Seizing the new collaborator at scientific conferences

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.

Creating a new collaboration at a conference recently lead me to get to travel to Montpelier and play with new molecular toys.
Creating a new collaboration at a conference recently lead me to get to travel to Montpelier and play with new molecular toys.

Continue reading “Seizing the new collaborator at scientific conferences”

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)

_______________

Yellow red fish eyes

Maybe that’s a nematode?

No, it is more fish

Paula Tierney

_______________

Carbon fixed by plants

Then sequestered in the soil

Helps to keep Earth cool

Matt Saunders

_______________

Hoverflies hover

Syrphidae flying over

Gardens of flowers

Sarah Gabel

_______________

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”

How to start a Ph.D (or how to try, at least)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Set up backups. Put your data somewhere that automatically syncs to the internet. Avoid the dread, terror, and horror of disappearing data.
  10. 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.

Author: Maureen Williams @MoDubs11

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.’

para

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

Trump and the future of “America’s best idea.”

 

In 1872 Yellowstone National Park was established as the first National Park not only in the USA, but in the world. President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, and so the National Parks were born. Today 59 National Parks exist throughout the United States, covering approximately 51.9 million acres with the goal of maintaining in perpetuity both wildlife and their habitat. Since 1916 the National Park Service (NPS) has been entrusted with the care of these National Parks, and this year they celebrate their centenary.

The National Parks have been referred to as “America’s best idea”, an ideology that has spread across the globe promoting the conservation of what little natural habitat and resources remain. What began as a single National Park in 1872 has spread to over 100 nations and been built up to approximately 1,200 National Parks.

In the wake of Trump’s shock election win, researchers, scientists, conservationists and a significant proportion of the public are lamenting for our natural world.It is no secret that Donald Trump does not openly believe in climate change, refusing to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence. Not only this but he has also promised to dismantle the Paris Agreement which sought to limit the temperature rise associated with global warming to below 2°C in order to reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

Today the NPS actively teaches about, and warns of, the dangers of climate change to both the National Parks and the natural world at large. However, it is feared that the NPS will be silenced under a Trump Administration. Under the second Bush Administration talk of climate change by the NPS was prohibited under a decree from the Secretary of the Interior. Similar circumstances are expected under a Trump Administration, with Sarah Palin expected to be made Secretary of the Interior. If this comes to fruition then Palin would oversee the extraction of natural resources on approximately 500 million acres of public land, including the iconic National Parks, such as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. Palin’s stance on natural resources leaves little hope as she has actively campaigned for the drilling of oil within the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s largest Wildlife Refuge, at the expense of the wildlife within it: “If a caribou needs to be sacrificed for the sake of energy … I say, ‘Mr. Caribou, maybe you need to take one for the team.’” Continue reading “Trump and the future of “America’s best idea.””

Top 10 Minor Assignment Mistakes that Grind my Gears (+1 bonus)

 

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.

  1. Species notation. A species should be written this way: Genus species and abbreviated species. The italics are crucial.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Please write in full, complete sentences in the English language. Make sure your sentences have both a subject and a verb at minimum. Avoid fragments: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/sentence-fragments
  5. Parenthetical phrases. It’s (sorta) annoying that this colloquial writing technique infiltrates your writing. Either say it, or don’t.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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:
  10. The dreaded /. Please don’t do/try this at home. It’s so frustrating! Write out a conjunction. You can reference this for clarification:
  11. 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…

Author: Maureen Williams @MoDubs11

Iguana vs Snakes | Planet Earth 2

 

Most of us were glued to the hugely anticipated premier of Planet Earth 2 this Sunday. We watched lovesick sloths meander through the mangroves, giant dragons battle it out on Komodo, and penguins getting fecked off cliffs by monstrous waves.

But if there was one scene that got us talking more than any other it was the literal race for survival that took place between a newly hatched marine iguana and an ominous pack of southern black racer snakes. The baby iguana had us shouting at the telly and clutching our faces while we watched its mad dash to the freedom of the ocean’s edge, avoiding the snakes’ fangs.

While we hoped against hope that the hatchling would make it, David Attenborough reminded us that for the snakes this was also a matter of life and death. Snakes have to eat, and for them the iguana hatching season means their best chance all year for hunting food. Continue reading “Iguana vs Snakes | Planet Earth 2”

Freeing Willy: the $20 million failed experiment

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.

Keiko in December 1998
Keiko in December 1998

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.

Keiko being removed from his tank in Oregon

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.

Author: Andy Mooney @andymooney13