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. Read More »

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.Read More »

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).

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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!Read More »

Academic hiring, REF, and the Sports Illustrated curse

Universities are faced with a problem when hiring new staff: academics are the lifeblood of universities, but are expensive and almost impossible to remove once in place. This means that there is an enormous amount of pressure on hiring committees to identify those researchers who will prove fruitful once they are in post, but those predictions rely on extrapolation from a relatively short track record. Specific metrics that UK universities want to maximise are:

  1. Research income (keeps the lights on, maintains league table positions)
  2. “Impact” beyond the academic sphere (in Research Excellence Framework jargon: “Impact Case Studies” – you can see a few of my colleagues Case Studies here)
  3. High quality publications (number isn’t an issue, but the REF demands four publications from each academic in each 5-6 year reporting cycle)

Obviously the dilemma is this: when hiring a junior academic, that candidate will not have had an opportunity to apply for funding (often because they simply weren’t eligible without a permanent position). They will also not have had a sufficiently long career to be able to demonstrate the impact of their work. Most Impact Case Studies rely on 10-year timescales, from inception of a project, funding for that project, completion, dissemination, and implementation of findings. The only thing that academics can be judged on as they apply for jobs, then, is their publication list (which will also be short, because they’ve only just started!).Read More »

A recommitment to blogging!

After seeing a discussion on Twitter about the “end of year” statistics that WordPress provides, I was curious about how many people were reading the blog. It turns out that this was the best year yet, with around 32,700 views in total. This pushes me well over 100,000 total views since I started the blog in 2011. However, I also noticed that I hadn’t posted anything since May 2015! So here’s my New Year (re)commitment to getting the blog up and running again (not my first refresh!). Just to get a few ideas out there, I’ll be trying for a post every two weeks (at least) and I’ll be blogging on the following topics:

  • Invasive reptiles
  • Dragonflies in cities
  • Social media in education
  • Opportunities for field experience
  • A whole host of paper summaries which are nearly finished!

I’m curious as to how other people structure their writing, though? Do you dedicate a certain time/day to it? Do you have a long list of topics that you want to write about or are you just inspired and sit down to write?

The lost art of foraging

wild-strawberry-523882_1280I had a fantastic day out recently at the Great British Food Festival, held at Harewood House in Yorkshire. However, tucked away in the line-up among the hog roasts, cooking demos, and coffee kiosks was a little treat: a guide to foraging. Foraging for food in the wild has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the last decade, after two generations (really since rationing ended in the mid-1950s) of neglect. This has been helped by high profile chefs such as René Redzepi at Noma, a restaurant which has been awarded the title of “best restaurant in the world” in four years out of the last five, where locally-sourced and foraged ingredients are given centre-stage. Suddenly an innocuous-looking green weed growing up between the flags in your garden path has become haute cuisine!

I wanted to share a few interesting points that our foraging guide (Adele Nodezar) offered to the group:Read More »