Lightning Strikes at TCD

Secret Vatican archives, xenophobia, de-extinction, parasitism and hoovers were just a few of the many topics on the menu at the 2017 School of Natural Sciences Lightning Talks. This annual event brought together 24 PhD students and Professors from across the Botany, Geography, Geology and Zoology disciplines to present their research and battle it out to win the respect of their colleagues (and bragging rights). The catch? Presentations were limited to 120 seconds, a difficult feat considering how much scientists like to talk about their own work!

The Zoology department was out in full force, with seven presentations and four prizes. For her work on parasites in freshwater systems, Maureen Williams was awarded the third prize. For telling us if invasive fish have parasites and which parasites those are, Paula Tierney was awarded the Nature+ prize. For bringing us on a biogeographical journey through speciation, Fionn Ó Marcaigh was given an honourable mention. Finally, for my own research looking at how to prioritise species for cryogenic storage in ‘frozen zoos,’ I was awarded the first prize on the night.

Photo credit: Panorama.it

Frozen zoos are large reservoirs of cryogenically frozen and stored genetic material from numerous species. The largest frozen zoo in the world is kept within San Diego Zoo and houses more than 10,000 cell cultures, representing more than 1,000 species and subspecies. Although this is a substantial resource and many rare (and even extinct!) species are present in the collection, the way in which samples have been collected to date has been opportunistic and lacking a comprehensive plan or goal. As a result, we are likely missing key opportunities to collect samples from species which are on the brink of extinction or have already gone extinct. Continue reading “Lightning Strikes at TCD”

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?

A recent study led by Sam Ross (Trinity College Dublin) and Dr. Nick Friedman and published in the journal Ecological Research, aims to ask how much we can learn from bioacoustic monitoring of ecosystems. Read more in the blog post snippet below, or see the full blog post on the IMECO blog:

“A recent study led by myself and Dr. Nick Friedman asks whether we can accurately measure how diverse different ecosystems are on the island of Okinawa, Japan. We set up 24 monitoring sites across the island in different locations – in forests, grassland, mangroves, near the beach and in the city – to monitor all the sounds that are produced near each site. We found that we can detect individual species and relate these sounds to natural patterns including the ‘dawn chorus,’ and we could identify sites with heavy human activity. All without having to look for any species.

The rise of bioacoustics

Technology is advancing worldwide. Everything from phones to microwaves is getting more advanced. Instruments for ecological research are no different. Our satellite tracking tags are improving; they’re getting lighter, cheaper and can store more data than ever before. We can use complex chemical techniques to understand who eats whom in a food web, and drones now allow us to image even remote habitats with relative ease. With these advances comes the rise of acoustic monitoring techniques for biological signals (bioacoustics for short)…”

Read the full blog post on the IMECO blog. 

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About the Author

Sam Ross is a PhD student in Ian Donohue’s research group in the Department of Zoology, Trinity College Dublin. His research focuses on the effects of global change on ecological stability. Find out more about his research here:

Website | https://srpjr.wordpress.com/
Twitter | @SamRPJRoss
Research Gate | Profile 
Google Scholar | Profile
Linkedin | Profile
ORCID | 0000-0001-9402-9119

EGG heads talk ecological genetics in Dublin

Using genetics to understand ecology is fascinating. The data reveal things that often cannot be found by observation alone, such as patterns of cryptic diversity, migration pathways and the source of colonising populations.

But life in ecological genetics research is peculiar because we sit on a border between two fairly different fields of science. In an ecological crowd we’re called the ‘genetics person’ while among geneticists we’re seen to have only a rudimentary knowledge of ‘real’ genetics and our comments on ecological theory are sometimes met with funny looks. So spending time in an ecological genetics crowd is refreshing and, last week, about 30 members of the British Ecological Society did exactly that.

conference

The BES Ecological Genetics Special Interest Group (affectionately known as EGG) meet every year and 2017 was their first meeting in Ireland. It was a strategic move from the organising team headed by Dr Gemma Beatty (Aberystwyth University) to expand their Irish membership. The conference took place in the picturesque National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin. Continue reading “EGG heads talk ecological genetics in Dublin”

A recipe for collaboration

 

Recently, along with Adam Kane, Kevin Healy, Graeme Ruxton and Andrew Jackson, we published a review on scavenging behaviour in vertebrates through time in Ecography.

This paper was my first review paper as well as my first paper written from afar, without ever actually meeting in a room with the co-authors for working on the project.

Difficulty: *

Preparation time: 5 month to submission

Serves: 5 people (but any manageable number of people who you like working with will do)

Ingredients:

  • An exciting topic:

For this recipe you will need an exciting topic.

In this case, prior to writing the review, we had often discussed the prevalence of scavenging behaviour through time and what ecological factors influence it.

Indeed, it came as a natural follow up to a paper published by the other co-authors earlier this year on ‘the scavenging ability of theropod dinosaurs’.

More generally, the topic should be broad enough to allow every person to look for anecdotes (did you know there was once a ‘scavenging bat called *Necromantis*?’ and to bring these together in an interesting, more generalised framework. Continue reading “A recipe for collaboration”

Research haikus

Last month, the Zoology Department’s Dr. David Kelly launched his first book of Japanese short form poetry, Hammerscale from the Thrush’s Anvil. At the launch of the book, David invited us in the audience to try our hand at writing our own haikus.

Taking him up on his challenge, and taking inspiration from his book, a few of us in the School of Natural Sciences have penned our own poems based on our areas of study. We even have a contribution from David Kelly himself!

Trying not to sacrifice coherency at the alter of syllable number was a rather new struggle for most of us, but we managed and, I’d like to think, emerged with a greater appreciation for the poets in our midst. Read on for our science-y foray into the arts!

(Paula Tierney @_ptierney)

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Yellow red fish eyes

Maybe that’s a nematode?

No, it is more fish

Paula Tierney

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Carbon fixed by plants

Then sequestered in the soil

Helps to keep Earth cool

Matt Saunders

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Hoverflies hover

Syrphidae flying over

Gardens of flowers

Sarah Gabel

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Monochrome poets

Curved claws etching musky spoors

Into the cold night

Aoibheann Gaughran Continue reading “Research haikus”

Ecology & Science in Ireland: the inaugural meeting of the Irish Ecological Association

 

In the years to come, 140 ecologists working in Ireland will look back with fond memories of being part of the inaugural meeting of the Irish Ecological Association (24th-26th November). We will remember hard-hitting plenaries, compelling oral presentations, data-rich posters, influential workshops and the formation of the IEA’s first committee. The lively social events might be harder for some of us to remember…

There could not have been a more fitting way to open the conference than the plenary seminar from Professor Ian Montgomery (QUB) on Thursday night. Within the hour, he managed to given an incredibly detailed summary of the natural history of Ireland, showing how Ireland had been an island for 16,000 years and presenting evidence that human occupation dated back 13,000 years. Ian stepped us through successive mammal invasions, classifying them as true ‘natives’ and more recent ‘invasives’. His seminar was open to the public and the audience included local farmers with strong concerns about the impacts of invasive mammals on their stock.

We were welcomed the following morning with an energetic plenary from Professor Jane Memmott (U Bristol), covering her strikingly diverse career. She took us on a journey from life as a medical entomologist, to tropical ecologist living in a Costa Rican jungle tent, to invasion biologist in the land of invasives – New Zealand, to her more recent work on biodiversity in urban and farmland systems. Quantitative food webs were the central theme. Using both simple and complex food webs, based on enormous data sets, Jane clearly showed that we only see the full story about ecosystem dynamics by examining links between trophic levels. Continue reading “Ecology & Science in Ireland: the inaugural meeting of the Irish Ecological Association”

Winning research – Zoology storms the Lightning Talks

 

Earlier this month, postgraduate students of the Zoology department compete in the fourth annual ‘School of Natural Sciences Lightning Talks’ alongside students and staff from Botany and Geology.

We all presented 120-second snapshots of our research and were judged by a panel. Judges included the Head of the School of Natural Sciences Professor Fraser Mitchell, Science Gallery’s Aine Flood and Trinity’s press officer for the Faculty of engineering, mathematics and science, Thomas Deane.

Zoology had two winners on the night, Darren O’Connell (@oconned5) for his presentation on ‘Character release in the absence of a congeneric competitor’ and myself, Rachel Byrne, on my research titled ‘Parasites of badgers in Ireland- an untold story.’

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Continue reading “Winning research – Zoology storms the Lightning Talks”

Room for one more?: Egg fostering in seabirds

 

Picture 1 and cover picture

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 [1]. 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.

 

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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 [2].

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.

 

Picture 3

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.

 

Picture 4

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.

 

[1] 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.

 

[2] 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

The Evolution and Laboratory of the Technician.

First in a series of posts on life after an undergraduate degree, Alison Boyce gives an account of the life of a scientific technician.

Peter

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.

 

History

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.

 

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BioLab Teaching Facilities

 

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.