Messing about in boats

I realise that this is the second eulogy that I have posted on the blog in the last couple of months (which is all the more striking due to the low frequency of posts), but there was one passing recently that I simply have to mark. I was devastated to hear that Professor Brian Moss died recently. You will find a number of obituaries written by people who are better qualified to comment on his scientific work, and who knew him better as a person. However, while I was not as close to him as some, I did have the honour and privilege of learning from him as an undergraduate, a postgraduate, a postdoc, and as junior faculty, and so I feel the need to share some of the affection and deep respect that I felt for Brian. There have been a number of leading academics who have influenced my work and career (Dave and Tom in particular) and without them I would not have the collaborations, publications, or career that I enjoy today. However, I think it’s fair to say that Brian had the single largest personal influence over me from anyone within the academy, and shaped the academic that I have become. Other people watch David Attenborough on television, but I had the privilege of being taught by and working alongside my very own Attenborough who inspired me to think in different ways across disciplines. Continue reading

Why I am voting “Remain”

stronger-in-logoAs with a number of friends, I am growing increasingly concerned that the UK will vote for Brexit. My postal vote is already submitted, and I voted to remain. From our continued membership of the EU we gain human rights, environmental protection, workers’ rights, huge trade benefits, free movement, valuable immigration, a leading role in the governance of 500m people, and a place on the world stage. Specifically for my situation, I value the ability to work across borders as a researcher where I have the opportunity to learn from and work alongside academics across the continent. I am funded by an EU Fellowship which has brought cash back into the UK, am involved in EU grants which is bringing expertise and cash back into the UK, and am working to build international networks of researchers to solve major problems in sustainable urban development. Investors are pulling out of the UK for fear of Brexit, independent statistical bodies are advising of net loss if we leave, and thousands of valuable workers will be forced to go through long-winded (and currently unplanned) immigration processes to continue their contribution to our economy. Finally, this false notion of “taking back control” ignores the fact that one of our two legislative Houses is unelected, we remain an anachronistic constitutional monarchy, and only 25% of UK voters voted for the current Tory Government. To retain control, we need to stay a major player on the world stage and institute democratic reform within our borders. I’ve voted Remain, and I hope you will, too.

The Fishy Business of Brexit

fishing-boat-1281272_960_720Before you start to feel bad for the fishermen (fisherpeople?) on the Thames, here are some facts:

1) Quotas are important. If we fish all the fish, there are no more fish. The fishing industry has been utterly unable to regulate itself. EU quotas have led to the glacially slow recovery of managed stocks, because the quotas are higher than scientists advise. We need lower quotas combined with no-take zones, otherwise there will be no industry at all. Furthermore, UK quotas are divided among UK fishermen by the UK government so if one individual boat loses out it’s not necessarily the EU’s fault.

2) Three large companies own 61% of all fishing quotas. This isn’t about Michael Gove’s father alone on a tiny boat in a stormy sea. This is an industry monopolised by millionaires who are fighting regulation, just like all other industries. Viewed in that light it is completely unsurprising that “Big Fish” has joined Farage, alongside his banker allies.

3) Fishing rights to certain waters are set based on historic use. The fisheries industry does not want that to change because British boats are in loads of places that definitely aren’t British.

I know emotive stories about these poor Scots in their woolly jumpers and orange hats are relatable, but (as always) it is more complicated than that. It is completely understandable that they are unhappy: the history of their industry has generated a lot of jobs that simply cannot be supported through sustainable fisheries. It seems that the fishermen think Brexit would lead to higher quotas. Someday quotas might increase, but only if ecosystem-based management leads to increases in stocks that can support higher quotas, and that is the point of the EU Common Fisheries Policy.

The man who played with dinosaurs

We had some sad news in the department earlier in the week. We heard from his son that Professor R McNeill Alexander FRS had passed away at the age of 81. I didn’t know Neill very well, but we had chatted a few times over coffee in the department, which he still visited regularly until a year or two ago. We also lived in the same area of Leeds and I saw him often at the local farmers market. However, there was one particular encounter with Neill that I remember vividly, and I wanted to share the anecdote:

dinosaur-470161_960_720I was at a local Cafe Scientifique in 2013 when I saw Neill give a short presentation and demonstration of some of his world-leading research on dinosaur locomotion. However, rather than this being in front of an auditorium full of people (as would befit a Fellow of the Royal Society, former President of the Society for Experimental Biology, former President of the International Society for Vertebrate Morphologists, author of countless books and articles, the list goes on…), Neill gave an informal presentation to a group of four young children, their parents, and me. Sat in the cafe at Leeds Museum, Neill quietly explained to the small audience the history of his discoveries: how dinosaur models could be used to evaluate mass and centre of gravity, how dinosaur tracks could be used to infer gait, stride, and speed. I don’t recall him taking any personal credit, although it was his to claim, but rather he discussed the ideas as having been a communal advance. Then, at the end of the talk, Neill sat with the children and played with them using the same toys from which he had drawn such inspiration as a researcher and through which he had revolutionised so much of what we know about animal biomechanics and locomotion. I don’t know who the children were, and I don’t know whether they or their parents were aware that they were sat playing with dinosaurs alongside one of the greatest scientists of his generation, but for me that is perhaps the purest example of science communication that I have ever witnessed.

RIP Robert McNeill Alexander (1934-2016)

Keeping them engaged – tech solutions for in-class quizzes

clickerWhen I joined my current institution in 2012, I was offered the role of “Blended Learning Champion” – basically I had to promote a combination of the best pedagogical tools, including in-person techniques and digital technology. As soon as I started, I learned about what became known as “the clicker fiasco”. There was a time, you see, in the halcyon days of 2010/11, when all students in my faculty were given little devices that could be used to respond to questions during the class. It looked a little bit like the one on the right here, and worked extremely well. Lecturers would embed questions in their lectures, the students would answer using the clickers, and everybody was happy. At some stage some inconsistencies in the software versions, or possibly some old hardware (the exact cause is unknown), caused the whole system to come crashing down. What was frustrating about this situation is that there was substantial buy-in from academics to use these technological tools to enhance their pedagogical practice, but the failure of the clickers deprived them of both their favourite tools and their enthusiasm for blended learning. Now, I think I have found the solution: Socrative. Continue reading

Avoiding Attack! (a classroom kit)

I blogged some time ago about a Cafe Scientifique talk I gave on the topic of “Avoiding Attack” (broadly mimicry and camouflage in animals). I stole the title of the talk wholesale from the excellent book of the same name written by former colleagues Mike Speed and Tom Sherratt along with Graeme Ruxton). After giving that talk, I was asked to contribute to the Leeds Festival of Science – a great initiative where University of Leeds staff engage local people (particularly schools) with their research through on-campus and external events. As part of that event this year I took part in the “schools roadshow” where researchers go out into schools to teach about their work. I thought I would post the resources that I used here with some notes so that teachers can make use of the materials that I produced. Everything here is released on a Creative Commons license (CC-BY 4.0).

20150318_094110 Continue reading

Making my research more open using Kudos

I’ve always tried to make sure that my academic work wasn’t tucked away on a dusty shelf (or paywalled in an obscure academic journal, which is the equivalent in the digital age) and that has meant that my digital footprint is huge. I have accounts on ResearchGateTwitterSlideshareLinkedInFigshareGoogle ScholarAcademia.eduFlickr, and Google+ (as well as probably a few more that I’ve forgotten!). I don’t think I have lost anything by “scattering my wild oats” across a huge swathe of the internet, because I assume that it increases visibility. Indeed I get a few views across all platforms:

However, what I have been looking for is a service that allows me to aggregate all this content. Ideally it would have (i) a single page per publication, where I could bring together all the bits of information relating to that paper (data, preprints, press coverage, and a lay summary), and (ii) a personal profile page that brings all of those publication pages together under my profile. Well, I think I’ve found it! Continue reading