Category Archives: Teaching matters

It might have been wet, but we had a great time – British Ecological Society Undergraduate Summer School 2019 #BESUG19

 

The beginning of July was a busy time for me, first a week of my Crop Protection Summer School based at Harper Adams University and the following week saw me driving north to Scotland. This time I was heading for the Isle of Great Cumbrae and the Field Studies Council Centre at Millport.

My trusty, rusty car, safely on board the ferry to Millport, leaving grey Largs behind me. I had to drive as I didn’t think I could cope with the Vortis and other collecting equipment on the train 😊

This was the fifth time that I have had the privilege of being allowed to introduce the wonders of entomology to undergraduates aspiring to careers in ecology.  I first joined the BES undergraduate summer school team in 2015 at the inaugural event at Malham Tarn.  On that occasion I did it on my own but since 2016 the entomology team has been greatly strengthened by the very welcome addition of my former student Fran Sconce, now the Outreach Officer at the Royal Entomological Society.

When I arrived in the afternoon it wasn’t raining, although it was rather grey. Fran arrived shortly afterwards and we did the preliminary setting up, getting the lab ready, digging in pitfall traps and deploying the yellow pan traps.  I also gave Fran a quick tutorial in how to use the Vortis as next year, sadly, the Summer School clashes with the International Congress of Entomology which is where I will be instead.

Fran helping with preliminary setting up and learning (after all these years), how to use the Vortis suction sampler.

Yellow pan traps deployed in the hope that the rain forecasted for the night won’t make them overflow 😊

After we had got everything set up, we went for a drive round the island – it didn’t take very long but there was some spectacular scenery on offer, despite the grey skies.

 

View of Bute in the distance.

This must be fantastic when the sun shines.

We then joined the students for our evening meal; after a week of Harper Adams’s excellent catering, I can’t bring myself to call it dinner 😊  It was, however, a great chance to get to know some of the students ahead of our ‘Entomology Day’.  I also took the opportunity to go and listen to Natalia Pilakouta from the University of Glasgow who gave a very entertaining and informative talk about the effects of climate change on sociality.   A whole new concept to me; who would have thought that rising temperatures would affect how individuals interact.  What really made her talk memorable was that she interspersed human examples amounts the sticklebacks and dung beetles 😊 You can also find her on Twitter @NPilakouta

Chris Jeffs (another former student of mine) introducing Natalie Pilakouta for the first plenary of the course.

The bar finally opened at 9 pm where I hastily made my way to get a glass of red wine; after a lifetime of having wine with my evening meal, I was in sore need of this 😊.  It also gave me a chance to meet some more of the students and to get to know them a bit better.   Thence to bed hoping that the weather forecast for Tuesday was wrong.

Unfortunately the Meteorological Office got it right and the view from my bedroom window at 6 am was not quite what I had hoped to see.

The view from my window – Dawn Entomology Day!

Us entomologists are a hardy lot and despite the weather and the slight handicap it put on the use of sweep nets and other sampling devices we headed out to the field, but not before I had subjected the students to my introductory lecture extolling the virtues of insects and their extremely important roles in ecology.

A no-brainer really – if you are a zoologist/ecologist, insects are where it’s at 😊

Once out in the field, despite the rain we had a lovely time pooting, sweeping, beating and using the Vortis, all good fun and as my old games teacher used to say as he ushered us out into the rain to run a cross-country or play rugby, “Character building”.  More seriously though, it was a good introduction to ecological field work and the concept of environmental variability, the sun doesn’t shine all the time.

Sweeping, beating and sucking and perhaps contemplating a swim?

After forty minutes of running about in the rain we headed back to the lab for an hour of sorting and identification for everyone before we started the ‘expert’ session.  We were very pleased that 20% of the students stayed on for the extra hour of getting to grips with insect taxonomy.

Learning how to identify insects in the lab.

After the evening meal, it was time for the now, very traditional, glow in the dark insects and a lecture on moth trapping from Fran.

Using UV torches and fluorescent dust to track carabid beetles.

Fran lecturing on moth trapping and then with the early risers helping her and Chris Jeffs empty and identify the catch; one of which made a bid for freedom, necessitating a bit of ladder work 🙂

Despite the rain we did catch some moths, this Swallowtail for me at least, was the star of the show.

Moths identified it was time for breakfast and getting the car packed; luckily the nets had all dried out overnight and heading for the ferry and the long trip back to Shropshire. It was a great couple of days and I really enjoyed it and am incredibly sad that I will not be able to take part next year. The whole event is a great initiative by the BES, and I am glad that it and the allied summer school for ‘A’ Level students are now a firmly established part of the ecological calendar.   I have only described entomology part of the week, other things were happening; for an excellent account of the whole week I recommend this blog post by one of the students, and not just because she gave me a good report 😊  You can follow her on Twitter too @ecology_student and track down the other comments about the week by using #BESUG19

Although it rained quite hard at times we never had to use this 😊

In terms of hard-core entomology,  this was actually my second collecting insects in the rain experience of the year – you may remember it rained in Bristol!

I am very grateful to the British Ecological Society for inviting me to participate in the first ever Summer School and to keep on inviting me back.  Special thanks to Fran and Chris and also to Christina Ravinet (whom I also taught) from the BES for keeping things running so smoothly.

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Crop Protection Summer School – CROPSS 2019 – the grand finale?

The first week of July was a happy time but also a sad time.  I was privileged and very happy to spend a week with sixteen enthusiastic undergraduates keen to learn about crop protection, but at the same time, sad that the BBSRC funding to run my Crop Protection Summer School has now come to an end. Last year at this time I wrote about how pleased I was with the positive response of the students to working in, what to them, was a totally novel subject area.

Like last year, the Summer School started on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with an introduction from me about why crop protection was important and how Integrated Pest Management is all about ecology, NOT spraying and eradication, something I have been banging on about for many years and which needs to be reiterated again and again, so here I am reiterating it yet again 😊.

Our Sunday evening venue for the last two years, The Lamb Inn, the pub closest to the university, is closed at the moment so we

had to take a couple of taxis (large ones) to an alternative watering hole, The Last Inn. I was relieved to find that it was an excellent choice and we had a magnificent meal which I interrupted periodically to remind the students that they were also supposed to be doing a Pub Quiz 😊

As with last year, the quiz was all picture rounds.  The first round was all about charismatic megafauna (almost all answered correctly), then common British wild flowers (about 60% correct), common British trees (50% correct), common British insects (30% correct), I think you can see where I am going with this😊  This year, however, one of the teams cored 100% on the insect round thanks to the presence of an extremely keen entomologist, which meant I couldn’t feign resigned disappointment as much as I have in the past.

Catering for the rest of the week was in our excellent campus refectory and as last year, the students were all very complimentary about the quality of the food and the choices available.

We continued with the successful format of previous years, with specific days allocated to the main crop protection areas, agronomy, entomology, nematology, plant pathology, weed science and spray technology. Each evening after dinner, we had a speaker from ‘industry’; Jen Banfield-Zanin, a former student of mine who works at from Stockbridge Technology Centre, Rob Farrow from Syngenta, Bryony Taylor from CABI, Nicola Spence the Chief Plant Health Officer and Neal Ward from BioBest.  They were all very well received and had to answer a lot of interesting questions, both in the classroom and in the Student Union Bar afterwards.

The students and staff involved found it a very rewarding week, and as I did last year, I will let the pictures tell the story.

Let’s go on a nematode hunt! Matt Back briefing his troops

Sweep nets and pooters

Suction sampling with Andy Cherrill

Looking for weeds with John Reade

Labs and classrooms

Glorious weather and fantastic plants

Science communication and chasing fluorescent beetles in the dark

I think they liked the course and we loved their enthusiasm and commitment.

This year we did take the picture when we are all there!

Just to remind you why we need a well-trained youthful cadre of crop protection scientists.

 

 

I do hope that we will be able to secure some further funding to enable us to continue with this excellent initiative.  Perhaps the AHDB, the British Society of Plant Pathology and the Royal Entomological Society might consider chipping in?

Many thanks to Matt Back, Andy Cherrill, Louisa Dines, Simon Edwards, Martin Hare, Valeria Orlando, John Reade and Fran Sconce who all gave of their time freely to help deliver the course and to those MSc students who came and joined us in the bar.  I am especially grateful to our external speakers and their inspirational stories of how they ended up in crop protection.

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Skype a Scientist – a great way to invest in the future

I do a lot of outreach or “reach out” as my contract endearingly terms it 🙂 In terms of talks, my outreach spans a great range of ages and experiences; from the University of the 3rd Age (U3A), Women’s Institutes, the Rotary Club and similar organisations, local Natural History Societies, Garden Clubs, and less often, schools and youth groups.  As you can see from the preceding list, most of my ‘formal’ standing in front of an audience and lecturing outreach, although not primarily aimed at the older generation, does most often find them.  Face to face interactions with the younger generation is mainly via University Open Days and events like the Big Bang Fair which are great fun but are annual one-offs. I was thus very pleased when I discovered Skype A Scientist last year and had the chance to extend my ‘face to face’ interactions with the younger generation, not just in the UK but around the world.  My two favourite classroom session were with 9-10 year olds, one class in a primary school in Northern Ireland and the other in an elementary school in Cincinnati.

The questions they asked are wonderful, heartening and stimulating. Some, especially the ‘why’ ones, are pretty hard to answer, remember the ‘language’ we speak as scientists has a vocabulary that is not necessarily the same as that of a 9-year old.  Although I have listed all the questions they asked, I’m not going to post all my attempts at answering them, just some of the ones that weren’t as easy as you might think.  Thankfully, the teachers were kind enough to send me a list of the questions a few days before the session, otherwise I would have been in trouble 🙂  Try answering them yourself and as a side exercise, which questions came from which school?  If you haven’t done Skye A Scientist, I can thoroughly recommend it and hopefully, as a community we can sow enough idea seeds in this age group for a large number to germinate and grow into a high yielding crop of future scientists.

School 1

Do all animals drink water?

Do you mostly work indoors or outdoors?

How did you get interested in your job?

How did you get into your job? Hard work and luck

How long have you been in the insect profession? A long time 🙂

How can you tell poisonous bugs apart from not poisonous bugs? An excellent question as gave me the opportunity to talk about warning colouration and the difference between poisonous and venomous

How does a caterpillar turn into a butterfly? Harder than it seems

How do you get rid of the pests without killing the crops? Gave me the chance to talk about phytotoxicity

How do you remove pesticides without hurting and ruining the food and water? This was actually about organic farming

If you could save any insect from extinction which insect would it be? Really difficult to answer this

Is pesticide the only chemical hurting the plants/insects or is there more? Chance to talk about pollution issues

What is your favourite part in an ecosystem and why?    The insects – because they are cool

What is your favourite consumer?

What is your favourite insect? Had to be an aphid, but then I had to explain what an aphid was 🙂

What is your favourite animal that you have worked with? Large willow aphid of course

What is your favourite animal(s) in the ecosystems you observe? Obviously aphids 🙂

What is the most dangerous insect? Hard to answer, but did give me an opportunity to talk about allergic reactions

What are the most common pests that harm crops? An easy one

What is the coolest animal/insect you have ever seen?   Again, really hard, because there is so much variety, I went for Snow flea, Boreus hiemalis 🙂

What did you want to be when you were a kid? Gerald Durrell 🙂

When did you become a scientist? A long time ago 🙂

Why do insects that have stingers have stingers? One of those why questions!

What’s your favourite animal/insect that you had ever helped? I went for spider just to be controversial

Why did you choose the career of being a college professor in science?

What is your favourite part of your job?  Talking to people about insects

What chemicals have you worked with, and which ones are the most harmful?

What is your favourite insect to learn and inspect? Always aphids 🙂

What kind of animals do you mostly research? Guess what?

What are some tools you use? Told them about pooters

What insect has been infected the most from the chemicals?

Where do you work?

What do you wear for work? What I’m wearing now – jeans and shirt with sleeves rolled up 🙂

What do you think of pesticides?  Gave me a chance to talk about pros and cons and specificity

Why did you chose to be an ecologist? Gerald Durrell

Why do butterflies drink tears from turtle’s eyes? Great chance to talk about puddling and peeing in tropical forests to attract butterflies

You know how there are certain bugs that look the same as other bugs that are poisonous, how does that species that looks the same as the poisonous ones stay not over-populated? Very interesting question and lots to talk about concerning mimicry and aposematism

 

School 2

Are spiders insects?

Can you heal an ant if it gets sick? Interesting question and gave me a chance to talk about ants helping each other

Do insects sleep at night? Depends on how you define sleep

Do insects hibernate? Some do

Do insects see in black and white or colour? Colour, but generally not red and chance to talk about UV vision

Do slugs have sharp teeth? Depends on what you mean by teeth and sharp

Can leaf cutter ants eat through human skin? Ouch, yes

Can ants swim? Chance to talk about surface tension

How are ants so strong even though they are so small?

How do crickets make the clicking sound?

How many types of insects are there in the world? Lots and a great opportunity to have a rant about vertebrates 🙂

How do butterflies get coloured? Difficult as had to talk about scales, refraction, wavelengths etc

What is a beehive made of?

What is a beetle’s body made of? Easy on the surface but then you have to work out how to describe chitin

What do woodlice eat?

Why are bees so important?  Gave me a chance to talk about how important other pollinators are and how chocolate lovers should love flies 🙂

Why do spiders have so many eyes? Yep!

Why do bees make honey?

Why do dung beetles roll dung? Nice question

Why are bugs so small?  Good opportunity to debunk giant insects in horror films and talk about insect respiratory systems

Why do insects have 6 legs? I went for the descended from organisms with lots of legs and because of size and balance problems, six was the most stable reduction (tripod theory).  Mercifully nobody picked me up about mantids or Nymphalids 🙂

What is the biggest insect? Luckily had a photo to hand

 

As you can see a bit of a challenge even with advance warning, but definitely worth doing.  School 1 was in the USA and School 2 the UK.  Did you guess correctly?

This year I am looking forward to talking to schools in Moscow and Switzerland; truly global reach.  How cool is that?

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Malham again – more fun with the British Ecological Society Summer School #BESUG18

Last week I made my fourth appearance at the British Ecological Society Undergraduate Summer School with a welcome return to the Field Studies Council Centre at Malham Tarn.  As a Yorkshireman I appreciate any excuse to get back to my roots, so I was very pleased indeed 🙂 I drove up from Harper Adams University in Shropshire with my car loaded to the gunnels with microscopes, sweep nets, plastic tubes, pitfall traps and covers, beating trays, a Malaise trap, a yellow pan trap, lots of insect keys and of course hand lenses and Pooters.  I arrived late afternoon to find that my trusty co-tutor, Fran Sconce had arrived a few minutes earlier.  Once settled in we set up the pitfall traps, the Malaise trap and a solitary pan trap, unfortunately missing what we learnt later was an excellent plenary by eminent ecologist Richard Bardgett of Manchester University and current President of the British Ecological Society.  We finished just in time to sit down for dinner, which as it was meat-free Monday was great for Fran but less so for me 🙂

 

Fran digging in the very hard ground, a solitary yellow pan trap, the Malaise trap ready for action and Richard Bardgett in full flow.

It then rained solidly for four hours. Luckily, some of the pitfall traps had been set with covers so it wasn’t a total disaster.  Our first entomology session wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon, which gave the grass a chance to dry and made sweep netting and suction sampling possible.  I started the afternoon with a general lecture about the importance of insects and entomology and a brief introduction

The importance of entomology.

to some basic taxonomy, before we headed out to do some sampling and collecting.

How many different techniques can you spot?

Keen beans – the students enjoying collecting and identifying insects.

Back in the lab and the now obligatory late night “chase the fluorescent beetles” extravaganza 🙂

Two Outreach and Communication Officers busy Tweeting; both former students of mine, Fran Sconce of the Royal Entomological Society and Chris Jeffs from the British Ecological Society.  Great to have had them there and many, many thanks to them both.

Monday through to Wednesday – the sun did shine in the end. Monday evening inspired a haiku.

Rising from the rain

Summer mist, slowly rolling,

Hides Malham Tarn

Entomology, although important, is of course only a part of the Summer School. The students get a chance to learn about other things too, including vertebrates and plants.  I was very impressed with all the students and how much interest they showed in entomology.  I look forward to seeing some of them on our MSc Entomology course at Harper Adams University in two or three years time.

The British Ecological Society Summer Schools are a fantastic idea and they are much appreciated by the students past and present, as the following Tweet from one of the students from the first ever Summer School shows.

Andrew Barrett extolling the virtues of Twitter and the BES Summer Schools.  Incidentally, Andrew was one of the graduate mentors on the BES ‘A’ Level Summer School this year.

Next year the Summer School will be in Scotland at FSC Millport, Scotland, which is a bit of trek for me, but never fear, I will be there!

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Inspiring and being inspired by the next generation – Crop Protection Summer School – CROPSS 2018

Last year I wrote about my BBSRC funded Crop Protection Summer School, CROPSS and how pleased I was with the positive response of the students to working in, what to them, was a totally novel subject area.

Like last year, the Summer School started on Sunday afternoon, with an introduction from me about why crop protection was important and how Integrated Pest Management is all about ecology, NOT spraying and eradication, something I have been banging on about for many years and which needs to be reiterated again and again, so here I am reiterating it yet again 😊.

We then had an excellent dinner at our local pub, The Lamb Inn, and continued with an outdoor Pub Quiz.

Food, drink and a quiz – perfect for a sunny Sunday evening

To make things easier for the Quiz Master, me, the quiz was all picture rounds.  The first round was all about charismatic megafauna (almost all answered correctly), then common British wild flowers (about 60% correct), common British trees (50% correct), common British insects (30% correct), I think you can see where I am going with this😊 Catering for the rest of the week was in our excellent campus refectory and as last year, the students were all very complimentary about the quality and quantity of the food and the choices available.

As with last year we had specific days allocated to the main crop protection areas; agronomy, entomology, nematology, plant pathology, weed science and spray technology.  In the evenings we had a speaker from ‘industry’; Dr Lucy Broom, a former student of mine who works at OxitecRob Farrow from Syngenta, David George from Stockbridge Technology Centre, Nicola Spence the Chief Plant Health Officer and Neal Ward from BioBest.  They were all very well received and had to answer a lot of interesting and very well formulated questions, both in the classroom and in the Student Union Bar afterwards.

I am certain that I speak for us all, when I say the students and staff involved found it a very rewarding week.  The weather was glorious as you can see from the photographs, which I will, in time honoured tradition, let tell the story.

Heigh ho, heigh ho it’s off to sample we go

Entomology in action – sweep nets and Pooters

Glorious weather,  just right for looking at light trap catches with Heather Campbell and suction sampling with Andy Cherrill

 

Looking for weeds in the cereal variety trials with John Reade

Labs and classroom

Darts in the bar and chasing fluorescent beetles in the dark

 

The students loved the course and we loved their enthusiasm and commitment.

I should have taken this picture when we are all there 🙂

And, finally, Just to remind you why we need a well-trained and youthful cadre of crop protection scientists.

 

 

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Is there a place for humour in a scientific presentation?

Over at Ecological Rants, Charley Krebs recently wrote about and listed some very sensible and simple rules for giving a good lecture which are exactly the same things I tell my students when I give my lecture about basic presentation skills.  I do, however, also give some other hints and tips to help them give good talks and lectures.

Academics, with a few rare exceptions, are not, as a rule, stand-up comics; although, we are all, to some degree, performers. That said, there is, as I tell my students, definitely a place for humour in lectures and presentations.  The secret is making sure that it is appropriate and amusing. My first bit of advice, which I also take, is to avoid the supposedly, subtle scripted joke or play on words.  You have all sat in that lecture where the speaker very obviously works in a joke, and then the dead give-away, the expectant pause for the laugh, that is invariably either met by massed groans or a stony silence.  If you do feel the need to tell a joke per se, be upfront about it and say, “that reminds me about the…”.  It won’t be any funnier and you probably won’t get a round of applause, but hey, at least one person might laugh.

Far better is to go for the self-deprecating anecdote.  Your audience will be more sympathetic, and even if they are laughing at you, you will know that it is genuine 😊  I usually tell stories from  my working life and sometimes from my childhood. Something personal and shared, as long as it is in good taste, is always a good way to lighten a lecture and help your listeners remember a salient fact.

The thing to avoid at all costs is the careless, off the cuff comment, something that seems a great idea at the time and when without thinking, you let your mouth take over from your brain.  I speak, well write, from bitter experience.  In 1997, the 19th Symposium of the Royal Entomological Society was held in Newcastle from the 10th-11th September.  The subject of the symposium was Insect Populations and I had been invited to give the plenary address on the less than exciting subject of how qualitative changes in individual insects affects their population dynamics (Leather & Awmack, 1998).  I had a 45-minute slot and I must confess that after thirty minutes I was struggling.  Even I was finding the subject matter a bit dry, and I was desperately thinking of something to add a bit of life and colour to the talk.  I had just reached the section about lifespan when in view of an event that had happened a few days earlier, August 31st to be precise, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea, and these fatal words issued from my mouth “Death comes to us all as Princess Diana has just found out” There was a massed gasp from the audience, and then, if I had, had a pin to let go, you would have been able to hear it drop!

I use this story as an example of what not to do when I give my lecture on how to give a talk.  It always raises a laugh, albeit a shocked one 😊

My faux pas was certainly memorable.  Ten years later I was invited to give the plenary at Ento’07 in Edinburgh; the chair of the session on introducing me, pointedly made a reference to my infamous plenary of 1997 😊

Reference

Leather, S.R. & Awmack, C.S. (1998) The effects of qualitative changes of individuals in the population dynamics of insects. Pp 187-204 [In] Insect Populations in Theory and in Practice (eds. J.P. Dempster & I.F.G. McLean), Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, Boston, London.

 

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Inspiring the next generation of entomologists?

In the last couple of weeks, I have had the privilege to be involved in two different types of outreach involving the younger generation.  The first was Skypeascientist, which I came across via a blog post by Amy Parachnowitsch on Small Pond Science. Amy was so enthusiastic about it that I couldn’t resist signing up, to what is a great idea; in their own words “Skype a Scientist matches scientists with classrooms around the world! Scientists will skype into the classroom for 30-60 minute Q and A sessions that can cover the scientist’s expertise or what it’s like to be a scientist. We want to give students the opportunity to get to know a “real scientist”, and this program allows us to reach students from all over the world without having to leave the lab!” My first, and so far only, but hopefully not my last match was with a small primary school in the Cumbrian fells.  We had a bit of trouble with getting Skype working to begin with, but once contact was established I was subjected to some great, and in a couple of instances, tough questioning; what are the mots abundant insects in the world for one.  We covered what I did, why I did it and how I got started, as well as questions like the what is the most dangerous insects in the world, had I found any new insects, where had I been to study insects,  and from one little joker “have you ever had ants in your pants?”.  All in all, a very positive and enjoyable session and one, that I hope will result in at least one future entomologist, although sadly, by the time he or she arrives on our soon to start new entomology undergraduate degree, I will be long retired

The second outreach event was the Big Bang Fair held in Birmingham.  I participated in this last year and having enjoyed it so much, volunteered to help on two of the days; the fact that one of the days coincided with a deadly boring committee meeting that I would have had to attend otherwise, was purely coincidental 😉 If you’ve never heard of it, the Big Bang UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair is the UK’s largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths, for young people, and is the largest youth event in the UK. The fair takes place annually in March, and was first run in 2009.  We, the Royal Entomological Society and Harper Adams University, first attended it last year, when a former student of mine, Fran Sconce, now Deputy Director of Outreach at the Royal Entomological Society, convinced us that it was a great event with which to become involved and to showcase our favourite science, entomology.  Fran was in charge this year too and did a sterling job as did the many volunteer demonstrators, drawn from among our current MSc entomologists and former students now doing PhDs.  They all did a fantastic job and I was hugely impressed by them all.

This was one of those events where the pictures tell the story but there were a few things that struck me.  First, I was surprised at how many of the teenage boys were afraid and disgusted by the thought of touching insects, the girls on the other hand, in the main were easier to win over to the concept.  When I was a teenager, now many years ago, it was the other way around.  Too much time spent indoors playing ‘shoot them up’ games perhaps might explain this, but perhaps that is too simple a view? Conversely pre-teens of both sexes seemed to respond in the same way, and overall were much easier to convince that it was safe and enjoyable to hold an insect.  Sadly, this seems to point to some anti-insect (maybe even Nature) ‘conditioning’ happening in young people once they leave primary education. Second, I was very surprised by how many times I was asked if the insect would bite them and/or was dangerous.  As I pointed out many times, “Would I be holding them and offering to let you hold them if they did and were?”  That said, I was very pleased that out exhibit attracted so much positive attention.  Some children made a lot of return visits 😊

 Now over to the pictures, which show the diversity of the young and older folk who were entertained and enthralled by our hard-working insects and volunteers.

 

One of the current MSc Entomology students and also a Royal Entomological Society Scholar, Brinna Barlow, demonstrating that you don’t have to be old, bearded and male to be an entomologist.

The First Day Team – the old and the new

A hive of activity at the entomology exhibit

 

Swarms of future entomologists?

Visitors and volunteers buzzing with enthusiasm

Some of our volunteers, Entomology MSc students past and present

 

Our new Entomology lecturer, Heather Campbell, showing that although she is an ant specialist, leaf insects are also cool.

Yours truly demonstrating that quite a few entomologists are oldish, greyish, bearded and male, but remember, we were young once 🙂

Bearded and male, but definitely younger

And finally, without the enthusiasm, dedication, and hard work of Fran Sconce, and the willingness of our current MSc Entomologists to give up some of their exam revision time, our exhibit would have been much diminished.  It was a privilege to stand alongside them all.

The Director and star of the show, Fran Sconce, with one of her co-stars, both fantastic ambassadors for entomology.

 

Post script

This post has the dubious distinction of being the first one I have ever posted while at sea; the Dublin to Holyhead ferry, m.v. Ulysses to be precise 😊

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My group is bigger, better and more beautiful than yours – The annual MSc Entomology trip to the Natural History Museum, London, 2018

This week we went on one of my favourite trips with the MSc Entomology students.  We visited the Natural History Museum in London.  We got off to fantastic start – all the students, and staff, arrived at the arranged time of 0645, something that had never happened before :-). The weather was fine, although at that time in the morning it was too dark to really appreciate it, and off we set.  I should have known that something would go wrong and sure enough the traffic was awful, and we had to make an unscheduled stop at a motorway service station to make sure our driver didn’t exceed his quota of working hours.

The now much delayed coach basking in the sunshine at a motorway service station.

Some of the MSc students; remaining cheerful despite the delay.

Forty-five minutes later we set off again and despite encountering a few further delays arrived safely, albeit almost an hour and a half late.  Luckily our host for the day Erica McAlister (@flygirlNHM) was ready and waiting and very efficiently got our visit back on track.  This year we were shown Colossal Coleoptera by Michael Geiser, Huge Hymenoptera by Nathalie Dale-Skey, Lustrous Lepidoptera by Alessandro Giusi and Deadly Diptera by Erica McAlister.   All our specialist hosts were, as you would expect, very keen to extol the virtues of their groups, and who can blame them.  I do the same with Awesome aphids 🙂 We are always very appreciative of the time and care that the NHM entomologists give us, especially as they have, sadly, recently had their numbers reduced.  Hopefully, as the realities of the problems associated with insect conservation and identification become even more apparent than they already are, we will see the appointment of more entomologists to this very much-needed global resource.  Here are some pictures to give you a flavour of the day.

Mouse mat for forensic entomologists 🙂

Alessandro Giusti waxing lyrical about the biggest, the smallest and the most beautiful Lepidoptera (moths as far as he is concerned).

 

The large and the small (a really bad photo by yours truly, I am still getting to grips with my new camera)

Natalie Dale-Skey extolling the virtues of Hymenoptera

They don’t have to be big and tropical to be beautiful – these are tiny but gorgeous

I do like a good wasp nest 🙂

Erica McAlister on the sex life of flies

The biggest flies in the world pretending to be wasps

A selection of flies

I was very impressed that the Crane fly still has all its legs attached.  I collected Crane flies for my undergraduate collection and had to resort to sticking their legs on to a piece of card.

Not quite the rarest fly in the World but as its larvae live inside rhinoceroses it could be in trouble 😦

Big beautiful beetles

Cockchafers aren’t really this big, but wouldn’t it be awesome if they were?

MSc Entomology (@Entomasters) at the end of the visit.  Photo courtesy of Heather Campbell (@ScienceHeather), our newest member of staff

Once again, a huge vote of thanks to Erica and colleagues for making this a memorable visit.  We had a fantastic day.

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The bane of PhD students– the General Discussion

This year has been a bit of a bumper PhD submission year for me, five of my PhD students have come to the end of their time, and have submitted, or will soon be submitting their theses.  In my experience, 48 successful students and counting, it is relatively easy to reassure PhD students that their worries about the structure of their thesis, the appropriateness of their analysis and how many tables and figures they should have, are not justified. Many of them already have papers in print or in press by the writing-up stage so they only need a little bit of reassurance about the quality of their work.  The bit that seems to worry them most is the General Discussion.  My advice to them was, and is, the same as that given to me by my supervisor 37 years ago, “spread your wings, sell your work, don’t be afraid to speculate a little, enjoy yourself and make sure you don’t just summarise your thesis”. 

This uncertainty about how to handle the General Discussion is not just a foible of my students.  My impression over the last few years, borne out by the increasing frequency on which I comment on the shortcomings of the General Discussion of the PhD theses that I examine (now more than sixty) is that General Discussions are not what they used to be.  I too often find myself reading a series of lightly edited chapter abstracts, which in my opinion is not a General Discussion. Am I, however, suffering from grumpy old git syndrome or were General Discussions more general in the days of my youth?  How for example, does my General Discussion stack up compared with that of the modern-day PhD student? Did I practice what I now preach?

I do of course still have a copy of my thesis (Leather, 1980), two to be precise. Both my parents were biologists, albeit botanists, so I felt obliged to give them a copy, which I retrieved when clearing my Mother’s house after her death.  The upshot being that I have no excuse for not being able to find a copy from which to do a critical appraisal of my General Discussion. My thesis was written before Word Processors existed, and when computers occupied their own buildings. It was typewritten (by me using a Silver Reed A3 typewriter) and so no electronic copies are available.  As a consequence, I have had to scan the parts relevant to my story; hence the poor quality of the illustrations 🙂

At this point, I should point out that although I was trained as an agricultural entomologist and my PhD was about an agricultural pest, the bird cherry-oat aphid, my supervisor, Tony Dixon, was and still is, an ecologist.  Our lab was thus a mixture of pure and applied ecologists, some of whom weren’t even entomologists 🙂 This meant that I was exposed to a wider range of ideas than if I had just been in a lab of only applied entomologists.  Despite not being overly mathematical or theoretically inclined, I’m pretty much an empirical ecologist (field and lab), I was very impressed by the late, great E.C. Pielou, to the extent that I bought her book Ecological Diversity and read it cover to cover*.  Working with a host alternating aphid, I immediately latched on to her definition of seasonality as being synonymous with environmental variability (Pielou, 1975) and decided to coin a new term, seasonability** .

An excellent start, the title page doesn’t even mention the words General Discussion 🙂

 

I defined seasonability as being “the pre-programmed response to predictable environmental change” in  my terms this meant that the organism, in this case my aphid, anticipates the trend in conditions, something I, and a more mathematically inclined colleague did actually show a couple of years later (Ward et al., 1984).  I then drew the analogy that an aphid clone could be equated with Harper’s visualisation of a plant being constructed of a series of genetically identical modular units (Harper, 1977), i.e. each individual within the clone, although being genetically identical has a specific (and seasonal) function I also managed to slip in a reference to my other ecological hero, Dan Janzen at this point (Janzen, 1977) 🙂

I see that I was keen to introduce new terms, as my second figure shows.  I was amused to see in figure legend that I describe the x-axis as food quality but label it as host quality in the

A pretty lousy figure, but remember we had to draw our figures by hand in those days. Here I attempt to coin another new usage, this time refluence, to indicate the flowing back of the clone to the primary host.

figure, doing something that in later years I have waxed wrathfully against (Leather & Awmack, 1998; Awmack & Leather, 2002).  In this case, food (nutritional) quality is the term I should have used although I could argue that the build-up of natural enemies on the secondary grassy hosts and the predictable absence of natural enemies on the primary host, could justify the use of the term host quality, but that would be post hoc sophistry and best avoided 🙂

I was obviously also very keen to introduce new meanings to words as my third figure shows.

Yet another attempt to coin a new meaning for an existing word

 

At no point however, did I summarise what was in each chapter.  I referred in passing to one…”It is now fairly certain from the evidence presented on the effects of growth stage (Chapter 4) that..” and the four figures are unique to my General Discussion, even the two that contained data points, so I can pat myself on the back in that respect.  Although I did not extend my discussion to other taxa, I did range far and wide across the aphid world so I think that fulfilled the brief of spreading my wings, and boy did I try and sell my work.

I also notice that the 25-year-old me tried very hard to use a different sort of language in his General Discussion such as, “lends further credence to the concept of seasonability” which is followed in the next sentence by “..when the bursting of the buds of the tree host or resurgence of sap in the perennial herbaceous host, herald the start of egg hatch”. Yes, I actually used the word herald, but then, this is the guy who prefaced his thesis with these two quotes.

The Steinbeck quote (Doc from Sweet Thursday, does still sums up pretty much what I want to do with my life.

 

So what does the 62-year-old Professor of Entomology think about the efforts of his younger self?  I may be slightly biased, but I think it is a reasonable effort and as an examiner I wouldn’t have any major problems with it although I suspect that I would be tempted to have a gentle dig at the attempts to coin new terms. Overall I would rate it as B+.

In case you wondered , although I never published, or even tried to publish my General Discussion, all the ideas, except for the terms which were petty awful, (or naff as we would say in the UK), have made it into print at some time.

To reiterate, my advice to PhD students struggling with your General Discussion is “spread your wings, be bold, sell your work, don’t be afraid to speculate a little, enjoy yourself and most importantly,  definitely make sure you don’t just summarise your thesis”

References

Awmack, C.S. & Leather, S.R. (2002) Host plant quality and fecundity in herbivorous insects. Annual Review of Entomology, 47, 817-844.

Leather, S.R. (1980)  Aspects of the Ecology of the Ecology of the Bird Cherry-Oat Aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi (L.).  Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of East Anglia, Norwich.

Leather, S.R. & Awmack, C.S. (1998). The effects of qualitative changes of individuals in the population dynamics of insects. In Insect Populations In Theory and in Practice (ed. by J.P. Dempster & I.F.G. McLean), pp. 187-206. Kluwer, Dordrecht.

Harper, J.L. (1977) Plant Population Biology, Academic Press, London.

Janzen, D. H. (1977) What are dandelions and aphids? American Naturalist, 111, 586-589.

Pielou, E.C. (1975) Ecological Diversity, John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York.

Ward, S.A., Leather, S.R., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1984) Temperature prediction and the timing of sex in aphids. Oecologia, 62, 230-233.

 

*I also bought her book Mathematical Ecology but didn’t manage to read it cover to cover 🙂

**I had great hopes of getting my General Discussion published and my new term being adopted by ecologists around the world 🙂

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An inordinate fondness for biodiversity – a visit behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum

Last week  (13th February) I traveled with the MSc Entomology students to the Natural History Museum, London.  As part of their course they are taken behind the scenes and meet some of the curators and their favourite beasts.  This one of my favourite course trips and although I have made the pilgrimage for many years I always find something new to marvel at as well as reacquainting myself with some of my old favourites.  After an early start (0645) we arrived exactly on time (for a change), 10.30, at the Museum site in South Kensington.  I always have mixed feelings about South Kensington, having spent twenty years of my life commuting to Imperial College, just up the road from the museum.  I loved teaching on the Applied Ecology course I ran, but over the years the working atmosphere in the Department became really toxic* and I was extremely glad to move to my present location, Harper Adams University.  After signing in, which with twenty students took some time, Erica McAlister (@flygirl) led us through the thronged galleries (it was half term) to the staff

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Nostalgia time, my first biological memory, aged 3.

areas, where the research, identification and curating takes place.  Our first port of call was the Diptera where Erica regaled us with lurid tales of flies, big and small, beneficial and pestiferous.

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Erica McAlister extolling the virtues of bot flies

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Any one fancy cake for tea?  Kungu cake, made from African gnats

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Early advisory poster

As we left to move on to the Hymenopteran, hosted by David Notton, I noticed this classic poster warning against mosquitoes.  David chose bees as the main focus of his part of the tour, which as four of the students will be doing bee-based research projects was very apt.

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Admiring the bees

Whilst the students were engrossed with the bees I did a bit of fossicking and was amused to find that tobacco boxes were obviously a preferred choice by Scandinavian Hymenopterists in which to send their specimens to the museum.

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Finnish and Swedish tobacco boxes being put to good use

Next was that most eminent of Coleopterists, Max @Coleopterist Barclay who as usual enthralled the students and me, with stories of

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Max Barclay demonstrating a Lindgren funnel and talking about ‘fossilised’ dung balls

beetles large and small, anecdotes of Darwin and Wallace and the amusing story of how ancient clay-encased dung balls were for many years thought by anthropologists and archaeologists to be remnants of early humankind’s bolas hunting equipment.  It was only when someone accidentally broke one and found a long-dead dung beetle inside that the truth was revealed 🙂

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Often overlooked, the Natural History Museum is an exhibit in itself

 As we were leaving to move on to the Lepidoptera section, I felt obliged to point out to the students that not only is the outside of the museum stunningly beautiful but that the interior is also a work of art in itself, something that a lot of visitors tend to overlook. Once in the Lepidoptera section  Geoff Martin proudly displayed his magnificent collection of Lepidoptera, gaudy and otherwise, including the type specimen of the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing which was captured with the aid of a shotgun!

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Lepidopterist, Geoff Martin, vying with his subjects in colourful appearance 🙂

Lunch and a chance to enjoy the galleries was next on the agenda.  Unfortunately, as it was half term this was easier said than done, although I did find a sunny spot to eat my packed lunch, as a Yorkshireman I always find the prices charged for refreshments by museums somewhat a painful.  In an almost deserted gallery I came across this rather nice picture.

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A lovely piece of historical entomological art.

Then it was on to the Spirit Collection.  Erica had laid on a special treat, Oliver Crimmen, fish man extraordinaire.  I may be an entomologist but I can sympathise with this branch of vertebrate zoology.  Fish, like insects are undeservedly ranked below the furries, despite being the most speciose vertebrate group.  I have been in the Spirit Room many times but have never seen inside the giant metal tanks.  Some of these, as Ollie demonstrated with a refreshing disregard for health and safety, are filled with giant fish floating in 70% alcohol.

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Fish man, Oliver Crimmen, literally getting to grips with his subjects.

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A fantastic end to the day culminated with a group photo with a spectacular set of choppers 🙂

Many thanks to Erica McAlister for hosting and organising our visit and to the NHM staff who passionately attempted to convert the students to their respective ‘pets’.

*one day I will write about it.

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