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)

_______________

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”

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

Studying worms – a Nobel calling

Professor William Campbell with Professors Celia Holland (front right) and Yvonne Buckley (front left). Back row L-R Professor Holland’s parasitology research group: Dr Peter Stuart, Gwen Deslyper, Maureen Williams, Rachael Byrne and Paula Tierney

 

“Parasites are not generally regarded as being loveable. When we refer to people as parasites we are not being complimentary, we are not praising them. We tend to think that a parasite is the sort of person who goes through a revolving door on somebody else’s push. This is unfair. It’s unfair to real parasites… It is time for parasites to get a little more respect!”                                                        – Professor William C. Campbell during his 2015 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

In 2015, Prof. William C. Campbell, a Trinity Zoology graduate, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for his discovery of ivermectin. The drug can be used to treat a wide range of parasites, but is most widely known for its effectiveness against river blindness. In 1987 the pharmaceutical company Merck enabled the free distribution of the drug to developing countries.

This Nobel Prize, which Prof. Campbell shared with his then colleague Prof. Satoshi Ōmura, is an important accomplishment not only for the Professors themselves as the cherry on top of their careers, but it is also important for the wider academic community.

This Nobel Prize is of importance to what Prof. Celia Holland described as ‘the international worm community’. This community has been struggling for many years to get recognition and funding. This prize therefore finally highlights the importance of parasitic worms. A lot of these parasites are often, despite their wide prevalence, classified as ‘neglected tropical diseases’. Neglected tropical diseases mainly affect the poor communities and are often forgotten in research and in the ‘public health agenda’. It remains to be seen whether some parasites will ever be able to shake their neglected status, but this Nobel Prize and associated international attention could be a great step in the right direction.

Hopefully, other pharmaceutical companies will take note of this prize. Giving away lifesaving medicine should be celebrated. We all know of the negative press pharmaceutical companies have gotten such as the recent price hikes in epi-pens. However, we tend to forget and ignore when pharmaceutical companies go to great lengths to help those in need. I see this prize also as a celebration of Merck for showing how it can be done differently. Because, really, what is the point of us producing any medical research if it doesn’t translate into affordable medicine?

During Prof. Campbell’s visit to TCD, the provost announced a new lectureship position in parasitology in honour of Prof. Campbell and the work he has done for the international worm community. Needless to say that this position would not have existed without Prof. Campbell’s Nobel Prize. Parasitology is a struggling field worldwide and every lectureship position is one to be valued and celebrated. This lectureship shows the commitment of the university to parasitology and will reinforce Trinity’s leading role in parasitological research within Ireland.

Additionally, this is an inspirational story for a lot of people. The story of ivermectin is a great motivation for parasitologists like myself. I work on a parasitic nematode called Ascaris, which infects 800 million people worldwide every year. Much like river blindness, it is also a neglected tropical disease, and as is often the case for these types of diseases, there isn’t much interest or funding going around. So it’s great at the start of my PhD to see that this type of research can also be honoured and valued.

I’ve read interviews of Prof. Campbell where he said that this prize meant the end of his retirement. I’m sorry to hear that his well-deserved retirement has been shaken up, but Prof. Campbell took one for the team and is promoting parasitic worm research to whoever wants to listen, just as he did before, only now he has a broader audience.

Author: Gwen Deslyper (seen charming Bill at 1:49 )

Formally informal conferences

 

BESMacroNetworking

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.”

Hope to see you at the next conference!

Photo credit: Thomas Guillerme

Original post

Making the most out of a post doc interview

Making the most out of a post doc interview

(Even when you don’t get/want the job!)

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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.

 

Good luck!

Ps. I did get offered the post and decided to take it! 

 

Author:  Dr Deirdre McClean (@deirdremcclean1)