Category Archives: Teaching matters

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 😊

Advertisements

6 Comments

Filed under EntoNotes, Teaching matters

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.

3 Comments

Filed under EntoNotes, Teaching matters

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 🙂

7 Comments

Filed under Science writing, Teaching matters

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

nhm1

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.

nhm2

Erica McAlister extolling the virtues of bot flies

nhm3

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

nhm-mosq

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.

nhm5

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.

nhm-tobacco

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

nhm7

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 🙂

nhm8

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!

nhm9

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.

nhm10

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.

nhm11

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

nhm12

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.

1 Comment

Filed under EntoNotes, Teaching matters, Uncategorized

EntoMasters on Tour – Visit to the Royal Entomological Society 2017

Yesterday I accompanied the Harper Adams University MSc Entomology and Integrated Pest Management students on their annual visit to the Headquarters of the Royal Entomological Society (RES), The Mansion House, located on the outskirts of the historic city of St Albans.

ontour-1

Harper Adams University entomologists, young and not so young 🙂  Photo by Jhman Kundun

Last year we had  a truly epic journey; accidents on the overcrowded UK motorway system on the way there and back, meant that we spent eight hours on the coach 😦  This year, in trying to avoid a similar fate, I cruelly forced the students and staff to be on the coach by 0645.

ontour2

Early morning entomologists; despite the hour, happy and smiling  – photo Alex Dye

Unfortunately, despite the early start, a diesel spill closed the M6 at a crucial moment causing huge queues and long detours.  As a result we arrived at our destination a frustratingly  hour and a half late.  Entomologists are however, made of stern stuff and the coffee and delicious biscuits awaiting our arrival soon restored our spirits.

ontour3

Coffee!

After coffee the RES Director of Science, Professor Jim Hardie, welcomed the students and talked about the history of the society and the benefits of joining as student members.  This was followed by a brief talk by one of the Outreach Team, Francisca Sconce, herself a former entomology Master’s student, about the many ways in which the RES brings the study and appreciation of insects to a wider audience.  The students were then treated to lunch and given the opportunity to explore the building and its facilities and to look at some of the treasures that the RES safeguards for posterity.

ontour4

Someone found the aphid section 🙂

ontour5

A future President? – trying out the presidential chair for size

ontour6

Dr Andy Cherrill enjoying the famous entomological lift (elevator)

I am no stranger to The Mansion House; I have taken several cohorts of the entomology MSc students to the Royal Entomological Society since the society moved its headquarters to St Albans in 2007, and also visit the building a couple of times a year when attending committee meetings.  Despite my long association with the RES (40 years) I still however, find things I have never seen before, such as the print below, that gently pokes fun at the single-mindedness of the entomological specialist.

ontour7

It is only a vertebrate  🙂

I also never cease to be amazed and humbled by the history that surrounds one as you meander your way around the various library rooms.

ontour8

 

ontour9

Printed history – as beautiful today as it was 400 years ago

We had a wonderful and educational day and you will be pleased to hear that our return journey was trouble-free.  Finally, many thanks to the Royal Entomological Society and staff for their extremely kind hospitality; the lunch was, as always, filling and delicious  🙂

Leave a comment

Filed under EntoNotes, Teaching matters

Malham in the Sun – introducing entomology to budding ecologists

Last year I wrote about my experience of being a tutor at the British Ecological Society’s Undergraduate Summer School at the Malham Tarn Field Studies Council site. I really enjoyed myself and also found it very refreshing to have the opportunity to interact with 50 bright young proto-ecologists. It appears that the students also enjoyed themselves as I was invited back this year to repeat my performance. I was very happy to accept the offer, after all, any chance to visit the county of my birth (Yorkshire) is not to be sneezed at and with the added bonus of being able to talk about entomology to a new audience thrown in I would have been made to turn it down. Thus it was that I headed up the dreaded M6 motorway on a sunny Monday afternoon (July 18th) with joy in my heart and a car boot full of entomological equipment and identification keys. The M6 did not disappoint and I spent an hour sweltering in the summer sunshine very slowly (very, very slowly) making my way through the inevitable road works. Luckily, being one of those people who likes to arrive early for appointments, I was only fifteen minutes late collecting my trusty assistant, Fran Sconce, from the very picturesque Settle Station and then heading up on to the FSC Malham Tarn site.

Malham 1
The weather on arrival was in marked contrast to last year.

We unloaded the car and just had time to set up 35 pitfall traps before heading in for the evening meal after which the students went on a long walk to Malham Cove.

Malham 2

The long walk

 I walked part of the way back with them but turned back in time to get to the bar 🙂  for a very welcome drink, before retiring to bed.

The next day was even hotter, and we spent the morning setting up the labs and teaching areas.

DSCF7290

This year, as well as the fifty undergraduates we had ten sixth form students from several different schools in London.  Last year interacting with a class of fifty had posed certain difficulties, so this year we divided the students into two groups and ran the session twice, once on the Tuesday afternoon and then again on the Wednesday morning.  This worked extremely well and meant that Fran and I and the PhD mentors assigned to us, were able to spend much more time with each student and also meant that we were not as rushed off our feet as we would have been otherwise.  So a win/win outcome, although I did have to give the same lecture twice in 24 hours which was an interesting experience.  On the Tuesday afternoon, I started with my lecture on why entomology is important and an overview of the insects.

Malham 3

I seem to have done a lot of arm waving

Malham

We then went outside and I demonstrated sampling methods while the students baked under, a by now, extremely hot sun, before sending them off to empty and reset the pitfall traps and collect other insects using nets and beating trays.

Malham 5

Being cruel to trees

 

Malham 6  Malham 4

Some of the stars of the day

 

Then it was back to the labs to identify the catches before the evening meal and refreshing drink or two in the bar*.   After the bar closed we had the fluorescent beetle extravaganza.  Last year I demonstrated the use of fluorescent dust on one hapless carabid beetle.  This year I used ten, and two different coloured dusts.  The beetles were then released after dark in

Malham 7

Fluorescing carabids

the courtyard outside the teaching labs where they were photographed fluorescing colourfully under my UV flashlight, as I ‘chased’ them around the arena, much to the delight of the watching students.

As the weather forecast was not very good for the Wednesday morning, we did the insect sampling first, in case the forecast rain was as heavy as predicted.  As it turned out, apart from a short sharp shower, whilst I was demonstrating sampling methods, the sun came out and there were plenty of insects to collect before I did my lecture and we headed in to the labs for another ID session.  All too soon the session was over, and Fran and I, after a hasty lunch, drove back down to Shropshire.

I think that the BES summer school is a superb idea and that the students get a great deal from it.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope that I get the chance to be involved in any future summer schools.  I was also greatly impressed by the 6th formers who certainly seemed to enjoy my entomology session, one of whom produced this excellent drawing.

Malham 8

Much better than anything I could draw

For those of you on Twitter #bestug16 will give you a flavour of the whole week.

Malham 9

Glorious Yorkshire

 

*staffed that evening by the son of my best friend from school!

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching matters

Getting a buzz with science communication – Reflections on curating Realscientists for a week

My week on Realscientists was a direct result of National Insect Week, a biennial event organised by the Royal Entomological Society (RES) to bring the wonders of entomology to a wider audience*. I had never thought about being a curator for Realscientists although I have followed them for some time.  Back in February however, one of my PhD students who has been involved with National Insect Week on more than one occasion, suggested that I might apply to curate RealScientists during National Insect Week as the RES Director of Outreach, Luke Tilley, was hoping to be on Biotweeps during National Insect Week as well.  To make sure that I had no excuse to forget to do it, she very helpfully sent me the link to the Realscientists web site and instructions on how to apply 🙂

Duly briefed, I contacted Realscientists and to my surprise and slight apprehension, was given the slot I had asked for, the week beginning 19th June.  As my curatorial stint drew closer I began to worry about what I was going to tweet about and how to fit it into my day-to-day activities.

I made a list of twenty pre-planned Tweets to give me an outline script to work from. I managed to include all but one into my week as curator, the one about why you should want to work in entomology.

RS1

The twenty tweet list

I felt that my whole week was addressing this point so there was no need to belabour the point any more.  I also received an email from Realscientists with a Vade Mecum of how and what to tweet.  I was somewhat concerned by the section on how to deal with trolling, but I needn’t have worried, as far as I could tell I received no overt abuse**.

The big day approached, which as my actual launch was at Sunday lunchtime caused some slight logistical problems, but easily solved by making lunch a bit later than usual. As it was a Sunday I basically kept it light, introduced myself and tweeted a few insect factoids and pictures, including some great images from van Bruyssels The Population of an Old Pear Tree.  I have my own hard copy of the 1868 translated edition, but if you want to read it on-line it is available here.

RS2a

From van Bruyssel – The Population of an Old Pear Tree

It is definitely worth a read.

I also had to make a decision about how much time I was going to spend Tweeting. The previous curator had only done about 10-15 tweets a day, which is what I usually do.  The curator before her, however, had done considerably more.  As my stint as curator coincided with National Insect Week and as my contract with my university does actually specify that I do outreach***, I felt that I could justify several hours a day to it and that is what I did, and managing to fit quite a bit of the day job in between.

In between tweeting images and fantastic insect facts I tried to get some important messages across to my audience.  I started with what some might  term a “conservation rant”, basically bemoaning the fact that although insects make up the majority of the animal kingdom, conservation research and funding is very much biased toward the vertebrates, largely those with fur and feathers.  I also pointed out that most statements about how we should go about conservation in general is based on this unbalanced and not very representative research.  Taxonomic chauvinism has annoyed my for a long time 🙂

RS3

That rant over I introduced my audience to the work our research group does, biological control, chemical ecology, integrated pest management, agro-ecology and urban ecology and conservation. Our use of fluorescent dust and radio tagging to understand insect behaviour aroused a lot of interest and comment.

 RS4

Using alternative technology to understand vine weevil behaviour.

RS5

The glow in the dark sycamore aphid was also very popular

 

Midweek I translated one of my outreach talks to Twitter and in a frenzy of Tweets introduced the world to Bracknell and the biodiversity to be found on its roundabouts and how an idea of how to teach locally relevant island biogeography and conservation, turned into a 12 year research project.

RS6

How teaching led research – the Bracknell roundabout story.

In between these two main endeavours, I tweeted about the influences that entomology has had on art, literature, popular culture, religion, medicine, engineering, advertising, economics, medicine , fashion and even advertising, using a variety of images.

RS7

Our new insect-inspired smoke detector attracted a lot of love and envy.

I even composed a haiku for the occasion

Six-legged creatures;

Fascinating and diverse,

Beautiful insects

 

RS8

I have been an entomologist for a long time.

and told the story of my life-long love of insects, incidentally revealing some of my past hair-styles and exposing my lack of interest in sartorial elegance 🙂

My overall message for the week was, and hopefully I got this across, is that we should be much

RS9

more aware of what is under our feet and surrounding us and of course, that aphids are not just fantastic insects

RS10

My final tweet

but also beautiful animals.

Giant Myzus

Model Myzus persicae that I recently met in the Natural History Museum

And finally, would I do it again? Yes most definitely. I ‘met’ a lot of new and very interesting people and had some really good ‘conversations’.

 

References

Harrington, R. (1994) Aphid layer.  Antenna, 18, 50-51.

Huxley, T.H. (1858) On the agamic reproduction and morphology of Aphis – Part I. Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, 22, 193-219.

Leather, S. R. (2009). Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist 56, 10-13.

 

 

*I was one of the original ‘founders’ of National Insect Week so have always tried to be involved in some way with the event.

**or I am so thick-skinned I didn’t notice it 🙂

***or as Harper Adams University quaintly terms it, “reach out”

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under EntoNotes, Teaching matters

EntoSci16 – a conference for future and budding entomologists

Fig 1a

Some of you may be wondering how this World’s first came about. Well, it was all due to Twitter. After a lot of nagging encouragement from one of my PhD students, I finally joined Twitter at the back-end of 2012. Shortly afterwards I met another new Tweeter, @Minibeastmayhem (Sally-Ann Spence in real life) who approached me with an idea that she had tried to get off the ground for a several years – an entomology conference for children. This sounded like a great idea to me and I was extremely surprised to hear that she had been told by various entomologists that it wouldn’t work. After a bit of ‘to and fro’ on Twitter we met up for a very nice Sunday lunch and hammered out a basic plan of action and a mission statement.

Fig 1b

Sally-Ann had done a lot of the preliminary work in approaching potential presenters and over the next couple of months we came up with a few more. I then sounded out my University (Harper Adams) who were very keen on the idea and agreed to do the publicity and the catering. We then began approaching a number of organisations for financial support and/or for stuff to put in the conference goodie bags. Surprisingly, some organisations that claim to support invertebrates and are keen on education, such as the RSPB and London Zoo, judging by their response, obviously didn’t even read our letters or only pay lip-service to the majority of the animal kingdom as they were singularly unhelpful.  Undeterred by these setbacks, we persevered, and with very generous support from the Royal Entomological Society , both financial and in the person of their Director of Outreach, Luke Tilley, were able to put together a very exciting package of events and presenters. And very importantly, because of the generosity of our sponsors, all free for the delegates. The big day, April 13th 2016, arrived and we were as ready as we would ever be. Almost 300 students and their accompanying adults (science teachers, careers teachers and some parents) turned up on the day, and to think that at one stage we were worried that no-one would be interested 🙂

The delegates were all issued with colour-coded conference lanyards, and with the enthusiastic help of MSc and BSc students acting as guides, were then 

Fig 1

 

started on the action-packed, and hopefully enthralling and stimulating conference circuit.

Fig 2

George McGavin (our Patron) and Erica McAlister from the Natural History Museum (London) got the conference off to a great start with two very entertaining plenary talks about the wonders of entomology and flies respectively. After that it was on to the zones.

Graham & Janice Smith with the help of Tim Cockerill, were kept very busy with their Bugs and Beetles room, Steffan Gates (the Gastronaut) gave a dazzling and interactive display of entomophagy, Amoret Whitaker from the University of Winchester introduced the students to forensic entomology which included them processing a ‘maggot-infested crime scene’, and current and past MSc Entomology students (Soap Box Scientists), the Field Studies Council, RHS Wisley, and other exhibitors provided a very interactive and informative session in Zone 5. In the main lecture theatre, Max Barclay, Erica McAlister, George McGavin, Andy Salisbury, Darren Mann and Richard Comont were subjected to a barrage of questions ranging from how much they earned, to their favourite insects, their most dangerous insect encounter, some much easier to answer than others.

The day was especially long for some of us, as BBC Breakfast came and did some live filming, which meant that the organisers,  presenters and some hastily drafted in students had to put in an appearance at 0645. I think that they felt it was worth the effort though, if only to be able to say that they had been on TV.   All in all, the day was a real buzz. Of course the real stars were the insects and other invertebrates which managed to generate real enthusiasm among the delegates and their accompanying teachers. It was wonderful to see how many of the students responded so favourably to the insects, many of whom, at first, were reluctant to get close-up and personal with them. Seeing so many young people “oohing and aahing” rather than” yukking and gagging” really made my day. I really, truly believe, that we will be seeing many of the delegates becoming professional entomologists.

I leave you with a few images to give you the flavour of the day. For more professional images this link should keep you happy.

Fig 3

Early morning preparation, coffee was very much needed

Fig 4

And we’re off to a great start

Fig 5

and it just kept getting better

Fig 6

and better

Fig 7

Some of the team, Luke Tilley, Sally-Ann Spence, Graham Smith, Tim Cockerill, George McGavin and me.

 

Fig 8

A really huge thank you to Laura Coulthard and Helen Foster, from the Harper Adams Marketing and Communications Department, who put their hearts and souls into making sure that the event ran smoothly. We couldn’t have done it without them.

And who knows, perhaps we will do it all again next year 🙂

9 Comments

Filed under EntoNotes, Teaching matters, Uncategorized

Being inspired by the BES

This week (20th July) I have had the privilege of being able to interact with 50 undergraduates (mainly just finished their first year) under the auspices of the British Ecological Society’s new undergraduate summer school held at the Field Studies Council’s Malham Tarn Centre. The scheme enables aspiring ecologists to have “an opportunity to enhance their existing knowledge with plenary lectures from senior ecologists, fieldwork, workshops, careers mentoring and more at a week-long residential course” This was especially pleasurable for me because as a school boy and student I spent several enjoyable camping holidays at Malham and it gave me an opportunity to take part in a field course again, something I have missed since leaving Silwood Park where I ran the now defunct annual two-week long Biodiversity & Conservation field course. The programme included two ecological luminaries and old friends of mine, Sue Hartley from the University of York and plant scientist and author, Ken Thompson formerly of Sheffield University and also Clare Trinder from the University of Aberdeen.  Also in the programme was conservation biologist, Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley,  and additional input from the Chartered Institute of Ecology & Environmental Management (CIEEM), microbial ecologist, Dr Rob Griffiths from CEH and ecologist Dr Peter Welsh of the National Trust.

I arrived mid-morning of the Tuesday, having driven up from Shropshire to Yorkshire the night before, having taken the opportunity to stay in the old family home in Kirk Hammerton before it is put up for sale. Whilst there I also set a few pitfall traps to collect some insects that we might not catch otherwise. As it happened they were a dismal failure, returning mainly spiders, harvestmen and woodlice, plus one nice carabid beetle, more of which later. The weather didn’t look all that promising for an insect sampling session but I kept my fingers crossed and hoped that it wouldn’t rain as much as it did almost 40 years ago when my best friend from school and I aborted our camping holiday at nearby Malham Cove after three days of solid rain 😉

Malham Tarn

Malham Tarn – not quite raining

  I was greatly amused on arriving to be greeted by a very large arachnid lurking on an outhouse.

Malham spider

We breed them big in Yorkshire!

Malham Tarn FSC

Malham Tarn Field Studies Centre

After checking my equipment and locating suitable sampling sites I joined the students, Karen Devine, the BES External Affairs manager and some of the PhD mentors for lunch. After lunch it was my slot, a chance to infect (sorry, inspire), fifty ecologically included undergraduates with a love of insects. After being introduced by Karen I launched into my talk to a very full room of students.

Karen Devine

Karen instilling order and attention 😉

Ready to be inspired

Ready and waiting to be inspired

The undergraduates came from thirty different UK universities with a strong female bias, 34:16. Exeter University had four representatives, with Reading, Liverpool John Moores, UCL and Bristol with three each. I was sorry to see that there were no students from my Alma mater Leeds, or from my former institution, Imperial College, once regarded as the Ecological Centre of the UK, although UEA where I did my PhD, had two representatives.  There was also one representative from my current place of work, Harper Adams University. Incidentally one of the students turned out to have gone to the same school that I did in Hong Kong, King George V School, albeit almost fifty years apart; a small world indeed.

I set the scene by highlighting how many insect species there are, especially when compared with vertebrates.

The importance of insects

The importance of insects and plants

Number of animal species

Or to put it another way

After a quick dash through the characteristics of insects and the problems with identifying them, exacerbated by the shortage of entomologists compared with the number of people working on charismatic mega-fauna and primates, I posed the question whether it is a sound policy to base conservation decisions on information gained from such a small proportion of the world’s macro-biota.

Then we were of into the field, although not sunny, at least it was not raining so I was able to demonstrate a variety of sampling techniques; sweep netting with the obligatory head in the bag plus Pooter technique, butterfly netting, tree beating and, as a special treat, motorized suction sampling, in this instance a Vortis.

Sampling

With aid of the PhD mentors and Hazel Leeper from the Linnaen Society, the students were soon cacthing interesting things (not all insects) and using the Pooters like experts.

Students sampling

Getting close up with the insects

I also let some of the students experience the joy of the Vortis, suitably ear-protected of course. All good things come to an end and it was then time to hit the microscopes, wash bottles, mounted pins and insect keys.

In teh lab

Getting stuck in – picture courtesy Amy Leedale

Down the microscope

What’s this?

I was very impressed with how well the students did at getting specimens down to orders and families and have every confidence that there are a number of future entomologists among them. After the evening meal, Kate Harrison and Simon Hoggart from the BES Publications Team introduced the students to the tactics of paper writing and publishing which I think they found something of an eye-opener. The students, after a rapid descent on the bar, enjoyed a Pub Quiz whilst I relaxed with a glass of wine until it was dark enough for me to demonstrate the wonders of using fluorescent dust to track our solitary carabid beetle using my UV torch before heading off to bed.

Fluorescent carabid Eloise Wells

Glow in the dark carabid beetle – the bright lights of Malham Tarn – photo courtesy of Eloise Wells

I was sorry to have to leave the next morning, it would have been great fun to have stayed the full week, but next year I do hope to be able to be there for at least two days and nights so that we can do pitfall trapping and light trapping and of course, have more fun with fluorescent insects.

I hope the students found the whole week inspirational and useful, I was certainly inspired by their obvious enjoyment and interest and will be surprised I if do not come across some of them professionally in the future.

Well done BES and congratulations to Karen and her team for providing such a great opportunity for the students. I am really looking forward to next year and being able to see great Yorkshire features like this in the sunshine 😉

Yorkshire grit

 

6 Comments

Filed under EntoNotes, Teaching matters, Uncategorized

Re-examining external examining and the evolution of humans

External examining 2

Last year I wrote about my first year of being external examiner for the BSc Zoology degree at University College Dublin and some of the reasons why I enjoy the process.  This year I again visited Dublin to undertake my annual review of the zoology degree and was reminded of another reason why I find being an external examiner so rewarding.

Normally I go through all the exam scripts looking at how well they are annotated by the first marker, if they are signposted to help the second marker, e.g. marked as outside reading (OR) and check if they have been moderated and if the mark given has been justified in accordance with the marking criteria.  I also check if the marking across and between modules is consistent and fair.  For many of the modules this is really all I can do as I may not know a great deal about the subject, e.g. epithelial transport.  On the other hand there are some modules that I know a lot about, such as insect-plant interactions or biodiversity, where the questions asked are often very similar to the ones that I set for my own students. In these cases I read each answer and mark them before looking at what the actual mark given was and if they are similar this gives me confidence that all is well.

I often find myself learning new things when I read through the research projects of the students that I am going to viva; this year ranging from molecular biology, to phylogenetics, to elucidating the genes associated with inflammation of the brain of Irish greyhounds, to vertebrate behaviour to marine invertebrates and of course not forgetting entomology.  In respect to the projects this year the experience was no different.  What was different this year was that I had enough time to become engrossed with the scripts of the Evolution of Humans module.  One of the questions asked students to review the evidence that supports or refutes the theory that bipedalism in humans arose from adopting wading behaviour in a humid woodland environment. As a teenager, heretical as it may seem to my fellow entomologists, I was very interested in human evolution, reading and being influenced by Robert Ardrey, especially his book African Genesis and of course by the work of the Leakeys.  On reaching university and afterwards however, I became much more focused on invertebrates and my reading on human evolution became somewhat limited, although I do remember being unconvinced, rightly it seems, by the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis and sticking with the African savannah origin hypothesis.

I was thus fascinated to read about The Amphibian Generalist Theory (Niemitz, 2002) in which Carsten Niemitz put forward the idea that our hominid ancestors lived in trees in forested habitats as had been suggested earlier (Clarke & Tobias, 1995) but moved from there to forage along the nearby coasts and river banks from which they waded into the water in pursuit of the rich food sources available. The buoyancy given by the water and the need to keep their heads above water helped develop bipedalism.

Wading monkeys

Modern wading quadruped primates adopting bipedal locomotion whilst wading.  ‘Borrowed’ from Niemitz (2010).

Gorilla wading

Looks more like what happens when you get into water that is colder than you expect than foraging for food!

At the same time as the forests were fragmenting, the savannahs were forming and these were also able to be exploited by these early hominids. I found the student essays fascinating and they stimulated me to download lots of the papers that they referred to in their exam answers.  So as a direct result of external examining I have updated my knowledge of human evolution, and rekindled my interest in the subject.

This is, I think, a salutary message to us all, that by becoming too engrossed in our own subjects we run the risk of losing an all-round appreciation of the world in general.  Talking and listening to people from other disciplines is very important and can lead to very productive and exciting collaborations.  As an example, our entomology group at Harper Adams have  begun to develop some collaborative work with a psychologist, Claudia Uller, from Kingston University which will hopefully generate some very exciting projects.

And my final take-home message; if you are offered the chance to become an external examiner, jump at the opportunity and and not just auditing the process, take the time to read the essays and projects that are not directly in your area of expertise.  You will be pleasantly surprised.

References

Clarke, R.J., and Tobias, P.V. (1995) Sterkfontein member 2 footbones of the oldest South African hominid. Science 269:521–524

Niemitz, C. (2002) A theory on the habitual orthograde human bipedalism—the “Amphibische Generalistentheorie”. Anthropologischer Anzeiger, 60:3–66

Niemitz, C. (2010) The evolution of the upright posture and gaita review and a new synthesis.  Naturwissenschaften, 97:241–263

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching matters