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.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

New Year Same Birds

I am happy to report the completion of 199 out of 202 surveys! The last 3 will be taken care of with the help of my BirdLife Cyprus friend on Saturday morning, and then we can all have a party and celebrate the end of a super efficient winter fieldwork season!

This winter's work has actually gone very well. It was a lot easier than I thought it would be. My car has proved itself on slippy muddy roads, only 5 days were completely written off due to bad weather, and I got soaking wet (and hailed on) just once. I have had an excellent field assistant and her help in data recording, navigating, putting up with me, and helping to keep me sane was nothing short of invaluable.

As the winter bird surveys are winding down, I have been stressing about fieldwork in Spring/Summer 2010. Some time in October during a discussion with my supervisor it was suggested I focus on linking avian diversity and abundance to viticulture and vine management practices. Since then, the prospect of this has been looking increasingly unpleasant, but I've begun some ground work on it, by interviewing winery owners and visiting vines. As a result, it's officially looking borderline horrid.

Turns out vine management is a very very complicated business. Although I now know the rough timing of the various managements (pruning, cultivating, spraying, fertilising etc), it all depends massively on a seemingly endless list of factors: climate, altitude, weather, soil conditions, grape variety, vine spatial arrangement, governmental policies and funding, and the experience, objectives and whims of the vine owner... And obviously the avifauna is hugely affected by the surrounding landscape and the mosaic as a whole.

Now it is my view that the land-use mosaic is the most important determinant of the birds that are using a particular vine. The vine itself is very important as well, of course, as it is a complicated system in itself, with lots of bits of management-related disturbance maintaining variety in the habitat, but it is just one part of the whole patchwork of land-uses in the landscape, and on its own it will not save or destroy the avian biodiversity of Cyprus.

As my brain struggles to wrap itself around all these interrelated factors and I attempt to formulate intelligent questions linking birds and viticulture and how to answer them, I begin to think about the possibility of forgetting about fieldwork in Spring/Summer 2010. This morning, I received an e-mail sent from the Gods. My supervisors seem to have been thinking on the exact same lines! I am now a bit concerned that they have managed to establish some form of telepathic link to my brain (think Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix).

Anyway, this means that I am now faced with a radical change of plan. I normally don't like these sort of situations, but I'm sure I'm making the right decision in changing my approach. Fieldwork on an unclear objective in less than 2 months' time feels rushed and risks wasting time and effort asking questions that, may not be outright wrong, but just not the best. And I don't normally settle for "not the best".

Now to re-organise my time...