Tag Archives: Simon Leather

CROPSS – Inspiring biology students to consider careers in crop protection

A couple of years ago, the BBSRC decided to scrap one of their most successful and inclusive PhD training awards, the iCASE.    In their own words, BBSRC will no longer operate an annual competition for industrial CASE (iCASE) studentships, instead allocating the majority of these studentships to the BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTP) for awarding alongside their standard studentships.    At one fell stroke the BBSRC reduced the diversity of their PhD portfolio by a significant amount and also dealt a huge blow to those of us working in crop protection, at a time when food security and the need to feed the world is of paramount importance.  Later that year the BBSRC, possibly in response to those of us who kicked up a public fuss about the loss of the iCASE scheme came up with a very inadequately funded scheme called STARS aimed at getting undergraduates interested in some of the vulnerable skill sets that the BBSRC by their actions had made even more vulnerable.  Despite the paltry amount of money available I felt that I had to apply, if only because having complained about lack of funding it would show lack of commitment to the cause 🙂  I duly applied putting forward an application to run a one week crop protection summer school for fifteen students a year for three years.  I was successful and last week we ran our first CROPSS Summer School here at Harper Adams University.  We particularly targeted first and second year undergraduates doing biology and ecology courses at other universities with little or no agricultural content in their degrees.  Our participants came from the universities of Bath, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Liverpool and Swansea, and apart from one student who came from a farming family, they had no previous experience of agriculture, let alone crop protection.

The Summer School started on Sunday afternoon, with an introduction from me about why crop protection was important and how Integrated Pest Management is all about ecology, NOT spraying and eradication, something I have been banging on about for many years 🙂  This needs to be reiterated again and again and as loudly as possible. We then had an excellent dinner and I took them all to the bar where I cruelly subjected them to a Pub Quiz, all picture rounds.  The first round was all about charismatic megafauna (almost all answered correctly), then dog breeds (about 75% correct), then common British wild flowers (about 60% correct), common British trees (40% correct), common British insects (30% correct), I think you can see where I am going with this  🙂

The week was divided up between agronomy, entomology, nematology, plant pathology, weed science and spray technology, with a mixture of lectures, field work and laboratory work.  In the evening we had guest speakers from the different crop protection sectors, from the agrichemical industry through to government, our last speaker being the Chief Plant Health Officer, Nicola Spence.  The external speakers had been asked to explain how they had ended up in their current positions and to talk about careers in those areas.  I was very impressed with the willingness of the students to engage with the speakers and the questions they asked were extremely discerning.

We were very lucky to be blessed with excellent weather and the harper Adams University Catering Department came in for very high praise indeed J  apparently our catering is much better than at the universities represented by our delegates.

As the old adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words…..

Catching insects in the Natural England plots

Sorting pitfall traps catches

Plant pathology in the brand new labs

Heading off with John Reade to sample weeds

Enjoying the sun and spotting weeds

Simon Woods from the Engineering Department explaining the fine points of knap sack sprayers

Andy Cherrill extolling the joys of motorised suction sampling

Enjoying the bar with one of the guest speakers, Neal Ward

All in all, we all had a good time, and if you don’t believe me here are some of the responses from the student feedback

The students were great, enthusiastic, engaged and we really enjoyed the course and are very much looking forward to seeing a new CROPSS cohort next year.

Finally, for those of you interested, here is the timetable of the week:

 

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Bridging the gap – ENTO’16 at Harper Adams University

A couple of years ago, while attending a Royal Entomological Society Council meeting, I rashly volunteered to host ENTO’16, the annual meeting of the Society, at Harper Adams University*.  I confess, I did have a bit of an ulterior motive.  We entomologists had only been based at Harper Adams University since 2012 and I thought it would help with publicizing our new research centre and postgraduate courses in entomology and integrated pest management.  Once this was approved by Council I let my colleagues know that I had ‘volunteered’ them and also approached entomologists at our two nearest universities, Keele and Staffordshire and invited them to join our organising committee.  As this is about the event and not the administrivia, I will not bore you with the description of how it all came about, apart from mentioning that we chose as our theme, the Society journals to celebrate the 180th anniversary of RES publishing.

ento16-fig1

 

As a result of a poll of society members, we decided that the last day of the conference would be all about Outreach.  The morning session was devoted to talks for the delegates and the afternoon was open to the public and members of the university.  The Open session began with a talk by M.G. (Maya) Leonard, best-selling author of Beetle Boy, followed by exhibits and activities in the exhibition hall**.  In the spirit of outreach, we also persuaded our three plenary speakers to agree to be videoed and livestreamed to YouTube.  Their excellent talks can be seen by following the links below.

ento16-fig2

“How virulence proteins modulate plant processes to promote insect colonisation”

Saskia Hogenhout – John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqPH_h3xHoQ

ento16-fig3

“The scent of the fly”

Peter Witzgall – Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1PUxQGoAzE

ento16-fig4

“Citizen Science and invasive species”

Helen Roy – Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Wallingford, UK

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_Kyw2WeVC4

To make decision-making simple, we only ran two concurrent sessions, and hopefully this meant that most people did not have to miss any talks that they particularly wanted to hear. The conference proper began on the Tuesday, but about half the delegates arrived the evening before and enjoyed an entomologically-based Pub Quiz. The winning team perhaps had a slight

ento16-fig5

Preparing for the influx – student helpers in action

advantage in that most of their members were slightly older than average.

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The winning Pub Quiz team sitting in the centre of the picture.

We felt that the conference went very well, with all the journals well represented, although getting systematic entomologists to speak proved slightly more difficult than we had anticipated.  The student speakers were terrific and the talks covered the gamut of entomology.  The venue, although I may be slightly biased, was agreed by all to be excellent and provided some superb photo opportunities.

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Main venue glinting in the morning sun

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Andy Salisbury enjoying the early morning view at Harper Adams University

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The RES President, a very relaxed Mike Hassell, opens the proceedings.

Other highlights were the two wine receptions, the poster session and the conference dinner at which Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse, who apparently has an inordinate fondness for beetles, received an Honorary Fellowship.

ento16-fig10nurse

Sir Paul Nurse on hearing that he is to receive an Honorary Fellowship.

The old cliché goes that a “picture paints a thousand words” and who I am to argue, so I will let them tell the rest of the story with the odd bit of help from me.

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A fine example of synchronised beard pulling

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Happy Helpers

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All the way from Canada

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Only at an entomological conference

ento16-flic

 

Entomologically themed fashion

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Bang-up to date topics

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Ambitious themes

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one of our former-MSc students making an impact

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Impeccable dress sense from Session Chairs!

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Prize winning talks

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and posters

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Punny titles

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Enthusiastic speakers

I was reminded by Jess that I scolded her for not knowing enough entomology when I conducted her exit viva in my role as external examiner for the zoology degree at UCL 🙂

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Engaging authors

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Proud to be Collembolaologists

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Smiling faces (free drinks)

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Good food and drink (and company)

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Cavorting ceilidh dancers

 

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Phone cases to be jealous of

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Joining Darwin (and Sir Paul Nurse) in the book!

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and for me a fantastic personal end to the conference!

And finally

ento16-thanks

 

Post script

As it turned out, 2016 was a fantastically entomologically-filled year for Harper Adams.

ento16-respg

we hoste the RES Postgraduate Forum in February which I reported on earlier this year, and of course we also

ento16-entosci

hosted the fantastically successful EntoSci16.

 

Credits

The Organizing Committee

Andy Cherrill, John Dover (Staffordshire University), Rob Graham, Paul Eggleston (Keele University), Simon Leather, Tom Pope, Nicola Randall, Fran Sconce and Dave Skingsley (Staffordshire University).

The Happy Helpers

Ben Clunie, Liam Crowley, Scott Dwyer, Ana Natalio, Alice Mockford and Aidan Thomas

Music 

The Odd Socks Ceilidh Band

Wine Receptions

Harper Adams University and the Royal Entomological Society

Financial and Administrative Support

The Royal Entomological Society, Luke Tilley, Lisa Plant, Caroline Thacker and Megan Tucker.

Publicity

Adreen Hart-Rule and the Marketing and Communications Department at HAU

AV Support

Duncan Gunn-Russell and the HAU AV Team

 

*I am sure that this had nothing to do with the excellent wine that the RES always provides at lunch time 🙂

**We were somewhat disappointed by the low turn-out for the afternoon session.  We had publicised it widely but obviously not widely enough 😦

 

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EntoSci16 – a conference for future and budding entomologists

Fig 1a

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

Fig 1b

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

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

Fig 1

 

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

Fig 2

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

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

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

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

Fig 3

Early morning preparation, coffee was very much needed

Fig 4

And we’re off to a great start

Fig 5

and it just kept getting better

Fig 6

and better

Fig 7

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

 

Fig 8

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

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

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Being inspired by the BES

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

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

Malham Tarn

Malham Tarn – not quite raining

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

Malham spider

We breed them big in Yorkshire!

Malham Tarn FSC

Malham Tarn Field Studies Centre

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

Karen Devine

Karen instilling order and attention 😉

Ready to be inspired

Ready and waiting to be inspired

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

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

The importance of insects

The importance of insects and plants

Number of animal species

Or to put it another way

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

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

Sampling

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

Students sampling

Getting close up with the insects

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

In teh lab

Getting stuck in – picture courtesy Amy Leedale

Down the microscope

What’s this?

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

Fluorescent carabid Eloise Wells

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

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

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

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

Yorkshire grit

 

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The UK needs more forest health specialists

Last week (April 22nd and 23rd 2015) I had the pleasure of attending the Institute of Chartered Foresters’  National Conference in Cardiff.  The theme of the conference was Tree health, resilience and sustainability.

ICF conference

 The PowerPoint versions of the presentations are available here.

It was very well attended with over 150 delegates and divided into six sessions; Setting the Scene, Overseas Experience, Perspectives on Risk, Searching for Resilience and Sustainability, Practical Responses in the Field and finally Messages for Government and the Profession.  The speakers came from a range of backgrounds; universities, research institutes, the forest industry and others.  Dr John Gibbs, a former colleague of mine from Forest Research opened the formal talks with a masterly review of how forest health problems were tackled in the last century, using Dutch Elm Disease as his focal organism. He was followed by Professor James Brown from the John Innes Institute discussing how lessons from agriculture could be used to develop strategies to combat tree diseases.  Both these speakers pointed out that there was a grave shortage of forest pathologists and entomologists in the UK, particularly in the university sector.   James Brown commented that he had been shocked to discover he had only been able to count seven people in the sector working on tree diseases and added that this did not make them forest pathologists.  We had talks from overseas speakers such as Professor Mike Wingfield from South Africa on global forest health threats, Jim Zwack from the USA speaking on the Emerald Ash Borer as an urban pest problem and Catherine St-Marie highlighting the fact that climate change was aiding and abetting the spread of the Mountain Pine Beetle in Canada.

There was a surprisingly interesting talk on the problems of insuring forests against pests and disease form Phil Cottle of Pardus Underwriting Limited and an enlightening presentation from Professor David Ball from Middlesex University talking about uncertainty and decision-making.  Again both these speakers highlighted the need for further information about pests and diseases.

Day 2 had us searching for resilience and sustainability within the UK forestry sector with a very entertaining talk from Jo O’Hara, Head of Forestry Commission Scotland.  Her talk really drove home to me how much UK forestry has changed over the last 30 years; when I joined the Forestry Commission in 1982 they had only just appointed their first woman District Officer, and now a woman runs FC Scotland – a very welcome sign of change.  Tariq Butt from Swansea University spoke about the use of entomopahogenic fungi as biological control agents in forestry, something increasingly moving higher on the agenda as we face the loss of even more conventional pesticides in the next few years and Martin Ward, the Director-General of EPPO asked us to consider how global plant health arrangements could be improved to protect trees more effectively.  Again the message was that we need more forest health specialist, and not just in the UK.   After the morning coffee break, Joan Webber, the Principal Pathologist for Forest Research UK, spoke about detection and precautionary measures to combat biosecurity threats and yet again highlighted the need for further research and eyes on the ground; in other words more specialist staff are required.  Neil Strong from Network Rail drew our attention to the problems caused by trees to our railway system and then Bill Mason extolled the virtues of increasing species and structural diversity when planting new forests and managing older ones, to improve resilience.

The afternoon session kicked off with Clive Potter from Imperial College talking about understanding what the public’s concerns about tree health are and how certain events can amplify risk perception among the public.  The public outcry about Chalara and Ash Dieback being a particularly good example of the phenomenon.  I followed with a talk about the needs for professional education which gave me the opportunity to point out what subject areas should be covered in an aspiring forester’s education.

Essential skills

I was also able to remind my audience that the number of UK universities providing specific forestry training at undergraduate level had dwindled to less than a handful and that despite offering modules purporting to cover forest health problems, only two employ specialist staff in those areas.  At postgraduate level there is only one course that deals specifically with forest health issues in the UK, the MSc in Conservation & Forest Protection that I run at Harper Adams University.

My take-home messages to a very receptive audience was that students need more emphasis on identification skills and much more practical experience, that current forestry professionals need to keep their eyes open and practice looking for pests and diseases as well as taking any opportunity to refresh their training and that UK universities offering forestry related courses need to employ more forest entomologists and forest pathologists.  Even more importantly, the UK government need to make sure that there are financial incentives to encourage universities to employ more forest entomologists and forest pathologists by increasing targeted research funding in those areas and once increased, maintain those levels of funding.  There also needs to be a clear signposting of career opportunities for the next generation of forest health scientists and if we as a country are serious about safeguarding our native woodlands and forest estate, then more jobs need to be created.

As I have written elsewhere, we cannot afford to sit back and hope that things will get better on their own.  Versions of this slide appeared on the screen several times during the course of the conference.  We are under attack and we need more suitably qualified people to help repel and contain the invaders.

Forest pests

 

Additional reading

Leather, S.R. (2014) Current and future threats to UK forestry. Outlooks on Pest Management, 25, 22-24.

Leather, S.R. (2014) How prepared is the UK to combat future and current threats to forests? Commonwealth Forestry Association Newsletter, 64, 10-11.

 

Post script

I am very grateful indeed to the Institute of Chartered Foresters for giving me the opportunity to speak at the conference and for providing generous hospitality.  It was one of the most engaging and interesting conferences that I have been to for a very long time.  Well done ICF.

 

Post post script

It was also good to see Twitter being used very successfully with the #Treehealth hashtag.  We even had participants from the Canadian Forestry Service!

ICF tweets

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The Seven Ages of an Entomologist – Happy 60th Birthday to Me

Today I turned 60 – an event which has come as a bit of a surprise to me as inside I still feel about 17 😉 I thought, given the occasion and the fine example set by Jeff Ollerton‘s recent birthday blog post  that it seems a good time to reflect on my career in particular and academic careers in general. Despite there already being at least two other excellent articles about the “Seven Ages”, Jerry Coyne’s, The Seven Ages of the Scientist and Athene Donald’s The Seven Ages of an Academic Scientist, I felt no qualms in adding my own modest contribution to the genre 😉

Given my own career trajectory it turns out that I need more than seven ages, so as an entomologist I feel justified in adding five larval or nymphal instars to the traditional progression.

 

The Larval Stages

The Infant (first instar)

According to Shakespeare “mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms”, which spending the early part of my childhood in colonial Ghana is actually very apt,

Simon babe in arms

although the photograph below shows a very contented baby indeed.

Simon - baby

I have no entomological memories from this time, although given that then it was normal practice to leave babies outside in their prams, I am sure that I was exposed to the whole range of flying Ghanaian insects. There is some evidence of an early interest in nature and entomology in the picture below where I seem to be investigating a small white butterfly whilst indulging in some early forestry work.

Simon Ghana

My first real biological memory, is however, non-entomological, the blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum London in 1958 when my parents were on home leave.

 

The Schoolboy (second instar)

 In 1960 my father was moved to Jamaica to work in the Department of Agriculture as a Plant Pathologist and this is where I started my formal education. Shakespeare describes the schoolboy as “whining schoolboy with his satchel, and shining morning face, creeping like a snail unwillingly to school”.

Simon, Mark & Spences

I certainly had a satchel and it is from this period of my life that I have my first definite entomological memories. We lived in a suburb of Kingston, 32 Gardenia Avenue in Mona Heights. My father kept bees and I spent a lot of time playing with ants, conducting behavioural experiments with crab spiders and having close encounters with wasps and apparently in this picture from 1961, helping with my father’s very luxuriant garden; he grew a great variety of ornamental plants as well as fruit and

Simon 1961      Simon & Pussy cat

 

vegetables, including grapes, bananas, passion fruit, papayas, peanuts and breadfruit as well as coffee and more traditional vegetables. My final school report from my time in Jamaica shows a prescient comment from my biology teacher;

School report

School report bit

 

Secondary school (third instar)

My father’s next posting was to Hong Kong to work for the Ministry of Agriculture; his office was in the New Territories but we lived in Kowloon (Wylie Gardens) where I attended King George V School. Biology was again my favourite subject but apart from cockroaches and ants my entomological experiences were very limited.

Simon - schoolboy           Before braces – 1966

Simon braces

Keeping my mouth shut to hide my orthodontic appliances 1968.

 

Boarding school (fourth instar)

In 1968 my father returned briefly to the UK before his next posting to Fiji and I was sent to a state school, Ripon Grammar School, which had a boarding section. I was to spend five relatively happy years there and despite the competing interests of girls and sports, further developed my interest in invertebrate zoology, due in the main part to my zoology teacher ‘Brian’ Ford. I have many happy memories of pond dipping, searching for Cepea nemoralis and generally fossicking around in hedgerows.

Simon Fiji 1970

When on school holidays in Fiji I found time to investigate the local insect and amphibian fauna; our house seemed to attract toads in huge numbers which my brothers and I used to competitively collect in buckets for later release.

 

Sixth form (final instar)

In my two final years at school sport and girls continued to play a larger part in my life than entomology although I see from the fly-leaf of my books from that time that I owned and had read both volumes of Ralph Bucshbaum’s Life of the Invertebrates and also Darwin’s Origins.

Second fifteen

Ripon Grammar School 2nd XV – I am third from the left on the front row.

 Careers advice when I was at school was not very sophisticated and if you did Biology ‘A’ Level and were a school prefect, it was automatically taken that you were either destined to be a Doctor, a Vet or a Dentist.

School House Prefects1973

I was no different and despite my misgivings, duly applied for and was accepted at Birmingham University to read Medicine. As luck would have it, things did not work out as planned and after a less than happy year at Aston University in Birmingham, in 1974 I left Birmingham and moulted into a proto-entomologist at the University of Leeds.

 

The Undergraduate

The discovery that learning can be fun and that there might actually be a career in doing something that you enjoy.

I did a now extinct degree (although I have plans to exhume it), Agricultural Zoology, essentially a year of vertebrate zoology, with two years of invertebrate zoology, essentially applied entomology, parasitology and nematology. I loved it and thrived on it and grew my hair even longer.

Simon - undergraduate

I decided to become an entomologist in my second year and discovered the wonders of aphids at the same time. It was also round about this time that I decided I was going to become a university academic and started to work a lot harder; the logical end point of someone with a mother who was a secondary school biology teacher and a father who was a research scientist.

 

The Postgraduate

Discovering that being on “the road to find out” (Cat Stevens) is exhilarating

Simon - PhD student

I did my PhD at the University of East Anglia in Norwich – Aspects of the Ecology of the Ecology of the Bird Cherry Aphid, under the supervision of Professor Tony Dixon. A totally fantastic time, despite the ‘second year blues’ which all PhD students seem to go through when they think that they don’t have enough data. I was lucky enough to be in a large research group, at one stage there were thirteen of us in the lab, so there was always plenty of help and advice available. In addition we had the excitement of conferences and the first unsteady steps towards learning to lecture, mainly demonstrating in undergraduate practicals; I spent a lot of time pithing frogs for physiology classes (don’t ask) and also tutoring first year students in mathematics. We also played a lot of squash and enjoyed our social life; for those of you who know Norwich, The Mitre pub on Earlham Road, was our regular haunt.

 

The post-doc

Discovering how to run a research lab

I did two brief post-docs, the first in Finland, under the auspices of the Royal Society and the

Simon Finland 1981

second back at the University of East Anglia funded by the Agriculture and Food Research Council, both working on cereal aphids. At this stage of my career I started to learn how to supervise postgraduate students; the first port of call in a busy lab after the senior PhD student has failed to supply an answer is always the post-doc as the lab head is inevitably very busy. I also got my first real opportunity to lecture undergraduates, which turned out to be a lot harder than I had thought it would be even when talking about my own research.

 

Interlude or host alternation

 The Research Scientist

 Discovering that directed research on its own is not enough

Copy of Simon SSO

In a normal academic career, the next stage after post-doc is an appointment as a University Lecturer. In the early 1980s university lectureships were in short supply and many of us who would normally have gone into an academic career found ourselves either having to go abroad as lecturers at Commonwealth universities (I was offered but turned down a lectureship at Kano University in Nigeria) or joining research institutes. In 1982 I joined the UK Forestry Commission’s Northern Research Station where I spent ten years as a forest entomologist, answering enquiries, conducting directed research and giving the occasional guest lecture. I was however, lucky enough to be able to gain some PhD supervisory experience and after ten years, the last five which were increasingly frustrating, was lucky enough in 1992 to be appointed to a Lectureship at the Silwood Park campus of Imperial College.  In retrospect this was the last time I was able to spend about 90% of my time at the bench and in the field doing ‘hands on’ research, but I have never regretted moving into academia – the opportunity of being able to pass on what you have discovered and hopefully enthuse and motivate a new generation more than makes up for the loss.
Back to the primary host

 

The Lecturer

When I discover that I love teaching

Simon - Lecturer

You may have noticed that I have had a haircut; it was a source of some amusement to me that on joining the university sector I was expected to get my hair cut.

I was appointed as a Lecturer in Pest Management to teach on the world-renowned MSc Entomology course at Silwood Park, and as I was replacing a specific person (Geoff Norton), although not in exactly the same subject area, my ‘grace’ period was shorter that it might have been. Normally at research intensive institutions like Imperial College, new appointments are given two to three years to apply for grants and get their research groups started before being given teaching and departmental jobs. I had a year, but as I discovered that I very much enjoyed teaching (something that many of my colleagues then and later found very strange) I was not dismayed. Unlike some of my colleagues I had read the dictionary definition of the word lecturer: noun. One who delivers lectures, especially professionally.   I have never really understood the mentality of those who aspire to university positions and yet find the idea of having to teach students not only a distraction but in some cases abhorrent and to be avoided at all costs and strive to obtain funding to buy them out of teaching as soon as possible. Some of my senior colleagues at Imperial College (and elsewhere) had and have almost no experience of teaching at all and so have no idea of what is involved in delivering a decent course, a state of affairs that explains some of the very strange decisions that are made at some of the research intensive universities in the UK.   I often felt that they would be much happier in a research institute.

I also discovered that if you take teaching seriously then your ‘bench time’ is much reduced and you begin your career as a research manager, appointing PhD students and post-docs to carry your research ideas forward. I made a decision early on that I would attempt to keep some of my skills extant and set up a long-term field project looking at the insect communities living on sycamores at Silwood Park, especially the aphids. This meant that I had to set a day a week aside to collect data. By doing this it meant that I had a reality check on what was actually possible. I have seen too many colleagues who because of the time they had spent away from the bench or the field, had totally unrealistic expectations of what was actually possible to be achieved by their students and research assistants.

 

The Senior Lecturer

When the Department discovers that I love teaching

In 1996 I was promoted to Senior Lecturer (I think that it is a real shame that some UK universities have decided to adopt North American terminology and introduce the title of Associate Professor, apparently to avoid confusing the rest of the World. At Imperial College promotion to Senior Lecturer was to reward teaching excellence and was usually the kiss of death for any further promotion.

Simon - Lecturera

Senior Lecturer in Applied Ecology

 I was as well as teaching on the MSc Entomology course doing an increasing amount of undergraduate teaching including a final year course in Applied Ecology of which I was very proud, hence the decision to retitle myself. I was also very busy with external activities, being on the Editorial Board of the Bulletin of Entomological Research and just been appointed as Editor-in-Chief of Ecological Entomology, just finished a term on the council of the Royal Entomological Society and been appointed to a slew of Departmental and University committees. My research group was really starting to take off, I was supervising 8 PhD students at the time; given the poor return rate on major grant applications in the UK, I decided early on that going for PhDs was a better use of my limited time and this is a strategy that I have mainly followed to the present day.

Research group

This does not include MSc or BSc students – they would add about 10 to each yearly figure from 1995 onwards

The Reader

 When I discover that it is possible to get even busier

In 2002 I was promoted to Reader one of the definitions of which according to Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary is defined as follows; Old English rǣdere ‘interpreter of dreams, reader’. In the UK university system, it is the rank below full Professor and comes with an endowed title, in my case I chose to become Reader in Applied Ecology to reflect the

Simon - Reader

myriad teaching roles I had accumulated and also to encompass the fact that my research group no longer dealt solely with arthropods, vertebrates had somehow sneaked their way in. 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).

 

The Professor

Discovering the joys of being pretty much able to do what I want (with certain restrictions)

It became increasingly obvious that things could not carry on as they were, my teaching and administrative loads were becoming ridiculous; our Director of Teaching calculated that I was actually doing more teaching than anyone else in the Department including the Teaching Fellows. 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. Luckily in 2012 my team and I were miraculously offered the chance to move to a new more supportive location, Harper Adams University in Shropshire.

Simon 2015

So now I have become a Senior Professor, with a new entomology building, with less undergraduate teaching, which I miss, and a role that requires me to sit on more external and internal committees, to meet the great and the good and to make solemn pronouncements.  At the same time however, it does allow me to plough my own furrow and to influence university policy. Most importantly I no longer feel that I am beating my head against a brick wall and that the future of entomology as a degree course in the UK is much safer than it was five years ago.  I think I am at Stage 4 in Jerry Coyne’s list as I now find that I am much more interested in synthesizing and disseminating what I have learnt rather than doing original research – I can feel a book coming on 😉

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.

A small point of personal satisfaction, is that, despite my elevation, I still do not own a suit 😉

 

For reference

Jerry A. Coyne’s summary, reproduced from his blog

  1. As student, listens to advisor give talk on student’s own work
  2. As postdoc, gives talks about his/her own work
  3. As professor, gives talks about his/her students’ work
  4. Talks and writes about “the state of the field”
  5. Talks and writes about “the state of the field” eccentrically and incorrectly—always in a self-aggrandizing way.
  6. Gives after-dinner speeches and writes about society and the history of the field
  7. Writes articles about science and religion

 

And the famous original from which the title is borrowed and adapted.

 

Seven Ages Of Man

(from As You Like It by William Shakespeare)

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players,

They have their exits and entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice

In fair round belly, with good capon lin’d,

With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws, and modern instances,

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,

His youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide,

For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,

Turning again towards childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

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The Verrall Supper 2015 – A Photographic Record

Wednesday March 4th 2015 was the occasion of the latest Verrall Supper, an annual event hosted by the Entomological Club, the oldest extant entomological society in the world.  I am, for my sins, the Supper Member, which means that I have to organise the event, for a more detailed description of my role click here.  This year we continued our association with The Rembrandt Hotel as they had done such a good job last year and the year before.  This year almost all the invitations were sent by email and despite the 14% increase in suggested subscription to £48, we had a very good response; as I pointed out to one of the students, show me somewhere else in central London where you can get a three course dinner with coffee and  half a bottle of wine, plus the company of so many entomologists!

In the end we had 181 guests, 55 of whom were female, last year we only had 46 female members so we are definitely moving in the right direction, although I am still keen to get equal numbers.  My impression was that the average age of the membership is definitely decreasing which can only be a good thing.  Enough writing I think, let the photographs speak for themselves.

Jim Hardie & Clive Farrell

Jim Hardie with Clive Farrell of the Entomological Club – once again my thanks to Clive for helping man the Reception Desk

A mixed bag

A mixed bag of entomologists enjoying good conversation whilst waiting for the main course

All ex-students

All ex- or present students of mine, Katy Reed, Lauren Fuller, Jen Banfield-Zanin, Mark Ramsden, Aislinn Pearson

Andrew Salisbury holds forth

Andrew Salisbury, RHS Wisley, holds forth

 

AShleigh & Craig

Ashleigh Whiffin and Craig Perl recreate last year’s photo

Can you find the coleopterist

Can you spot the Coleopterist?

Entomologists with beer

Entomologists with beer

Garth Foster being very definite

Garth Foster making a point

Gemma & James

Gemma Hough and James Hourston

Hagrid

Did you know that Hagrid was an entomologist?  Actually Richard Comont

Helen Roy

Can you spot Helen Roy, the newest member of the Entomological Club?

Jade, Linda & Laurence

Three ex-MSc students – Jade Taylor, Linda Birkin and Laurence Livermore and Hillery Warner.

Mainly current MSc

Mainly current Harper Adams MSc students – Josh Jenkins Shaw, Chris Mackin, Andy Cutts, Aidan Thomas, Richard Prew, Kelleigh Greene, Jordan Ryder (now a PhD student) Dave Stanford-Beale

Marion Gratwick

Marion Gratwick has attended more Verrall Suppers than any other female member.

Mark, Adriana & Jen

Mark Ramsden, Adrian De Palma, Jen Banfield-Zanin, Gemma Hough

More young entomologists

More young entomologists, Ailsa McLean, Paul Manning, Chris Jeffs and James Hourston

Old and young mixing

John Badmin centre stage

Older male entomologists

Some older entomologists

Romantic!

Linda Birkin, Laurence Livermore, Hillery Warner, Aurora Sampson

Some Hymenopterists

Some hymenopterists, including Mark Shaw and Charles Godfray

Some RES worthies

Some Royal Entomological Society worthies including Gordon Port, Jim Hardie and Archie Murchie

Steve Clement & Gill van Emden

On the top table, Stephen Clement who travelled all the way from the USA, speaking to Gill van Emden

Top Table 1

The top table, Gill van Emden, Stephen Clement, Van, Clive Farrell, Chris Lyal, another overseas visitor Junhao Huang, my jacket, Camille Parmesan, Richard Harrington and Tilly Collins out of shot.

Tilly

Has Richard Harrington made Tilly Collins cry?  Are his jokes really that bad?

Sue Hartley, Hugh Loxdale, Peter Leckstein

The Verrall lecturer, Sue Hartley in deep conversation with Hugh Loxdale and Peter Leckstein.  Unfortunately she couldn’t stay for the Supper.

Young female entomologists

Not all entomologists are male and bearded, Ruth Carter, Kirsten Miller, Fran Sconce, Will Nash, Nathan Medd , Hannah Wickenden, Jasper Hubert

Young mixed entomologists

More young entomologists Joe Nunez, Ricahrd Comont, Amo Spooner, Katy Dainton, Molly Carter, Sally-Ann Spence

Older male entomologists

Some of the older entomologists

and finally

Simon stressed

The Supper Organiser looking a little bit stressed!

I look forward to seeing all of you next year on Wednesday 2nd March.

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Ordeal by Inaugural

I gave my inaugural lecture last week, 9th May, which was a very interesting experience indeed and one that I seem to want to share.  Some of you may be wondering exactly what an inaugural lecture is.  Theoretically an inaugural lecture or address is the first lecture given by a newly created Professor.  In reality, they are usually given some months, or in some case a year or so after appointment.  They are a long-established feature of university life and are highlighted as being events of some consequence to the university or Department of which the ‘newly’ appointed Professor has become a part.

They are very much regarded as being celebratory;  here for example from the University of Sheffield’s School of Health and Related Research  The School’s Inaugural Lecture series provides an opportunity to celebrate these achievements with each lecture representing a significant milestone in an academic’s career.

The normal format is for a lecture of about 45 minutes followed by a celebratory wine reception.

And here from University College, London

Lectures will be followed by a reception.
Inaugural lectures are an opportunity for UCL professors to exhibit to the wider UCL community, and the public outside UCL, a flavour of their intellectual activity and research. For professors appointed from outside UCL, an inaugural lecture is an opportunity for colleagues to welcome them to UCL. For newly promoted professors they are an opportunity for colleagues to recognise and celebrate the achievements that have led to their promotion.

And here from my former Institution, Imperial College London

  • For new professors, the lecture provides an opportunity to present an overview of their research career so far, update colleagues on current and future research plans, and introduce their research to wider audiences.
  • For Departments, the event is a chance to recognise new Professors and host a celebratory event to bring Department staff together. It also provides an opportunity for Departments to engage with broader audiences inside and outside College, to establish new collaborations, strengthen existing relationships and catch up with alumni.

I could go on, but I think that this is enough to give you the idea.  Basically a chance for me to celebrate my appointment and to highlight to my new colleagues and the outside world what I am all about.

I was of course delighted to become the UK’s only Professor of Entomology, here at Harper Adams University last September, but at the same time felt a little frisson of fear at the thought of delivering my inaugural.  I have never found it that easy to blow my own trumpet (I was rather a shy child), so the thought of standing in front of an audience and doing just that was a little daunting to say the least.  I do, however, feel that one should always take the opportunity to publicise entomology a possible so agreed to give it a go.  Those of you know me, will know that suits and ties are not my thing; desert boots, rolled up sleeves and blue jeans are my usual attire and have been for the last 40 years.

Simon Leather - expedition to Trinidad & Tobago 1975     Simon Vortis

Although I have of course, had to dress somewhat more formally for events such as graduation ceremonies.

Simon Leather graduating Leeds 1977    Graduation 2010 011

It was thus a great relief to find out that unlike the University of Limerick  whose inaugural lectures are a ceremonial occasion, and academic robes are worn by the inaugural professor and the rest of the platform party. Those attending the lecture do not wear academic robes, Harper Adams had a more relaxed attitude to dress.

Once agreed, events took on a life of their own.  I had to draw up a guest list of a couple of hundred people; who to invite, who not to invite?  I needed a title for the lecture to go on the invitations and also to decide what sort of food and drink to have and when to have it.  Luckily we have a fantastic Events Team (thank you Sarah and Sandy) at Harper Adams and this all went very smoothly.

Inaugural invite front

Inaugural invite back

Of course when I started to prepare my lecture, I found that the title I had chosen was far too restrictive.  Having taken quite a long time to achieve my Professorship, I had a lot of work to discuss and a lot of students and collaborators to acknowledge.  So, in the end I decided to change the title and go for the prosaic exactly what it says on the tin approach.

inaugural title page

Even so, I still has to leave some things out such as my saproxylic insect work (sorry Ig and Sarah). Then I was faced with the real challenge.  How to make it accessible to my audience which was very mixed, ranging from relatives, non-scientists, former colleagues, ex-students and scientists from a variety of disciplines.  Panic began to set in, but as a keen family historian and lover of history in general, I have always found it interesting to know where people have come from and how they got where they are, so I started with my ancestry

ancestry slide

and my childhood and how I got interested in entomology in the first place.

Jamaica slide

Then I talked about a bit my early research, reliving the days of hand-drawn figures in papers as exemplified by my first real publication (I really should have used Letra-Set and not a stencil for that figure) and then worked my way on from there

First paper slide

highlighting and acknowledging as many people as possible e.g.

Keith Day slide

and

Biofuel slide

and

Forestry slide

and of course not forgetting the roundabouts

Roundabout slide

before eventually a final section dealing with a slightly more in-depth summary of my more recent work.

Organic slide

I then ended by outlining what I had planned for the future.

Future slide

Eventually after a couple of months and much heart-ache I had a lecture of 95 slides, and only 55 minutes to deliver them in!  Actually at an average of 30 seconds per slide just about right. Then I began to worry about getting the level right and having to resist the temptation to keep tweaking things.  As the day loomed, the tension began to build.  I have to confess that I agonised and stressed over this lecture more than any I have ever given, including my first ever conference talk.  It was the thought that I might forget to thank people and that my audience might find it boring that really worried me.  I knew that I couldn’t actually mention everyone by name so compromised with a mega-thank-you slide at the end for all my students, past and present.

Thanks slide

The big day arrived and guests began to roll-up for the pre-lecture food and drinks, and very pleasant it was too, although I didn’t actually eat and drink very much, having to make sure I was sober enough to deliver a coherent lecture.  The lecture theatre was full and I knew how to work the AV equipment and had also run through it a couple of times to get the timing right so was all geared up to go.  Then our Vice-Chancellor introduced me and blew my trumpet for me, which was embarrassing and pleasurable at the same time, but which actually increased my nervousness. Once I got going it seemed to go alright although I know I was nervous as I almost drank all of the glass of water that I had made sure was to hand.  I always tell my students, don’t be afraid to have a drink of water when giving a talk, nobody will think the worse of you, and I certainly took my own advice that evening.  Then it was over, except for having to answer a few questions and then the traditional humorous

Simon Inauguarl q&a

micky-taking vote of thanks from ex-colleague, collaborator and friend Professor Denis Wright, followed by puddings and cakes and more wine.  I forgot to say the whole thing was filmed so I have that to look forward to; I guess I will be able to send a copy to my Mother who was unable to attend.  Thank you Janine @JanineHarperVJ for making that possible and for taking some great photos.

In summary, a bit of a trial, a definite rite of passage, but really nice to see old friends and colleagues and all in all, actually a great experience, although I don’t think I would want to do another one.

I should also thank everyone who sent me emails and tweets before and after the event.  I greatly appreciated your kind thoughts.  And finally, many thanks to all those who attended and laughed in the right places.  Thank you for a great evening.

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