Thursday, 3 March 2011

Presenting Research

Looking back on the last few weeks, I am aware of how much time I spent thinking about my future. I haven't actually sat down to think about it or talk to anyone about it at any length. Just little glimmers of thought coming up in my mind, only staying there for a couple of seconds at a time.

So what have I been doing in the past few weeks?

Well, I spent a lot of my time helping to organise the Rebellion Conference. At the same time, I was putting in huge amounts of effort to produce quality results for my second chapter, which I was planning to present at the Rebellion. Then, I put a lot of time and energy into preparing the talk, and I've just finished preparing my poster for the SCCS Conference, also presenting the same results. They are good results =)

I remember going to one of my first weekly Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Conservation (CEEC) seminars, and listened to Luke Parry talk. He was in his final year at the time, now of course Dr Luke, researching the people of the Brazilian Amazon: where they live, how they sustain themselves, their rural-to-urban movement and the implications on forest conservation. Anyway, I remember being blown away by the quality of his talk. It was the best talk I'd ever seen/listened to! And nearly every other one of the talks by advanced PhD students at these seminars was (and still is) of the same awesome standard.

I feel I've come such a long way with presenting talks and posters since I was first exposed to them in my Undergrad years. And even my Masters year, during which we had to give a number of assessed talks. I used to consistently go over my allocated talk time, I used to talk too fast, my slides were average at best, with too many words, and disjointed themes. All my old posters had the same problems: too many words, trying to get accross too much information, and lacking clear theme and flow.
The Tyndall Centre Climate Change Garden
at the Chelsea Flower Show

Some time in my first year, we dedicated one of our weekly research group meetings to helping Johanna Forster (also now a Dr) practice her talk about the award-winning Climate Change Garden she helped design for the Royal Chelsea Flower Show. Her talk got some amazing constructive criticism by the research group. And I'm sure was an even better talk for it. This is where I learned about ungrouping graphs and clever use of animation. "Break it down" was the message.

When I was going to give my first seminar talk, my supervisor looked through my slides and completely changed the presentation structure, got rid of most of the words, and introduced me to the concept of "less is more". I'd been told this before, of course, in the various "How to give good presentations" lectures I'd had in the past. But I'd never had anyone put it into practice on one of my presentations. After giving the seminar, one suggestion that Dr Jenny Gill made was to start every slide with a question. Get people thinking before you give them the answer. I've just recently seen her talk at the Rebellion, and I can verify from the audience side: it works. It engages the audience and it carves the path for the talk. Ingenious device.

At one point I was subjected to the brilliant force that is the research group's constructive citicism. I was preparing a talk to present to a mixed audience about my methodology (at the workshop mentionned in this post). This is quite a technical subject (as far as ecological fieldwork goes anyway!) and I had to somehow make it understandable and useful to non-specialists but not dumb it down and maintain interested in the specialists who were also going to be in the audience. I never thought that having my presentation ripped apart like that could be a pleasant experience. I loved it!

I had the exactly opposite reaction, however, when I was trying to prepare my first PhD poster. It turned out all for the better though! I talk about that here, I won't repeat myself. My next poster, for the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting, I actually enjoyed preparing (mentionned here - check it out, I finally added a picture of it). I mentionned at the beginning of this post that I've just finished preparing another poster. And it is my best yet! I'm really proud of it, but no one gets to see it until its had its unveiling at the SCCS.

Caught in action during my Rebellion talk
I feel the same way about my Rebellion talk too! It went brilliantly. There were scarcely any words on my slides, lots of mouthwateringly gorgeous pictures (thank you wonderful Creative Commons photographers on the web!), simple graphics animated for flow and informativeness (I checked the dictionary; that is a word), I didn't talk too fast, and I finished leaving plenty of time of questions from the audience, which I tackled without getting flustered. It was like a dream.

Of course there's always room for improvement, and I can't wait to discover it!

So what's all this got to do with glimpses of my potential future? Well... event organising, science communication... We'll see I guess!


Tuesday, 1 March 2011

2011 UEA CEEC Rebellion

Last week was the 11th Annual Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Conservation (CEEC) Rebellion Conference at the University of East Anglia (UEA). The Rebellion is a student conference that aims to be a platform for the showcase of CEEC PhD student research and, more importantly, an occassion to bring together ecologists and evolutionary biologists that are normally scattered in various departments across the UEA. More info on the Rebellion, including where it gets its name from, here.

For the last few years, Rebellion has also been a student run conference, and this year I had the pleasure of being in the Organising Committee!

Organising the 2011 Rebellion was really great fun for me. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire process, including the one little spat we had within the Organising Committee. We were really rubbish at having a fight though: we proceeded to apologise to each other almost immediately. Not particularly spectacular, but super efficient! In general, we worked brilliantly together. And that really says something coming from me. I'm a perfectionist and will take over where I feel others aren't delivering to a high enough standard. But during the Conference, I did not hesitate to leave tasks in the capable hands of my fellow Committee members.

My excitement for the whole thing did not go unnoticed. It was repeatedly pointed out to me that I was acting like a kid on Christmas Eve, and one person actually asked me: "What are you going to do when Rebellion is over?!" Yeah, maybe I went a bit nuts. Set up a blog and everything! I did suggest live tweeting of the conference, but it transpired I was the only one in CEEC with a Twitter account...

CEEC Rebellion 2011 in pictures
- student and post-doc talks -
CEEC Rebellion 2011 was a resounding success! We had the pleasure of hosting Prof. Tim Birkhead (University of Shefflield) and my co-supervisor (*brag*) Prof. Nigel Collar (BirdLife International) as guest plenary speakers, whose presentations were nothing short of inspiring. Our internal plenary speakers, Dr Jenny Gill and Prof. Tracey Chapman, wowed us with accounts of their work, truly at the cutting edge of ecology and evoltionary biology research. And the standard of student talks was just phenomenal. Here is the Programme if you're interested.

The most important part of the whole conference though was the atmosphere. It was fantastic. Everyone was lively and enthusiastic, and people who don't normally interact were engaging with one another, creating a real community spirit. We brought CEEC closer together and this is really significant for a group of researchers that are dispersed across so many different parts of the University.

I'm really chuffed =)

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Ieronymidou et al. (in prep.)

How is it nearly February already?!
And why does it feel like Christmas holidays never happened?

Last term was really tough.
It started off with a not so great experience at the BES Annual Meeting, swiftly followed by a thesis plan. It was quite useful to look at how we can package all these data into self-contained chapters/papers. I am always amazed at how brilliant my supervisors are at deciding which are the best and most important questions to ask of the data, and what the most appropriate spin is, and also which journals to target! I'd never been exposed to this side of research before, and it seems to me that experience is everything.

We identified one particular little topic as the best one to start with. On paper, it looked like a sweet little piece of analysis that would be neat and simple, and thus the perfect chapter to start on to hone my skills.

It turns out, that what should've taken a few weeks, took me three months. My goodness it was hard going! The toughest thing about it was the repetition. Having to do the same analysis over and over again, every time making a tiny correction in the variables or in the model, and at the end of every round discovering that another little bit needs to be changed. It's sooooo monotonous. I remember when I was helping out a PhD student of my BSc supervisor and I asked him what it was like doing a PhD, he replied: "It's OK. You really struggle to keep motivated though." I think I never really knew what he meant until I had to do this analysis.

It is really hard to keep motivated. Especially when you spend six months painstakingly collecting data in the field, and then you come back and try to decipher what the data are telling you, but no matter how hard you try and how closely you look, the data just aren't giving you any clear results. And my case isn't the worst: a colleague spent about 12 months in the field data-collecting, and he failed to find the pattern underpinning his thesis concept! He made it work, though. I admire him for not collapsing into a heap, which is what I would do.

They say all results are significant. Yeah, ok, you may claim that, but no editor in their right mind is going to publish a paper that says: "We tried x, y and z, and no matter how we massaged the data, we still have no idea what the message is". I think the idea is to find the message. That's the approach we took, and my manuscript says: "We can't explain everything, and the results aren't that simple to interprete, but it is quite evident that x and y are fundamentally very different".

Yes, you read correctly: I have a manuscript. A DRAFT manuscript. Soon to be returned with all sorts of horrendous comments from my supervisors, to be sure! But hopefully I won't need to do any more damn stats on it! And then we can submit it, and if we're lucky we won't get rejected outright, and if all goes well then maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to say: Ieronymidou et al. (in press).

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Third year - lessons from the BES Annual Meeting

My poster for the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting turned out pretty good in the end (pic finally here). I got lots of compliments, which was nice, but obviously mainly from people I know. What wasn't nice was my experience of the conference.

Don't get me wrong, it was fantastic to be there, and there were some very good talks that I enjoyed, and it was an amazing opportunity to catch up with old friends, including my old supervisor from my BSc, and my friend Mark, who is doing some pretty awesome stuff! I also got to meet and have some brief chats with GrrlScientist and Bob O'Hara, two people I had only ever heard of in the online worlds of scientific blogging and twitter. I don't actively participate in the online science blogging community, although I regularly read lots of blog posts and am frequently quite inspired by them (here is a little introduction by the Guardian Science Blogs, with links to some of the best blogs out there), but of course I don't act through that inspiration - lazy.

The whole thing started going wrong when I tried to do this thing called "networking". It didn't go well. At all. I can confidently say that I made no actual connections with people. At the same time, I began to have serious issues with academia and research as a future career. The more I listened to people talk about their work, the more I realised I did not want to carry on in academic research. There were not many people talking about non-academic ecology, and the ones that did (mainly policy-relevant ecology... you know, climate change, land-use change, that kind of stuff) gave, on the whole, pretty poor talks. I just felt I didn't belong.

To make matters worse, there was a workshop for PhD students about career development - the perfect setting to learn about the possibilities after the PhD. Or so you'd think. It was basically a workshop on tips and strategies towards geetting a Post Doc contract. Not only did I feel that I didn't belong, I also now felt convinced that there would be nowhere for me to go after the PhD.

Overqualified for anything less than research (for which opportunities are so limited anyway!), and underexperienced for anything else (because I've spent my entire academic career working towards a research goal, which has just blown up in my face). Pretty bad start to my third year. And the cycle of ups and downs - mostly downs - continues...

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Survival has had a facelift!

Bet you didn't notice coz it's been such a long time since this blog did anything interesting. It's still a ready-to-use blogger template, so I suppose it isn't actually interesting. But things may change yet again in the near future! I've been playing with a lovely piece of image editing software called the GIMP, and I might just design myself a pretty background for Survival. Or I might not. We'll see.

The reason I've been playing with image manipulation software is because I am yet again designing a poster. This is actually the second poster I've had to make in the last couple of months. They are two different posters, with different target audiences, different layouts, and different messages, so designing each of them is a pretty unique experience.

The first poster I volunteered to make as part of an exhibition about biodiversity research at my University, inspired by the UN 2010 International Year of Biodiversity. This small exhibition, which included about 20 posters and two live insect displays, was meant to be a showcase of the University's work in biodiversity research and conservation, and was open to the public over the course of about two weeks. The posters were manned on a couple of days, so I had to stand next to my poster and tell people all about my work.

Given that people of all ages and backgrounds were going to be looking at my poster, it had to be visually appealing, have little and simple text and lots of photos, and - above all - be accessible without sacrificing the science! Okay, so I volunteered to do this, I'm sure I can figure it out!

Not so easy.

First reaction: Omg it's too complicated a topic, how are they going to understand what I'm trying to do, there's not enough space, omg omg omg. I made a draft, with loads of text boxes and photos and maps and things trying to be as clear as possible. I had no idea if it was any good so I sent it to my supervisor asking for feedback, and... I was shot down in flames.

I looked at his reply, which basically said "it's a mess, there's no overarching structure, too many words, scrappy" and I got that horrible sharp clenching sensation in my stomach. A second later, I grabbed a piece of paper and drew this graphic on the left. A moment later, I burst into tears. Yeah I got emotional, ok?! It's not every day you try really really hard to do your best, and work long hours to get it done, and when you finally create something, you boss smashes it with a verbal hammer.... Who am I kidding, it happens all the time.

Well in the end I gathered myself up, asked a load of people for advice and suggestions (what wonderful peers I have, seriously, I love them all!) and tried again. My supervisor came over as well and gave me some post-slating help. Key points I've learnt are:
  1. Think of what message you're trying to convey. No more than 3 key points.
  2. Keep it short and simple, with as few words as possible.
  3. Lots of pictures are good, but don't over-do it. One high-impact graphic with some smaller pictures works well.
  4. Blurry background with transparent text boxes looks really stunning.
  5. Make sure there's a structure to the poster - like a path the reader can follow when reading it.

Here is the final product:

My next poster is still in the works. It is a completely different project: it's a scientific poster, which will be displayed at the Birtish Ecological Society Annual Meeting in September. Yes, people, this is my first ever big academic conference! And I'm presenting a poster. Less scary than giving an oral presentation, but possibly more scary coz of the real close personal contact with people who will be looking at my poster, and having to wing it with the research talk (although I suppose I could prepare a little introductory schpeel).

So far, I have a poster skeleton with the structure of the poster, the titles and subtitles and my main diagrams (which I painstakingly created using GIMP)... but no text.

A successful poster is one that tells an interesting story. This is the same for all kinds of posters. But for my academic poster, I need to somehow turn my data and analysis into an interesting story. At first I had the same first reaction as last time: Omg it's too complicated, I don't have enough space to explain everything omg omg. But I'm now just about to step back, and think about it from the audience's perspective, figure out what message I want them to walk away with, and then write down my story. Check me out, I've learnt something!

Anyway, it's not that simple or that easy to extract a clear story from a multivariate analysis, which essentially distributes my farmland bird community composition across multi-dimensional space in a conformation that explains as much of the variation as possible... Wish me luck!

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The ever-present data and its analysis, a workshop, a holiday and a ring

Well it's been quite the month! Although I like to save the best for last, I can't hold this one in for very long so: 

I'm engaged!!! =D

I'll spare you the lovey-dovey bits, but let me just say that my feet have hardly touched the ground since my fiancé put the most beautiful ring on my finger *elation*.
This opens up some very interesting points for discussion, which, to do them justice, I will leave to another blog post. For now, let's just take a look at what PhD-related things I've been doing...

sorry, got carried away looking at my ring

So I had my annual meeting, where I presented to my supervisors various bits of analysis that I did so far and then we talked about moving forward. The plan officially now does not include another field season.

My best hope of going into the field again is by inviting a MSc student to do work on a topic related to my PhD for their dissertation. This would be quite a good thing to do actually, not just because I'd be going out in the field with them for a bit, but also in terms of getting experience supervising, and maybe even a publication. I did advertise for a MSc dissertation this year, but unfortunately I didn't get good candidates so it didn't happen. Hopefully I'll have better luck next year.

The result of the annual meeting was an action plan for the next 12 months. This was not that easy to do. Things just get so sketchy after about 3-4 months. I did manage in the end to break up my time into week-long chunks. This way, I don't have ten different things to be doing over a long period of time. That would be very vague, and it wouldn't allow me to check my progress effectively. What I've come up with allows me to estimate how many weeks I will be dedicating to each task, and I'll be able to clearly see if I'm falling behind schedule. There's a lot that needs doing, but I'm happy with my plan.

The first thing on my list was to explore the effect of altitude on my birdies. In my previous post I showed you a map with different sized and coloured bubbles representing the extent of the various land uses at each of my sites. Other than land use / habitat type, altitude is another major factor in what birds will be present at a particular site. Different bird species occur at different altitudes.

Although my GPS unit has the capability to record altitude, there were a couple of sites where it obviously didn't have good enough signal to give me a reading. Another way of getting the altitude values for my sites is to look at a map with elevation contours. This sort of thing in GIS is called a Digital Elevation Model (DEM). Several of these exist, and the one that was reccommended to me as the best is the DEM derived from the Nasa Shuttle Radar Topographic Mission (SRTM) by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research Consortium for Spatial Information (CGIAR-CSI), which is freely available online. Here is an image of the DEM - elevation increases from pale blue through pale green, orange, brown to white. Check out those three beautiful river valleys in the southwest!

I love it when people and organisations make usefuly things like this available online for others to use. Love it!

Other than extracting elevation data for my sites (and understanding what it means), during the last month and a bit I have also prepared for and presented a talk at a workshop in Cyprus. Being invited to give this talk was a very important milestone for me, because, although it was not a scientific conference, it was my first ever talk to people other than my peers. Actually, it was a talk to a mixed audience, with scientists and non-scientists participating in the workshop.

The workshop was organised by BirdLife Cyprus and the Cyprus National Rural Network, as a first major step in setting up a Farmland Bird Indicator for Cyprus. The coordinator of the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (PECBMS) and his technical assistant were invited as specialists to help us move forward towards a common bird monitoring scheme for Cyprus. This was a very interesting experience for me. Not only did I talk about my work with relevant people, including people from the Game Fund Service and the Ministry of Agriculture (my talk went very well if I do say so myself), but I got to see what it's like to try and get different groups of stakeholders to cooperate and to work towards coordinating their actions towards a common goal. Like my friend said, sometimes it feels like "trying to push jelly up a hill". It was indeed a very interesting workshop.

I actually offered to do a big chunk of work for them, if we can come to a data-sharing agreement, and on the condition that it will be part of my PhD. I've been hoping on getting the data anyway, so if analysing it a bit differently in order to suit the needs of the Farmland Bird Index is the price I need to pay in order to get access to the data I need, then I'm totally up for that! If I can do this, then I will actually have done something with direct application to Cyprus EU policy.

I should explain, but to do that I need to go into the Farmland Bird Index in some detail. As I am about to go attend a workshop, this is not the time. And indeed, possibly not the place - how many people who read this blog are interested in EU wild bird policy???

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Drowning in data

I've been back in the UK for five weeks exactly, and it's already feeling like a lifetime!

I have to admit I've not really been concentrating on work for most of this past month and a bit. Apart from the expected post-fieldwork brain-scatter, I've also been grappling with a ridiculously complicated moving situation. I won't get into it now, let's just say that it won't actually be fully sorted out for another 3 weeks or so. This whole thing has resulted in a monumental decline in efficiency, productivity, health, and mental wellbeing. I now find myself in a period of relative calm and stability, so I've been able to actually make some progress (and post this blog entry).

So, as you may recall, I am now in a situation where my plans have been changed completely, and I am facing a long stint of data analysis. It is the view of my supervisors that the data I have collected so far will be enough for my thesis. I would actually love to have another field season, but it might not be the best course of action, given the amount of time I have left as a PhD student.

If I use the funding I have budgeted for another field season to employ someone to digitise and enter data for me, then I would save a couple of months of mindless tedium. If I actually go to the field, not only do I lose 3-4 months of valuable data analysis time, I actually increase the amount of data I'd have to enter. In effect, I'd lose about 6-7 months of analysis and writing-up time. So the first scenario makes much more sense.

All this is yet to be finalised and agreed on. In fact, I have my annual review meeting with my supervisors in a couple of days, so I am hoping to have a new gameplan for the PhD, so I can start fresh on it next week.

I leave you with a pretty picture I made in my GIS - see, I've been doing some work! It shows the relative proportions of the main different habitat/land use types at my survey sites across Cyprus. This sort of map should hopefully help me deal with any potential spatial autocorrelation issues. More on that some other time.