Who would win in a fight between a rhino and a tiger?

tigerrhinoI got an email from our university press officer earlier this week asking “whether we have a ‘zoologist who could participate in a light-hearted discussion about who would win in a fight between a tiger and a rhino on Friday morning’.” The request was from the local BBC Radio Leeds team who wanted to break up their coverage of the Leeds Rhinos vs Castleford Tigers rugby league Challenge Cup final preparations with some light-hearted digressions. I have resolved to take a more active part in science communication (including this blog), because I see that as a fundamental part of my job (even if it is little-rewarded…) and so I agreed to do it.Read More »

iPad apps for academics (Part 2)

I wrote earlier about a few apps that I had found useful in my first weeks of owning an iPad. Well I’ve been actively pursuing opportunities to learn more about the learning applications for tablets like the iPad and wanted to share some of what I have found. A lot of this comes from a workshop by the brilliant Joe Moretti, who came to my university to run a workshop on iPads in education. I hope these are useful to you, too:Read More »

The Science of the Sunday Assembly

[From the outset, it’s worth stating that I’m an atheist (in the soft sense), an agnostic (in a firmer sense), but probably best-described as a Humanist]

Humanists, skeptics, and atheists like to pride themselves on being rational and evidence-based. However, the Sunday Assembly (which I have been helping to organise a bit in Leeds) seems to have brought out the worst kind of ignorant twaddle that I have heard from the community in some time. Most of this seems to centre on “you’re doing something that looks a bit like what people do in church, and that makes it bad”. No attempt at understanding why churches do those things, nor why churches have (until recently) been very successful. With that in mind, here is some science behind the Sunday Assembly:Read More »

Clayton Woods and Woodside Quarry

I’m lucky to live in one of the leafier parts of Leeds, and there is a reasonable amount of green space within an hour’s walk from my home. Yesterday I made my first visit to one such area: Clayton Woods, which turned out to be much more interesting than I was expecting. The woods themselves are pleasant enough to walk through – small dirt tracks weaving through trees and speckled with boulders. There is enough tree cover that the sound from the nearby road is almost blotted out. However, what was most fascinating was what lies at the centre: an abandoned quarry. I had heard about this quarry, but there doesn’t seem to be much information on it aside from a small number of mentions on web forums about the Leeds area. I thought it was worth trying to pull some of that information together here in one place.Read More »

I did a map!

I have been playing with R’s capacity to produce interactive maps and (after much trial-and-error) have finally come up with something that shows an interesting pattern.  The data plotted below are the species richness of dragonflies and damselflies from the British Dragonfly Society‘s database in West Yorkshire over the last 20 years.  The data are summarised to 1km grid squares on the British National Grid.  Below is a screenshot because WordPress doesn’t like iframes, but click it to go to the full map.

Capture

The scale is a bit odd to emphasise the range of the data, and there are many neater ways to do this.  In particular, R gives the option to render in interactive 3D using OpenGL, create actual interactive maps using Shiny, and use the Leaflet jscript packages.  There are more details on the plotGoogleMaps package that I used for this little map here.  The code is below:

Dragonfly.grid <- read.table("Dragonfly data.txt",header=TRUE)
attach(Dragonfly.grid)
Dragonfly.grid[,2]<-Dragonfly.grid[,2]*100
Dragonfly.grid[,3]<-Dragonfly.grid[,3]*100
library(RColorBrewer)
coordinates(Dragonfly.grid)<-c('Easting','Northing')
Dragonfly.grid<-as(Dragonfly.grid,'SpatialPixelsDataFrame')
proj4string(Dragonfly.grid) <- CRS('+proj=tmerc +lat_0=49 +lon_0=-2 +k=0.9996012717 +x_0=400000 +y_0=-100000 +ellps=airy +datum=OSGB36 +units=m +no_defs')
m=plotGoogleMaps(Dragonfly.grid,zcol='Species',at=c(0,2,3,4,6,8,12,21),colPalette= rev(rainbow(7,start=0,end=4/6)))

Created by Pretty R at inside-R.org

PhD opportunities in ecology and evolution

As part of the new NERC Doctoral Training Program at the University of Leeds, I have two PhD projects to advertise that are now (as of 15th November 2013) open to applicants:

1: DragonFlight: Linking the mechanics and energetics of flight to conservation status and responses to climate change in dragonflies

dragonfly-177338_1280The DragonFlight project builds on my earlier interests in dragonfly dispersal (1), macroecology (2), and flight morphology (3).  There has quite a bit of work done on the flight of dragonflies, but much of this has taken place in the laboratory and has not considered what goes on in the field.  Similarly, there has been quite a lot of landscape-scale work done in the form of mark-recapture studies or analyses of historical records (including my own), but none of this has really tested for the traits that underlie flight ability.  This project will link detailed biomechanical measurements of dragonfly flight to our knowledge of responses to climate change (i.e. range shifts) or conservation status.

2: Teaching old beetles new tricks: applying novel genetic techniques to re-establish a classic ecological model system, Tribolium

I’m really excited about this project.  Andrew Peel, a colleague at Leeds, has been working on the evolution of beetles (and animals in general) for a while and uses Tribolium as a model system.  I have been interested in the ecology of this system for some time and this project represents us banging our brains together. In particular, there are lots of nice ways that we can incorporate Andrew’s contemporary genomic techniques (e.g. RNAi) to test for genetic drivers of ecological phenomena.  The species is also an important pest species of stored grain, making any advances potentially applicable to pest control.

Note that both of these are “competitively funded”, which means that there are more projects than we can fund.  We interview candidates for all projects and then award the best candidates the projects that they applied for.  There are more details on the website, including how to apply.  Deadline is 24th January 2014.


References:
(1) Hassall C, Thompson DJ (2012) Study design and mark recapture estimates of dispersal: a case study with the endangered damselfly Coenagrion mercuriale. Journal of Insect Conservation, 16, 111-120.
(2) Hassall C, Thompson DJ (2010) Accounting for recorder effort in the detection of range shifts from historical data. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 1, 343-350.
(3) Hassall C, Thompson DJ, Harvey IF (2008) Latitudinal variation in morphology in two sympatric damselfly species with contrasting range dynamics (Odonata: Coenagrionidae). European Journal of Entomology, 105, 939-944.

Communicating camouflage and mimicry: chocolate, hover flies and Teddy Roosevelt

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In September I gave a Cafe Scientifique talk at the Leeds City Museum on the evolution of mimicry and camouflage.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, Cafe Scientifique offers an opportunity for scientists to give short (or long, depending on how it is run) talks on their research to a general audience and then take questions in an informal setting.  I have always been a fan of this kind of outreach, and when Clare Brown, the curator of Natural History at Leeds Museum asked if I wanted to give a talk I jumped at the opportunity.  I spent a bit of time pulling resources together for the talk and I thought I would post them here in case anybody else could find a use for them.  I have outlined the talk I gave below:Read More »

Gardens and roofs as nature reserves in cities

I just heard about this brilliant initiative at Sharrow School in Sheffield (less than a mile from the hospital where I was born!).    One of the school buildings has a roof garden which was specifically designed to represent the various habitats that can be found in the local area.  The garden was so successful that the school was able to have it designated as a local nature reserve under UK law.  You can see more details of the school and the building (including the description of the LNR itself and the justification for the designation).  The roof garden was organised by the Green Roof Centre, an organisation based within the University of Sheffield, when building was created in 2007 during the merger of two local schools to form Sharrow School.Read More »

League tables and “Rate Your Lecturer”

RateYourLecturer
Grabbed this before the site started properly!

So I had a pretty interesting little exchange with the organisers of a new university lecturer-rating website today…  We’re in a peculiar place with university education these days.  There are a lot more universities these days and students are being a lot more picky over places of study now that they are (in the UK, at least) paying £9k per year to study.  This has put an increasing emphasis on league tables and metrics of quality.  I thought I would share a few thoughts on these developments because I am both personally interested and professionally invested in the success of my institution in the great scramble to adapt to a new way of “doing university”.

Rate Your Lecturer

It started with this:

People were negative:

I was curious:

We had a bit of an exchange after that, and Twitter isn’t really the place for reasoned discourse.  Most of the issues that I wanted to raise are fairly well documented at the Rate My Professor Wikipedia page.  Still, I’m always willing to try new things, so I did this:

..and then to the heady heights of number five on what must a very sparse league table!  I stand by my concerns.  People might think that academics are all unfeeling researchers who only teach when they have to, but I can’t think of anyone among my colleagues who thinks like that.  We all put our hearts into our teaching and find it very rewarding (most of the time, anyway!).  More than that, we have lots of ways in which we can see what the students think of our teaching:

  • We have staff-student committees where student representatives let us know what we can do better and liaise directly with the staff who make the decisions about teaching provision.
  • We have module feedback forms (which aren’t used by the students as much as we would like) on which we collect objective and longterm, comparable data on student satisfaction and teacher performance.  This is extremely important to us.
  • Finally, we ASK THE STUDENTS.  I like to think that I maintain a fairly informal teaching environment, and I always ask the students if they find things useful/irrelevant, interesting/boring, and what else they would like to do.

This is not even including the Key Information Set that already contains data comparing student satisfaction with teaching in particular programs.  My main concern is that students will be presented with too much information to use to make these decisions and that they will not be sufficiently aware of the limitations of different datasets to make good use of them all.  Ironically, this is what we teach them once they get to university!

The final point about the Rate Your Lecturer movement is that it seems to miss the point of universities.  They are very much emphasising the teaching role, which ignores the fact that academics have a tripartite job (some would say we have three jobs) as (i) administrators who run the departments and faculties, (ii) researchers who generate ground-breaking research, and (iii) teachers who educate the next generation of citizens.  ALL academics do this.  We are not “teachers”, “researchers” or “administrators”.  We are all three.  Which would you value above the others?  With a funding crisis brought on by small falls in student enrollment, perhaps we should be focusing on teaching.  But where does that leave research?  And what about making sure that there is a well-run department in which we can teach and research?

League tables, generally

In general, universities are under a great deal of pressure to perform, and by “perform” I mean increase our rankings in league tables.  The Research Excellence Framework is the UK’s main method for judging research outputs and impact, and that is coming to a head in a few months time.  The National Student Survey is the other important metric by which we judge ourselves.  This covers the teaching aspect, but from the students’ perspective.  These vast number of different league tables that are constructed out of these combinations of metrics are extremely confusing for staff, so they must be confusing for students…  On the plus side, if an institution isn’t doing well on one table, they’re probably doing well somewhere else!  You’ll probably see “ranked in the top 10 in the country” on far more than 10 universities’ websites…

So what do we do?

To be honest, I don’t have a plan.  We are in a time of change, and I can’t help but feel that the successful universities will be those that are able to enact transformative policies (i.e. those that change their way of doing things in a BIG way, rather than incrementally).  Whether the bigger, older universities have that kind of manouverability remains to be seen, but I’ve seen some really important steps forward in the few months that I have been at my institution and that makes me really excited for where these new challenges are going to push us!

Leeds Big Data Week (big data for conservation biology)

I’m excited to be a part of Big Data Week this year. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the phenomenon of big data, IBM has a pretty good definition.  In essence, we are collecting huge amounts of data by virtue of living in a technologically advanced world, and those data are collected rapidly in a diverse range of formats. The challenge now is what to do with all of it! Big Data Week, which is running from 22-28 April 2013, is an international movement that was established in 2011 to connect businesses, data scientists, and technology groups to explore novel social, political, technological and commercial applications of big data.  Leeds Data Thing is my local big data group, formed in 2013 to provide a venue for the discussion of local big data applications.  They are putting on a range of events for BDW 2013, and I have volunteered to give a short presentation at one of those events.

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