Approaching established scientists is nerve wracking when you are just starting out in your own scientific career. It terrified me, but having done so successfully, it is now not so such an intimidating prospect.
When I first went to science conferences as a new PhD student, my fellow early stage researchers and I used to award each other mingling points for having the confidence to break out of our trusted established circle and speak to people we had not met before. Knowing networking was a vital part of attending scientific meetings, we needed motivation to do more than catch up and share free wine. I am glad we pushed each other to do so. I have just returned from a 3 week research visit to Southern France, which would not have taken place, had I not plucked up the courage to approach a now collaborator after her keynote talk a few years ago. Now back in a chilly post-Christmas Dublin it seems like a good time to time to reflect on how my path to approaching new scientists has changed:
Having a question I want answered
After giving a talk it is great to hear somebody enjoyed it and finds your research interesting, but this may not lead to much further conversation than ‘thanks very much’. If you have a research question you would like to explore with someone they are far more likely to be interested. Scientists become leaders in their field in areas that excite them. Approaching scientists with a hypothesis that needs testing and an innovative way of doing should lead to a stimulating conversation.
There are a lot of how-tos on the internet (Thanks Buzzfeed!). You can life-hack yourself into an efficient machine, but before my first day at TCD I couldn’t seem to find a good article to put my nerves at ease. Once you’ve applied and been accepted to grad school it seems like it should all be a bit relaxed, but the night before I started I was a bundle of nerves. There are a few articles that are helpful, like this one from Next Scientist, but most articles I found are pretty vague. Though this is not comprehensive or exhaustive, a list of tips from my first few months are included below.
Show up. The first two months I think just being around the office has helped me more than anything. When you’re present, people come to you with ideas and you get used to how the lab thinks. Plus, if you want to snag some time with your supervisor, it’s easier when you see them often.
Read every single paper you can find, even some that don’t seem relevant. I keep finding relevant information in papers that seem at first glance unrelated to my topic.
Start as soon as possible. My advisor pushed me to start fieldwork within the first two weeks I was in the lab and I am so glad. It really helped me get a handle on what’s feasible and when to do certain tasks. It also helps organize your thinking on the project.
Be the nicest you. This should go without saying but it’s easy to get overwhelmed and stressed. Being pleasant can go a long way in winning you allies.
Appreciate your office mates. They probably know much more about the department and school than you do. They’re the ones to go to for proofing help, help with forms and what to do when, and just general inquiries on how to make things happen. Plus, they’re probably a lot of fun.
Set meetings and deadlines. Regular meetings keep you honest and make sure you’re focused throughout. For someone with dual advisors, meetings with both become invaluable, and a standing meeting can make sure you don’t go too far off.
Get a blanket. It is a truth universally acknowledged that every scientific laboratory and office environment will be about 2°C cooler than is comfortable.
Do paperwork as soon as you get it. It’s easy to let stuff slide but the sooner you get paperwork sorted, the better everything goes.
Set up backups. Put your data somewhere that automatically syncs to the internet. Avoid the dread, terror, and horror of disappearing data.
Become BFFs with your secretary. Most departments will have a secretary and the secretary can be your biggest ally. They know the ropes, they know who to contact, and they can often make things that seem impossible happen in seconds. They’re also usually fantastic and interesting people in their own right.
When grading assessments as a demonstrator, I try really hard to give helpful, constructive feedback. It’s important for everyone to learn from their mistakes and develop both as scientific thinkers and as writers. However, there are a few mistakes that happen very often and really grind my gears. If you want to impress your grader and improve your marks, avoid the mistakes below like the plague.
Species notation. A species should be written this way: Genus species and abbreviated species. The italics are crucial.
Please, do not misuse commas. A great brief on this can be found here. As a side note, all of Mignon Fogarty’s tips can be helpful and her podcast is stellar.
Spell check. Your word processing software should run this automatically. In case it doesn’t, please run your assignment through one. There are even free ones on the internet.
Parenthetical phrases. It’s (sorta) annoying that this colloquial writing technique infiltrates your writing. Either say it, or don’t.
Vague statements. Avoid phrases like “understanding is good” or “pollution is bad”. Be descriptive. If it seems like filler, it probably is filler. You can write meaningful things, so please do.
Don’t go too far the other way. Saying that “Nothing of value has been done without X” is pretty hyperbolic and will definitely get my ire up.
Lists are generally not part of scientific writing and should be avoided. Don’t tell me everything you needed in a list. Don’t tell me what you did in a list. Write me a beautiful, descriptive, informative paragraph.
I love abbreviations as much as any millennial raised on internet speak, but it’s really important to let people know what the abbreviations you’re using mean. Write it out, then give the abbreviation immediately. Oh my goodness, OMG, is a great example here. Otherwise we’re in this situation:
The dreaded /. Please don’t do/try this at home. It’s so frustrating! Write out a conjunction. You can reference this for clarification:
It’s perfectly ok to start a sentence with the word “this”, but you must be incredibly crystal clear about what you’re referencing. There is ALWAYS another word you could use that would add clarity to your writing, and it’s almost always better to just use the word you mean.
That’s all. Avoid these issues and your grader might work through your assignments with a smile. Always remember to write CLEARLY and CONCISELY. Now, you’ve just got to nail down the actual science…
In 1993 Free Willy leapt onto cinema screens around the world. The story about a young boy who saves a killer whale from a run-down theme park was an instant hit for Warner Bros. However for Keiko, the whale who played Willy, the story did not have a Hollywood ending. While Willy jumped to freedom as the credits rolled, Keiko remained in captivity. What followed was a global effort to return Keiko to the wild at all costs, even to Keiko himself.
Keiko, a male killer whale (Orcinus orca), was born in the North Atlantic off Iceland, sometime between 1977 and 1978. His life took a strange turn when in 1979 he was captured and sent to the Icelandic aquarium in Hafnarfjörður. He was then sold to Marineland of Canada Inc. in 1982 and moved to Ontario, joining a small group of other killer whales. Finally, Keiko was sold to the amusement park Reino Aventura in Mexico City in 1985, for $350,000. While in Mexico Keiko lived alone in an approximately 500,000-gallon chlorinated tank, except for the occasional company of Bottlenose Dolphins. Having little animal companionship, Keiko developed strong bonds with his human carers.
Keiko’s life took an even more unusual twist when he was cast in the lead role of the 1993 Warner Bros. film, Free Willy. This surprise hit reached a global audience and was a huge economic success for the studio. Keiko depicted Willy, a killer whale saved from a run-down theme park and returned to the wild. However when filming ended, Keiko remained in captivity, languishing in Mexico. The irony of the situation did not go unnoticed by the press, and activists waged a public campaign to make Keiko the first captive killer whale to be returned to the wild.
With growing public support, the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation was established in 1995 with $4 million from Warner Bros. and $2 million from the cellphone billionaire Craig McCaw. Reino Aventura agreed to donate Keiko to the foundation and in 1996 he was moved to an extensive 2-million-gallon seawater rehabilitation facility which had been constructed at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, at a cost of $7.3 million. Keiko’s health drastically improved once arriving in Oregon and he gained several thousand pounds. In Oregon, the complex task began of teaching Keiko how to be a whale again. Keiko had to be taught basic skills such as how to hold his breath for long periods, swim greater distances, and to ultimately catch and eat live fish. These skills would be critical if Keiko was to ever be returned to the wild. Progress was made and in August 1997 Keiko did indeed catch and eat his first live fish. While in Oregon Keiko became a public sensation and between 1996 and 1998 more than 2 million visitors made the pilgrimage to the see the Hollywood celebrity at the Aquarium. However Oregon was not the end point of the project.
The staff of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation set the goal of releasing Keiko into a sea pen in the North Atlantic by 1998. Negotiations with multiple governments led to Iceland being selected as the release site. Ireland was also heavily considered and significant government support was put forward, but the lack of frequent killer whale sightings around our coasts made this option unrealistic for Keiko’s long-term release. In 1998 it was determined that Keiko was exhibiting normal killer whale behaviours and was healthy enough to be released. Up to half of Keiko’s daily intake of food now comprised of live fish and on September 9th, Keiko was lifted from his tank and transported to Klettsvik Bay in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, 19 years after he had been captured.
No expense was spared in Iceland. The project had nearly 20 people, boats and even a helicopter to ensure Keiko’s reintroduction had every chance of success. Keiko’s team continued to feed him while in Iceland and once fitted with a tracking device, Keiko was finally taken out to sea on ‘sea-walks’. The success of the project relied on integrating Keiko into an existing pod of wild killer whales, preferably the pod from which he had been taken. However Keiko’s early interactions with wild killer whales were not as promising as had been hoped. When in the presence of wild killer whales, Keiko remained on the periphery, at distances of 100–300m, and he was not observed feeding when among the wild killer whales. Instead he remained motionless or swam slowly. Stomach samples taken after these interactions showed no evidence of any food remains, confirming that Keiko did not feed when with wild killer whales.
Over time progress was observed and on the 30th July 2002, a brief physical interaction was seen when Keiko dove among wild killer whales. However a tail splash from one of the wild Whales elicited a startle response from Keiko, who swam back to his tracking boat. This was the only time Keiko was seen diving among killer whales and the only physical interaction observed. The project took another hit in early 2002 when Craig McCaw lost millions in the Dotcom Crash and withdrew his support from the project. With annual operational costs of approximately $3.5 million the project was taken over by the animal protection organization, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), with a greatly reduced budget and a ‘tough love’ policy. This policy saw Keiko’s team downsized and interactions with Keiko by his care staff also significantly reduced when in the presence of wild whales. Yet hopes grew when it finally seemed as though the entire experiment had paid off.
In August 2002 Keiko left southern Iceland and began a 900-mile journey to Norway. It was hoped that Keiko had finally been accepted by wild killer whales and had chosen to leave humans. Unfortunately, when he showed up in the Halsa Community inside a Norwegian fjord he wasn’t following a pod of killer whales, he was seeking contact with humans and allowing children to ride on his back. He had been on his own for nearly 60 days, yet based on girth measurements he appeared in good health and it was presumed he had eaten during that period. Keiko became an instant hit and thousands of visitors came from across Europe to visit Keiko in Norway. His caretakers relocated to Norway and began feeding him once again. They continued to conduct ‘sea-walks’ with Keiko for the next 15 months. During his time in Norway Keiko did not interact with any wild killer whales and actively sought out and initiated human contact, frequently following boats. Keiko died on the 12th December 2003 in the Taknes fjord in Norway, alone at the estimated age of 27. The cause of death was presumed to be acute pneumonia, although no necropsy was carried out.
Keiko’s reintegration into the wild was a complete failure according to numerous scientists and professionals, such as Dr Naomi Rose of the HSUS. Although he had numerous experiences with wild killer whales and was physically free to leave, Keiko continually returned to his caretakers for both food and company, never integrating with other whales. In retrospect it has been agreed that Keiko was not a suitable candidate for release due to his long history in captivity, social isolation, young age at capture and strong bonds with humans. However, Keiko’s story hit an unusual chord with the public and the public’s drive to see Keiko returned to the wild was something of which animal rights groups unashamedly took advantage, according to Dr Rose.
Costing more than $20 million dollars, Keiko’s release has shown us that release of long-term captive killer whales is incredibly challenging, if not impossible. Although we might find it appealing as humans to release such animals, in reality this may severely impact the well-being of the animals concerned. The HSUS and other groups involved in Keiko’s release wanted Keiko released at any cost and Jeffrey Foster, a trainer who cared for Keiko in Oregon and Iceland, believes that “the cause got in the way of doing the right thing [for Keiko]”. Mark Simmons, the director of animal husbandry for the Keiko Project, has even gone on to speculate that Keiko’s release from captivity amounted to animal abuse. Mr. Simmons has noted that Keiko’s health was drastically impacted when he was reintroduced and had it not been for continued medical interventions, Keiko would have died shortly after release.
In reality Keiko was a confused animal who depended on people, and the fact that his return to the wild was not a Hollywood success has raised huge concerns over the ethics of trying to return other captive Whales and dolphins to the wild. There has been a recent surge in opinions asking for the release of all captive killer whales, however if Keiko has thought us anything, it is that this is potentially self-serving and could be dangerous to the individual animals concerned. Today approximately 56 killer whales live in human care, the majority of whom were born in captivity. If Keiko, an animal born in the wild and with every resource available to him, could not be returned to the wild successfully, then what can we expect of animals born in captivity? And who can we expect to pay for it, considering that the sheer cost of maintaining Keiko in a sea pen proved unsustainable.
Keiko lived for five years in Iceland and Norway, but he never came close to being a wild whale again. Removing Keiko from Mexico was undoubtedly the right thing to do, however the best thing for Keiko in the long-term may not have been his release. The fact that maintaining Keiko in Iceland was financially unsustainable, and that Keiko never reintegrated into the wild, suggests that the best thing for Keiko may have been to live out his life in Oregon. Residing at the Oregon Coast Aquarium would have provided long-term financial stability to the project, ensuring the best possible quality of life for Keiko and perhaps even extending his life. This would also have allowed Keiko to remain in the company of the humans he relied on so much, rather than being forced into a life that he maybe never truly understood.
One of my favourite parts of working as a researcher during the summer (aside from quiet campuses with less students around) definitely has to be the “conference season”. Indeed, I don’t need to convince many people that conferences are one of the lively and exciting parts of doing science that rightly mix traveling, networking (and sometimes drinking) and learning about so many new things (and sometimes hangovers).
One of the problems though is that they can sometimes be overwhelming. It’s hard to find a balance between the right amount of networking (how many friends/collaborators do I want to meet and how many new ones do I want to make) and the right amount of learning (which talks do I want to attend and how much can I get from them). Although everyone has their own technique to deal with these questions, it seems to me that it boils down to the number of people attending the conference and the objectives of the conference organisers. One solution is to aim conferences towards a more manageable size with a clear emphasis on networking and learning.
One such conference is the annual BES Macro conference! As has became a happy ritual over the last 4 years, I was awaiting July with impatience for this year’s one organised in Oxford by Natalie Cooper and Rich Grenyer. As a disclaimer though, I do not consider myself as a macroecologist at all (most of my work is on macroevolution methods). So why do I go every year? I don’t even know what macroecology is! Well one of the first points is that this conference covers a vast array of topics, this year reaching far beyond the classic bird species richness heat maps with presentations on microbe populations in tree holes and sampling biases in the fossil record! The second point is because I think this conference contains all the ingredients that I think make a good conference:
First, mix different career levels:
For early career scientists like myself it can sometimes be a bit intimidating to mainly hear talks by “veteran” scientists. In fact I often think to myself just before giving a talk, how lame mine will be in comparison to the other people. Not that mixing different career levels makes my talk less lame (!), it has at least the benefit of making me feel better. It also has the undeniable benefit of making it easier to network with the big wigs if you spoke in the same session as them. At BES Macro 2016, each session was a good mix of every career level making it much more casual. Even the plenary speakers ranged from Professor Tim Blackburn to About-to-be-doctor Hannah White!
Second, make most of the talks short:
People have mixed feelings about lightning talks: from the speaker’s point of view, when you have exciting results it can be frustrating to convey your message in 5 minutes. Also these talks are sometimes more difficult to write than a classic 10-15 minutes one! However, from a listener’s point of view, think about how much more you absorb, on average, from these extra 5-10 minutes that make a classic talk? On a couple of talks: probably much more; on 2 days or more of conference: probably not that much! Besides, if 5 minutes was not enough and just peaked your curiosity, it makes an excellent opportunity to network (“Hi, I really enjoyed your talk. About that, [insert your burning question here]?”).
Third, add a nice dose of transferable skills:
Another point of conferences that can be negative is that you chain-listen to many many talks all day long. That has the benefit of giving a good overview of your field of research but can also make you slightly sleepy! One solution to break this continuous rhythm of talks is to do it with discussion sessions that can either be about transferable skills or about big questions in the field. For example, at BES Macro 2016 we had an excellent discussion session on reproducibility and another on the classic “What is Macroecology?” question.
And finally, don’t forget to add some rants:
What makes a good conference lies also in how much you feel part of the field of research covered by the conference. One way to convey that is to be part of or at least listen to the “hot” debates shaking the field. In this conference for example, we had two “official rants” by Shai Meiri and Adam Algar on what is going wrong in macroecology (but still how much cool work is done).
And of course, the main ingredient is the attitude of the people towards the conference. As Rich Grenyer put it in his welcoming introduction: “this conference is formally informal.”
So you’ve just finished your PhD and sent out a frantic flurry of post doc applications, amidst all of the excitement, you’re invited to interview; how should you proceed? Below are some of the things I learned from my first post doc interview recently:
A couple of weeks ago I embarked on a new first for me; my first interview! I grant you that it is unusual to be having one’s first interview at the age of 26; I had worked, but never interviewed in the formal sense, with a panel of strangers. There seem to be three broad classes of post doctoral jobs advertised; a) those advertised by a particular lab, usually with a particular person, where you are interviewed directly with the person you are hoping to work for. b) Grants like IRC or the Wellcome trust where you write a proposal and often, while a panel reviews this, you never have to actually interview in person. c) The kind I’ve just done; where a centre or department gets money and so you are interviewed by a panel from the department (and university in general sometimes), but not by the person you are applying to work with. With some trepidation I accepted the interview. I wasn’t sure at this stage that I actually wanted the position if offered but decided to take the opportunity to interview for experience alone at any rate. Here are some of the things that I learned and would advise (though remember, this is an n=1!):
Before the interview:
If the position is somewhere that you need to fly/travel to, arrive a day early if you can. This will relieve some of the stress of any travel delays and help get you in the zone
If the person you would be working with is not actually going to be on the panel try to arrange a meeting with them before the interview (day before if possible). This gives you the chance to meet if you haven’t done so before but also get their opinion as to the position. I got lots of great tips when I did this about what the panel may be looking for but also some valuable insights.
Tying in with the above, if you can visit the building it is going to be in beforehand, particularly a university, it really helps to get a feel of the place, the workspace and see whether this is somewhere you would enjoy spending your time.
Meet the other candidates! I know that this is perhaps a little controversial and may not work for everyone, but I ended up meeting some of the other candidates going for the job while I was there and found it really useful for a few reasons. Firstly, and mainly, it helps to remind you that these are people too, also nervous, which certainly made me feel more comfortable, knowing others were in the same boat. The other big reason is that it enables you to meet people at a similar stage and potentially with similar interests to you, which is always nice!
Try not to fret too much about whether you want the job until/if you’re offered it! This is something I really struggle with but the truth it, you owe it to them to give a good interview, particularly if they are paying for you to come over, but after that, then it is entirely up to you and you can pick and choose. It is you that you have to put first and if that means that after all you don’t want the job, that’s ok!
Do your research! It certainly helps if you already have a connection to the place but doing some research on both the department and the people in close proximity; who work on something similar or complimentary to what you are proposing. It helps for this to think outside the box too; I referenced a Prof in Physics even though this was a biology post.
Chat to the admin staff, it is usually they who have gone to the effort of timetabling the whole affair and booking rooms for you, so make sure to thank them and also ask what it’s like to work there. They have nothing to gain/lose in this so they will be very honest!
During the interview:
Be friendly! Whatever the outcome of the interview or your decision, these are potential future collaborators and leaving a good impression will mean a lot.
Take a moment to respond to questions. A moment considering your response can come across more confident than leaping into an answer before they have finished asking.
I was always taught that in a conference presentation, when asked a question, to answer the room rather than just the questioner. Certainly make them your primary contact but being sure to address the room as well. I think this works for interviews too, ensuring to engage the whole panel in your answers, I think this speaks to your communication skills and also just generally keeps everyone together.
Name drop to wazoo! Talk about the people in the department or School that you might work with or seek advice from, talk about other people already in your network that might not be in theirs and how you might get them to contribute for seminars etc.
Where will you be in 5 years? The dreaded question! Be honest here; in my case I had just submitted my PhD corrections the week before (a point one of the panel chuckled at during the interview…), so I did not have the grandiose expectation that I would be in a faculty position running my own lab in five years time, and I said as much. I think this can quickly be turned into a positive saying that this is an exciting time where you can see what you like and build up skills so that in five years you might have in mind the research themes that you want to develop for when you are going to look for a faculty post.
After the interviews there was what I described to myself as an “awkward mingle lunch”, where members of the faculty and candidates had the chance to mingle over muffins. At first I thought this was a terrible idea and was tempted to run away but actually it turned out to be really fun. Everybody was more relaxed and you could get a little insight into the social atmosphere of the place, see if you think you’d be a good fit.
Ps. I did get offered the post and decided to take it!
When attempting to conserve a rare animal population sometimes every individual counts. Conservationists regularly go the extra mile to protect their study species. The conservation efforts implemented for the Little Tern (Sternula albifrons) in Britain and Ireland demonstrate the success these efforts can have. This species nests on shingle beaches and had experienced catastrophic population declines due to increasing development and use of beaches by people. Little Tern adults are very vulnerable to disturbance and their eggs are particularly vulnerable to walker’s boots! Thankfully a network of wardened colonies, run by a mixture of conservation organisations and enthusiastic volunteer groups, succeeded in stabilising this species’ population.
However the Little Tern has lost much of its former range and is increasingly dependent on wardened colonies for their continued existence on these islands . Being concentrated in a densely populated protected areas has made them acutely vulnerable to predators. This has led wardens at the nationally important colony at Kilcoole in Co. Wicklow to adopt a practice of fostering Little Tern eggs abandoned after a depredation event in an attempt to maximise colony productivity, outlined in our recent paper in the latest issue of Irish Birds.
As Little Tern colonies are often squeezed into small protected areas this makes them a beacon to hungry predators. Corvids (members of the crow family), can be a danger to colonies. They are vigorously mobbed by the terns, but sometimes manage to slip through the defences. It was noticed that corvids often only managed to take one egg from a nest, perhaps because the parents were then more vigilant. However within a day of having an egg taken, the parents abandoned the remaining eggs in every case observed. This may have been due to anticipation of the predator’s return (Little Terns depend upon their egg’s camouflage to protect their nest), or in an attempt to re-lay a full clutch. However clutches laid later in the season often have poorer survival rates .
To maximise colony productivity, Kilcoole wardens fostered abandoned eggs abandoned after depredation events to other nests on the same incubation schedule when the colony experienced corvid depredation in 2011 and 2014. Nests were confirmed abandoned after the parent’s failed to return to incubate for several hours and the eggs went cold. The parents in recipient nests always accepted the foster eggs, apparently not questioning why they had gained an extra egg! Where possible eggs were fostered to other nests which had experienced partial depredation but had not yet been abandoned, replacing the eggs lost. Having a full clutch again seemed to stop the parents abandoning the nest. Fostering eggs resulted in the fledging of an additional 5 Little Tern chicks, a small but worthwhile number given the precarious status of the Irish populations.
The fact that the fostered eggs remained viable despite hours without incubation in cold conditions further demonstrate the extraordinary robustness of seabird eggs. In a previous paper we wrote about how Little Terns recollected eggs which have been washed out by tides and moved them into new nests. Many of these eggs hatched successfully even after hours without incubation, exposure to freezing seawater and potential mechanical damage from being moved.
This robustness can prove a boon for conservationists working with endangered species. In a recent case an egg abandoned by an inexperienced pair of Chatham Island Tāikos (Pterodroma magenta) was successfully fostered to another pair after being abandoned for 10 days. Even after all this time without incubation a healthy chick was hatched, an important victory as only 150 of these birds are left in the world, showing the potential value of egg fostering.
While the aspiration must always be for animal populations to be self-sustaining, in many cases hands on conservation measures are necessary to ensure a population’s survival. In order to ensure the continued survival of the Little Tern in Britain and Ireland wardened colonies are still necessary, at least until they experience a full tern around in fortunes.
Author: Darren O’Connell
Photo credits: Little Terns – Andrew Power and Peter Cutler. Chatham Island Taiko Chick – Dave Boyle.
A special thanks to all my co-workers on the Kilcoole Little Tern project, the volunteers who make the project tick and project manager Dr Stephen Newton of BirdWatch Ireland.
 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.
 Nager, R.G., Monaghan, P. and Houston, D.C. 2000. Within-clutch trade-offs between the number and quality of eggs: experimental manipulations in gulls. Ecology 81: 1339-1350. DOI: 10.1890/0012-9658(2000)081[1339:WCTOBT]2.0.CO;2
First in a series of posts on life after an undergraduate degree, Alison Boyce gives an account of the life of a scientific technician.
Science, engineering, and computing departments in universities employ technicians. Anyone working or studying in these areas will have dealt with a technician at some point but most will be unaware of a technician’s route into the position and their full role in education and research.
Technical posts are varied e.g. laboratory, workshop, computer. Funding for technical support is afforded by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) to provide assistance in undergraduate teaching. This is the primary role of technical officers (TOs) after which the Head of Discipline or Chief Technical Officer (CTO) decide further duties.
Until the early 1990s individuals joined the university as trainee technicians. Many came through the ranks starting as laboratory attendants, a position which still exists. Trainee technicians would spend one day a week over four years working towards a City and Guilds’ qualification. At this time the occupation was mostly hands on with little theoretical work. Many started young by today’s standards (starting at 14 years old was not uncommon), and they continued to study well past diploma level. Changing the nature of the role so much that nowadays almost all technical officers have primary degrees and come with a more academic view of the position.
In 2008, it was agreed that incoming technical officers must hold at least a primary degree in order to work at Trinity College Dublin. Those looking for promotion to Senior TO would require a Master’s and to CTO, a PhD. Those already in the system would not be penalised, local knowledge and experience are recognised equivalents and rightly so. This agreement gave rise to the job title changing from technician to technical officer reflecting the removal of the apprenticeship system. Many still use the old name but it doesn’t cause offence. These qualifications represent minimum requirements. TOs constantly train, learning new technologies and procedures. It is difficult to resist the temptation of further study when you work in an educational environment.
From graduate to TO
Gaining experience in medical, industrial, or other educational laboratories is most important. Further study in areas general to laboratory work are also advantageous e.g. first aid, web design, or statistics. Sometimes researchers move into a technical role temporarily and find they enjoy it so stay on. Applying to a discipline with some relationship to your qualifications makes sense; a physicist may not enjoy working in a biological lab. Having come though the university system many graduates would be familiar with teaching laboratories and their departments. Seeing a place for yourself in the future of a discipline is vital for career progression as it is seldom you will see a TO moving from one department to another. It should be possible to adapt the role to your skills or study to meet those required for promotion.
Day to day
All labs/disciplines differ but certain core responsibilities fall to the technical staff at some point. Running practicals is the biggest responsibility during term time with design and development out of term. Some departments in science and engineering have lab and field based classes. Various modules require field sampling in preparation for the practical. Getting out on the road can be very satisfying even if you are at the mercy of nature!
If you consider what it takes to run a home you’ll have an idea of what a TO does to maintain a lab/department. Ordering supplies and equipment. When something breaks, repair it or have it mended in a cost effective way. Logging, maintaining and installing equipment, health and safety information and implementation, chemical stock control, running outreach programmes, planning and managing building refurbishment, organising social events, updating the discipline’s web pages, assisting undergraduate student projects and much more.
These are just the basic duties and do not describe the essence of technical work at university level. Firstly it is to guide, instruct, and assist in scientific matters. An analytical and practical mind is necessary. You must have a willingness to facilitate the design and execution of projects in teaching and research. If you are eager to help and learn, it’s the perfect job for you. The information base for many materials and methods is the technical staff. Local knowledge and an ability work in consultation with other departments is often key to completing a project. Ideally, when a researcher leaves the university, their skills should pass to a TO keeping those abilities in-house. Imparting them to the next generation.
If you’re very lucky, you’ll be in a discipline that encourages you to take part in research and further study. It’s wise to check where a discipline or school stands before considering work in that area. Career opportunities open up in such disciplines. CTO Specialist is a promotion given to someone with expertise of a specialist nature e.g. IT, histology. Experimental Officer is a post created to further research in a discipline and often requires some teaching.
Overall, the position is what you make of it. If you strive to improve and adapt, you’ll find it immensely rewarding. Many practical classes repeat annually but on a daily basis you could be doing anything, anywhere. Being a technical officer is stimulating and constantly changing, keeping your brain and body active. You won’t be sitting for too long when you’re surrounded by young adults in need of advice and equipment. The relationship is symbiotic, your knowledge and their enthusiasm eventually gets any problem sorted.
Author: Alison Boyce, a.boyce[at]tcd[dot]ie
Alison Boyce has worked as a technical officer at Trinity College Dublin for over 20 years. In that time, she has acted as a master-puppeteer in seeing countless undergraduate projects through to completion. Her in-depth knowledge of technical, theoretical, and practical aspects of natural sciences has made her one of the most influential figures in the history of this department.
The editorial team thanks her for taking the time to write this piece.
It was a spring day in April 2004 when Qiang Fu first noticed the anomoly in the data. On either side of the equator – in a belt strecthing from 15 to 45 degrees latitude – the lower atmosphere was warming more than anywhere else on the planet. Fu, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, was stumped.
It wasn’t until a year later that Fu realized what he had discovered: evidence of a rapid expansion of the tropics, the region that encircles Earth’s waist like a green belt. The heart of the tropics is lush, but the northern and southern edges are dry. And these parched borders are growing — expanding into the subtropics and pushing them toward the poles.
In the past ten years – since Fu first published his discovery in the journal Science – scientists have been turned their attention to this subject in a big way – there have been lots of scientific papers, theories and measurements – yet it’s had surprisingly little coverage by the media.
I’d thought about writing on this topic for a while and the time seemed right when I noticed that a bunch of 50 or so scientists were meeting last summer in New Mexico to trash this topic out. The meeting itself wasn’t open to the media, which was unfortunate, but I‘ve since managed to talk to a lot of the people who gathered for five days in that hot conference room in Santa Fe last summer.
I wanted to know answers to the same questions as those scientists, and those conversations would form the basis of my article. I’ve been writing about climate change for more than ten years now, and so I’m used to a lot of uncertainty in science. It was good preparation for writing this piece! On tropical expansion, still so many questions remain unanswered, such as how fast is it happening, what’s causing it and where are the future boundaries of the tropics likely to be? And importantly, why should we care?
Well, you’ll have to read the feature to get an answer to all of those questions, but I’ll answer a couple of them for you here.
How fast is it happening? Estimates range from less than half a degree of latitude per decade to several degrees of latitude per decade over the last few decades. At the more extreme end, that’s like moving London to the latitude of Rome over the course of a century. Pretty big deal. But it’s worth pointing out that some of the more recent estimates have been more moderate; they’re still bad news for cities such as San Diego, though, that would experience a big impact even with a one degree latitude shift in the edge of the tropics.
As to why we should care, well there are lots of reasons: aside from the potential water crisis for major cities such as San Diego, Perth and Santiago. tropical expansion could wreak havoc for some of the world’s most fertile fishing grounds, global grain production could shrink and biodiversity, especially at the southern tips of the African and Australian continents, (and they are astoundingly diverse) will suffer.
At today’s NERD club, we tried our hand at explain our research using the up-goer five, which limited our available vocabulary to the “ten-hundred” most common words (thousand isn’t one of them).
After some brief hesitation, the 9 of us present found out that despite being quite challenging, this can be an incredibly fun and useful activity when it comes to explaining our often jargon-filled research to the public. While this system is rigid, and a tad extreme with words such as “plant” and “science” unavailable, it forced us to find alternative ways of explaining what we do.
Decision makers and land managers are increasingly required to manage landscapes for multiple purposes and benefits. However, despite progress in the development of frameworks linking natural capital to the provision of ecosystem services and human benefits there remains little guidance for how management interventions can improve ecosystem service provision. As ecosystem services cannot be directly influenced, interventions need to be directed towards natural capital stocks. We provide a framework that explicitly links natural capital stocks to ecosystem service provision and identify manageable attributes of natural capital stocks as the critical intervention point. A structured decision making process based on our framing of the ecosystem services concept can facilitate its application on the ground.
How to manage the living things that help us to live and enjoy life
People need many different things like food and wood from the land and I am interested in helping them to manage their land to get lots of good things from it. People have come up with ways of finding out the relationship between living things and the good things like food but it is still hard to find out how to manage the land for what we want. This is because when we make living things different it is hard to tell what will happen to the good things we want. We think the best way of getting out of this problem is to understand how changing where living things are and how many of them there are changes the food and other good things that we want. We help by giving people a plan for how to manage living things that will give us more of the good things we want from the land. This plan will help people to talk about what they want from the land and how to get it.
The world is getting warmer, much warmer and quickly. It’s hot outside, in the air and in the water, even deep down in the water. Ice is becoming water, land is getting drier, so in some places its too wet and in others its too dry. People are having a bad time in lots of places. Animals are sad too. We know all of this because of the hard work of people’s brains.
What can be done?
We can drive less. We can eat fewer moving, living things. We can wear more clothes and not make our houses hot. Or we can do nothing. And wait until it is much hotter. Then we can try to change the world by putting things in space that will block the sun out. Or we can put stuff in the sky to make it cooler. If we do none of these things we might end up in the water, in hot, hot water.
Two legged animal eating animals were around for 160,000,000 years but are not anymore. We do not really know what they ate. Some were as small as a dog while others were as big as a bus so they would have needed more food. One type of food that they might have eaten was already dead food. We know animals today eat food they found that was already dead so animals that are not around may have also eaten dead food. But did the big animals that are no longer around eat more or less dead food than the small animals? We made computers games to show that actually both big and small animals are very bad at eating dead things, while animals in the middle are much better at eating dead things. This was true even if we changed how far they could see, how much dead food was there, how many other animal eating animals were around and how much food they needed. We show that dead things might have been important to animals no longer around and that how big you are might still be important to how much dead stuff animals eat both today and in the past.
“If I have everything I need, to do whatever I need to, I am happy. Just to say, if I have food I eat and I am happy. If I don’t have enough I have to eat less, or take food from somewhere else. If I take it from somewhere else, maybe another person will not have it for his own.
To do food I need land. The problem is that after I use land to do food this land gets bad and is not beautiful anymore. But if I have a lot of money, I can buy land and food from somewhere else and keep my land beautiful and clean.
If people can buy the land and the food they need, there can be a person with more money than you that buys all the things you need, and you can’t eat and live. So, it is important to control what people do with their money. It is important to check that no one is taking food or using land that is needed for another person to live.
People with no food get angry and one day they will come where people with money live and take back their land and their food.
I am studying a way to control if people with money is taking food and land from other persons that really need it (more than these people with money).
We can stop that by checking if these people really need these things and if they can find these things where they live. If they can, they have to use them, instead of going somewhere else to make less beautiful the land of other people.
Mean animals that live in other animals and how they make the other animals do weird things when its hot
Mean animals that live in other animals and then hurt the other animals are in many places. The animals I study all live in water that does not run. The mean animals sometimes make the house animals do things they would not do most of the time. When the house animals do strange things, this can make everyone else in the whole water group do things different to how they usually do and power from food can go to different places. When the water gets hot, everyone in the water does things not how they do them in cold water. I study how the mean animals and the house animals do things when the water is hot and cold and how this makes everyone in the water different. I also study how all the animals doing different things can make the power from food go different places and can change who eats who and how often. I study these things in the water outside and in small water inside.
How large a group of animals is can change how they act. It is important to know how big or small a group of animals are so we can understand how they play with one another and live in their home. Small night time animals with black and white faces are important to study because they get a cold that they can pass on to bigger black and white animals that live in fields eating green stuff to make the white stuff we put in our coffee. We carried out a study of papers that looked at the grouping of small black and white faced animals, how many of them lived together, how big their homes were and how many there were in total. We showed that how many animals there are in an area, changes how they act, their relationships with one another and with other animals that may not be their family or friends. All of this means we can better understand how these animals pass their colds onto one another. We have come up with a group of names that you can use to quickly and easily tell other people many animals there are in an area and how it makes this group different to other groups. We hope that our study will help people who want to save the small black and white animals as well as those people who want to do away with the colds that the animals get in a much better way than they do now.
I want to know how the brain understands what it sees in the world. When we see the world through our eyes, they send this to the brain telling it what they saw. The way the brain understands this is important because when the brain talks to the eyes, the pictures can be slow or might not get to the eyes at all. When this happens in people, they think they have a friend when they do not. They are talking to themselves.
We try to understand how the eyes talk to the brain by making simple games on a computer that make animals play with each other with an angry animal chasing a smaller animal. We set up roads between the cells in the brain and then make the brain bigger to see is the angry animal better at chasing the smaller animal in the computer game.
We try to understand this by looking into the animal brain while it plays around in interesting worlds on the computer. By changing the number of roads in their brains before and after the games, animals change what they catch, we hope to learn more about the brains power to understand these games.
This study will make new games of animal moving by bringing good ideas from old people in white clothes to the field of moving studies. Doing so will allow us to answer simple questions about the relationship between bodies of angry animals and their food and to add for the first time why food matters in such relationships. These relationships explain how animals talk with the world around them, and are at the heart of our entire idea of world.
We study how and why trees and other green living things live and grow where they do. To do this we have to go to where the green living things live and look at them and what other things are living beside them. Green living things need to live in the ground, the ground is different all over the world and some things can live in some places and not others. We try to understand why this is by changing what’s in the ground and seeing what type and how many of each thing continues to live there.
Green things what live in the ground can also change themselves to fit the type of ground, rain or sun they get every day. They can change many things such as how big or small they grow or how thick their leaves are but quite often to make a good change to one part of their body they must also make a bad change to another. We try to understand what causes these changes by looking at one green thing that lives all over the world and seeing what changes are made and where the things with those changes are living.
Attempting to describe population ecology
If you’re interested, ESA’s new sci comm section has some useful tools for science communication: https://advancingecocomm.wordpress.com/