Tag Archives: Harper Adams Unversity

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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Entomasters on tour again – Royal Entomological Society 2020

A highlight of the academic year for me is our annual trip to the Royal Entomological Society HQ in St Albans with the MSc Entomology course. We had a very early start but everyone turned up in time and in a very cheerful mood, in perfect keeping with our coach 😊

Happy Days – a visit to Royal Entomological Society HQ.  This year we arrived in good time as the traffic was, for a change, relatively light.

The traditional group photograph in front of the giant ant.

Another tradition – selfie in the famous entomological lift; I forgot to hold my gut in 🙂

MSc Entomology students waiting for the first talk.  All very much awake as we were greeted by coffee and biscuits

The RES Library is a fantastic resource, with a huge collection of antiquarian and modern literature.

Not aphids, but still beautiful

Beautiful, but a bit macabre?

Ancient and modern, but the problem is still with us.

We let them go outside too 😊 They are rescuing a bumblebee and working up an appetite for lunch.

Lunch in the Council room, I don’t know what the Aurelians thought about it

but here they are at the back of the room keeping an eye on things 🙂

I would so love to own a copy of this – The text reads “This very interesting, but I must remember that I came here to collect specimens of Lepidoptera”

 

Many thanks to all of the staff at the Royal Entomological Society for their very generous hospitality.  if you wan to learn more about what the Royal Entomological Society has to offer or to become a Member or Fellow then follow this link

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

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

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Nostalgia time, my first biological memory, aged 3.

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

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Erica McAlister extolling the virtues of bot flies

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

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Early advisory poster

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

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Admiring the bees

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

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Finnish and Swedish tobacco boxes being put to good use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A lovely piece of historical entomological art.

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

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

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

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

*one day I will write about it.

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