Telling tales of multiple Ps – Dr Lydia Cole

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity* to talk, twice, about a topic related (slightly tenuously) to my research and very close to my heart.  On the evening of Wednesday 19th September I stood on the stage at Leaf, facing the Ignite Liverpool crowd, to present on “The Three Ps”; and on Saturday 22nd September I stood on a soapbox in Sheffield’s busy shopping district, to shout about “Peanut butter, palm oil and peat; getting un-stuck in the mud” to a bunch of slightly bemused passers-by.  They were quite different forums with which to share my knowledge and passion, but I learnt a good deal from preparing for and presenting at each.  Here’s a quick low-down of each event, which might hopefully inspire you to get involved in the future.

Ignite Liverpool is the brainchild of a community organisation that runs quarterly events, providing a platform on which anyone can talk for a whistle-stop five minutes about a subject they are passionate about.  The challenge is to convey a coherent story in five minutes, in synchrony with the visuals on your 20 slides which flash up for five seconds in a continuous reel.  I managed to mumble in time to the slides until the penultimate one, where my dialogue turned to dust!  It was a fun experience though, and useful in considering how to design succinct propaganda.  If you’d like to know more about the tale of The Three Ps, you can watch my performance here.  I would recommend giving Ignite a go if you live in Liverpool, or any of the other cities where it’s held (e.g. Sheffield); it’s a great opportunity to practice your public speaking and communication skills on any topic of your choice, in front of a very supportive, slightly tipsy crowd.  The most hilarious talk at the last event was entitled Any Colour you like, where all of the slides where shades of black!

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Reeling off about peat at Ignite Liverpool!

Soapbox Science proved a less well-polished, more chilled-out and slightly chillier event!  The initiative was started eight years ago by two female Biologists, with the goal of creating a public outreach platform on which female scientists could promote their science, whilst simultaneously increasing the profile of women in the STEM sector.

I chose to talk about the same issues on the soapbox as I did on the stage: a narrative around the prolific commodity, palm oil, which links our consumption behaviour in the UK to the draining and deforestation of peat swamp forests in Southeast Asia.  Orang-utans, the people of the forest, were the protagonists, of course.  As part of my PhD research (a few years ago now!), I explored the long-term ecology and contemporary management of the coastal peat swamp forests of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo, and have since been monitoring their declining condition and the ever-expanding state of industrial oil palm plantations across the region.  Though my Soapbox performance was not as succinct as I’d hoped (more prep required next time to catch the attention of a transient audience), I managed to have an interesting discussion with several members of the general public on topics of environmental sustainability and the RSPO.  The conversation with one chap, as engaged as he was disillusioned, only concluded when we decided that capitalism needed to be scrapped.  Unfortunately, I didn’t feel qualified to propose an alternative solution.

Illustrating the link between peatlands, palm oil and peanut butter

I found both experiences hugely valuable, primarily because I gained some idea of the level of knowledge amongst the general public on some everyday consumer issues.  People were less aware than I’d realised.  To place your science into a ‘real world’ context, to understand how it might fit into the lives of your neighbours, and to learn how you can inspire people to care as you do, I would recommend standing up on as many platforms as you can.

*The opportunity was created by me through signing up to two events without realising they were in the same week!  I questioned my life choices many times when preparing for them into the wee hours of the morning …. though as per usual have no regrets, in retrospect.

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Local schools take on Future Food Challenge

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An innovative schools outreach programme that encourages students to think about sustainable food production is set to return after a successful first run earlier this year.

Future Food Challenge, a 12 week programme delivered by social enterprise Farm Urban and the University’s Institute of Integrative Biology, challenges Year 9 students to think up new ideas for growing food in urban environments using aquaponics – a sustainable method of raising both fish and vegetables.

The programme, funded by Shaping Futures, the Merseyside partner for the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP), gives school teams the chance to immerse themselves in the science of aquaponics with their very own Farm Urban Produce Pod system, before forming their own start-up, developing a business idea and designing and building their own aquaponic food system.

The programme provides students with the opportunity to gain an insight into start-up businesses, social enterprise and how they link into Higher Education activity, whilst developing skills in project management, leadership, finance, teamwork, communication and scientific research.

This year’s finale event, held at Farm Urban’s agri-lab space at the Liverpool Life Sciences UTC in July, gave teams the opportunity to exhibit their work, display their systems and pitch their business idea to a panel of judges, comprised of local business leaders and university academics.

Business ideas ranged from systems for use in primary schools to hospitals and local cafes. The overall winners from Woodchurch High School in Wirral carried out research and spoke to local charities and churches to create a system that would provide fresh food for those accessing food banks. The winning team said: “We have loved our aquaponics journey from fish to free fresh food for everyone. It has made us more aware of food problems people face and how to help them using science.”

Dr Iain Young, University lead for the programme commented: “Teaming up with organisations outside the University can be a really powerful way of delivering public engagement, showcasing our science and involving the public in research. This project gave us the opportunity to partner with Farm Urban to reach hundreds of school children from less advantaged backgrounds. Farm Urban are an inspiration in themselves, promoting local, healthy food production, and they also deliver exceptional events and programmes. I have found the whole experience of working with them on this project very rewarding.”

Farm Urban is now encouraging the Future Food Challenge teams to act as Future Food Ambassadors, sharing what they’ve learnt and inspiring their fellow students to think about what they can do collectively to continue to tackle global food challenges in their own communities.

Registrations for the 2018/19 Future Food programme are now open for schools. Please visit http://www.farmurban.co.uk/future-food-challenge for more information.

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Woodchurch High School students were the overall winners for 2018.

Future research priorities for conservation management in the Masai Mara

GroupPicture_MasaiMaraWorkshopThe Masai Mara in southern Kenya offers some of the most spectacular wildlife sightings on the planet. Exceptionally high densities of large predators and the annual wildebeest migration attract a large number of visitors each year. However, in recent years scientist witnessed a drastic decline in many wildlife populations. Human population growth seems to be the key driver of these changes and the major challenge in upcoming years will be the coordination of land use to ensure development as well as conservation goals.

In September 2017, the Mara Herbivore Project organized a workshop to identify research priorities to support the conservation management of the Masai Mara National Reserve and the adjoining conservancies. The invited participants included protected area managers and research programme directors from the Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya Wildlife Service, Enonkishu Conservancy, Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association, Kenya Wildlife Trust, Mara Predator Project, Peregrine Fund, Hyena Project, and of course the Mara Herbivore Project. After a day of brainstorming and intense discussion, we voted on the importance and urgency of 35 research questions raised within three main categories: (i) habitat & species management, (ii) management of tourism & exploitation and (iii) livestock management & human wildlife conflict. Ranked highest by all participants was the question how habitat fragmentation due to increased fencing of private land effects wildlife populations in the Masai Mara. Many species in the area conduct seasonal movements in response to differences in monthly rainfall and currently there is no knowledge on how these spatial dynamics are affected by fencing. Other important questions were related to the strategic location of new wildlife areas, the impact of tourism infrastructure on wild populations and the effect of livestock management on resource availability within the reserve.

To raise awareness for the urgent threats the team led by Jakob Bro-Jorgensen published an article in SWARA, a magazine published by the East African Wildlife Society. It is aimed at non-specialists with a general interest in the problems experienced in today’s wildlife and habitat management.  The team hope that the article encourages a debate on the sustainability of current land-use practices, and that it leads to a closer cooperation between managers, researchers, and local communities in preserving the wider Masai Mara ecosystem.

 

Knowledge Exchange – Advancing Food Security with Sensors and Analytical Instrumentation

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Dr Simon Maher (EEE) with Dr Iain Young (IIB) and Prof Joe Spencer (EEE) in Thailand last week as part of an Institutional Links Award with Chulalongkorn University where they delivered a workshop Advancing Food Security with Sensors and Analytical Instrumentation to staff and students from Chulalongkorn University and representatives from leading Thai biotechnology and food companies. They also provided their partners on the Award, Dr Thanit Praneenararat and Prof. Tirayut Vilaivan, a prototype bespoke portable Ion Mobility Spectrometer to test for antibiotics in food utilizing technologies developed jointly with the partners. While in Thailand, the group met with several companies in the global food industry including senior managers from the CP Group (seen in the picture), a global conglomerate with revenues > $45 billion USD. The plan is to expand the utility of the devices for the food and biotechnology sector and to expand its capability to include detection and quantification of antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, food-borne pathogens and other contaminants.

 

AEC Outreach at BBC Gardeners’ Question Time

The BBC Gardeners’ question time event at Ness Botanical Gardens on the 16th of September was a great avenue for Researchers from the Department for Evolution, Ecology and Behaviour to showcase how the nature of gardens is underpinned by ecology and evolution.

Gardens are much more than the plants they contain. Georgia Drew, Jo Griffin & Louise Reynolds introduced visitors to the fascinating world of bees, butterflies, fruit flies and the ecosystem of microbial symbionts that these organisms host. Visitors were fascinated and horrified, in equal measure, at the case of male-killing bacteria in a population of tropical butterflies. Many were eager to know the potential applications of such information, including the fascinating role of symbionts in the control of aphid and other plant pest populations. Jo talked to the BBC producers about the use of symbionts in the prevention of insect-borne disease.

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Meanwhile, Franziska Brunner, Stew Plaistow & David Atkinson gave tours around their newly-renovated experimental ponds at Ness, and introduced visitors to their work on climate change impacts on aquatic ecosystems and pond life. Many were very impressed by the experimental ponds, and the logistics and methods needed to carry out this kind of study. The group’s pond-dipping tour gave visitors a chance to reconnect with their “inner child”, and come face-to-face with the incredible biodiversity concealed just beneath the surface of the garden pond. Catching sticklebacks turned out to be a major attraction during these pond-dipping sessions!

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Last but not least, visitors attended guided tours of an ongoing long-term experiment investigating how grassland plants cope with climate change, given by Raj Whitlock, Christoph Hahn, Di Yang, and George Airey. Visitors learned of the vital importance of grasslands for conservation and for providing crucial services to people, and of the threats posed to grasslands by climate change. The tour introduced a large drought manipulation experiment comprising 1,952 model grasslands, which assessed the potential for climate-driven evolution within plant species. After some hands-on botanical training, almost all of the visitors were able to identify all of the plant species in this experiment (although there were none keen enough to taste the delicious salad burnet [Sanguisorba minor] or sweet vernal grass [Anthoxanthum odoratum] on offer).

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All of us were impressed by the depth of questions that visitors asked, and by their enthusiasm for the underpinning science. It was a rewarding day, and we are looking forward to our next visit to Ness!

Science fun at the Gardener’s Question Time Anniversary Garden Party

The Mammalian Behaviour and Evolution Group (MBE) from the Institute of Integrative Biology was represented by four members (Paula Stockley, Holly Coombes, Callum Duffield and Stefan Fischer) at the Gardener’s Question Time Anniversary Garden Party in Ness Botanical Garden. The event saw more than 2000 guests visiting the garden and the live broadcasting of the BBC Radio 4 show. The whole day on Saturday 16th September was reserved for this massive event and the garden staff showed an immense effort to deal with all the visitors and exhibitors.

The MBE group secured a table in one of the huge exhibition marquees next to other exhibitors such as the Wirral Wildlife Trust, RSBP, and the Wirral Barn Owl Trust.

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We showed visitors the diversity of small mammals occurring in the UK with small posters, video clips and, as the highlight, two small rodents to observe. We chose two very different species for visitors to observe: a harvest mouse and a bank vole. Harvest mice are the smallest mouse species and are listed as a Biodiversity Action Plan Species because of their scarcity and the required conservation actions to stop their population decline. Bank voles are a very common rodent species occurring throughout Europe. The harvest mouse was definitely the star of our exhibition and every visitor left with a big smile after finding the little mouse inside the well-structured enclosure. It was particularly nice to see how every person visiting our stand, old or young, woman or man, reacted to the little rodents and how everyone was immediately interested in their behaviour and ecology and asked more facts about rodents in general. We had very nice conversations about topics as diverse as the work of the MBE group, conservation and general behaviour of rodents as well as pest control measurements. I think it was an extremely productive and well received exhibition and visitors of the stand left with a smile because they saw cute rodents and learned more about small mammals in the UK. Moreover visitors will remember that the MBE group of the University of Liverpool is engaged in diverse research areas to better understand and ultimately better conserve mammals in the UK and around the world.

Find out more about the Mammalian Behaviour and Evolution Group.

 

 

The Sciku Project – Using Japanese poetry to explore scientific research

This is a guest post by Andrew Holmes, Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Mammalian Behaviour & Evolution group of the Institute of Integrative Biology.

How quickly can you summarise your research or latest paper? A minute? Thirty seconds? A sentence?

How about 17 syllables?

That’s the challenge set by The Sciku Project, a website designed for scientists and mathematicians to share their latest research findings through the medium of sciku – scientific haiku.

It may seem odd condensing years of work or a complex theory into a handful of words but I promise that the benefits of such drastic minimalism are well worth it, both personally and professionally.

But first, some background. Haiku are a form of Japanese poetry. In the west they are 17 syllables long and written in three lines: five, seven and five syllables. The best haiku are evocative, humorous or beautiful and the very best are all three at once. Their brevity makes them quick to read but their contents linger in the mind – thought stimulants in word-pill form.

You might be asking why anyone would want to write scientific haiku but it’s not as strange as it might seem. Throughout the long history of haiku there has been a strong focus on the natural world; animals, plants, the weather and the cosmos all have been regular subjects for haiku masters and traditional haiku always feature a reference to the season. Using science as subject matter then is not too much of a stretch.

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Haiku have a long tradition of using nature as a subject. Thank you to the Mammalian Behaviour & Evolution group for their gift of this book.

Haiku can also help us think about our own work. They frequently describe a small moment or thought that leads to a wider contemplation of its place in the world. I don’t know about you but all too easily I get wrapped up in the day-to-day details of my research. Scientific haiku help me to remember the bigger picture; writing haiku lets me trim the fat and get to the bones of what matters and why.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that writing scientific haiku can actually help us understand and communicate our own work: undergraduate science students asked to compose haiku subsequently explained their subject matter with greater accuracy and articulation. From my personal experience, haiku also provide a different perspective of my work and a better understanding of its impact – a boon in today’s funding climate.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, writing scientific haiku is fun. As a researcher I plan experiments, run bioassays, crunch numbers and do rather too much washing up of equipment for my liking. And then there’s the writing: dry research papers and slightly desperate grant applications. Haiku let me revel in my work, they let me play with words again and break out of my usual mould. They remind me of my passion for science.

Have a go yourself. If you’ve had a paper published or read an interesting finding, if you have a favourite theory or statistical test, whatever it is that fascinates you, celebrate it with a sciku. In today’s busy world it takes but a moment to enjoy a haiku and only slightly longer to compose one. And I’ll let you into a little secret – whilst it might be hard to construct the perfect haiku, across only 17 syllables it’s difficult to go too wrong with a sciku. It’s a remarkably forgiving medium.

If you’re curious then visit The Sciku Project. Each scientific haiku is accompanied by a brief explanation and links to the original research. Treat yourself to a Random sciku or Explore the back catalogue. If you discover there’s an area that’s not covered then set us right and Contribute your own sciku. You can also follow The Sciku Project on Twitter and Facebook.

The Sciku Project was set up by Andrew Holmes, a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Mammalian Behaviour & Evolution group of the Institute of Integrative Biology. Visit https://thescikuproject.com for more information.