Tag Archives: University of East Anglia

Ideas I had and never followed up

“When I was younger, so much younger than before” I never needed any help to come up with ideas for research topics or papers.   When I was doing my PhD and later as a post-doc, I used to keep a note pad next to my bed so that when I woke up in the middle of night with an idea (which I often did) I could scribble it down and go back to sleep.  (These days sadly, it is my bladder and not ideas that wake me up in the wee small hours 🙂*)

On waking up properly, these ideas, if they still seemed sensible, would  move onto Stage 2, the literature search.  In those days, this was much more difficult than it is now, no Google Scholar or Web of Science then, instead you had to wade though the many hard-copy Abstract series and then get hard copies of the papers of interest.  Once in my hands, either via Inter-library loans or direct from the author, or even photocopied from the journal issue (we did have photocopiers in those days), the papers would be shoved into a handy see-through plastic folder (Stage 3).  Depending on how enthusiastic I was about the idea, I would then either mock-up a paper title page or put the folder in the ‘to deal with later’ pile (Stage 4).   Many of these eventually led on to Stage 5, experiments and published papers.  Others have languished in their folders for twenty or thirty years.

As part of my phased run up to retirement (2021), I have started farming out my long-term publishable (hopefully) data-sets to younger, more statistically astute colleagues and ‘publishing’ less robust, but possibly useful data on my blog site.  I have also, somewhat halfheartedly since the task is monumental, started to go through my old field and lab books that


A monumental collection of data.  The top right picture is my 20-year sycamore data set.  I estimate that there are about 7 million data points in it; of which to date only 1.6 million, give or take a million, are computerised.  I also have a ten-year bird cherry aphid data set from Scotland, waiting to go on the computer, any volunteers?

are not yet computerised.  Whilst doing this I came across some Stage 3 folders, which as you can see from the colour of the paper have languished for some time.


The Forgotten Nine


There were nine forgotten/dismissed proto-papers, the oldest of which, judging by the browning of the paper and my corresponding address, dates from the early 1980s, and is simply titled “What are the costs of reproduction?”.  This appears to have been inspired by a talk given by Graham Bell at a British Ecological Society, Mathematical Ecology Group meeting in 1983.  In case you are wondering, this was one of those meetings supposed to bring theorists and empiricists together.   It didn’t work, neither group felt able to talk to each other 🙂  The idea, inevitably based on aphid data, didn’t bear any fruit, although I do have this graph as a souvenir.  If anyone wants


In those days we used graph paper 🙂

 the data, do let me know.

Slightly later, we find the grandly titled, “Size and phylogeny – factors affecting covariation in the life history traits of aphids”.  This had apparently been worked up from an earlier version of a paper, less grandly, but no less ponderously, titled, “Size and weight: factors affecting the level of reproductive investment in aphids”.  This is based on some basic dissection data from eight aphid species and presents the relationships, or lack of, between adult weight (or surrogate measure), ovariole number, potential fecundity and the number of pigmented embryos.  As far as I can remember these are data that Paul Wellings** and I collected as a follow-up to work we had published from a side project when we were doing our PhDs at the University of East Anglia (Wellings et al., 1980).  The second title was inspired by a paper by Stephen Stearns (Stearns, 1984), who was something of a hero of mine at the time, and was, I guess, an attempt to publish pretty simple data somewhere classier than it deserved 🙂  So this one seems to be a Stage 4, almost Stage 5 idea, and may, if I have time or someone volunteers, actually get published, although I suspect it may only make it to a very minor journal under its original title.

Then we have a real oddity, “Aphids, elephants and oaks: life history strategies re-examined”.  This one as far as I remember, is based on an idea that I had about r- and k-selection being looked at from a human point of view and not the organism’s point of view.  My thesis was that an oak tree was actually r-selected as over its life-time it was more fecund than an aphid 🙂  I suspect this was going to be aimed at the Forum section of Oikos.

The next one, dates from the late-1980s, “Protandry versus protogyny: patterns of occurrence within the Lepidoptera”, and reflects the fact that females of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea, on which I was then working, emerge before the males (Leather & Barbour, 1983; Leather, 1984), something not often reported in Lepidoptera.  I wondered what advantage (if any) this gave P. flammea.  I planned this one as a review or forum type paper but never got beyond the title and collecting two references (Robertson, 1987; Zonneveld & Metz, 1991).  I still think this is an interesting idea, but do feel free to have a go yourselves, as again, I suspect that I won’t actually get round to it.

Finishing off my time in Scotland, is a paper simply entitled, “Egg hatch in the bird cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi.” I have ten years of egg hatch data from eight trees waiting to be analysed.  This is almost certainly not worth more than a short note unless I (or a willing volunteer) tie it in with the ten years data on spring and autumn populations on the same trees 🙂 Aphid egg data although not very abundant, is probably not in great demand.  My first published paper (Leather, 1980) was about egg mortality in the bird cherry aphid and 36 years later has only managed to accrue 32 citations, so I guess not an area where one is likely to become famous 🙂

I then have four papers dating from my time as an Associate Member of the NERC Centre for Population Biology at Silwood Park.   The first is titled, “The suitability of British Prunus species as insect host plants” and was definitely inspired by my foray into counting host plant dots as exemplified by the late great Richard Southwood (Leather, 1985, 1986).  I think I was going to look at palatability measures of some sort.

The next is called ‘Realising their full potential: is it important and how many insects achieve it?”  I’m guessing that this was a sort of follow-up to my second most-cited paper ever (Leather, 1988), the story of which you can read here, if at all interested.  Most insects, even those that are pests, die before achieving anywhere near their full reproductive potential, but then so do we humans, and our population continues to grow.  So in answer to the question, I guess not and no it doesn’t matter 🙂

Also linked to insect reproduction is the next paper, which I have followed up with the help of a PhD student, and do hope to submit in the near future, “Queue positions, do they matter”.  As this one may actually see the light of day, I won’t say anything further about it.

And finally, another one about aphid eggs, “Bud burst and egg hatch synchrony in aphids”.  This one was going to be based on my then ten-year sycamore aphid data but is now based on my twenty-year data set and is now in the very capable hands of a PhD student and hopefully will see the light of day next year.

There are also a number of other folders with no titles that are just full of collections of reprints.  I can only guess at what these ideas were so won’t burden you with them.

I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with ideas any more.  As we get older I think there is a tendency to worry that we might run out of ideas, especially when, as we do in the UK, suffer from ludicrously underfunded research councils with very high rejection rates that don’t allow you to resubmit failed grant applications.  It was thus reassuring to see this recent paper that suggests that all is not lost after you hit the grand old age of 30.  That said, I do believe that as you move away from the bench or field, the opportunity to be struck by what you see, does inevitably reduce.  As a PhD student and post-doc you are busy doing whatever it is you do, in my case as an ecological entomologist, counting things, and inevitably you see other things going on within and around your study system, that spark off other ideas.  It was the fear of losing these opportunities as I moved up the academic ladder, which inevitably means, less field and bench time and more time writing grant applications and sitting on committees, that I specifically set aside Monday mornings (very early mornings) to my bird cherry plots and even earlier Thursday mornings to survey my sycamore trees.   Without those sacrosanct mornings I am pretty certain I would have totally lost sight of what is humanly possible to do as a PhD student or post-doc.  This, thankfully for my research group, means that I had, and have, realistic expectations of what their output should be, thus reducing stress levels all round.   As a side benefit I got to go out in the fresh air at least twice a week and do some exercise and at the same time see the wonderful things that were going on around and about my study areas and as a bonus had the chance to get some new ideas.



Leather, S.R. (1984) Factors affecting pupal survival and eclosion in the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea (D&S). Oecologia, 63, 75-79.

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. (1988) Size, reproductive potential and fecundity in insects: Things aren’t as simple as they seem. Oikos, 51, 386-389.

Leather, S.R. & Barbour, D.A. (1983) The effect of temperature on the emergence of pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea Schiff. Zeitschrift fur Angewandte Entomologie, 96, 445-448.

Robertson, H.G. (1987) Oviposition and site selection in Cactoblastis cactorum (Lepidoptera): constraints and compromises. Oecologia, 73, 601-608.

Stearns, S.C. (1984) The effects of size and phylogeny on patterns of covariation inthe life history traits of lizards and snakes. American Naturalist, 123, 56-72.

Wellings, P.W., Leather , S.R., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1980) Seasonal variation in reproductive potential: a programmed feature of aphid life cycles. Journal of Animal Ecology, 49, 975-985.

Zonneveld, C. & Metz, J.A.J. (1991) Models on butterfly protandry – virgin females are at risk to die. Theoretical  Population Biology, 40, 308-321.


*I hasten to add that I do still have new ideas, they just don’t seem to wake me up any more 🙂

**Now Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wollongong



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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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