New Year, New Understanding of DNA


It’s the time of year for New Year’s resolutions and improving oneself. As a scientist, there are always about a million things to do to become a better researcher, but this year my resolution, and the one I hope all our readers adopt, is to become a better science communicator. Whether this means tweeting better links or publishing more frequently, the role of communication in science can’t be overstated. You don’t have to be a researcher to engage in scientific communication either, and it can be as simple as mentioning something you read or heard to a friend or family member.

The January 2015 FooDS study
The January 2015 FooDS study

My resolve to improve communication is born mostly out of frustration, including frustration with one of this year’s studies. The January 2015 FooDS study out of Oklahoma State has generated major headlines already for its finding that 80% of Americans are in favour of labelling foods that contain DNA (Lusk and Murray, 2015) . As an American, my gut reaction was sheer disappointment in the polled population. It initially seems like another instance of chemophobia, a fear rooted in good intentions and taken to a logical extreme. However, with time to think and a bit of soul searching, it becomes apparent that part of the blame rests on us all. If people don’t understand how DNA works, it’s at least partly my fault for not informing them.

The study’s result has caught fire in both social and traditional media, with most pieces lambasting the general public and poking fun at people who think DNA and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the same thing.  I think it goes without saying that bullying people over their misunderstanding of scientific terms is pretty horrible. Making fun of other people in this case is just as mean-spirited as locker room bullying and should never be the response.

Lusk’s blog on the results highlights something important, that most of these opinions are malleable, meaning that a small bit of education could have huge impact in this area. The lack of quality information and the difficulty of locating accurate scientific information on DNA, GMOs, and overall agriculture becomes clearly apparent.

Clearly, we can and should be making a difference here, and I’d like to challenge each of you to teach someone a science fact a day this year. It doesn’t have to be complex or involved, or related to agriculture, but by making a conscious effort we can increase scientific understanding one friend, family member, or colleague at a time.

Author: Maureen Williams, william2[at]

Photo credit: wikimedia commons

Seven crucial academic skills parenting teaches you!

Parenting and academia are not mutually exclusive states. Many academics are parents, we take on different caring responsibilities at different stages in our careers and take on more or less of the parenting responsibilities depending on our family situation. However, parenting is often seen as detracting from our ability to succeed in academia in the zero sum game of work-life balance.

Yes parents* can be under significant time pressures and may have their mobility restricted, but the parenting skills we acquire through on-the-job training, constant practice, trial and error, research and pure luck can also help with the academic day job. It’s time to point out those skills that parenting gives you that don’t necessarily make it onto your cv but which probably should:

  1. Time management.

This is probably the most valuable skill you can have as an academic and strangely, the time constraints that parenting puts on you help you to be more effective when you’re in the office, lecture theatre or conference. Every second is precious and you learn to do those tasks that used to take you an hour in 18 minutes and those tasks that you used to schedule for “when I have a free day” to that time in between the departmental meeting and the next lecture.


Credit: Sean MacEntee

  1. Patience & the long view

Having kids has improved my patience from fairly non-existent to the ability to withstand constant nagging for at least 15 mins before cracking. Patience is an important skill in academia, where the wheels of bureaucracy turn more slowly than a 5 year old getting ready for school. Parenting teaches you to consider the long view, you understand that everything is a phase. While you have to go with the latest penchant for “Frozen” merchandise you also keep your eye on what life lessons a snowman who longs for the summer can teach your kids.image003

Credit: Ryan Wick


  1. Listening & communication

I’ve learned a lot about my own communication and listening from trying to converse with two-year olds. Being told what to do as an academic or as a two-year old doesn’t work, its all about persuasion and compromise. Listening to what your colleagues want and need, acknowledging it and trying to find win-win situations has a glimmer of hope of working. Be prepared for complete melt-downs at any point as your target audience is likely to be distracted by many other demands, shiny lights and chocolate in the tea room.


Credit: GollyGForce

  1. Communicating to different audiences – new networks & outreach

As a parent you are suddenly presented with new networks and opportunities for outreach: at the school gate, being invited to talk to the local primary school and sitting on the parents committee. This interaction with “the real world” helps with perspective, writing press releases for your most recent discovery and how to explain the importance of the latest p-value. Talking to your kids about your work can help to reaffirm your values – why do you do what you do?

  1. Routine

Most people with a small baby can relate to the importance of routine, if you can get it. Routines are super-important for children and academics. The complexity of the competing demands on our time means that those reliable tea times, weekly meetings and annual conferences are much more likely to be attended if they’re on the same time every day/week/month/year.

  1. Perfection is not an option & knowing when good enough is good enough.

I accepted very early on that I would never be the perfect parent. I read one of those pseudoscience parenting blogs that told me getting it right 30% of the time was probably good enough. At the time when I was driving myself into an early grave trying to be perfect 30% struck me as much more achievable. Knowing when good enough is good enough is a skill that I try to bring into my academic life. Often I help myself “Let it Go” by mentally evaluating the alternatives to a reasonable but imperfect job done: a) a child that has sat in some bubbly water with minimal scrubbing (the reasonable but imperfect outcome) vs. a shiny clean but grumpy toddler & stressed out parent (the “perfect” but ultimately terrible outcome) or a smelly little beast (sometimes necessary but poor outcome that we try not to let out in public/publish).

  1. Relating to students

As we get older and less like our undergraduate students, they get younger and more like our kids… Skills we gain as a parent, for example by helping kids to look on the bright side, building up their confidence and teaching them that sometimes life’s just like that, all helps in helping, guiding and mentoring our students.

Kids are infuriating, stressful, sources of worry and time sinks, but they are also wonderful, make you see the your life in new ways and give you perspective on the world. Replace “kids” with “academic jobs” in the previous sentence and that’s basically how I see it.

* I include here male and female parents, there are also many carers of family & friends who while not directly parenting are also under significant constraints. Some of these points may apply more generally to carers but they will have other specific issues to deal with – that’s another blog post…

Authors: Yvonne Buckley, BUCKLEYY[at] & Jane Stout,



One body one problem

TheClashLondonCallingalbumcoverYou may have heard on the academic grapevine that I will soon be leaving Trinity College Dublin. As with all moves I’m both sad to be leaving, but excited to take on new challenges. I’ll be around until the summer, but now this is common knowledge I wanted to explain why I’m moving on. And also to make something else really clear – I’m not leaving because I dislike working here! The School of Natural Sciences (and particularly Zoology where I’m based) has been a fantastic place to work for the last three years. The staff are friendly and supportive, the students are top notch, and the working environment here is energetic and collegiate. I’ve met some amazing people and I hope to continue working with them. I’ve also learned more than I thought possible in just three years.

Then why am I leaving? Mostly it boils down to the “one body problem“. We’re all familiar with the “two body problem”, whereby people in a relationship are forced to find ways to make their relationship and careers work at the same time. Sometimes this involves partners trying to get jobs in the same place, although it could be detrimental to their careers; other times people live apart so they can have more choices over which job to take. Either way it’s a crappy problem and I feel terrible for people in that situation. We talk less about the “one body problem” which also disproportionately affects women and minority academics, particular LGBT academics. I also believe it may be an important reason why these groups leave academia so I think it deserves more attention when we’re thinking about equality.

The “one body problem” refers to the difficulties single academics face when moving around for jobs. In its own way this can be just as bad as the “two body problem” (it’s often quite frustrating when people tell me how lucky I am to be single and free to move about). Arriving in a new place as a single person is daunting and, without the support network of a partner or friends, it is also extremely isolating. Making friends in a new place takes time, and the heavy workloads of academic jobs leave little time for friend making attempts. Added to this, academics are very transient so it’s not unusual to make a new friend, and for that friend to leave just a few months later (in Dublin even the non-academic community is fairly transient). This is particularly hard for international postdocs who don’t have family or friends living nearby to escape to at the weekends. The other issue with the “one body problem” is that eventually most single people would like to meet someone, even if they’re currently happy living an independent life. In some places this is next to impossible, for example, tiny college campuses in the middle of nowhere, and gets harder as people get older. Again this disproportionately affects women and minorities.

I’ve found this problem has become worse for me in recent years. I think this is partly because of my change in job status. As a PhD student and a postdoc I had far more free time to try and make friends when I moved. There were also lots of social events organised for students/postdocs where you could meet each other, and also form a bit of a community. This sort of thing is less common once you’re a professor. Also I’m now the one staying put as the postdocs and PhD students I’ve befriended move on to other places. It also reflects the fact that most people my age are married with kids, particularly the younger faculty here. We get on really well at work, but at 4pm everyone goes home. Eventually I realised that this situation was causing me a considerable amount of stress and unhappiness which was only going to increase as the friends I’ve made in the last three years prepare to finish their postdocs or PhDs and move on. So I’m leaving Dublin because I don’t have a stable support network here and in the long term that is not a good thing for me (or anyone).

If you have new single people joining your department I hope you’ll try and help them to settle in and don’t just assume that being single is the easy option for academics! Note that I’m not saying the “two body problem” is easier! Let’s just recognise that the academic lifestyle is hard for everyone and try to consider how to make things more equal for all women and minority groups, not just those with two body issues, and/or children.

Author: Natalie Cooper, @nhcooper123, ncooper[at]

Photo credit: “TheClashLondonCallingalbumcover” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –


Pathway to PhD: should I do a masters degree or an internship?

charlieWith deadlines looming for attractive PhD scholarships such as the Irish Research Council, current undergraduates often realise that the path to a PhD is somewhat opaque, with many different ways to get there.

Finding a PhD is something we have covered already, but a question I often get asked is: do I need a MSc or can I go straight in, or what about an internship?

There is nothing stopping you going straight into a PhD from your undergraduate degree, but it can be difficult to be competitive unless you have a flawless academic track record, or have been singled out by a supervisor as an ideal candidate and its pretty much your PhD from the start. More usually, whether you are applying for an open post that has been advertised, or your own funding through a scholarships scheme, you need to out-compete your peers. To do so requires some non-algorithmic compilation of your academic grades, degrees, and academic experiences. Opting for a taught MSc is one obvious way to lengthen your academic training on your CV, as well as hopefully improving on your track-record. Its also a useful way for you to highlight your new skills and explain how they will make you a better PhD student than the rest.

It is important to remember that simply listing your modules or new skills in bullet-points is not the way to do this. You need to elaborate, and explain how your modules improved you as an academic, and how you interacted with the course to better yourself. Don’t just say “I took a course on linear mixed effects modelling”, tell us about how you realise now that this tool is important in ecology as a hierarchical data structure is a very common feature of research in this domain, and that you can now tease apart effects that manifest within and among groups. Give an example of how you applied this tool to answer an ecological question. The MSc projects are typically larger than your undergraduate ones, and ideally you would conduct a novel enough piece of research to allow you to write it up as a research paper – this is a great way to rubber-stamp your CV for PhD applications.

Of course, MSc courses tend to cost money, and last up to one year (or some are even two years these days). Another option is to volunteer as an intern in a research group. With the right match to your supervisor, and a bit of luck, this approach can be just as good as a MSc or even better  (at least in my opinion). You might intern as a research assistant helping to run experiments or collect field data for on-going projects. Such teams are often in need of extra hands, and being involved can mean you learn lots of new skills and techniques. Ideally though you want to make sure you are involved enough, and have the chance to put enough academic input to the project to deserve and be rewarded with authorship on a research paper.

Alternatively, you might intern more as an individual in a group, and work on your own project much like doing a MSc project but without the actual degree. Again, you are looking to develop new skills, learn new techniques and apply them to ecologically or evolutionarily relevant questions. The not guaranteed, and by no means necessary, icing on the cake would be a research publication.

Ultimately, some post-graduate experience will really help your CV when applying for PhDs but only if you can articulate how your efforts have improved you as an academic. A research paper (or several!) would be the ideal outcome from whatever path you take as it is nearly indisputable evidence of your ability to do science as part of a team, to a high standard and to convey your findings to an audience.

I took a research assistant position after my undergraduate degree, and used that to explain how the overall experience had convinced me of my desire to pursue academic research, as well as providing me with new skills. I am therefore quite keen on the idea of internships or research assistant positions in place of the more formal and structured MSc courses, so it’s rather a personal thing for me. Take some advice from others though, as maybe the MSc route carries more weight for different people.

Author: Andrew Jackson @yodacomplex

Photo credit:

Predators: feathered friend or foe?


On Wednesday January 14th the Pat Kenny show on Newstalk radio station hosted Professor Luke O’Neill (a prominent Trinity College Dublin Immunologist), in a segment exploring the causes of the huge declines seen in European bird populations Comments from both Professor O’Neill and Mr. Kenny implicating raptors and corvids in these bird declines provoked a storm on social media. Every Irish environmental NGO has strongly condemned these implications. Professor O’Neill was not in possession of the full facts and has apologised*. Predatory birds are not responsible for severe declines in many bird populations [1] and here at TCD EcoEvo we lay out the real reasons for these declines and show why natural predators like Red Kites, White-tailed Sea-eagles and Golden Eagles are in fact of huge benefit to ecosystems.

There’s no doubt that many bird populations are declining at an astonishing rate. An estimated 421 million individuals have been lost from the populations of 144 species over 30 years between 1980 and 2009 [2]. While the rarest European species have increased in population due to intensive conservation efforts, previously common species have experienced massive population declines. Though most of these species are not in imminent danger of extinction their decrease is a worrying sign of the poor health of the European environment. These previously common species are also vitally important in the provision of ecosystem services, such as scavenging and keeping rodent and insect populations in check.

Multiple causes have contributed to bird population decline, but the most important reason is destruction of bird habitats through land use change. As natural habitats have been lost to human development and agriculture has intensified, bird populations have suffered. Many of the species which have suffered most are traditional farmland birds such as Corncrakes, Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings (declared extinct as a breeding bird in Ireland [3]), though declines have been seen across the board. Unfortunately there is no simple solution to this problem. A widespread shift in public mentality to place more value on our natural heritage is likely needed to pressurise legislators to make real progress on environmental issues. In the short term, more engagement with farmers and improvement of incentives such as the tweaking of rural environment funding schemes to enable protection of hedgerows and management of unproductive marginal areas for wildlife, could release pressure on some of the worst affected species.

DSC_0041 (3)


Increased pressure from natural predators is not thought to be a major factor driving the decline in bird populations. In the largest study of its kind, Newson et al. (2010) [1] found no evidence that population increases in avian predators were associated with large-scale population declines in the majority of songbird species. The predators singled out as causes of bird declines on Newstalk, corvids and large raptors, were not considered to have had any significant effect.

Corvids (the crow family) as a group have commonly received a largely unfair vilification. While they can certainly cause localised declines in songbirds, there’s no evidence of them causing widespread declines. Their increase in numbers is due to human modification of the environment. Their adaptability means they do well in the highly fragmented habitat we have created, filled with discarded food and road kill carrion. The increase in corvid numbers is just another symptom of the poor health of the environment, not the cause.

Due to widespread persecution, large raptors were almost completely absent from Ireland by the early 20th century. The reintroductions undertaken by the Golden Eagle Trust  of the Golden Eagle (starting 2001), White-tailed Sea-eagle and Red Kite (both in 2007), along with the dramatic recovery in Buzzard numbers across the island of Ireland, has gone some way to redressing this balance. Predators, such as these birds, play an incredibly important role in structuring and maintaining stability in ecological communities [4]. None of Ireland’s large raptors are thought to be making a significant impact on any declining bird species. Buzzards and Golden Eagles are noted predators of corvids and compete with them for carrion. They also have a behavioural effect on corvids, forcing them to spend time being vigilant for aerial predators, reducing their foraging efficiency. Apex predators provide a major benefit to the ecosystem by controlling medium sized predators in this way.



Ireland’s avian predators contribute key services to the Irish ecosystem. Raptors, along with corvids, carry out the vital role of cleaning up the ample carrion produced by animals hit on our roads, removing carcasses which could harbour disease. The Red Kite is particularly adept at this role as, despite well publicised misconceptions, it is much more of a scavenger than a hunter. Considering these potential benefits, and the absence of any evidence linking our avian predators to a decline in bird populations, these species are rightly legally protected from culling [5,6]. This protection is particularly vital, as despite the recovery of large raptors in Ireland we still have a long way to go compared to other European countries. Red Kite and eagle populations in Ireland are extremely localised and small while the Buzzard has yet to re-colonise large parts of the country. Hopefully with continued support they will go on to establish stable breeding populations in the coming years.

Biased perception can promote persecution and needless vilification, especially of predators. Thankfully the outdated concept that man will somehow bring balance to the environment by killing off natural predators seems to be on the wane. This week’s social media storm certainly showed that attitudes towards raptor conservation have come a long way. Predators need to be appreciated as vital parts of a functioning ecosystem. They also deserve to be appreciated as incredible animals worthy of our affection. Anyone who has stopped to observe the ingenuity of a foraging Magpie or observed the incredible dynamism of a Golden Eagle in flight will know that these are exceptional animals which we are privileged to have gracing the Irish landscape.

Luke O’Neill would like to add that he apologises unreservedly for the errors he made in the interview on the Pat Kenny show and regrets any harm he might have caused to raptor conservation efforts.


Darren O’Connell, Andrew Power, Nicola Marples, Andrew Jackson, Yvonne Buckley (Chair of Zoology), EcoEvo@TCD

Photo credit

Darren O’Connell and Andrew Power


[1] Newson, S.E., Rexstad, E.A., Baillie, S.R., Buckland, S.T. and Aebischer, N.J. (2010) Population change of avian predators and grey squirrels in England: is there evidence for an impact on avian prey populations? Journal of Applied Ecology, 47: 244-252.

[2] Inger, R., Gregory, R., Duffy, J.P., Stott, I., Voříšek, P. and Gaston, K.J. (2015) Common European birds are declining rapidly while less abundant species’ numbers are rising. Ecology Letters, 18: 28-36.

[3] Balmer, D., Gillings, S., Caffrey, B., Swann, B., Downie, I. and Fuller, R. (2013) Bird Atlas 2007-11: the breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland. HarperCollins, UK.

[4] Estes, J.A., Terborgh, J., Brashares, J.S., Power, M.E., Berger, J., Bond, W., Carpenter, S.R.,  Essington, T.E., Holt, R.D., Jackson, J.B.C., Marquis, R.J., Oksanen, L., Oksanen, T.,  Paine, R.T., Pikitch, E.K., Ripple, W.J., Sandin, S.A., Scheffer, M., Schoener, T.W., Shurin, J.B.,  Sinclair, A.R.E., Soulé, M.E., Virtanen, R. and Wardle D.A. (2011) Trophic downgrading of planet Earth. Science, 333: 301-306.

[5] Wildlife Act, 1976, Wildlife (Amendment) Act, 2000, and Wildlife (Amendment) Act, 2012. Stationery Office, Dublin, Ireland.

[6] Council Directive 2009/147/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 November 2009 on the conservation of wild birds.









Ecology of religious beliefs


It is well known that your country of birth has a big influence on your religious outlook. That’s why Ireland is dominated by Christians whereas Iran has a mostly Muslim population. Your scientific outlook doesn’t escape from this either. For instance, it’s arguable that the idea of group selection is viewed much more favourably in the US than the UK. Turning back to religion, a group of authors have recently carried out a study on the ecology of religious belief. In their work they were able to predict the societies that believe in moralising high Gods by drawing on historical, social and ecological data.

As we’re in the beginning, we need a definition, so what exactly is a moralizing high God? These are “supernatural beings believed to have created or govern all reality, intervene in human affairs, and enforce or support human morality”. Supernatural belief has had a number of ecological correlates associated with it and this study points to environmental instability as one major driver. An environment with an unpredictable spatial or temporal distribution of resources lends itself to cultivating cooperation among the animals found within it. Among humans this results in a “reduction in cheating, increased fairness, and a tendency to cooperate”. And this is a fertile ground for the development of religious belief. One conclusion is that cultures in close proximity or those that share a common language exhibit similar religious beliefs.

However, the authors nuance this statement that this form of religion is being driven as a response to environmental harshness. In fact, they note that for societies living in a really harsh environment like the Inuits, variations tend to lead to more positive periods rather than negative ones and this seems to inversely correlate with the probability of believing in these type of gods.

One ironic point however (largely discussed in Jerry Coyne’s blog post), is that this paper is also influenced by the authors’ societal framework: a society traditionally believing in a god that they consider as moral and improving human lives. Taking that into account, some parts of the methodology heavily influence the results. The definition of morality by the authors and its benefits on humans as a species are highly depend on the societal framework where one is born. The “reduction in cheating, increased fairness, and a tendency to cooperate” is traditionally seen as a “good” thing for humanity in Abrahamic religions. Making it a universal or biological “right” behaviour is only the authors’ point of view (and probably one of their funding agencies).


Author: Adam Kane & Thomas Guillerme, @P1zPalu and @TGuillerme

Photo credit:

Career planning for PhD students

6a00d8341c761a53ef0120a6330c87970b-piThe Royal Society has published a new set of guidelines for managing the career expectations of PhD students in STEMM subjects (science, engineering, technology, maths and medicine). The publication was the result of a series of roundtable discussions held at the Royal Society with PhD students, supervisory teams and University careers professionals.

This blog post from the British Ecological Society provides a good overview of the document and discussion of how it fits into existing career development opportunities for PhD students.

With ever increasing numbers of PhD graduates and restricted academic jobs, academic careers are becoming the exception rather than the rule in many STEMM disciplines. The report highlights the need for PhD students to be realistic about their career expectations and goals and the importance of continuous professional development during their studies.

The document contains guidelines and recommendations for students, supervisors, career professionals and higher education institutions. It’s very encouraging to see that the training and mentoring of ecology and evolutionary graduate students at TCD already follows many of the principles.

This is mainly due to the success of NERD club, our weekly meeting of ecology and evolution researchers. The primary purpose of this group is to develop research projects and encourage new collaborations but many sessions are also devoted to career development. We have discussed academic careers advice and application tips but also non-academic careers and the transferrable skills such as public communication and teaching that can be applied to any career choice.  As students, we’re very lucky to benefit from the mentoring and advice of enthusiastic and dedicated staff members.

One aspect of the Royal Society guidelines which I hadn’t considered previously is the recommendation that PhD students should seek a mentor who is not their supervisor for career advice. It’s an interesting suggestion, especially since many supervisors have limited personal experience of non-academic careers, and a good thing to consider for any PhD student.

Hopefully these new guidelines will encourage more students, supervisors and institutions to make broad career planning an integral part of every PhD student’s experience.

Author: Sive Finlay, @SiveFinlay

Photo credit:

South Africa’s topsy-turvy seasons

Baby Warthog
Baby Warthog


It’s easy to forget that seasons work in different ways in different places. On a recent trip to Kruger National Park in South Africa, I was expecting to see European breeding birds. I was also expecting that South Africa would be enjoying a season similar to a European spring; a simple six-month discrepancy with the northern hemisphere. While I found the European birds, including Swifts, Swallows, Cuckoos and Willow Warblers, I found a rather different type of spring. South Africa has very short transition seasons (spring/autumn) and more extended hot/cold (winter/summer) seasons. Over much of South Africa, summer (mid-October to mid-February) is a hot and sunny season, frequently accompanied by afternoon thunderstorms. In Kruger, summer is marked by the beginning of the “wet” season and the birth of new Impala, Wart Hogs and Wildebeest. However, the majority of the resident mammals don’t have a breeding “season”; all of the “Big 5” (buffalo, elephant, rhino, leopard and lion), can give birth to young in any month.

Elephant Herd Mud-Bathing
Elephant Herd Mud-bathing

The native people of the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces have incorporated the link between the birth of impala and the arrival of rain into folklore. Their stories say that impala are the animals that decide when it should rain. If the rain is early, the impala need it early, if the rain is late, the impala are not ready for it at the usual time. While I thought that might make the impala unpopular, it seems they are held in high esteem.

Baby Impala
Baby Impala

As well as the transcontinental migrant birds (like the Swallows and Cuckoos I mentioned earlier), Africa has numerous bird species which migrate within the continent. In November (the date of my visit), the Woodland Kingfishers arrive in Kruger.

Woodland Kingfisher - displaying
Woodland Kingfisher – displaying


Their arrival is probably timed to coincide with the rise in insect numbers, following the new growth triggered by the rains, because Woodland Kingfishers feed on grasshoppers, locusts and beetles, rather than fish.

Cicada Pupal Case
Cicada Pupal Case

For an ecologist, migration is a fascinating area of study, especially when closely-related species compete for food at different times of year. Indeed, the migrant Woodland Kingfishers compete with resident Brown-hooded Kingfishers for food. By coincidence, a study considering such questions has just started in Kruger.

Brown-hooded Kingfisher
Brown-hooded Kingfisher

Author: David Kelly, djkelly[at]

Photo credit: David Kelly