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).