produce generic essays that have been carefully prepared by the collective. In the worst case scenario, this can drag everyone towards the mean. Furthermore, unoriginal and repetitive answers can bore the pants out of the person marking them.

9. Question spotting is a terrible idea

People have somehow got the idea that they can get away with only studying one or two topics before an exam because the same topics come up year after year. Whilst this is true, precisely the same questions do NOT appear each year, and at some point we may stop using any given topic. This question-spotting leads to people learning the “answer” to a previous year’s question and trying to apply it to the paper in front of them. Not answering the question before you in the exam, but instead regurgitating and shoe-horning in a prepared answer will not gain you marks. By all means be strategic in your revision but make sure you cover the whole course, but even more importantly,  make sure you answer the questions you are given. Never rely on topics remaining the same from year to year – course content changes, as do lecturers, so you may find yourself in a situation where none of your topics come up if you only revise some of them. If that happens it’s no-one’s fault but your own!

10. Education is a privilege. Enjoy it!

Believe it or not, we hate exams as much as you do! However, we need to assess students somehow; we can’t just give everyone a degree. If we did, what would be the point in studying? Because of this, exams remain part of being a student. Notice that we say “a part” of being a student. As a student you should be here to learn as much as you possibly can from some of the leading academics in your subject. You should not be trying to learn as little as possible so you can pass an exam. Yet the question we get asked the most is “what do I need to know for the exam?”. This is infuriating because it implies that only knowledge needed to pass the exam is valuable, when learning for the sake of learning is one of the most wonderful experiences in life. In addition, many of the things you’ll learn as a student, like presentation skills, teamwork, communication skills, time management etc. are not worth any marks in exams. But these are the skills employers are looking for. Don’t waste the opportunity to improve your career prospects and general knowledge of science just because it doesn’t count towards your final grade. Education is about so much more than that.

Yours sincerely,

Natalie Cooper & Andrew Jackson (Assistant Professors at TCD)

@nhcooper123 @yodacomplex

ncooper[at]tcd.ie, a.jackson[at]tcd.ie

Image source:

readingforall101.blogspot.ie

Dear students (part 1)

Dear students

In the first of a two part post, Zoology lecturers address their students…

This week marks the beginning of another academic year at Trinity College Dublin. We’re sure staff and students alike are greeting this news with a mingled sense of excitement, anticipation and dread (!).

Near the end of last term, some of us were discussing things we wish undergraduate students understood about lecturers and the academic process, so we thought it might be fun to post this here. If any students would like to reply to this please do, we welcome your input! But please keep it polite and respectful. Most of this is aimed at the Sophister years (3rd and 4th year students) but most is applicable whatever stage you’re at and wherever you are studying your degree.

Dear students,

We really enjoy teaching you but there are some things we wish you knew…

1.We have feelings too!

To steal from Shakespeare:  “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” We’re not suggesting that you attack us with pointy objects or start tickling us, but the point is that lecturers are human beings, not robots [Though I’d love it if I had a robot to do my lectures sometimes, it’d be awesome if it would also clean my house and the Zoology microwave!]. It sometimes feels like undergraduates forget this as soon as we stand up and begin lecturing. For example, we’d appreciate it if students didn’t sit there and talk through lectures. If people are talking it makes it hard for everyone else to hear, and it’s extremely distracting (yes we can see you wherever you sit even in the huge lecture halls). It’s also really rude. Imagine how you would feel if someone did the same thing to you. We understand that some people might not be interested in the topic or have something urgent to discuss with a friend, but if that’s the case please don’t do it in the lecture.

We also work really hard to make our lectures interesting and informative. There is nothing more soul crushing than a student saying how rubbish your lectures are after you’ve spent days writing them, adding interesting anecdotes and trying to deliver them with enthusiasm. Of course we know not everyone is interested in the same things, but try to make negative feedback constructive so we can improve things for next year and don’t just get depressed about it!

2. Learning is a two-way process

Learning is a two-way process, so you have to be involved, especially if you want to shape the content of the lecture course. Generally, we are amenable to pausing and running through material again, in different ways if you don’t understand something. We can only do this if you are there, and if you ask a question. Complaining in feedback that the lecture notes or slides weren’t detailed enough implies you probably weren’t there in the first place to fill them in. Of course it’s hard to ask questions in large lectures, but feel free to ask us at the end of a lecture, during a practical or by email. Some of us are even amenable to being asked questions via Twitter! During the lectures/tutorials/practicals you have our almost undivided attention: this is the time to ask all your questions, not the week before exams when you are panicking and we are busy doing our other jobs (see 3 below).

3.Teaching is only part of our job

Our jobs as academics are a lot more than teaching. We also supervise Masters and PhD students, apply for research funding, perform research, write papers, review other people’s papers before they are published, go to scientific conferences and present our work, teach other scientists at workshops and run large parts of the University through administrative roles we undertake. And teaching isn’t just writing lectures and delivering them, we also have to write exams, mark exams and coursework, organize timetables and practical materials, instruct the demonstrators, and put things onto Blackboard etc. This (and see also point 4 below) is why we can’t always meet you when you’d like us to, or reschedule lectures/practicals to suit you, or necessarily offer ad hoc tutorials just before the exams. We’re generally juggling a million different tasks so although the change may seem minor to you, it could throw out our quite rigid schedules.

4.We have lives outside the university.

Not only are we very busy when we are at work, but we all have lives outside the university. We have kids who need to be picked up from school, put to bed, and looked after when they’re sick, we have partners who would like to spend time with us, we have friends, families, pets, hobbies and TV shows we like to watch in our pajamas. So please don’t get cross when we can’t give you feedback on your essay as quickly as you’d like (and don’t look quite so horrified on the occasional evenings that you bump into us in the pub!).  Please note this means that if you hand something in on a Friday night, it is unlikely to have been marked by the Monday morning, as we also (occasionally) don’t work all weekend. Like everybody else, we officially work only in the working week.

5. We do not get the whole summer off from work

This follows on from point 2. Because a lot of our work actually has nothing to do with undergraduate student teaching, lecturers do not get the whole summer off work. This summer I have taken two weeks off and have worked a normal 8 hours a day schedule, rather than staying until late most nights like I do in term-time. I have also presented my work at two conferences, attended another two conferences with our PhD students, written two scientific papers, worked on two other papers, supervised a Masters thesis project, prepared work for my new intern, supervised my PhD students, and run three different workshops in Ireland and the UK. I have also been preparing my teaching for the term!

Authors

Natalie Cooper and Andrew Jackson (Assistant Professors at TCD) ncooper[at]tcd.ie, a.jackson[at]tcd.ie

@nhcooper123 @yodacomplex

Image source:
readingforall101.blogspot.ie

The ‘Natural’ World

What images come to mind when you think of a field ecologist? Do you see what I see? I see someone, probably in khaki shorts and a broad-brimmed hat,  walking through thick rainforest, listening to the calls of birds, waving off insects determined to find a patch of skin to bite, and smelling the exotic aromas of plants and animals living, dying and decaying.

You may well be thinking that this is an idealised image of a field ecologist and while it may have been true 50 years ago, it’s harder to imagine now. After all, every day we hear about habitat destruction and how mankind is damaging the natural environment. But I’d like to propose that even 50 years, or 100 years, or even 1000 years ago mankind was having an impact on the environment and this idea of the ‘natural’ world really needs rethinking.

Take, as an Irish example, the Burren. I visited this area for the first time a few weeks ago and was stunned by the rugged beauty of the place. It was sparsely populated, only a few sheep and cows (and the occasional donkey) provided evidence of any human presence in places; how much more ‘natural’ could one get? Plenty more, it turns out, as the entire landscape is the result of human impacts.

The entire area is littered with signs of prehistoric people, the most striking of which was the 5,000 year old Poulnabrone portal tomb. This tomb dominates a limestone pavement with a view that stretches for miles across to the sea. Yet reading the information boards it quickly became apparent that this was not the landscape in which the tomb was constructed. At that time the area was heavily forested with small clearings made by people to farm and build their homes. The tomb would most probably have been largely hidden from all but those who knew its location. Yet over the next few thousand years people cut down more and more trees to make use of the timber and to clear the way for more farmland. However, the trees were the only thing holding the thin soil in place and with the loss of the trees, the soil soon followed, until all that was left were patches of vegetation and entire hillsides of exposed limestone bedrock. That stunning ‘natural’ landscape is the result of ancient habitat destruction!

Poulnabrone tomb. Image by Sarah Hearne
Poulnabrone tomb. Image by Sarah Hearne

 

A similar story can be told across much of the world. New Zealand, adopted home of the hobbits, with its fields and rolling hills, was once almost entirely forest. Yet when the Maori reached the islands around a thousand years ago they proceeded to reduce the forest cover by almost half, and the European settlers reduced it by half again. In addition, the loss of so many endemic species also led to changes in the structure of the remaining forests, though precisely how is still being debated.

Ewers et al. (2006)

 

It’s the same the word over. Take, as a final example, Australia. The sixth largest country, the world’s largest island, yet it has only 0.33% of the world’s population. Surely humans can’t have had much of an impact there? Well, yes they can, particularly if you think that they are at least partly responsible for the loss of the megafauna. For more details on that I highly recommend Tim Flannery’s 1994 book ‘The Future Eaters’, with the teaser that I never knew that dung was so important to a properly functioning ecosystem! But even ignoring that, Aborigines had a long and close association with the land, heavily modifying environments through activities including the use of controlled burning.

I could go on (and on, and on) for every habitat on almost every continent, but it would get rather monotonous. My point is that when we look at the ‘natural’ word we rarely see something that’s never been touched by man however far into the ‘wilds’ we go. The ‘natural’ world has been modified, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, for thousands of years as countless generations have struggled to survive and prosper.  Ecology, however much we like to think otherwise, always involves a human component. Sometimes the humans who made the impacts have long gone and the landscapes have become so normal and ‘natural’ its hard to think there was a time they were ever different. But if we are to understand the world we need to understand the historic impacts we have had, not just on climate, not just in towns and cities, but also on the ‘natural’ world.

Author

Sarah Hearne: hearnes[at]tcd.ie

@SarahVHearne

Image sources

Sarah Hearne

Ewers et al. (2006) Biological Conservation 113:312-325

 

NERD Club AGM

NERDclub trophy

And we’re back!

The tea room is fuller, society stands are being dusted down to create the Front Square Fresher’s week gauntlet and venturing out of the office during the lecture change-over times will soon be inadvisable unless you have a particular affiliation for crowd control. Trinity is gearing up for the new semester and our blog has returned from its summer hiatus.

We marked the end of the summer with NERD club’s first annual AGM. Theoretically an acronym for our networks in ecology/evolution research discussion group but practically far more appropriate if you take the true sense of the word, NERD club is our weekly meeting for people working on any aspect of ecology or evolution. It’s a diverse collection of people and certainly one of my favourite times of the week as, fuelled by the necessary provision of biscuits, we discuss each other’s research or wider topics relating to academic research and scientific careers. It is also the origination of many of our previous and, I’m sure, future blog posts.

The AGM rounded off a very successful year for NERD club’s members. Between us we attended and presented our research at 19 different conferences or workshops, received 4 new grants and produced 28 new papers, one of which was a collaborative effort arising from a NERD club discussion. We also contributed to an eclectic mix of science communication and outreach projects including radio and television interviews, blog and magazine articles and guided tours of the Zoology museum. We came up with plenty of new topics for discussion and teaching sessions along with ideas for future collaborations so I’m sure the year ahead will be equally if not more interesting.

Our NERD club awards were a fitting conclusion to a great year. Here’s the honour roll!

1)      Best NERD club session of the year: Erin Jo for her research on toxic nectar and bees.

Best NERD club session: Erin Jo Tiedeken
Best NERD club session: Erin Jo Tiedeken

2)      Best blog post of the year: Deirdre for her advice on coping with cuteness overload. 

Best blog post: Deirdre McClean
Best blog post: Deirdre McClean

3)      Best blog post pun: Keith for Apocalypse Meow! 

Best blog post pun: Keith McMahon
Best blog post pun: Keith McMahon

4)      Cutest study species: Sive for tremendous tenrecs (an unfair advantage when you consider that I study these!

Cutest study species: Sive Finlay
Cutest study species: Sive Finlay

5)      Most annoying PI, aka the devil’s advocate: A draw between Natalie, Andrew and Ian.

Devil's advocates: Andrew Jackson, Natalie Cooper, Ian Donohue
Devil’s advocates: Andrew Jackson, Natalie Cooper, Ian Donohue

6)      Best threesis video: Thomas, for explaining phylogenies by means of baking

Best threesis video: Thomas Guillerme
Best threesis video: Thomas Guillerme

Author

Sive Finlay: sfinlay[at]tcd.ie

@SiveFinlay

Photo credits:

Natalie Cooper