Back to the Lab, and a Happy Houseguest

I’m very happy to be working at the University of Manchester again. Angie contacted me out of the blue and a week later I was back in the familiar setting of Richard Bardgett and Franciska De Vries’ Soil and Ecosytem Ecology Lab. It’s the busy fieldwork season anyway, and Angie realised a new student was going to need more help than expected with her project, so some funds were found for me to help. Little did she know just how much help she’d need, as a week into my new contract, her research technician handed in her notice!

It’s great to be working among all my friends there again, to be doing science, and to feel I have a defined purpose. The role is very similar to my last one, with root scanning, grinding, C/N parcelling, caring for plants, and collecting root exudates on the cards. The lab also has the added bonus during the current heatwave, that I can go and stand in the cold room when it gets too much!

cold room

When the oppressive, humid heat finally got too much, I escaped into the cold room for a 3 minute break – and I wasn’t the only one with that idea!

In other news, I am cat-sitting for a friend at the moment. She works at the lab too, but is currently in Costa Rica helping out on a student fieldtrip. We’ve had two cats in the past and are all animal lovers, so it wasn’t hard to convince the others to let the cat come to us. I am lucky enough to live in a big house, so even though we can’t let him outside (we live near a main road), kitty has plenty of space to explore. The cats name is Sirius and he is an absolute sweetie pie, and much better behaved than Mango was. He is also a big scaredy cat though, so thus far, he has voluntarily stayed mostly in my bedroom anyway. He tucks himself into tiny spaces, like down the side of my bed next the wall, or on top of some boxes right under the eaves. When he does occasionally venture downstairs, even a tiny noise will startle him and he shoots back to my bedroom. He’s been here for nearly two weeks now, and has another week to go. I will be genuinely sad to give him back, it’s been lovely to have a cat again.

Victory at Puzzle Hunt 2

The day started off very soggy which unfortunately dissuaded a few people from making the trip to town. Nevertheless, we had a good enough turnout to just about cover the website costs.

This hunt began in Victoria Train station – it had been planned before the attack on the arena (which is adjoined to the station). We decided to postpone for a week, for obvious reasons, and happily I noticed that none of us were scared or preoccupied with rubbernecking in the station.

This hunt was created by Aidan, who attended my hunt last month. The clues were great and had a very professional layout – we were all impressed.

The route took us around the Northern Quarter, including to a few quirky shops and examples of beautiful architecture we wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. We stopped for a snack here and a drink there, often bumping into the other team, which was handled with all good humour. It certainly isn’t a cut-throat competitive group.

One clue took us to the beautiful new bee mural on Oldham street, painted with 22 bees as a tribute to the 22 people who lost their lives in the Ariana Grande attack. Not that I spent much time looking at it, far too busy desperately trying to work out what a magic eye puzzle said. I’m normally very good at them, but this had 3 rows and 4 columns of numbers on an A4 sheet – that’s quite a lot of detail for a magic eye!

Half an hour and a headache later we headed to the next clue. Sudoku, semaphore, a riddle, a rebus and codes all played a part in this entertaining race, and to my surprise even clues left out in the open weren’t moved or stolen by the public.

We headed to a pub afterwards to play around with some ideas for future hunts, and laugh at ourselves for the inevitable frustrations of the day. All in, a great way to spend 4 hours on a Saturday. Hopefully there will be enough interest for me to keep the group going for a while.


My dormouse research presentation, and a cheeky published paper

I ventured into Liverpool on Friday for a PhD interview for this project, at the Institute of Integrative Biology. I was pleasantly surprised by the city, and I did get to see a few of the sites on my walk to and from the car.

I had to give a presentation on my MSc research project. I’ve whipped up a quick video of what I said:

Through looking back into my masters research and the topic of dormouse vibrissae and locomotion in general, I came across a recently published paper by my MSc supervisor, Dr Robyn Grant. I was a little shocked to find the paper is a continuation of my work! Using one of my methodologies, some very similar wording and even some of my data and images.

I’m happy my work proved useful, and the topic warranted further study, but I can’t help feeling a little annoyed that I wasn’t involved in writing the paper. I did receive an acknowledgement, but it woefully understates my role. I’m confident I could have made a valuable contribution – in fact, I noticed an error in my very first read through!

Whisker touch screen grab

Screenshot of the recently published paper. I can’t upload the whole paper as it isn’t open source.

I’m told this situation arises fairly frequently in the world of academic publishing, after all, there is more and more pressure on researchers to churn out papers. Still, I plan to email Robyn to register my annoyance. Just because something happens a lot, doesn’t mean it should.

Today I Stand with Manchester.

I’ve always been one of those people who cares all year round. Who doesn’t jump on bandwagons or pay lip-service. I don’t wear a poppy (a better explanation of the reasons than I could muster, here), and I don’t change my Facebook profile picture after every Western tragedy, because I don’t believe ‘our’ lives are more important than ‘theirs’, or like the idea of a temporary frame setting on Facebook being the demarcation between when people care and when they don’t. I think these sorts of tokens allow people to “do their bit” for five minutes, then forget about the underlying issues for another year, or until another hashtag sweeps twitter. I believe very strongly that we should all be the change we want to see. So, I strive to be a strong proponent of peaceful solutions and treating all people with respect, every single day.

When I hear on the news that 30 people were killed in a market in Baghdad, I am every bit as sad as when a similar number were killed on my doorstep in Europe. I know hundreds of people die daily in wars, or fleeing from war, or simply living their lives but in a turbulent area. I have always staunchly believed I feel that pain as keenly as 7/7 in London, for instance, and often been shocked at the lack of reporting on these deaths. I consider myself a very rational and detached person, not in an insensitive way, just unbiased and logical enough to look at life scientifically.

Then this happened. And all the memories of going to concerts and netball at the MEN flooded back, particularly the time two friends and I went to the box office, metres from where the bomb exploded. I asked the attendant if the Foo Fighters were coming to play any time soon. She told a 14-year-old me that they never would. I re-joined my friends who asked what she’d said and then laughed to the point of crying when I unintentionally replied “Never” in a cheap horror movie voice. We used to hang around town quite a lot as teenagers. We fit neatly into the mosher category, and along with Piccadilly Gardens, the Urbis was a favourite socialising spot. But it’s Manchester, so we sometimes ventured into Victoria station and the MEN foyer when it rained.

Now my abiding memory of that area will be the shocking photograph, featured on some news sites, of pixelated bodies strewn across the floor of the foyer. And that is all it’ll ever be. The site of the bomb.

I first read the news this morning, and have looked back over the news and read the new developments every few hours throughout the day. Despite not knowing anyone directly affected, I cried every single time – first at the horror, then at the unbelievable kindness and generosity of the people of Manchester. I don’t generally consider myself a patriot, but today I am proud be a Mancunian. I wouldn’t say everything has changed, but I’ve certainly realised I’m perhaps not as unbiased as I thought. No matter how logical I am, I seem to involuntarily care more about this terrorist attack because the victims lived near me, and the location is one I know well. The targeting of young people is particularly sick, and maybe having three siblings between 14 and 16 has added to my emotional response too.

It should go without saying that my heart goes out the victims and their loved ones. I have the greatest respect for all the emergency services and NHS staff that worked through the night. My sympathies also go out to the Muslim, Asian and any BME people that may suffer ridiculous revenge abuse to person or property over the coming weeks.

manchester bee


Running My First Puzzle Hunt was Anything But Puzzling

With secretly selfish motives, I recently started a puzzle hunt group in Manchester. I really enjoy creative problem solving, having to find solutions or research answers but there isn’t a lot of opportunity to do that recreationally (apart from over-priced escape

Manchester Puzzle Hunt

Team Sherlock ruminating on the first clue

rooms). So, I started a meetup group which has 90 members less than a month later! I designed and ran the first puzzle hunt yesterday, but I am hoping other group members will volunteer to run their own too – and thus my evil plan comes to fruition. Really, I am just hoping that I will get to go on some hunts since I find them so fun. That said, it was really enjoyable and interesting to run one too.

Despite some high winds and the total lack of a sun that has been present all week, the

puzzle hunt clue, puzzlehunt art gallery

Hunting for the solution to a puzzle in an art gallery

event was a success. I met the participants in a pub in Manchester city centre, and handed out their starter packs, which contained a disclaimer, the first two clues and a transparency to be used in later in the hunt. They split into three groups and headed out in to town.  I designed all my clues from scratch rather than just lifting ones from the internet, and they spanned physical locations, public buildings, paper clues deftly hidden from the public, and password protected web pages.

I settled into the Walkers Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs, but I wasn’t reading for long. I always knew there was a risk of the hunt being too hard, too easy or just not making sense to other people, after all, everybody’s brain works differently. And I soon had to find the teams to offer a little advice. I spent the day shadowing different teams or charging my phone in coffee shops so I could stay in contact with the participants. Only one clue proved too hard for anyone to do on their own, but for a first attempt we all agreed that was quite good going. It was a great learning experience for running other hunts and events in the future.

I collected any clues left around town because I think it’s important to be respectful when co-opting public spaces. 20170506_181225Then most of us went for a drink afterwards, and everyone seemed to have genuinely enjoyed themselves. Here’s a little taster from the hunt:

Clue 1.  A modern giant watches over Manchester. He used to sing but now is silenced. From the clouds, he surveys a traveller’s route, a great hall, and the house of alchemy and creation. You’ll find what you seek at his feet.

One member, Aiden, has volunteered to create the next hunt, so hopefully I’ll be the one fumbling around town a month from now!

My Manchester March for Science

I attended the March for Science today (Saturday 22nd of April). Unfortunately, not the main event in DC, or even the main UK event in London. I actually only found out about it at the last minute but I made it in to Manchester for one of the 610 satellite marches. I’m surprised, given how many science-y people I am connected to through the various social media sites, that I hadn’t heard about the march sooner. I suspect that same lack of traction is why more people didn’t show up in Manchester, but the numbers in the main cities are impressive. I haven’t come across a total figure just yet, but the released estimate is over 120,000 for the four biggest American cities plus London.

The main march website doesn’t specifically name President Trump (I just threw up a little in my mouth having to write that) as a driver, but his disparaging attitude to science has been clear even in his short term so far. Some of his first moves were to freeze funding, scrub climate change from the white house website and gag the parks department; to this day, he hasn’t named a top white house science adviser. Outside the US, Brexit in the UK threatens the EU’s significant funding of science, and plenty of our politicians also ignore scientific evidence when making decisions.

Back to today, it was a beautiful sunny day but still with a crispness in the shade. The marchers had a jollity to them, calling out ‘science, science, science’ in response to questions posed over the megaphone, and cheering in answer to a ditty played on a trumpet every now and then. They filed into a largely empty Albert Square, but even in mediocre numbers they filled the space with joy and laughter, witty and striking placards, lab coats a plenty, an excellent array of science themed t-shirts, and even a few costumes (although mostly restricted to the children present). The group of approximately 400 gathered around the monument to Prince Albert, where two large speakers had been set up. An organiser took to the stage (well, moved a few steps up the monument), and delivered a short but sweet speech in his slightly broken English. What gave you medicine, technology, food, he called, “science, science, science”, replied the crowd once more. He also spoke of the need for us all to stand up for science, to fight on after the march and push policy makers to base their decisions on scientific evidence.

I looked around as everyone cheered and clapped the end of his speech. Overwhelmingly, and quite unlike the many protests and marches I have been on before, I saw smiling eyes and jovial faces. I don’t see that as an indication of a lack of seriousness about the issue though, rather I read that as people still having hope. Hope that it isn’t too late, hope that there is enough of us who still give a shit, hope that science will win in the end. Maybe, like me, the other attendees enjoyed the feeling of comradery, feeling bolstered that they weren’t alone in their convictions. I just hope we can carry that energy and sense of community forward as we continue the fight against alternative facts and policy based on convenience or business ties.

The crowd dispersed fairly quickly, but I spoke to a few attendees before they all left. I asked people what had motivated them to come to the march. Much like me, they wanted to somehow express their annoyance at the anti-science movement that Trump’s administration seems to have kicked off, they wanted better funding for science, and a greater appreciation for science among politicians and the public. Research by the University of Delaware into people’s motivations for marching suggests many participants also want scientists to become more involved in advocacy, something historically avoided for complex reasons surrounding losing credibility and appearing biased. Maybe these marches will usher in a new era, where scientists can advocate for their own results, rather than having to rely on disinterested politicians who may distort the message or not bother at all.

Amusingly (to me), a wedding part began to arrive outside the town hall building while all of this was going on. Even though the weddings actually happen deep inside the building, I could see some shaking heads and unhappy looking hipster groomsmen. Perhaps they thought their event booking at the town hall meant exclusive use of the biggest square in Manchester, or maybe they just hate science! They needn’t have worried though, we were long gone before they reemerged for their photos, with many of the marchers heading over to the LGBT demonstration taking place nearby.


I’m sure it’s obvious to most that conservation science draws heavily on biology, but it is also inextricably linked to almost every major scientific discipline. If you aren’t convinced, here are a few examples;

Physics – A method to identify valuable biodiversity communities.

Chemistry – Analysis of chemical communication (such a pheromones) in mammals.

Engineering – Making physical solutions such as wildlife bridges. Check out these photos from around the world.

Computer/models/stats – These allow biologists to predict and monitor the effects of conservation projects on a given species or community.

Social sciences – Working with local people to understand why they hunt endangered species in the Madagascar.

Geoscience/geology – knowledge of existing geomorphological features and their associated species used to find and designate a new marine protection zone.




A Conservation Conversation with That Biologist

A little while ago I did an interview with Laura Cottam of ‘That Biologist‘. It was a great experience and I’ve had a good reaction from it, but the questions were harder to answer than I expected. It really got me thinking about my responses – why I do and feel what I do about conservation and my career so far.

I’d definitely recommend having a think about these sorts of questions to people feeling a little lost in their careers. Even after I had stopped consciously thinking about my answer to What’s next on your career bucket list?” the cogs must have kept turning in the background. A new thought crept in over the next week or so, and blossomed into an idea I intend to pursue (but am keeping to myself until I’ve done more research).

conservation conversation