Tag Archives: MSc

Social media and academia do work well together – two years in and still a fan

It is now just over two years since I began tweeting and just under two years since I started blogging. My first end of year report saw me entering my second year as a fully converted Tweeter and Blogger and very happy indeed with my foray into the world of social media.  I had made new research contacts, got invitations to give talks to local conservation groups, got BBC Wildlife to acknowledge their vertebrate bias,

BBC Wildlife

been invited to give a talk on the subject at the Royal Entomological Society annual meeting and even got a publication in the journal Animal Conservation!  So I definitely finished 2013 on a high and began the New Year with an almost evangelical desire to convince all my colleagues to join in the fun.

So now here I am, two years in. Is it still working for me?  Most definitely.  I have amassed over 2300 followers on Twitter and 124 people are signed up to receive updates to my blog.  I have, including this article, written 65 blog posts.  Views on my blog have increased from a daily average of 39 to 67 and at the time of writing it has received over 22000 views compared with just over 14000 last year.  I figure that this is considerably more exposure than I get from my published scientific papers.  That said, I have as a direct result of my blogging activities had two more papers published (Leather, 2014, 2015) and been asked to submit a more formal version of my end of year report to Antenna (the house journal of the Royal Entomological Society) which will give me a chance to sway a somewhat larger entomological audience than I had at the annual meeting last September (2013)! My good-natured jibes (via Twitter) at the Journal of Animal Ecology accusing them of a vertebrate bias, resulted in me being asked to edit one of their Virtual Issues which in turn, resulted in a very interesting post on their blog by their Editor-in-Chief Ken Wilson.

As a journal editor, I have been able to find referees for papers and also new editorial board members. I have also found Twitter an invaluable way of advertising the MSc course in Entomology that I run here at Harper Adams University,  of advertising PhD and staff positions and of generally reaching and interacting with a huge number of like-minded people around the world.   It is of course not all one way traffic, I get a number of requests for help and information that I am, if able, happy to respond positively to.

My biggest buzz this year was to receive a complimentary copy of a book by Peter Smith (Smith, 2014), in which one of my blog posts,

Smith book

Are PhD Examiners really ogres? was quoted several times.   I have to confess that this gave me pretty much the same feeling that I got when I saw my first ever paper (Leather, 1980) in print 😉

So to answer the question I posed at the start of this post. Yes, I am still as firmly, if not more so, convinced as I was a year ago, that social media is an essential part of a rounded academic life.  Of course if you are reading this I am probably preaching to the converted 😉

References

Leather, S.R. (1980) Egg survival in the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi. Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 27, 96-97.

Leather, S.R. (2013) Institutional vertebratism hampers insect conservation generally; not just saproxylic beetle conservation. Animal Conservation, 16, 379-380.

Leather, S.R. (2014) How Stephen Jay Gould wrote Macbeth – not giving credit where its due: lazy referencing and ignoring precedence. Ideas in Ecology & Evolution, 7, 30-40.

Leather, S.R. (2015) An entomological classic: the Pooter or insect aspirator. British Journal of Entomology and Natural History, 28, in press

Smith, P. (2014) The PhD Viva: How to Prepare for your Oral Examination.  Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke

 

 

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Entomological classics – The Malaise Trap

More years ago than I care to remember, my friends and I were playing the now, very non-PC game of Cowboys and Indians, when we saw through the trees, what we thought was a tent. On sneaking up to it we found that, if it was a tent, it wasn’t very watertight!  There were no sides, instead there was a central panel and the whole thing was made of netting.  What we had actually found, was of course a Malaise trap, although of course we did not know this at the time.  It was only later as an undergraduate that I realised what we had found all those years before.

So exactly what is a Malaise trap and how did it come into being? The Malaise Trap is a relatively new invention.  It was invented by the Swedish entomologist, Dr René Malaise in the 1930s (hence the name) and revealed to a more general entomological audience in 1937 (Malaise, 1937).  It was actually designed as a replacement for the traditional hand-held collecting net, which as Malaise states in the introduction to his paper ‘”Since the time of Linneaus, the technique of catching insects has not improved very much, and we are to-day using the same kind of net as then for our main instrument”.

I was amused, when reading on further, to find that my childhood gaffe of confusing a Malaise Trap with a net was fully justified. Malaise, later in the same paper writes, ”During my extensive travels I have repeatedly found that insects happened to enter my tent, and that they always accumulated at the ceiling-corners in vain efforts to escape at that place without paying any attention to the open tent door”. He then goes on to describe how he conjectured that “a trap made as invisible as possible and put up at a place where insect are wont to patrol back and forth, might catch them much better than any tent, and perhaps better than a man with a net, as a trap could catch them all the time, by night as by day, and never be forced to quit catching when it was best because dinner-time was at hand”.

He thus set about constructing a trap based on the idea of an open tent with a collecting device attached to the central end pole to take advantage of the fact that most insects when encountering an obstacle tend to fly upwards. On reaching the apex of the tent, the only way out is into the collecting device which is filled with a killing agent.  It is in effect, a flight intercept trap, but unlike window traps (subject of a later post), the insects instead of falling into a collecting device, head upwards and collect themselves. Malaise tested his first version of the trap on an expedition to Burma and found them to be a great success “every day’s catch from the traps grew larger and larger, and sorting it required more and more time”. He found the traps particularly good for Diptera and Hymenoptera but also very good for Coleoptera and Noctuid and Sphingid moths.  He also mentions catching Hemiptera.

In outward form, the Malaise Trap has remained fairly unchanged since its invention. The first versions were apparently fairly heavy, having a brass insect collecting cylinder and also only had one opening.  Malaise recognised the disadvantages of the single entrance version and suggested in the 1937 paper that a bilateral model would be more effective.  These followed in due course. Modified versions using plastic cylinders and different netting material were  invented in the 1960s (Gressit & Gressit, 1962; Townes, 1962; Butler, 1965).  Townes’s paper gives a very detailed description of the construction and use of modified Malaise traps (90 pages) in contrast to Butler’s three page description of a cheap and cheerful version made from a modified bed-net.

Nowadays, entomologists world-wide, particularly Dipterists and Hymenopterists, use Malaise traps of various designs and colours, and cost.  In the UK they are available from commercial outlets at prices ranging from £60 to £165. They are extremely effective and we use them to collect insects for our practical classes in the Entomology MSc based at Harper Adams University.

    Malaise traps

Malaise trap in operation, Harper Adams University, Shropshire, UK.

 

References

Butler, G.D. 91965) A modified Malaise insect trap. The Pan-Pacific Entomologist, 41, 51-53

Gressitt, J.L. & Gressitt, M.K. (1962) An improved Malaise Trap. Pacific Insects, 4, 87-90

Malaise, R. (1937) A new insect-trap.  Entomologisk Tidskrift, Stockholm, 58, 148-160

Townes, H. (1962) Design for a Malaise trap. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of  Washington, 64, 162-253

 

Post script

Malaise was not just an entomologist; he was an explorer and a passionate believer in the existence of Atlantis. A detailed biography of this extraordinary character can be found here, including a photograph of the original Malaise trap.

 

Post post script

I was amused to find in the 1949 edition of Instructions for Collectors No. 4a, Insects (Smart, 1949), this somewhat dismissive comment about the Malaise Trap “It is a very novel idea and captures large numbers of insects, but as at present designed is rather cumbersome, and since its design will probably be modified with experience it is not described here

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Pest Managers are ecologists too

Over the course of the last decade I have come to the conclusion that British undergraduates have no idea of what pest management actually is.  For the last twenty years or so, I have run a suite of MSc courses, initially at the Silwood Park campus of Imperial College and since 2012, at Harper Adams University, the leading land-based university in the UK.  The four MSc courses I run are Conservation and Forest Protection, Ecological Applications, Entomology and Integrated Pest and Disease Management.  These are, as you can see, pretty much specialist vocational courses.  The students who do these courses are highly motivated and come from a range of backgrounds.  Many had established careers in other areas and found those careers lacking.  Others have had a burning desire to embark on advanced training in entomology since they were at school and been deeply frustrated that no undergraduate degrees exist in the UK in that subject. [The last BSc in Entomology in the UK was awarded in 1993 by Imperial College to Andy Salisbury (now Dr Andrew Salisbury and Senior Entomologist at the Royal Horticulture Society’s research offices at Wisley].  Yet others have developed an interest in one of the areas covered by my MSc courses as undergraduates and decided to make a career in those areas, but found that their BSc degrees had not prepared them to the required level in their chosen subject and that they needed the extra training provided by a postgraduate course.  The interesting thing to me is how the absolute interest in integrated pest management has remained at pretty much the same level year on year, at just under 5 with a high of 9 students in 1989 and in 1998 no students at all.  Over the same period the average number of entomologists on the course was twelve. As a proportion of the student body the pest management contingent has ranged from a very disappointing zero to the memorable year, 2004, when there were twice as many pest managers as entomologists, albeit out of total student body of only nine.

MSc Entomology and IPM students

MSc Entomology and IPM students

Pest managers are in great demand from industry –biological control and agrochemical companies have more positions than there are suitably qualified graduates; yet undergraduates seem reluctant to train in this area.  I think that there are two root causes for this problem; a lack of exposure to the subject as undergraduates and a misunderstanding of exactly what pest managers are and what they actually do.  Mention pest management to most people, not just students, and their first reaction is rats, cockroaches and Rentokil operatives spraying.

Cockroaches

Cockroaches

The mythical spray man

The mythical spray man

A pest!

A pest!

Yes pest control does involve poisoning vermin and spray operations against domestic insect pests, but that is only one very minor, albeit important, aspect of pest management.  Pest management, or as it is more formally known, Integrated Pest Management, is the intelligent selection and use of pest control measures to ensure  favourable economic, ecological  and sociological consequences.  Yes this does include the use of pesticides but only as part of an integrated programme that could include biological control, the use of resistant plant varieties, and the diversification of the farm landscape through conservation headlands, and cultural methods such as crop rotation or inter-cropping.   Even scare-crows, traditional or modern, can be part of an IPM programme. The list goes on and all this is backed up by a detailed knowledge and understanding of the biology and ecology of the pest species, their natural enemies and the habitats that they live in.

Conservation headland

Conservation headland

Traditional scarecrow

Traditional scarecrow

Intercropping

Intercropping

Biological control

Biological control

The idea of pest management is not an entirely modern one ; Benjamin Walsh a British born pioneer applied entomologist  working in the USA, said in 1866, and I quote,  “Let a man profess to have discovered some new patent powder pimperlimplimp, a single pinch of which being thrown into each corner of a field will kill every bug throughout its whole extent, and people will listen to him with attention and respect.  But tell them of any simple common-sense plan, based upon correct scientific principles, to check and keep within reasonable bounds the insect foes of the farmer, and they will laugh you to scorn”.  I consider this to be the first modern reference to integrated pest management.

               

Pest managers do not just work in domestic and urban situations.  Most pest managers, as opposed to pest control operatives work in agriculture, forestry and horticulture, safeguarding our crops and ensuring global food security.  Pest managers, because of the complexity of the problems facing sustainable crop production in the modern world, have to have a much greater depth and breadth of knowledge than pure ecologists.   Although many pest managers have entomological backgrounds, they also have a more than nodding acquaintance with plant pathology, nematology and pesticide application and chemistry.  They also need to have a good grasp of the economics of both pest control and the farming/cropping system that they are working in.  They must fully appreciate what is feasible and appropriate in the context of the farmer’s/forester’s year, budgets and targets in terms of yields and profits.  There is no point in coming up with the ideal ecological or conservation solution that cannot be implemented because of the constraints of the real world.  Pest managers, even those working in academia, interact closely with their end-users, to ensure a reduction in pest numbers and abundance, not necessarily eradication, which is acceptable to growers, society and the natural world.   As Lorna Cole said on Twitter on September 8th 2013….

Lorna Cole

So when you hear the word pest management in future, don’t just think spray, think conservation headlands, beetle banks, biological control, crop rotation, resistant varieties, chemical ecology, forecasting, monitoring , cultural control, holistic farming, multi-purpose forestry, sociology, economics and sustainability.  These are the elements of the armoury most commonly used by pest managers, not pesticides as so many people mistakenly think.

So for prospective students, don’t be put off by the word pest, if you want an exciting, satisfying and possibly international career, embrace the application of ecology and make a difference to the world.   Become a pest manager.  Without integrated pest managers food production will never be sustainable or as ecologically friendly as it now is.

Post Script

Sadly, even to this day (it was much worse when I started my career), there is a perception among some academics that being applied is second best; on one memorable occasion I was introduced to some visitors by one of my colleagues as, “this is Simon Leather, he’s an ecologist, ALBEIT, an applied one”

 

Post post script

 

For those interested in joining the MSc course in Integrated Pest Management based at Harper Adams University here is the appropriate link.  I should also add that unfortunately we are NOT able to offer three annual Scholarships funded by the Horticultural Development Council, HDC, of £5000 each to particularly deserving students as despite ALL our graduates finding employment in the industry they felt that the scheme was not working!

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Woolly bear postscript – where have all the young entomologists gone?

On Saturday (16th February) I attended the Shropshire Entomology Day at Preston Montford http://www.field-studies-council.org/centres/prestonmontford.aspx organised by Peter Boardman of the Field Studies Council http://www.field-studies-council.org/. The day was very well attended, about 75 people in total, and the talks ranged from detailed discourses on how to tell aquatic bugs apart to more general talks such as that by Peter Boardman  (my personal favourite) about the genealogy of a box of insects once owned by the remarkable Dipterist and blackfly expert, Lewis Davies http://www.blackfly.org.uk/downloadable/bsgbull28.pdf and that by Richard Becker showing us how he has made his organic Welsh hill farm into a haven for a wide variety of insects from dung-flies to butterflies.  I was there with my Professorial hat on, and incidentally my entomological t-shirt, to spread the word about the MSc in Entomology that we run at Harper Adams University http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/postgraduate/201004/entomology and to foster links between us and other like-minded individuals and organisations.  We also heard about plans for a new Dragonfly Atlas for Shropshire and the forthcoming Cranefly Distribution Atlas for Shropshire, as well as the herculean efforts of the Wrekin Forest Volunteers http://wrekinforestvolunteers.blogspot.co.uk/ to ensure that every tetrad in the count at least one invertebrate record associated with it.

All in all it was a very enjoyable and informative day.  The thing that struck me most however, and I have made this observation before http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Leather_&_Quicke_2010.pdf, was that the age range of the speakers and audience was heavily skewed towards the grey end of the spectrum, me included.  There were some relative youngsters present, but the overwhelming majority of the participants present, and those pictured in the talk by Paul Watts about the Wrekin Forest Volunteers, were heading towards retirement age or definitely past it.  I have noticed this phenomenon many times when giving talks to local Natural History Societies, most markedly at the Crowthorne Natural History Society, http://cnhg.org.uk/meetings.html where I was the youngest person present by at least 15 years!

So where were all the youngsters, and in this case I mean the 20-30 age group.  Volunteering to work abroad at great expense on projects involving charismatic mega-fauna or sat in front of their computer screens playing games or engaging with their peers on Face Book?  That said, one young man I spoke with, was planning to go to university to study ecology, an ambition that had been stimulated by volunteering in India, but the impression I got was that once qualified, he intended to return to India to continue on similar projects rather than get involved with small local projects as I advocated in a previous article https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/think-small-and-local-focus-on-large-charismatic-mega-fauna-threatens-conservation-efforts/ .

Yes I had an enjoyable day, yes I made some great contacts and yes, I even stimulated interest in the courses we offer, but Houston, we have a problem. There is enthusiasm at primary school level and the Bug Club http://www.amentsoc.org/bug-club/ do a great job at fostering this enthusiasm, but secondary school teaching (with some rare exceptions) and sadly, biology, zoology and ecology degrees at undergraduate level in the UK, largely relegate entomological teaching to a handful of lectures, concentrating instead on molecular biology or, when whole organisms are mentioned, my pet bugbear, charismatic mega-fauna.  My greatest fear is, that unless we can get secondary schools and universities to provide teaching that encompasses the invertebrate world, we will not only see the continued lack of engagement with invertebrates by the young, but we will also lose the older end of the spectrum as the endangered entomologically enthusiastic youngsters become extinct and no longer provide us with the next generation of grey entophiles who maintain sites such as this http://www.insects.org/entophiles. I find it hard to imagine that there are people who can fail to love or be thrilled by organisms such as this giant water bug, once they have them drawn to their attention.

giantwaterbug_on-hand

http://beneficialbugs.org/bugs/Giant_Water_Bug/giant_water_bug.htm

At the risk of sounding alarmist I really feel that it is imperative that we get the message of how important entomology is out  to all levels of society and government before it is too late.  How we do this is another matter, but do it we must.

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