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.

Sex & Bugs & Rock ‘n Roll 2017

What happened in June 2017? The GE, summer solstice, Lions vs New Zealand…. OK, so various big events occurred in the month of June, but the highlight for me was the creation of a pop-up city with a population of around 175,000 people. I am of course referring to Glastonbury Festival, where people congregate at Worthy Farm in Somerset to watch music, comedy, dance, circus and other arts. I formed part of team of 6 ecologists from around the UK, headed up by Lancaster University’s Emma Sayer, who took ecology to the Glastonbury. Why take ecology to Glastonbury? Aside from the music and vibrant atmosphere, we could engage with hundreds of members of the general public, over the course of just 5 days. This opportunity does not often occur. Based in the Green Futures field, we shared our pitch with campaigners, visionaries, environmentalists and artists with a passion for sustainability.

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Left to right: Nick Loughlin, Ali Birkett, Emma Sayer, me (Jo Griffin) and Nigel Fisher 

This was the third year the ‘Sex & Bugs & Rock ’n Roll’ tent exhibited at Glastonbury, albeit my first. This year we had a woodland ecology theme. In the tent we had a collection of new and old ecological activities to offer, including the infamous ‘Whose Poo?’ and ‘How gross is your festival kit?’ There were mixed reactions to the latter. When given the opportunity to have a swab taken from an item of their festival kit and have it spread it on an agar plate, some punters shrivelled up their nose in distaste and replied ‘no thank you’! But the vast majority revelled in the opportunity to see the microbes that were present on their wristbands.

We also teamed up with National Trust Scotland, and for every group/individual who participated in ‘Create you Ideal Woodland’, a native tree will be planted. In the tent, you could also learn about the various woodland invertebrate species that we had on display, including earthworms, dung beetles and orange ladybirds. Did you know we have around 60 species of dung beetles in the UK that are dependent on dung? Without them we would have had to wade through ankle-deep cow dung at Worthy Farm, eugh!

While engaging with punters is extreme fun, busking on what was simultaneously the hottest June day since 1976 and the longest day of the year was tough. But fortunately we didn’t have to negotiate the churned mud bath of the previous year. In total we engaged with over 1000 members of the public during the 5 days, and many of these were high level interactions, lasting over 30 minutes in length. What a success! Never before have I been asked so much about, and had so much interest in the research I carry out for my PhD.

None of this would have been possible without Emma, who organised and designed the tent with the aid of collaborators and funding from the British Ecological Society (BES), Bangor University, University of Kent, Wytham Woods (University of Oxford), Lancaster University and Wiley. Not forgetting the rest of the volunteers: Ali Birkett, Nick Loughlin, Hannah Griffiths and Nigel Fisher, who shared their enthusiasm and love of ecology with festival-goers, and provided fantastic company (and dancing) throughout the week. Finally, the biggest thanks goes to the 1000 punters who gave up their time to talk to us.  by Jo Griffin

You can find more information about ‘Sex & Bugs & Rock ‘n Roll’ at: www.festivalbugs.org

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Grasslands at Ness Family Science Fair

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Raj Whitlock and PhD student Di Yang took part in the Ness Family Science Fair for British Science Week in March. They manned a stall with model grassland communities, and talked with members of the public about the importance of plants, how plants work, grasslands, their conservation and threats to plants from climate change. Their installation at the science fair also included a grassland-inspired arts area, which became a popular relaxation point for parents and kids in the hustle and bustle of the event (which was attended by ~1500 people).

The Fascination of Plants

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PhD student Di Yang took part in the Fascination of Plants Day event at Liverpool’s World Museum in May. Di helped inspire visitors of all ages with the fascination of plants, helping them to make recycled pots out of newspaper and to plant sunflowers, runner beans and pak-choi. It was a great day with 856 family visitors to our section of the event.

Harambee! Let’s all work together!

36 Maasai elder

An exciting part of the activities of the Mara Herbivore Research project is the work we do with the local communities around Talek in Kenya. For more than a decade we have been running a training course for Kenyans working in the tourist sector. Here we develop the knowledge and skills required to work as a professional tourist guide. The main focus is on making up-to-date scientific knowledge about the African ecosystems and their inhabitants accessible locally. It leads to many stimulating discussions when we are comparing research findings with local ideas about nature: sometimes science is merely confirming what has been long known locally, sometimes the two are at odds and we discuss why this may be.

We also teach on the ecology and conservation of African ecosystems at primary and secondary schools in both Kenya and the UK. Here it is encouraging to experience the connection that kids everywhere have with nature and feel their enthusiasm. We are always hoping that we may inspire some to follow a career in science or conservation later on.

As opportunities arise, we moreover give talks to raise the awareness of the general public on the urgent threats facing Africa’s savannas, particularly from encroaching human populations, intensifying livestock production, poaching and climate change. In doing so, we encourage locals to reflect on the sustainability of some current land-use practices, and we seek to convey to people elsewhere that conservation in developing countries is a global responsibility.

For more details about Dr Jakob Bro-Jorgensen‘s work, click on this link: Mara Herbivore Research project

IIB researcher features in award winning documentary on synchronised swimmers

Dr Michael Berenbrink’s research is a major focus of an award winning TV documentary about the world-best synchronised swimmers. The documentary, made by Japan’s public broadcasting company, NHK,  won the first prize in the Sports Activity Category in  the 2017 World Media Festival, with the prize awarded on at festival in Hamburg on the 10th of May.

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The documentary is available on YouTube miracle body documentary. Although in Japanses, the footage of the athletes and their under and over water acrobatics is stunning. Dr Berenbrink was involved in filming in Tokyo, Barcelona and Liverpool, and developed a protocol for measuring changes in the size of the red blood cell storing spleen while the athletes were holding their breath in an MRI scanner, and compares the athletes’ abilities to those of specialised diving mammals, such as otters.

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BES Roadies: Who’s poo?

by Jo Griffin

We busk a little differently to most people. Having assembled from various locations around the UK, warming up with hot drinks in a pokey central London Starbucks, we play our favourite game. When you check out the next BES Annual Meeting (you know you want to), be sure to keep your eyes peeled for it. It will change your life.

As a BES Roadie, I’ve received public engagement training, helped develop busking activities and had the opportunity to attend music festivals and science festivals across the country. The end goal being to better my science communication skills and inform people outside the world of science on diverse matters such as ecology, and the research I conduct for my PhD.

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These activities are great for engaging people and spreading the word of ecology, however, there are communities that we are still struggling to reach. As stated in the BES ‘Making Ecology for All’ report from 2013, members of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) community are significantly less likely to be in a STEM profession when compared to White counterparts. In 2010/11, BAME individuals made up 16.7% of all biological science students. This is an underrepresentation when compared to both the total for all STEM subjects, 20.1%, and for all subjects, 18.4%. There are no excuses for this gap; in the 21st century I am appalled that recent figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveal that no British University is employing a Black academic in a senior management role. This must change.

Now back to our London ‘Poo Game’ trip. The Windsor Fellowship has collaborated with the Royal Society to provide a mentoring scheme for Year 13 Black students living or studying in Greater London, who are studying STEM subjects. This is where we, the BES Roadies, come into the picture. We were given a one hour slot during a day long workshop, to communicate ecology to the students. Jessica opened the session with a brief introduction to the BES and the importance of science communication. We then split the cohort into four groups and took one group each to demonstrate our busking activities. Karen got to play ‘Pollinator Top Trumps’, Arron had ‘Who’s Poo?’ Jessica was on the ‘Mushroom Game’ and I demonstrated the use of taxonomic keys using the ‘Festival Animals’ busk that we took to Wychwood festival back in June. The students rotated around the different activities before reconvening in the seminar room where I then gave a short talk on my research.

I am used to communicating my work to academics back in my University department and at the odd conference. Entertaining a room of A-level students however, was a pretty terrifying prospect. When I asked if anyone had heard of the term ‘symbiosis’ some students nodded their head with a vague look of recollection whilst others shook their heads. Using examples such as corals, the bobtail squid, nitrogen-fixing bacteria in plant roots and deep sea tube worms, I got the students on board with the concept. Explaining the use of fruit flies and their symbiont to study host-shifts was a little trickier, I was nervous that this was where I might lose them. To my surprise, I was bombarded with questions. From the development and maintenance of symbioses and coevolution to the nitty gritty techniques I used to achieve my work and collect data, these students were the most inquisitive and enthusiastic audience I have ever had. It was an enormous pleasure to spend time with them. If I haven’t persuaded them that parasites and mutualists are just about the coolest things to study, then at least they will have left the session with a broader understanding of the term ecology. I hope that we will continue to engage with a diverse range of communities in the BES and look forward to reuniting with the Roadies for more science communication.

If you would like to become involved with the BES Roadies, please see upcoming public engagement and training events on the BES website: http://www.britishecologicalsociety.org/learning-and-resources/public-engagement/