Category Archives: The Bloggy Blog

Reflection – a much needed (and missed) aspect of academic life

I’ve been in Academia a long time, I started my PhD in 1977, and things have changed quite a lot over those forty odd years.  In those heady days of the 1970s and 1980s, an academic taught, did research, wrote papers, reviewed papers wrote grant proposals and even found time to write books. There was also a valuable commodity, time; time to sit back and reflect during work hours. This could involve sitting at your desk with your feet up and your eyes closed or like

Charles Darwin and his ‘thinking path’, go for a walk or a run in the fresh air or just sit under a tree or lie back in the grass and watch the clouds go by as new ideas bubbled up in your mind.

Reflecting on life

When I was in my last year as an undergraduate desperately preparing for my final exams, I would, in between revision bouts, go and sit under a cherry tree outside the Agriculture Building and just let my brain rearrange all the facts that I had accumulated over the past four years of study into some sort of coherent order. It worked and much to my surprise I got a First Class degree. I’m a wee bit older now but it still works.

The important thing when I began my academic career was that there was an opportunity within the working day to gather one’s thoughts and let connections form.  It didn’t necessarily have to be blue sky thinking, just a chance

Blue sky thinking or daydreaming?

to clear the turbid and muddied thoughts and get them into some form of order and allow you to process them into something worthwhile and hopefully clear your mind so that new exciting ideas break through and bubble out into the light.

Struggling to clear those turbid thoughts.

It’s all becoming clearer

In those halcyon days there were, in all the places I worked, well established and popular morning and afternoon coffee/tea breaks.  In fact in Finland where I worked at the Agricultural Research Station just outside Helsinki, we even had breakfast together (early starters those Finns), and in my early days at Silwood Park not only was there morning coffee in the Refectory (Paddy’s to some of us), but in the afternoon we repaired to the Conservatory and Orangery where the redoubtable and doughty Pearl wheeled in her tea trolley and we, depending on the season and weather, either sat inside or reclined outside on the grass chatting and imbibing our drinks of choice. 😊

Back in the 1980s, and this may come as a surprise to the modern academic/researcher, we had typists (I met my wife in the typing pool) to wade through our hand-written drafts and type our papers for us. The along came technology and things began to change and not for the better.  Personal computers started to appear on everyone’s desk, not just in the computer rooms, the tyranny of email replaced the paper mail (finding your post tray full of envelopes was much more satisfying than logging on and finding your email folder telling that you have 120 unread messages) and worst of all, along came electronic ordering and costing. In the old days, if you wanted consumable you asked the Departmental Technician for them, or if not in stock they would order them for you. Similarly, for quotes for equipment for grants etc.  It makes no sense to me that academics should be responsible for ordering stuff themselves (Dreamweb?, Nightmareweb more like). If you don’t use a system daily then every time you do use it, it is a whole new time-consuming learning experience. Likewise, health and safety issues, surely much more efficient and cost-effective use of time to let the H&S Officers access the forms and do the assessments rather than the academic?  I could go on, but I think you know where I am coming from.

All of the above and the huge increase in student numbers (in the UK at any rate) with the concomitant increase in marking and teaching related administration meant yet another erosion of reflective time and as the years progressed a noticeable decline in the number of people finding or making time to venture out of their research silos to have coffee breaks away from their desks and labs.  Many academics now lunch in their offices.  This has meant a reduction in collegiality and the very valuable opportunity to talk and listen to colleagues from other fields.  When, after twenty years, I left Silwood Park, morning coffee in the Refectory had dwindled to just a handful of us entomologists☹ One of the many positive things of moving to Harper Adams was that there was (hopefully when Covid is controlled we can all get back there) a vibrant and very buzzy Staff Common Room which reminded me very much of my early days in academia. Until you experience it at first hand, you don’t realise how important a central, informal gathering place is to working life. A vibrant common meeting place has huge benefits for creative thinking, after all what is the most important part of a conference? Very rarely the talks; the bar, coffee and meal breaks are where it is at and the new ideas and partnerships are forged and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow found. The fewer the opportunities for relaxed social interactions, the fewer the good ideas we generate – coffee breaks, no matter how chatty, do, contrary to what some senior managers might think, improve productivity.

Without time to reflect one’s productivity goes down, thoughts are mired down in the turbid waters of toil and home and work life become entangled to a greater degree – I think the majority of us do our marking, paper reviewing, thesis reading, paper writing and in extremis, when working to a submission dead-line, our grant writing.  This is not sustainable and certainly not good for our well-being.  Do people still get proper sabbaticals, i.e. ones that the Department funds rather than having to apply to a grant body for one?  In my thirty odd years of university life I never had a sabbatical.

Now that I am Emeritus I am discovering a whole new world of time; time to walk and think, time to sit and think and time to read and write. If it were not for the fact that I am not in my office every day and thus missing out on the coffee culture I could imagine myself on sabbatical. Having the space and the ambiance to think and interact is hugely important. As a concrete example, a couple of years ago I invited two colleagues of mine with whom I am writing a book down to our French house in the Languedoc.  We had a very productive week, every morning working in separate rooms on the book, meeting up for lunch and then spending the afternoon relaxing and thinking.

Being productive away from the office

Since then, back in our respective work worlds, progress on the book has been glacial. Once international travel is back on the cards we plan to repeat the process and hopefully get the book back on course for publication next year.   I have, not quite tongue in cheek, suggested to my Head of Department that he might like to provide the funds to send members of staff down to our French house where I will provide paper and grant writing workshops 😊

Time spent in reflection is not time wasted, like plants, when given space and the right conditions, ideas flourish and bloom.

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Professor Emeritus – the final instar?

Six years ago, I celebrated my 60th birthday by writing a light hearted survey of my life to then under the title of The Seven Ages of an Entomologist, in which I likened each stage of my career to  an insect life cycle, from egg hatch through to adulthood, with full Professor being the seventh and final stage.  I have from my detailed field observations, realised that there is a rare super-imago stage, the Emeritus Professor 🙂

I unofficially (my letter of appointment didn’t arrive until mid-June) entered this stage on April 1st this year (2021), the occasion of which I had announced via Twitter on March 31st  when I tweeted

Today is my last day as a salaried academic as I officially ‘retire’ – tomorrow (yes April 1st – don’t snigger) I officially join the ranks of the old fogey/greybeards and become Professor Emeritus – I must admit I have mixed feelings about this stage of my academic career

A number of my colleagues and academic friends elsewhere, on achieving Emeritus status, pretty much continue as before, teaching, researching and writing papers and coming into the office almost every day. As a PhD student, at the University of East Anglia, the sight of Professor Emeritus Jack Kitching, then in his seventies, striding across the grass from the lake with a bucket of water, was a familiar sight. My former colleague, Graham Matthews at Imperial College, was still, aged 80, a regular visitor to his office and my PhD supervisor, Tony Dixon, now 84, is still writing papers, although mainly from his home office. 

What are these mixed feelings of which I wrote? Now I may be an exception among academics of my generation, but almost all my social life, such as it is, has with the exception of my best friend from school*, and old school and undergraduate university friends on Facebook, come about through my work.  There was a phase when our children were at school, and my wife and I were stalwarts of the PTA, that I attended Quiz Nights and other fundraising activities, but that is now long in the past and my non-academic socialising is now interactions with our neighbours, and until lockdown, social events run by the band of which my wife is the Manager. I am thus one of those sad people whose work and other life are pretty much inextricably linked. The prospect of leaving my academic setting was not something I viewed with any degree of sanguinity, despite the fact that originally our retirement plan was to spend our sunset years basking in the sun of the Pyrénées-Orientales cosily ensconced in our French house with a mountain view and easy access to the local wines and food and a suitably equipped study- cum- library in which to write all the books that I have had planned for years, but not yet had the time to write.

The aspect of retirement that worried me most was the loss of daily contact with students, (unlike a lot of research active academics, I really enjoy teaching) and the chance to chat with colleagues of all disciplines at coffee time.  The Harper Adams coffee culture, prior to the pandemic, was second to none. These two factors weighed very heavily against the prospect of gently pickling myself in France 🙂

Then along came two life changing events, the lunacy of Brexit which threw a spanner in the works regarding our retirement plans and oesophageal cancer which was an even bigger problem. On top of all this, add Covid and lockdown!  The two latter events made a huge change to my working life, in that I was physically isolated from my campus office, colleagues and students. Luckily, I am a bit of an introvert so the solitude was not too big a problem, country walks and plenty to read have kept me sane (discounting the post-operative paranoia) over the past year and our coffee mornings via Teams with the Entogroup have been a fairly good surrogate for keeping in touch with gossip and work, although virtual reality will never, in my opinion, be as good as the real thing, but it has been a help. It has also made me more able to pull away from the campus than if I had been working full-time on site, as I have no doubt that I would have found the physical and psychological separation much more difficult. Frankly, I think I would have been terrified. As it is I am just apprehensive. As Emeritus I will still get the opportunity to teach, but can now avoid all the bits I dislike about the job, administration and marking 🙂  I will also have more time to write up some of the back-log of papers that have been sitting patiently on my desk; some for more than twenty years.  More importantly, and hopefully, more financially rewarding, I hope to get all the books I have had planned for the last thirty years, finally written! I am very grateful to the University for granting me this honour and opportunity.

Looking back at the last nine years I have been Professor of Entomology at Harper Adams University I think it is apposite to quote from my 60th birthday post in which I wrote

My hope is that in five years time when I become a retired Professor and my hair and beard colour are the same, that entomology will be taught at more than one university in the UK and not just at postgraduate level.”

I am very pleased to point out that there are now three universities in the UK that run postgraduate courses in entomology (none as good as ours of course) and Harper Adams University now offers a very successful entomology undergraduate degree.

Another quote from the same post “A small point of personal satisfaction, is that, despite my elevation, I still do not own a suit “.  Guess what, I still don’t 🙂

Professor not-emeritus in lockdown, before chemotherapy and Professor Emeritus, complete with post-chemotherapy hair growth.

Post script

Somewhat disconcertingly I found on attempting to log on to my email and other accounts after the end of my last working day as a salaried employee, I found that all my accounts had been closed down. Our HR Department obviously have no idea how academia works. It would seem that in HR World, once you retire, you no longer exist. As you can imagine this caused a certain amount of panic on my part. Luckily after contacting my Head of Department via my Google account, I was readmitted to the system by mid-morning the following day, and to my great relief found that all my files were intact.

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Why, to my wife’s dismay, I made a late academic career move

I decided early on in my undergraduate career that I wanted to be a university teacher, so I knew that I would have to do a PhD, which is what I did indeed go on to do.  My first degree, Agricultural Zoology (essentially applied entomology and parasitology), had engendered a love of the applied and my PhD and subsequent post-docs echoed this, I worked on cereal aphids and ways in which to control them without recourse to pesticides. I had noticed as an undergraduate that although my degree was applied, the staff teaching us, had not actually worked outside universities.  I felt that if I was going to be a successful applied academic I should have some experience outwith the university system and in 1982 found myself working as a research and advisory entomologist for the UK Forestry Commission based at their Northern Research Station just outside Edinburgh (Roslin). My original plan had been to stay there for about five years and then move into a Lectureship. Unfortunately, 1987 coincided with a dearth of positions within academia and it was not until

Senior Scientific Officer, Entomologist with the Forestry Commission Research

1992 that I made the transition, when I was appointed as Lecturer in Integrated Pest Management* at Imperial College, London, based at the Silwood Park campus.

Newly appointed Lecturer in Integrated Pest Management 1992

At the age of 37, and armed with 50 publications, six children and a spouse in tow, I think this probably counted as a mid-career move.  It was a great time to move to Silwood. The Centre for Population Biology, headed up by John Lawton was in full swing, with future luminaries such as Chris Thomas, Hefin Jones, Brad Hawkins, Bill Kunin, Andy Hector, Mike Hochberg, Suzanne Koptur and Shahid Naeem in post.  In what was then the Pure & Applied Biology Department, I was one of eighteen entomologists, pure heaven. Silwood Park had a vibrant coffee culture, in the morning over at the Refectory (Paddy’s), where bacon and egg butties (rolls)) were consumed in huge numbers and in the afternoon, tea was served by Pearl over at the Conservatory at the rear of the Main House.  In the summer, we would sprawl on the grass outside, exchanging ideas and discussing our research plans.  There were no silos, and there was a significant amount of inter-disciplinary mixing.  The ideal environment for productive and innovative research and I was content to imagine myself in situ until retirement beckoned.

Unbeknownst to me there was something rotten in the offing.  Back in 1986 the University Grants Committee assessed the quality of research being produced by UK universities to help guide them in allocating research funding. The Research Selectivity Exercise and the Research Assessment Exercise followed this in 1989 in 1992. The criteria used to assess university research standing, was, largely based on the impact factor of the journals that staff published in and the amount of research income won from research councils. The effect across those universities in the top tier was insidious but largely predictable. Despite over 50% of income being accrued from teaching, recruitment of staff became increasingly based on publications, leading in the case of the Biology Department at Imperial, to an influx of staff with publications in Science, Nature, PNAS and similarly high impact journals, much to the frustration of our Director of Teaching.  Effectively, every time a whole organism biologist retired or left, they were replaced by a molecular biologist.

Things got even worse when in 2001, Sir Richard Sykes was appointed as Rector (Vice Chancellor).  Coming from industry and with a reputation for asset stripping, the collegiate nature of Imperial College came under attack. Staff, who had, until then, been valued for their departmental contribution in terms of administrative roles and contribution to teaching now felt under threat and if unable to up their research profile, encouraged to seek early retirement, or in some cases, as when Imperial acquired Wye College, which was subsequently closed, made redundant. Despite having a large research group, albeit largely made up of PhD students my teaching load continued to increase.  I even ended up teaching forestry and plant biology, when the plant scientists were culled. Another example of how research trumped teaching was In 2007, when despite me pointing out that the youngest whole organism biologist was 52 (me), and the oldest molecular biologist 52, our Head of Department decided that we needed more systems biologists.

In terms of career progression, I had in the early days, done quite well having been promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1996 and Reader in 2002. By then, looking at Athene Donald’s list I see that I was pretty much doing a professorial role, serving on external committees, validating degrees for other universities and acting as an external examiner. I was also appointed as Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation and Diversity, a new journal for the Royal Entomological Society. My administrative duties had also continued to increase.  It was no wonder that my beard was getting greyer! I was however still preparing my own talks, although I will confess that a lot of my data analysis was being passed on to members of the group, duly acknowledged of course. I am extremely grateful that I have always had a loyal and very supportive research group, without their help life would have been impossible.  My thanks to you all (if any of you are reading this). Promotion to full Professor was by departmental or self-nomination and successful interview performance in front of a panel composed of the Principal of the School of Life Sciences and Deans from across the university. If you wanted to be nominated for promotion one had to submit a lengthy cv to your Head of Department and this was considered by the other Professors within the Department to see if you were worthy of being put forward. In 2010 I had two post-docs and eleven PhD students and 136 publications, so felt that I was ripe for promotion to full professor. To my disappointment, the Department thought otherwise and my name was not put forward. I shrugged my shoulders and decided that there was no point in trying again, especially as by 2011, I only had one post-doc so that year I didn’t bother putting my cv in despite being pressed by the Department to do so. The departmental panel however, to my annoyance, considered my cv in absentia and pretty much forced me to submit even though I pointed out that it was going to be a waste of time as my research group was now smaller. Nevertheless my cv was submitted to the university and I was duly called for interview.

Accompanied by my Head of Department I arrived in good time for my scheduled 45-minute interview.  The panel finally called me in twenty minutes late. The Principal of the School of Life Sciences, an immunologist of some repute, began by saying “Hello Simon, can you tell me what you have been doing since you were last promoted, if you can remember that far back”. I looked at the HR person in shock, expecting some sort of response but nope.  Anyway, I proceeded to tell the panel what I had been doing since 2002. At the end of my reply, her response was “So you count things”.  That immediately told me that I was not going to get promoted.  The questioning passed on to one of the Deans, who said, in an accusatory manner, “I see that you get a lot of prizes for teaching”. I explained that I liked students and felt that they deserved the best experience I could give them. That went down like a lead balloon. The second Dean said “I see that you don’t give very many plenary lectures”.  I replied that I received many invitations but that my teaching load made it difficult to accept them all. Next up was the third Dean, who remarked on the fact that I only had one post-doc and that my research group was mainly PhD students.  I replied that yes, this was the case but that for the last 18 years I had been providing the Department with a steady and substantial income.  Then back to the Principal, who asked me why I hadn’t published in Science and Nature recently. Those of you who are applied entomologists will know the answer to that one 🙂 So that was it, twenty five minutes and I was dismissed, the interview panel were back on schedule, and of course I was not promoted.  My Department, to give them their due, appealed against the decision, pointing out that that I was actually doing more teaching than anyone else in the Department including the Teaching Fellows and that my research income was above the Departmental average.  The Faculty response was that perhaps if I did more teaching they could consider me for promotion via a teaching route.  I laughed hollowly. That was pretty much the final straw, it was obvious that the Faculty of Life Sciences had no interest in my research. My Department on the other hand relied on me and the other whole organism biologists to run six MSc courses and to service several undergraduate modules**.

It became increasingly obvious that things could not carry on as they were. My teaching and administrative loads were becoming ridiculous.  There were only four entomologists left in the Department and the coffee culture had almost disappeared, most groups staying in their silos and only venturing out at lunchtimes. I was seriously considering early retirement although I was reluctant to do this, as I was sure that with my retirement the last entomology degree in the UK would quickly disappear.  Then Peter Mills, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Harper Adams University, approached me and asked what it would take to get us surviving applied entomologists to move.  I told him and was reassured that this was all possible.  With some trepidation, I agreed and we moved despite some half-hearted attempts by the Department to get us to stay.  I don’t think that they actually believed that we would leave a world-class institute to move somewhere that they had never heard of. I have never regretted the move. It was great to be in an environment where our skills were appreciated and back in a collegiate and collaborative atmosphere with an excellent coffee culture and to cap it all, better research facilities than we had had at Silwood. I take some pleasure in pointing out that I moved from a research intensive institute to a more teaching focused one, but halved my teaching and administrative loads. As a result of having that extra thinking time I very soon won two research grants. Domestically it was a bit hard as my wife couldn’t find a similar job in Shropshire so we ended up as two-house family, commuting between each household on alternate weekends, but entomology in the UK at postgraduate and undergraduate level is now in safe hands with a number of newly appointed entomological staff.  Though as my wife points out, if I had taken early retirement we would now be safely ensconced in France with full residency and not being subjected to the horror that is BREXIT.

*the last time that my Department advertised so specifically for a post.  Subsequent job adverts were along the lines of “in the area of ecology, evolutionary biology…”

**I confess I was rather pleased when I heard that Imperial had to close those six MSc courses because of a dearth of staff able to teach on them, although I was sad that after almost a century, postgraduate entomology was no longer being taught at Imperial.

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The reports of my death were greatly exaggerated and even more embarrassingly, they were by me :-)

To paraphrase Mark Twain (1838-1910) “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated ” I recently underwent major surgery to remove a tumour from my oesophagus. The operation was successful, and I am now at home recuperating. Unfortunately, in the days immediately following surgery, I developed post-operative hallucinations, apparently fairly common for those of us over 65.

 

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible | The Renaissance  Mathematicus

 

These hallucinations were extremely vivid, and to me, convincingly real and personally threatening. I may write about the experience later when I feel a bit stronger. To cut a long story short, I embarrassed myself on Twitter, caused anxiety to family and friends and in the blog post preceding this, suggested that it would be my last ever as I would be dead soon 🙂 As you can see, I am still with you and once the post-operative pain becomes more bearable, and allows me to concentrate for longer periods of time, I hope to be writing my usual blog entries. In the meantime I am ‘out and about’ on Twitter, although not quite as actively as before.

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A cautionary tale – facing mortality and the work-life balance

Back at the end of July last year, the day before we set off on our annual summer road trip to our house in the Languedoc, my wife, who had left for work a couple of minutes earlier rushed back into the house to tell me that her car engine was on fire! Not the best of news to hear especially as it was her car that we had booked on to the Chunnel and Car Train 😦  As she had only got a couple of metres I volunteered to push it back into the parking bay, a task initially hampered somewhat by the non-release of the handbrake. To cut a long story short, and not to dwell on the exchange between my wife and I, the car was safely re-parked and my smaller car pressed into service for the trip to our French house. 

I had, in the throes of pushing the car felt something ‘pop’ and developed a pain in the mid-thoracic region, which I initially attributed to a strained muscle.  The pain was still with me two days later when we arrived in Paris to drop our car off at Paris Bercy Auto Train terminal and enjoy a couple of days sightseeing. I also started to feel a bit tired and my appetite was not as healthy as it usually was when facing French cuisine.  By the time we reached Vinca my appetite was a mere shadow of itself and I was feeling distinctly weak and feeble (feek and weable as we say in the family).  I also noticed that (those of you of a nervous disposition might want to skip this bit), my stool looked like molten tarmac.  I concluded that it wasn’t a strained rib or a muscle causing me pain, but an upper gastro-intestinal bleed.  Having being brought up in a household where going to the doctor was a last resort* and despite having a pretty good command of French, I felt that my medical French was not up to discussing my bowel movements, so decided to give it aa day or two to see what happened. Sure enough after a couple of days my appetite returned, the pain had disappeared, my stool was normal and I no longer felt dizzy after climbing the stairs.  I told  myself that everything was fine and enjoyed the rest of our break.  Three weeks later we were back in the UK, and after a bit of internal debate I broke the habit of a lifetime and booked an appointment with my GP.  After listening to my story, she referred me to the local hospital for an endoscopy to see what might have caused the bleed. I won’t dwell on what an endoscopy is like, but if you do have one I recommend that you take up the offer of the sedative 🙂 The endoscopy revealed that I had Barrett’s oesophagus, (caused by years of untreated acid reflux**) and a suspicious area from which the consultant*** took a biopsy.  It turned out that I had early stage oesophageal cancer, which came as a bit of a shock.  I was initially booked in to have my oesophagus removed, which as he said might seem to be like taking a sledgehammer to crack a walnut but would give me pretty much close to a 100% chance of being alive in five years time. These are odds with which I am willing to live 🙂

My consultant surgeon’s sketch of my cancer and of the proposed treatment, which involves massive thoracic and abdominal surgery.

I was scheduled for the operation in early January but then the surgical team decided that as it was early stage that they could try a less invasive procedure and go in via the mouth and pretty much scoop and suck the tumour out. This would involve a much shorter time under anaesthetic and only a day or so in hospital. This seemed a good idea to me and so they went ahead and removed the tumour.  I had a week or so when it was incredibly painful to swallow anything solid; chocolate mousse, panna cotta, rice pudding, mashed potato and mince were fine and soup as long as it had no tomato in it.  I also managed to lose a kilogram, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a weight loss programme. I was then supposed to be monitored frequently to check that all was well, but along came the dreaded virus and I wasn’t scanned until August when, despite having no symptoms, it turned out that the tumour was not only back, but bigger (4 cm).  The surgical team decided that the best option would to be put me on pre-operative chemotherapy. They decided on quite an aggressive regime (FLOT) as I was, surprisingly fit; one of the disturbing things about my cancer is that I have had no symptoms.

My chemotherapy details.

To facilitate this I was fitted with a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC line), which was quite an experience but totally painless.

My apparatus – I was surprised at how quickly it became a part of everyday life, although unfortunately I developed a blood clot in my sub-clavian vein, which means injecting myself in the stomach with tinzaparin soiudum every day.  This is, or so  I was told, quite a common side-effect of the PICC line.

The overnight infusion pump – the main problem, where to put it when in bed, under the pillow, tucked next to your tummy or….

As I mentioned earlier, the tumour has not caused me any discernible problems, the treatment, in particular the chemotherapy, has, although I have been fairly resistant and not needed the extra anti-nausea tablets or those for constipation and diarrhoea. I have, however, suffered considerable hair loss, most of my head hair, except for the grey ones fell out within the first three weeks so I am now left with a grey fuzz.  My very bushy (and not very popular with my wife) eyebrows are a shadow of their former selves, my famous entomological beard is almost non-existent and my nostrils have no hair left at all.   My body hair, in the main, is still there, although my armpits and my scrotum are as smooth as smooth 🙂 The biggest physical effect was a reduction in my energy levels which meant that my lunchtime walks became much shorter as the chemotherapy progressed.  Now, after five weeks without, I am back to my usual walking speed and distance (5 – 7 km daily, with the occasional 10K thrown in for good measure) and hopefully, am now in a robust enough state to deal with the rigours of my imminent surgery.

Before moving on to my work life balance I must thank all the NHS staff I have encountered over the last year or so, whom despite being grossly overworked and underpaid, have been unflaggingly cheerful and helpful. I am especially grateful to the specialist staff of the Lingen Davies Chemotherapy Day Unit for their exemplary care and attention and for inadvertently, providing me with an entomological bonus 🙂 We are so lucky to still have a National Health Service that is relatively free. We must look after it.

Bonus entomological display at the Lingen Davies Chemotherapy Day Unit, Royal Shrewsbury Hospital.

I am also grateful to family, friends and colleagues, some of whom are also friends, for their support during these trying times.

I wrote about the academic work life balance a couple of years ago when I semi-retired, so this seems a good time to revisit the subject.  I wrote that I hoped reducing my hours would have an equivalent effect on the time I would spend on the bits of the job that I dislike such as administration, marking, and committee meetings. Unfortunately, except for a couple of committees, nothing really changed, except that my workload allocation went from 113% to 105% :-). Before the virus, changed all our lives, I had adopted a working pattern of 100% at the university for a term, then a month in France at our French house, then back to the university for a term and then back to France and repeat. This had the advantage of keeping me away from the office and putting me in a completely different environment in which I was able to work on my alternative projects – the books. Covid and my treatment has of course, changed this and I have been confined to a single location, which has meant me trying to remember not to do office work (albeit remotely) two days every week, which is not as easy as it seems.  It did have an unexpected bonus, much more time in the countryside and the opportunity to get closer to Nature, something I hadn’t being doing as much of as I should have been. As the end of summer approached, I decided that the time to retire officially would be when I became eligible for my state pension in March 2021, and, not without some qualms, submitted my retirement forms accordingly.   If the university feel fit to offer me a new part-time contract (nothing has so far materialised), I would be willing to accept it as long as it involved no administrative role or the setting and marking of exams and assignments, the three things I hate most about academia. What I have missed enormously is the contact with the students and the opportunity to stand in front of them and expound, or should that be profess, about entomology to a live audience.  I hope, that one day, in the not too distant future, I will be able to do so again.

Wish me luck and I hope to be back on line sometime fairly soon.

I’m out the other side – seems to have gone wll, but I am a bit sore and two weeks ahead of hospital to look forward to

*my sister almost died of meningitis when she was two, because my father thought she just had a bit of a temperature

**if you suffer from acid reflux more than once a month, I recommend you to go and see your GP immediately

***coincidentally he did his PhD at Imperial College at the same time as I was Deputy Director of the Graduate School of Life Sciences and Medicine, so I will have judged his poster at the annual postgraduate colloquium. This may, or may not, be a good thing 🙂

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If I hadn’t become an entomologist, what would I have become? The scientific road not taken

A couple of days ago Jeremy Fox over at Dynamic Ecology posted a what if blog asking where, knowing what you now know, you might see yourself in an alternative world. To be clear, I have absolutely no regrets choosing entomology as a subject, and teaching and research as a career. I did, however, and still do, have some allied interests.

As I have mentioned before, I became interested in insects and their antics from a very early age, but I was also, from an equally early age a voracious reader, devouring books at a prodigious rate. I wasn’t fussy about genres, although I particularly enjoyed those with a historical flavour, Treasure Island, Ivanhoe,  Lorna Doone, Biggles, Hornblower, and the works  of  H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Conan Doyle, not just Sherlock Holmes, but also Sir Nigel and The White Company* to name but a few.  I was also interested in Roman history, in fact I still am, and love reading detective fiction set in those times especially Lindsey Davis’s Falco novels. I come from a long line of civil engineers and from them seem to have inherited an interest in digging holes and making dams, and this, coupled with my interest in history, did make me fleetingly consider archaeology as a possible career. But it wasn’t to be, and in later years this turned into human archaeology of a sort, genealogy :-).  This is probably one of the reasons why I find Edward Rutherford’s sweeping historical novels with their detailed family trees and thousand year time spans so fascinating.

As a teenager, before I was totally consumed by the flame of entomology, I fleetingly contemplated a possible career in medicine but at the same time really got into human origins and so palaeontology seemed a possible way to go. I was reminded of this a few years ago, when I was the external examiner for the Zoology degree at University College Dublin, but again it was not to be, and I ended up, without regrets, as an entomologist.

What I have discovered over the years is that I still love history, I love teaching and I love a good mystery.  I have always wanted to know how things came to be, and, as my students will testify, my lectures always have a bit of history in them, nuggets about the early entomologists and ecologists and how the sub-disciplines arose as well as personal stories of how papers and lecturers inspired me.  In some ways, this is a bit like archaeology as I quite often have to do a lot of digging and delving into the past, when, for example I am chasing down an elusive reference.

So, in answer to the question posed by Jeremy Fox, I would, if I hadn’t become an entomologist, love to have been an academic specialising in the history of science 🙂

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Omphaloskepsis – navel gazing in the time of Covid-19

Advance warning – there is not much science or entomology in this one, although it could be a welcome respite from Covid-19 😊

I am assured that they are gazing at their navels

A couple of days ago I was scrolling through my ‘Blogs to write’ file, clicking on titles that caught my fancy, when I came across this one that I thought looked interesting – Meaningful numbers, with a file date of almost exactly 4 years ago.

What surprises lurk inside this file?

I wondered what I was thinking about at the time so opened the file.  Imagine my disappointment when this was revealed 😊

Nothing but the title, not even a picture to help jog my memory!

So, I was none the wiser.  I knew it wasn’t about one of my pet bugbears; journals that use numbered references, because that has its own file, in fact two files, because I seem to have started writing it twice 😊 I guess an indication of how much the practice irritates me. As a referee it makes it so much more difficult to check if the authors have cited the relevant literature. 😦

I hate this so much! It goes against my sense of order, literally speaking of course 😊

 It wasn’t about how many times the word insect featured as a worldwide search term in Google Trends, although looking at the graph it is striking that the peak is in June/July, the Northern Hemisphere summer.

Worldwide Google Trends for the search term ‘insect’

 

Staying with insects, (OK there is some tangential entomology in this piece), could I have been meaning to write something about how many insects species there are, given that the estimates range from Terry Erwin’s gloriously possibly over the top estimate of 30 000 000 (Erwin, 1983) to Ian Hodkinson’s 2-3 000 000, that I consider to be very conservative indeed, with Camilo Mora and colleagues oddly calculated 9 000 000 in between.   Or, could it refer to my ten-year data aphid data sets from Scotland, still waiting to be transferred transfer from these battered notebooks to an Excel spreadsheet?

Aphid data, not meaningful until it makes it to a spreadsheet?

Certainly, they contain a lot of numbers but are they meaningful? They haven’t even made it into my Data I am never going to publish series 😊

In desperation I Googled the phrase ‘meaningful numbers’ and ended up, via this piece by Donald Byrd,

http://homes.sice.indiana.edu/donbyrd/Teach/Math/MeaningfulNumbers+SignificantFigures.pdf

on the Wikipedia page about significant figures, which, although the habit that many undergraduates have of reporting their statistical output to the millionth decimal place, is one of my other pet bugbears, was probably not what I had intended to write about, or was it?

I guess we’ll never know what the original title was all about, but on the plus side, I now have a few more ideas to turn into blogs 😊

 

References

Erwin, T.L. (1983) Tropical forest canopies: the last biotic frontier. Bulletin of the Entomological Society of America, 29, 14-19.

Hodkinson, I.D. & Casson, D. (1991) A lesser predilection for bugs: Hemiptera (Insecta) diversity in tropical rain forests. Biological Journal of the Linnaean Society, 43, 101-109.

Mora, C., Tittensor, D.P., Adl, S., Simpson, A.G.B., & Worm, B. (2011) How many species are there on earth and in the ocean? PloS Biology, 9(8):, e1001127.doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001127.

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The Roundabout Review 2019 – navel gazing again

Welcome to my, now very, very definitely, traditional review of the past year.

A new roundabout – Jennett’s Park, Bracknell – I have no idea what it is meant to signify

 

Impact and reach

I have continued to post at about ten-day intervals; this is my 273rd  post.  As I wrote last year, there never seems to any difficulty in coming up with ideas to write about; the problem is more in deciding which one to use and when.  As happened last year, some of my blogs have, albeit in slightly modified forms, made it into print (Cardoso & Leather, 2019).

Many of you remain lukewarm about the idea that social media has a place in science. I would, however, ask you to think again and if you need any more convincing, read this paper that very clearly demonstrates the benefits arising from such interactions (Côté & Darling, 2018); evidence that science communication via social media is a very worthwhile use of our time. Highlights of the year included a joint blog with Stephen Heard, about paper titles. Semi-related to my Blogging and Tweeting are my other forms of science communication, giving talks and helping at outreach events, such as the Big Bang Fair, which continue unabated.  I also had three Skype a Scientist dates this year, two with schools in the USA and one with a school in Switzerland.  I really enjoyed the experience and hope that the pupils were as pleased as I was. If you have not come across this scheme, check them out here.

My blog had visitors from 179 countries (181 last year, 165 in 2017, 174 in 2016 and 150 in 2015), so only another 16 to go to achieve total global domination 😊  My blog received 63 710 views (54 300 last year,  40 682 in 2017,  34 036 in 2016; 29 385 in 2015). As with last year, most views came from the USA, with views from India holding on to 4th place and Nigeria entering the top ten for the first time.

Top ten countries for views

Top reads

My top post (excluding my home page) in 2019 was the same as last year, one of my aphid posts,  A Winter’s Tale – Aphid Overwintering, (with almost 200 more reads this year than last, 4108 to be precise) although there may have been some disappointment felt by those who were hoping to find a reference to Shakespeare’s play or the song by Queen. It is now my all-time winner with just over 13 000 views, with Not All Aphids are Vegans with over 11 000 views still maintaining an honourable second place.  My top ten posts continue to be either about aphids or entomological techniques/equipment, which I guess means that I am filling an entomological niche. Aptly, my two posts about the loss of insects made it into the top ten this year.

A Winter’s Tale – aphid overwintering 4,108
Not all aphids are vegans 2,458
“Insectageddon” – bigger headlines, more hype, but where’s the funding? 1,829
Aphid life cycles – bizaare, complex or what? 1,762
Meat eating moths 1,226
Entomological Classics – The Pooter or Insect Aspirator 1,217
Not Jiminy Cricket but Gregory Grasshopper – someone ought to tell Walt 1,158
Ten papers that shook my world – watching empty islands fill up – Simberloff & Wilson (1969) 1,089
Entomological classics – the sweep net 1,052
Global Insect Extinction – a never ending story 1,045

 

My Pick & Mix link fests stalwartly foot the table, although disappointingly, my second collection of natural history haikus is also in the bottom ten 😦

Trends

Although in general, there still seems to be no signs of the number of people viewing my site reaching an asymptote or for that matter, the figures for December were the lowest of the year, by a considerable margin.  Is this the beginning of the end?

Linear still the best fit but is it levelling off?

Tweeting for entomology

I still find my interactions on Twitter very rewarding, although this past year I have become somewhat more political; Brexit and Trump, need I say more?  Most of my tweets are, however, still entomological and ecological and the increase in political comment has not stopped my followers from growing.  I finished 2018 with 6884 followers and begin 2020 with just over 8000, 8088 to be precise.   Many thanks to all my readers and especially to those who take the time to comment as well as pressing the like button.  My top commenters, as indeed they were last year, were fellow bloggers, Emma Maund, Emily Scott, Jeff Ollerton, Amelia from A French Garden and Philip Strange.  I look forward to interacting with you all in 2020.

In theory I am semi-retired from my daytime job, academia but I hasten to add, not from entomology.  I do, however, seem to be spending considerably more than 60% of my time doing stuff that I thought I would no longer have to do 😦

This time last year, I reported that I had submitted a proposal to OUP for a semi-popular entomology book.  I am happy to report that it was accepted, and I am now behind schedule in writing Insects – A Very Short Introduction 🙂

On a less happy note; to me, this has been, in some ways, a horrendous year.  Due largely to the selfish, bigoted and xenophobic behaviour of a large proportion of my very privileged generation, we are set to leave the great European project that has kept Europe largely peaceful for more than forty years. I would remind you, that not all of us voted to deprive our children and grandchildren of the rights and privileges that we have enjoyed since 1975.  It is also appropriate to remember that my father and his generation fought to enable us to enjoy that peace.

My late father (a fervent pro-European) and I (equally pro-EU), both aged 21; he in 1945 after having served in the Royal Marines since he was 17, endured the D-Day landings and fought in the Pacific, me in 1976, in my penultimate year at Leeds University. My teeth would have been the same but I had braces as a child 🙂

On the other hand, a lot of good things have happened; new friends, old friends and family all make life worth living, so in the words of the song “pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again”.

A Happy and Prosperous New Year to you all.

References

Cardoso, P. & Leather, S.R. (2019) Predicting a global insect apocalypse. Insect Conservation & Diversity, 12, 263-267.

Côté, I.M. & Darling, E.S. (2018) Scientists on Twitter: preaching to the choir or singing from the rooftops?  Facets, 3, 682-694.

*The number of views for my annual reviews are as follows: 2014 (86), 2015 (110), 2016 (179), 2017 (115, of which 112 were in January).

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Merry Christmas Everyone

Hope you all have a great Christmas and a Happy New Year.  Many thanks to all my readers and especially to those of you who share my posts on Twitter and other social media platforms.  It is much appreciated.

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In Thrall or Enthralled? – The Academic Work-Life Balance

I‘ve written about the academic work-life balance before, but that was about the conflicts arsing between research, teaching and administration.  This time I want to address the real work-life balance i.e. home life versus work life and the angst that it causes many of us.

In the UK we have a number of Bank Holidays*, the two most recent at the time of writing, the May Day Holiday and the late May (Whitsun) Bank Holiday. The former, despite the name was May 6th this year!  I felt the need to log on Twitter and wrote “It is quite revealing how as an academic I am feeling guilty that I am not marking student research projects today even though it is a Bank Holiday. How is that we have allowed ourselves to get so in thrall to #academiclife that even the bits we don’t like can cause guilt 😦

Immediate responses to my tweet about work guilt

Given the current state of the Academy, I was not surprised to find that I was not the only one 😊

If only we all had the will power and sense, that Olaf Schmidt has

When I first became an academic more than forty years ago, albeit in a research institute, we had typists and departmental secretaries who did a lot of the things that we do now.  We had technical support teams that ordered our supplies and we had administrative staff that got our estimates for the equipment that we needed for grant applications. We also didn’t have email, although it very soon arrived!   It seems to me that as we have got more and more computerised and do more things on-line, we as academics are doing things, that in the past, were done by non-academic staff.  We are now also faced with ever tighter deadlines to get marked assignments back to students and urged to give more detailed feedback.  Much of this is in response to provide data for the metrics by which universities are now judged.  Couple this with the increased number of students on modules, brought about by the way in which universities seek savings by reducing module choice and the need to publish and bring in grant monies and there just aren’t enough hours in the day ☹ The generation before mine had it even easier and although I am not advocating a return to those days, scientists were perhaps more likely to take more risks with their research in those less metric-driven times.

Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching, it is why I moved from working in a research institute to a university, although I really, really, hate marking.  I also love research and being in a university environment allows you the freedom to do both, but the pressures, especially in research intensive institutions means that the job is far from stress free.  In my case, and for many of my colleagues, if you don’t take some of your work home it doesn’t get done. There are just not enough hours in the working day.  If you do outreach as I do, most of that happens in the evenings, so again you are working outwith ‘office hours’.  In theory, one can opt to take ‘time off in lieu’ (TOIL), but when, especially as in my case and of that of many colleagues, our official work loads show us working in excess of 100%, mine for example is 113%.

As Tamsin Majerus remarked in response to my Tweet  “I agree, it is just wrong. The whole system is based on a history of dedicated researchers working long hours doing something they loved. The amount of work now deemed ‘normal’ assumes all academics will continue to work the long hours regardless of the task or other commitments”

So, we are our own worst enemies, and this takes me to the title of my post. When you’re in thrall to someone, you are under their control in some way. If you’re being held as a hostage, you’re in thrall to your captor. You can be in thrall to anything that holds you captive or controls your thoughts or actions, like an addiction, a disease, or a cult leader. The Old English word that thrall comes from literally means “slave” or “servant.” Another word with the same root as thrall is enthrall, which is a sort of friendlier version of the same idea. If you’re enthralled by someone, you’re captivated or fascinated, rather than “held in bondage.” I certainly became a researcher because I was fascinated by insects, and never expected or wanted  to be a slave to paperwork.

So which is it, are we enthralled or in thrall and if the latter how do we go about changing things and live a guilt-free life?

Many thanks to any of you who answered the poll.

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