Tag Archives: research

The Academic Work-Life Balance – Doing what you enjoy for as long as you can

I am very lucky.  Unlike many people, I have essentially been paid to do what I love for my whole life.  My job is my hobby, my life even. I get paid to study and talk about the natural world, insects in particular, and have done so for the past forty years.   How lucky can a person be?   That said, it hasn’t been 100% fun all the way.

As I enter semi-retirement (3 days a week) I thought I would be self-indulgent and reflective (navel gazing in other words) and share a few thoughts about my academic work-life balance past, present and future.

http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-unbalanced-scales-stevn-dutton.html

 

As a PhD student the scales were very heavy on the research side.  Apart from some demonstrating in the labs and a few Maths tutorials (BIO101) it was reading, writing and research.  Albeit this involved weekend working, but as there was plenty of time doing the week to fit in games of squash (our lab had a very competitive squash ladder) between field and lab work, it was pretty much fun all the way.

The PhD and first job– research heavy, a fun time

My first ‘permanent’ job was with the Forestry Commission, where I was based at their Northern Research Station, just outside Edinburgh.  My first few years were almost idyllic, lots of field work in remote parts of Scotland, the ability to have PhD students, giving guest lectures at Edinburgh and Aberdeen Universities, and an official ‘side-project’ time allowance which allowed me to write papers on a diverse range of subjects not included in my job description, e.g. my foray into species-area relationships (Leather, 1985,1986,1990,1991).  By the end of my time there however, government policy had changed, and we, even as a research organisation, were very much ‘customer facing’ and freedom to do less applied research was very much restricted to our own time.

Early academic life – when grant writing had some rewards and didn’t seem to take up as much time

It was thus a huge relief when I joined Imperial College at their world famous, and at the time, very collegiate, Silwood Park campus.  I was able to have coffee with luminaries such as Mike Way, Mike Hassell, John Lawton, Stuart McNeill, Val Brown and Nigel Bell as well as to rub shoulders with up and coming stars such as Sharon Lawler, Lindsay Turnbull, Jeremy Fox,  Chris Thomas, Shahid Naeem, Mike Hochberg, Charles Godfray and many others.  I could research any topic I wanted to as long as I got funding (and I did) and my teaching load, if not as light as some within the department, was manageable and very enjoyable.

It starts to tip

 

Administration has never been my thing, but as I got more senior, more administrative stuff came my way, and in my last few years at Imperial College where I was the Postgraduate Tutor, a role combining pastoral care and regulatory matters, such a chairing all the MSc exam boards and monitoring PhD student progress.  Luckily, I was very ably helped by two fantastic people, Diana Anderson and Janet Phipps.  Without them my life would have been a misery and the paperwork in an awful mess, to put it mildly.   I also ended up on a lot of college committees as well as taking on a number of external roles; editing, refereeing, external examining etc.  At the same time, Imperial College, as a joint consequence of appointing Sir Richard Sykes as Rector and the Life Sciences Faculty adopting a largely publication metric-based approach to new appointments, started to replace retiring whole organism biologists and entomologists with molecular biologists and mathematical ecologists.  Not necessarily a bad thing if managed sympathetically, but they still expected the same course content to be delivered by the few remaining whole organism biologists.  To give you an idea, when I joined the Department in 1992 there were 18 entomologists, when I left there were three of us.

My teaching load soared, while the departmental average was 25 hours per year, my personal load was 384 hours and I was also having to run a research group! The collegiate atmosphere was also very much eroded as was the attitude toward students.  When I first started at Imperial as a Lecturer, only Senior Lecturers and above could “Process” at the graduation ceremony in the Albert Hall. By the time I left, Teaching Fellows were being asked if they would like to attend. The majority of Faculty saw no benefit to them in attending.  A sorry state of affairs as far as I was, and am concerned.  Seeing our graduates happy and smiling with their families is such a buzz; why would anyone want to miss that?  We also had a change in our Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUGS), our former DUGS ‘s philosophy was to give the students the best possible experience with the resources available.  Our new DUGS’s was completely different.  His opening address to the Faculty went along the lines of “I know you don’t like teaching…” (this upset quite a few of us who did and do enjoy teaching) and his underlying philosophy was, as far as I could make out, how can we make the students think they are getting a great experience without expending too much time on them.  I was very pleased to make my move to Harper Adams University in 2012* where collegiality and student provision were, and still are, very much more valued; all Faculty are expected to attend the student graduation event unless they have a very good excuse😊

The things I have disliked the most over my career are grant applications, over long committee meetings, unnecessarily complex paperwork, office politics and marking assignments and exams.  On the plus side have been my good colleagues, lecturing, field courses, research project supervision at all levels, the opportunities to do outreach, and the students who have made it all worthwhile.

With retirement comes the opportunity to dump most, if not all, the things I dislike, and to concentrate my efforts on those aspects of the job I love the most, teaching, outreach and writing.  In the main, I have had a great time as an academic, but in the present climate, I would think very hard about advising my PhD students to take up an appointment in a Research Intensive university in the UK, especially if the value their family life and their mental well-being.

Hoping to spend more time in France 😊  The biggest challenge will be developing the ability to say no.

 

 

References

Leather, S.R. (1985)  Does the bird cherry have its ‘fair share’ of insect pests ? An appraisal of the species-area relationships of the phytophagous insects associated with British Prunus species. Ecological Entomology 10, 43-56.

Leather, S.R. (1986)  Insect species richness of the British Rosaceae: the importance of host range, plant architecture, age of establishment, taxonomic isolation and species-area relationships. Journal of Animal Ecology 55, 841-860.

Leather, S.R. (1990)  The analysis of species-area relationships, with particular reference to macrolepidoptera on Rosaceae: how important is data-set quality ?. The Entomologist 109, 8-16.

Leather, S.R. (1991)  Feeding specialisation and host distribution of British and Finnish Prunus feeding macrolepidoptera. Oikos 60, 40-48.

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

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

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

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

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The twenty tweet list

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

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

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From van Bruyssel – The Population of an Old Pear Tree

It is definitely worth a read.

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

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

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

 RS4

Using alternative technology to understand vine weevil behaviour.

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The glow in the dark sycamore aphid was also very popular

 

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

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How teaching led research – the Bracknell roundabout story.

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

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

I even composed a haiku for the occasion

Six-legged creatures;

Fascinating and diverse,

Beautiful insects

 

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I have been an entomologist for a long time.

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

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

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

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My final tweet

but also beautiful animals.

Giant Myzus

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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Entomyopia and Entoalexia – two potentially life-threatening conditions

This post was stimulated by two recent events.  First, a conversation I had at a curry evening organised by the amateur band that my wife plays in.  My neighbour was a well-educated modern languages teacher in her early forties.  We discussed our various jobs and she evinced surprise that anyone would want to work with insects and even when I explained the myriad benefits of understanding insect biology and ecology to her in terms of food security, vector control, detritivores, integrated pest management, pollination etc., she was still unconcerned about the lack of training provision for entomology and the dwindling number of young entomologists in the population.  I also highlighted the growing disconnect between people and nature.  Her response was that it was just the way it was and that people had other interests now!  I was, despite the fact that I have bemoaned the lack of funding for invertebrate research and training for some time now, totally amazed and down-hearted.  The second event was when one of my entomological colleagues reported to me how shocked he had been, when describing the recent opening of our new entomology building at Harper Adams University to his next door neighbour, a retired engineer, that the neighbour expressed great surprise that anyone would want such a facility and why anyone would want to spend that amount of money to enable entomological research.

I have written before about my worries about the decline of interest in natural history and entomology (Leather & Quicke, 2009, 2010) but I feel that it is now well past time to do something urgently about this lack of understanding among the public, the educational establishment, funding councils and the government.  Not only is institutional invertebratism  (Leather, 2009, 2013) still alive and well but we now have two potentially life-threatening conditions that desperately need curing.

Entomyopia

noun

entomological short-sightedness

        • a condition in which insects are viewed either as pollinators or as nuisances
        • a lack of foresight or discernment as to the importance of entomology:  a narrow view of entomology

Entoalexia

noun

entomological blindness

        • a condition in which a person or organisation, is totally oblivious to the importance of entomology and insects

Insects - what insects

Symptoms

The closing of entomology departments and research groups

A reduction in the numbers of entomologists employed by universities and research institutions

An ageing population of practicing entomologists, many characterised by grey beards and spectacles

Lack of understanding by the general public about why the study of entomology is important to their well-being

A lack of teaching of invertebrate biology at secondary schools and at undergraduate level

A lack of government funding

A tendency for members of the general public to scream and/or flinch when insects enter their personal space

A tendency for members of the general public to kill insects when found in their personal space

A failure by the majority of the population to appreciate the beauty and wonder of insects

Investing hundreds of millions into medical research to keep people alive for longer (a good thing) without thinking about how the extra mouths are going to be fed without similar levels of investment in crop protection research (a very bad thing)

Funding in conservation and whole organism biology and ecology heavily biased towards “large charismatic mega-fauna”

Schoolchildren able to name the ten most endangered mammal species in the world but unable to recognize and name the ten most common insect species in their own country

 

Treatment

A concerted effort by all entomologists to explain to the general public, the educational establishment, funding bodies, the media and  government why we need urgently more entomologists and why the study of entomology is crucially important to our well-being.  I would go further than that and suggest that we need to redouble our outreach activities and to actively lobby those who hold the purse strings and those that represent us in government.  Yes, national entomological societies such as the Royal Entomological Society in the UK are doing much more to promote entomology than they used to but much more remains to be done.  The Amateur Entomologist’s Society  has, I have been reminded, also been active in this area for more than eighty years.  My message to all entomologists is act now before it is too late.

 

Prognosis

At the current level of investment  into treatment and cures, very gloomy.

 

Post script

As I was preparing this article Brigit Strawbridge published an impassioned plea to all of us to take more notice of the little things that run the world

http://www.beestrawbridge.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/mass-insect-extinction-elephant-in-room.html
Post post script

I would be remiss if I did not point out that mycology, plant pathology and plant nematology are also extremely vulnerable and just as important to our well-being as entomology.

 

Post post post script

Entomyopia  is apparently not a new disease, shortly after posting this I came across this gem from 1882.

“No science is so generally slighted, ignored, and misunderstood as is Entomology.  Hysterical humanitarians, novelists, poets, political agitators, classical students, speak in terms of contempt or horror of the “fly-hunters””

Anonymous (1882) The Journal of Science, and Annals of Astronomy, Biology, geology, Industrial Architecture, Manufactures and Technology, 4, 208

 

References

Leather, S. R. (2009). Institutional vertebratism threatens UK food security. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24: 413-414.

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

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2009). Where would Darwin have been without taxonomy? Journal of Biological Education 43: 51-52.

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2010). Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment? Environmentalist 30: 1-2.

 

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