It is easy to look back and see those little (and sometimes not so little) moments that have caused great changes in your life. Being in academia (and having survived this far) means that I have been immensely lucky. There is no other way to describe it. Some of that luck has been self-made, or at least I have seen and taken opportunities when they presented themselves. However, there were a lot of cases where I benefitted from sheer serendipity. I thought it might be useful to highlight some of those:
I was born this way – Straight off I need to acknowledge my privilege. I’m white and male (among other awesome things) and that gives me a massive headstart straight away.
A casual conversation with a lecturer – After an ecology lecture in 2004 I approached my lecturer and asked about PhDs. In my mind, he asked “How do you feel about dragonflies?” although I have a feeling I have made that up. He wrote a PhD project up, I applied, and started working with him the next year.
A transoceanic link – My PhD supervisor happened to have a former student working at a university in Canada. He put me in touch, we found a slightly unusual funding source, and I ended up moving over shortly after finishing my PhD.
Helping out around the lab – As the senior postdoc in the lab in Canada, I chipped-in with supervision of MSc and PhD students. The upshot was that I was helping a student analyse and write-up her data. That analysis produced a Nature paper.
Government policy on research assessment – Because I hadn’t held a faculty position before, if I joined a UK university and was a part of their Research Excellence Framework submission I would only have to submit one paper. The fact that I was looking for a faculty position just as our Nature paper came out made me very attractive as a new hire.
Having a big mouth – Someone in the department realised that I never say “no” to anything. One day I was called into my Head of School’s office and shown an email from Random House publishers saying that the chair of a local event had pulled out and could they suggest someone to fill in. The event was an Evening With Richard Dawkins (of whom I am a massive fan) in front of a sell-out crowd at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I said yes (inevitably), met Richard, we shared a couple of hours on stage, and I have been told that the evening went extremely well (it was hard to tell from under the spotlight!).
That’s not saying that I haven’t worked hard. I’ve done what most academics do, which is to sacrifice a degree of work-life balance until reaching a permanent position. I have published a LOT and the ideas that I have been nurturing for a number of years (urban pond research networks, projects on environmental education, pedagogical research, and dragonfly evolution) are coming to fruition. However, there were key points in my career when luck was a deciding factor. There are probably academics out there who had no luck and got to where they are purely on the basis of hard work. However, I imagine they are in the minority!
A few weeks ago, I was honoured to have been given the Early Career Entomologist Award from the Royal Entomological Society and the Marsh Christian Trust. I’m not good at accepting praise and have always suffered from imposter syndrome. In the last year, I have done some relatively high profile events that have led to me speaking in front of hundreds of people. However, the thought of receiving an award in front of a few dozen of my peers terrified me. It is easy to sit in a lab or office all day, receiving scathing reviews of papers and grants (which are just par for the course, of course) and think that someone must have made a mistake when you finally achieve some degree of success.Read More »
Dipping in and out of the stream of tweets, there are always fascinating links to excellent resources for academics at all stages of their careers. I just spotted another, and thought it might be about time to aggregate some of these for posterity. Here’s the quick list (to which I will add if people suggest links), and details are below
When we teach students how to write papers, we take it for granted that they have already absorbed the basic format of a scientific article from their reading of the primary literature. They should be familiar with abstract-intro-methods-results-discussion-references, for example, and the content that goes into each section in order to lead the reader through the work. However, it is easy to see how students might fail to grasp the general structure of a scientific paper. For example, we often hold up the high impact journals as models of scientific research, but journals such as Nature, Science, Current Biology and PNAS have a structure and a style that is really quite different from other journals (referenced abstracts, methods at the end, extremely brief structure). I have been teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students how to write scientific papers and theses for a few years now, and I thought I would share my personal method (I think I can credit Phill Watts, now at the University of Oulu, for suggesting this to me years ago):
I hope it’s useful and please do let me know if it helps, either in the comments here or on the YouTube page. The video is released under Creative Commons.
If you are interested in doing a PhD but are struggling to find funding that fits your project or have been unsuccessful in applications to the funding schemes that are scattered around (e.g. the NERC DTP schemes that are interviewing at the moment) then don’t despair! There are always funny little pots of money that you can apply to. The University of Leeds has three such scholarships available that can be used to fund PhD research in biological sciences (and some other areas). These all close on 1st June but if you are interested in applying please do get in touch with me (or one of my colleagues in the Ecology and Evolution Research Group) to discuss a potential project. The sooner the better!Read More »
I’m delighted to announce a suite of additional PhD projects in the School of Biology at the University of Leeds (scheme details are here). These are in addition to the dozen or so competitively-funded projects through our NERC DTP, so please do check there as well if you are interested. Most titles are indicative of the broad research area, but there will usually be a great deal of flexibility in the nature of the project depending on the interests of the student. The deadline for all projects is Thursday 29th January 2015, and applicants will need to have submitted a research degree application form (see our “How to apply” page) and be in receipt of a student ID number prior to application for the scheme. Briefly, the titles are:
The Evolution of Plant Form
Marine microbial processes and interactions
Improving piglet survival and subsequent performance
Managing soil plant processes to enhance the sustainable intensification of agriculture
Emerging Infectious Diseases
Continental trends in, and drivers of, the spread of European aquatic invasive species
Biomimicry, biophilia, and urban design solutions
Identifying and investigating factors which improve sow performance in Irish pig herds
See the project summaries below for more details.Read More »
Background: As well as publishing in ecology and evolutionary biology, I am also interested in how that publishing industry works. There is a clear need to disseminate information as widely as possible in order to accelerate the rate of testing of new theories and discovery of new information. However, some publishing models (and some publishing companies) hide scientific research away so that most people do not have access to that work. Self-archiving is a way for researchers to make available certain forms of their research without breaking copyright (which is almost always handed over to the publishers).
What I did: I reviewed some of the literature on the benefits of self-archiving, in terms of the access to the general public and what has become known as the “open access advantage”: papers that are more openly available are cited more. I also show that over half of all ecology and evolution papers could have been archived in a format that was almost identical to their final, finished format without breaking copyright. I then highlight key methods that researchers can use to self-archive their work: publishing through institutional repositories, third party websites, or self-creation of online portfolios using online tools.
Importance: Self-archiving has the potential to open up research (often funded by taxpayers) to a far wider audience, and this is an important step towards making research more accessible to the general public.
This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored. This paper, entitled ““Going green”: self-archiving as a means for dissemination of research output in ecology and evolution”, was published in the journal Ideas in Ecology and Evolution in 2013. You can find this paper for free at the publisher.
There has been a lot of discussion over the merits of academics blogging (see here, here, here, here, here and here). The positive arguments seem to be that:
It’s good outreach, allowing a flexible platform for communication of science
Blogs allow rapid responses and reporting on research
Online profiles are important and blogs can be a strong foothold in internet-space
Writing for a non-technical audience is good practice for science communication
The negative arguments seem to be that:
It doesn’t count in academic terms (it’s not a paper, a grant, or a lecture)
Sometimes tenure panels might see blogging as a waste of time
There’s the danger of “upsetting” people.
Well I think it counts (even if my colleagues disagree), we don’t have tenure in the UK, and I don’t mind upsetting people, so there’s no good reason for me not to blog! I was letting it drop off a bit, but all this discussion has encouraged me to start up again. One of the problems is that I lacked a blogging strategy, which meant that I only shared what I (A) found interesting, and (B) found time to write about. Most of my problem was that I found interesting topics and spent too much time on too few, too niche issues. That’s going to change. Here’s the plan:
I’m going to post lay summaries of each of my publications. That’s 25 to start with, and I’ll add more as I go along. I see that as a vital part of science communication, and I’ll link them back to my publications page on my website.
I have recently been immersing myself in Twitter which has led to my discovering a lot more interesting (and sometimes plain weird) papers and articles. This will be a key (near-bottomless) source for new ideas, but I’ll try to keep to a theme.
The main topicsare going to be
General science things
Entomology news and views
Education and technology
Specific posts about my research
Finally, I’m going to write in short form now – no more monthly long reads. 500 words max, and always with an image or video. It was the length and detail that was killing my productivity, and nobody reads those longreads, anyway!
I am hoping that that is going to provide a sustainable flow of content over the next few months, and I’ll reevaluate at Christmas. Happy reading!
I have recently joined the Apple club with a new iPad Air – a great machine that is keeping my attention a lot more than my old Android tablet (which is now a bit dog-eared). I thought I would post about a few apps that I have found and that I have found to be useful:Read More »