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.’

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

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

3 years as a PhD student

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I arrived in Ireland October 2012 with the purpose of undertaking a PhD supervised by Natalie Cooper on Primates evolution. Looking back, the start of the whole endeavour seemed really stressful to me (new country, new customs, new language) and the project just as frightening (what do I do?, where do I start?, will I be able to do it?)… What happened after was way below my expectations: these three years were anything but stressful and frightening!
OK, even though not everything went smoothly and it had to take the best of the personalities (that are thankfully common sights in Trinity College’s Zoology Department) for dealing with some ups and downs, here is my top 5 list of personal thoughts that always improved the two aspects of my PhD: the working aspect (the research) and the “social” aspect (feeling relaxed and enjoying it).

Be ready to change your PhD

As I mentioned in the first line, my PhD was supposed to be on Primates evolution. In the end, the world “Primates” is mentioned only once (and that is, buried in a sentence about several other mammalian orders). Of course, sometimes the PhD is a Long Quiet River if everything goes well and you keep your highest interest in the original topic. However, sometimes it changes completely! And this should never be a problem! The PhD should be allowed to evolve just as much as yourself (or more pragmatically: your field) evolves into these three or four years.

Failure happens to everyone

Another major part about the PhD (and about the scientific endeavour itself!) is that it will fail. More or less often and more or less dramatically in each case but failure should just be part of the process. As a early career researcher, you can learn a lot from the mistakes and the success of others. However, I found that there is nothing much more personally instructing than the trial and error. I already mentioned how my biggest PhD disaster led to my most positive development.

Stay open-minded and curious

Writing the thesis or even just doing the lab/computer work for the PhD can narrow your mind and highly decrease your sanity. I found that the best way to avoid that was to try as much as possible to make the PhD only priority number two and put all the other things (seminars, meeting speakers, chatting/helping colleagues, etc…) before it. It has two advantages for the PhD: (1) you don’t work on it 24/7 and (2) everything you learn outside of it will actually be super useful for the PhD. In the Zoology Derpartment, we were only a couple of people doing macroevolution surrounded by ecologists. Yet, I think my work benefited heavily from the influence from these people.

Don’t rush

One thing I found nice with the PhD is that before you even start – before day one! – you already know the final deadline. OK, at day one, the handing in date seems far away (3 or 4 years away actually!) but that leaves you plenty of time for doing awesome research, writing it down as papers/chapters (and even trying to publish them before the deadline) and going to the pub or to other non-PhD recreational events…

Chat with your colleagues

Finally, I found that I gained so much just by chatting with my colleagues. And by colleagues I mean my fellow PhD students of course but also with the post-docs and the staff. I always found a long term benefit to both PhD aspects, whether it was talking about the latests video games during working time (I’m not only looking at you @yodacomplex) or having heated debates about species selection during coffee time.
I know much of these tips worked for me but might not apply to other people. In the end their is only one ultimate tip: make your PhD a hell of a good time!

Photo Credit: Thomas Guillerme

There is no magic formula…(sorry!)

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I recently attended a mentoring event that left me faintly frustrated and I was finding it hard to put into words exactly why. Eventually it came to me – at these events people always want the answer to the same question: what is the magic formula for succeeding* in academia? The problem is that there isn’t one, and I always feel really bad having to say that.

Sadly being smart is not enough. You need to work hard (not 24/7 or anything insane but you can’t slack off all the time and expect to succeed) and you need to be lucky. That luck can involve being in the right place at the right time, having the right skills, or knowing the right person. Of course people make their own luck, and being in the right place is not going to help you if you don’t also have the CV to be able to grab the opportunity. But still I would say that luck plays a fairly large part in most people’s careers. Of course you need publications, preferably in well-respected journals (Science and Nature papers would be a bonus!). But how many publications depends on your field, the post and, importantly, who you are competing with. The same applies to grants, presentations, teaching, outreach etc. This makes giving generic advice really difficult.

Another problem is that things are changing rapidly in the academic job market. Often we get advice from PIs who got their jobs in a completely different economic and academic climate. For example, I got a PhD with no papers, no research experience, and when I was half way through my MSc degree. These days this wouldn’t be enough for me to get PhD funding from the Irish Research Council. My point here is that you should take generic advice with a grain of salt, and also try to avoid getting annoyed with PIs for not giving you the “magic formula”. All we can do is tell you about our personal experiences.

What kinds of advice might be more useful (beyond the obvious advice to “write more good papers”)? First, before you’re looking for jobs take a senior academic in your field (preferably several) out for a coffee to show them your CV and ask them if there are any obvious gaps. This gives you the opportunity to fill those gaps before it becomes an issue. Second, when you start applying for jobs, try and get as much information about the job as possible from the advert but also ask people in the department if you can. This might save you time, for example if it turns out there is an internal candidate or if your CV is really not competitive, or give you an idea what the department is really looking for. Third, if you apply for jobs and get rejected, try and get feedback. This won’t always happen due to the volume of applications, and it won’t always be useful, but it’s worth a try. And don’t let rejections discourage you, keep on trying!

Good luck, and if you do find the magic formula please let us know!

*this assumes that getting a permanent job is equivalent to success!

Author

Natalie Cooper @nhcooper123

Photo credit

http://cnx.org/

A Day in the Life of a PhD Student

nine_to_fiveWe thought it might be interesting to share what the daily life of a PhD student actually looks like. So here are three perspectives on the average day.

Adam

A typical day for me begins between 8 and 9. I start out by checking my emails for correspondence and any interesting new papers that have been published. You typically have content alerts set up to send directly to your email account. As the blog administrator, I often upload new posts to our site in the morning.

I’ll usually be in the middle of composing a paper given that this is the main part of a PhD student’s work. This has three aspects to it, reading, writing and coding. I don’t adhere to a rigid timetable day by day, instead I’ll just pick one of the three that I’m interested in doing at the time.

I take a break at 11 and 1 where I talk to my friends about work as well as shooting the breeze. I work until 5 or 6 most days and if I begin to flag in the afternoon with doing research I’ll try my hand at writing a blog post. I share my office with four other people so the idea of the lonely academic is definitely not applicable in my case.

Thomas

Fortunately my day does not only consist of writing papers and analysing data! In fact I spend also a good amount of time doing rather chilled out stuff (such as drinking coffee, reading/writing sciency blogs, checking conferences or trendy papers on twitter or reading/writing emails). I also spend some nice hours chatting with my colleagues, whether it is at lunch break or in the office and whether it is about the last Hobbit movie or the simplest algorithm to match names in a phylogeny.

The “purely productive” aspects that can lead to a publications are actually constantly fed by the “less productive” ones (such as chatting around or reading stuff) and I’m always glad that these are not mutually exclusive parts of my day to day PhD life.

Deirdre

My typical day is very similar to those of Adam and Thomas above but, as my PhD is very empirically based I also have bursts of field, outdoor and lab based experiment days so, to be different, here is what a day in the field (doing freshwater work) for me is like:

Typically I get up sinfully early, pile on as many layers as I can and head out in the (hopefully preloaded) van for a long drive to the field site with my field buddy of the day.

We’d spend anything from 2- 4 hours at the different sites collecting algae and invertebrate samples from our cages, usually pausing for a slightly soggy cheese sandwich in the middle or to chat to curious a passer-by. On clear weather days this can be lovely and you see all sorts of beautiful country and wildlife but the rain makes everything take twice as long- especially when you need to see below the water surface. Not all bad though, on one of these rainy cold days our bedraggled selves were invited in for tea and scones to one of the lakeside houses. Then it’s a long drive back, trying to do some water filtering and sample sorting on the winding country roads. Usually, depending how late we get back, then there is the unloading of the van and lugging all of the samples to the cold room for storage.  Fieldwork is great fun though; it lets you see the country and bump into all kinds of creatures and characters.

Authors: Adam Kane, Thomas Guillerme, Deirdre McClean

Photo credit: http://www.blogmarketingacademy.com/which-is-more-secure-the-9-5-job-or-self-employment/