A defense of “denial” and “debate” on climate change

LeedsSkepticsTalkI gave a talk at the Leeds Skeptics last night – part of a mini-tour talking about “Denying the Evidence: Why People Reject Science and What We Can Do About It“. During the Q&A I was asked whether using the term “denier” was an attempt to shut down the debate over climate change. These are two interesting issues which I’ll take one at a time.Read More »

Yet another post about gender and academic conferences

genderThis is becoming something of a cottage industry recently – it is fairly straightforward to calculate the gender ratio of presenters at academic conferences and to evaluate that ratio against some theoretical baseline. However, these sorts of questions are important to look at because the work is highly complex and so requires a large number of people looking at the diverse kinds of conferences to provide a bigger picture. A number of previous studies have shown a range of different patterns in gender and academic conferences (references at the bottom):Read More »

My first preprint submission

My last post was about open access – making sure that your work is freely available after publication. However, I have also been experimenting with preprints – posting articles prior to publication for open peer review. PeerJ is one publishing model that has been gaining traction recently. They also offered free publication for a trial window and have a monkey as their mascot, so how could I resist? My paper, “Continental variation in wing pigmentation in Calopteryx damselflies is related to the presence of heterospecifics” is available now (with all the data used in the paper) at the PeerJ preprint site, while the manuscript is in review at the PeerJ journal. I thought it worthwhile reflecting on the experience and my growing support for this idea.Read More »

Be sensible about open access, but it’s still a good thing!

In a recent paper published in Trends in Plant Science, Anurag Angrawal presents a few “reasons to be skeptical of open-access publishing” (Angarwal, 2014) in order to stimulate debate over the current open access (OA) publishing model. Ironically this is behind a paywall so I thought I would summarise the content, which is more reasonable than the title suggests. Here is the gist of the four problems:Read More »

Peer instruction – interactive teaching in a large lecture class

I attended a webinar before Christmas that was hosted by Eric Mazur, a well-known Harvard physics professor.  Setting aside how exciting it was to have a guest speaker talking live and taking questions from his office in the US, the subject of his talk was really fascinating.  Mazur has developed a series of techniques that can change the way we teach and here he was discussing “peer instruction”.Read More »

“Data from above” – quadcopters and thermal imaging in ecology

I’ve been interested in small-scale variation in temperature for sometime, having worked on the impacts of thermal variation on dragonflies for my PhD. However, measuring temperature is a complicated task… Where do you measure? How often? What time of day? I have been thinking about this kind of thing when I started coming across Public Lab projects that were conducting aerial surveys using balloons. That got me thinking about flying, and before you know it I’ve pinched a colleague’s quadcopter and we’re flying (cautiously) around the University of Leeds campus:

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Good mimics have the costumes and the acting skills

There are lots of ways to fool an observer, and I mentioned quite a few in my post on the Cafe Scientifique talk that I gave in September. However, one aspect that I didn’t mention there was “behavioural mimicry” – where an animal acts like another animal in order to fool a potential predator or prey.  This sort of behaviour has been reported plenty of times in the field, but has never been studied in a systematic way. My collaborators over at Carleton (led by Tom Sherratt and Heather Penney, who collected the data as part of her MSc thesis work) and I have just published a paper (press release here) which provides just such an overview, and tests a few key evolutionary hypotheses along the way.Read More »

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.

(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


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 »