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Welcome to my world!

Welcome,

This blog is created out of a curious nature and a need to know more. It is in a way a self explorative exercise to see what I do and more importantly, what I do not know, about the ecological world (the latter option being monumentally larger than the first)

At times It may be concise, at times a puddle of thoughts, but mostly it will probably just be a photo of a beautiful tree I found.

Join me on the journey,

Laura

(A 24 year old PhD student and aspiring scientist, currently working at Rothamsted Research)

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International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2018

In the last year, I have felt and visibly noticed a change, not just in the scientific community, but the public’s perception of women in science.

Yesterday (11th February 2018) marked the UN’s designated ‘International Day of Women and Girls in Science’. A day which loudly celebrates and promotes the empowerment of women in science through education, employment and recognition.

This day has fuelled movements all over the world for over a decade, inspiring change not just across the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) sector, but infiltrating into the much wider public and political psyche.

Colouring the immense admiration I felt for all the women I saw tweeting and blogging about their lives in STEM yesterday, was the undeniable feeling that there is still more to be done.

The UN’s own website for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science states that:

“According to a study conducted in 14 countries, the probability for female students of graduating with a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree and Doctor’s degree in science-related field are 18%, 8% and 2% respectively, while the percentages of male students are 37%, 18% and 6%.”

As a female doctoral (PhD) student this stunned me. 37% of men at Bachelor’s degree level vs. just 18% women. This disparity is not down to academic ability. This is down to how young women and girls perceive a career in science and how we, as role models, parents and teachers present careers and leaders in science.

Controversially, in certain situations, meetings, conferences or talks, even chatting to a friend, when the phrases ‘international women’s day’, ‘women in science’ or ‘women in STEM’ are mentioned I can still sense an underlying tension lurking, I can feel the invisible battle lines being drawn, the unsaid opinions palpable.

There is still a resistance to change. Albeit, I like to think, by a minority of individuals. A resistance, essentially, to equality. The root cause of this, the one I most want to believe, is perhaps the singling out of separate, distinct, honorary ‘international women’s days’ in the absence of ‘international men’s days’ (which although I’m sure do exist – would be stamped out as sexist in an instant). I in theory understand this logic, however, I whole heartedly support the promotion of powerful women as role models across STEM subjects – we truly need them to inspire younger generations and to illustrate that you can aspire to be anything, no matter your gender. Nonetheless, we must not forget the message here is gender equality.

Thankfully these frustrated undercurrents are not common in my life as equality generally surrounds me in both my work and personal life. But they still exist in ways which I doubt they exist for my male counterparts in science. For example, I have, upon meeting someone for the first time, had them address my male GCSE work experience student (he was 15!!) instead of me, assuming that he must be the researcher. I can only presume this was due to an underlying presumption (however unconscious) that the male in the room must be the scientist. I hear similar stories from friends and colleagues all over the STEM world. There is still progress to be made.

However, GREAT things are currently happenign all over the globe! As with many movements, a push into the mainstream media catalyses progress. The outcomes of this progress are popping up everywhere, from Waterstones to Amazon, Sky to BBC, fictional to non-fictional. Female scientists and role models are emerging all over! And I for one cannot get enough of it!

It has FINALLY become ‘trendy’ to be a woman in science (I for one am relieved!). And although some may argue, quite rightly, that it should not HAVE TO be trendy for a woman to be in science –right now I think that it is just what we need. Young girls who were once mocked for their supposed “geeky” or “nerdy” interests are (quite rightfully!) now the heroines of not just the science world, but modern literature, TV and film also. In my opinion this is just what we need to inspire the next generation of Elizabeth Garrett Andersons, Kathleen Lonsdales and Rosalind Franklins!

Movements and organisations such as the STEMettes, Women in STEM, STEMinist, ScienceGrrl, and WISE are just some of the forerunners making this happen (look them all up!).

Literature has taken a noticable turn in the last few years. Gone are the damsels in distress, replaced by heroines of their own making!

Here are just some of the books which make me grin with glee when I enter a bookshop:

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World by Rachel Swaby

Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs

Let’s make these books, these role models and our opinions the norm, another everyday occurrence, nothing to be noticed as novel. Then we will have succeeded.

The MOST MOST MOST important point of all is, quite simply and perhaps quite obviously to some, that you do not have to be a woman to support women in science.

 

From this woman in science, thank you for reading!

Laura

 

All views are my own.

For more info visit:

http://www.womeninscienceday.org/index.html

http://www.un.org/en/events/women-and-girls-in-science-day/

I’d make a meat pun, but I’d probably butcher it.

As some of the environmental realities of climate change begin to come to light on a global scale, the STEAKS couldn’t be higher!

But the real question is, could eating less meat, or no meat at all, really help?

Their is undoubtedly a food sustainability crisis facing us. An ever increasing world population must be fed on an ever shrinking, degrading amount of agricultural land. The FAO (2009) predicts that by 2050 the world population will have exceeded 9 billion people and these mouths need to be fed. This will require an increase of some 70% in food production on 2007 production values by 2050 (FAO, 2009).

However, surprisingly, it is predicted that the majority of this growth will be contributed by the developing world. In conjunction with this, we will see an increase in household per-capita income. This trend is associated with an increasing demand for more ‘wealthy’ food products, such as dairy, oils and meat.

I recently attended a lecture by Professor Tim Benton from the University of Leeds, a leading expert in global food sustainability. Professor Benton suggests a need for the re-framing of the issue of intensifying agricultural demand.

The real issue? – food dispersal

Controversially, it can be suggested that we currently have enough land and resources to sustain the predicted 9 billion people occupying the planet by 2050. However, these resources are unevenly distributed and unsustainably used. Large portions of agricultural land are given over to crop production for use in further agricultural production e.g. fish farming, chicken rearing, bio-fuel production.

Our current system is flawed, inefficient and wasteful. Professor Benton’s message seemed, to me, to be one of rethinking, not redoing. We need to do what we already do more efficiently and re-frame the issue in a different light.

Yes, further agricultural intensification is one answer. But, this can only go so far. The environment can not produce an infinite amount of resources in a finite geographical area. We currently produce an abundance of calories worldwide through mass mono cultured production of starch intensive cereals and cheap oils. We must therefore utilize our land area more efficiently.

One way of doing this may be to facilitate a shift in dietary culture. According to research, eating a majority vegetarian diet worldwide could reduce green house emissions by 63%. Now i’m not preaching that we should all become vegetarian, much less vegan, over night – I for one will never turn down a bacon sandwich! But…. further research suggests that even cutting down our meat intake to healthy guidelines could reduce food-related emissions by 1/3 by 2050.

Intensive livestock rearing contributes highly to green house emissions, by simply reducing the land we dedicate to certain farming practices we can aim to reduce both over-intensive, high-calorie diets and green house emissions.

Surely it’s a win win?

Now don’t run to Sainsbury’s and buy up all their kale, that’s not my suggestion. But maybe, if we make meat a once a day or a few times a week treat, then we can help to re-distribute the calories we are producing and dedicate resources to other agricultural avenues.

Until next time,

Laura

 

 

MeatLove-640x320Some interesting articles for further reading:

http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/docs/Issues_papers/HLEF2050_Global_Agriculture.pdf

http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/would-eating-less-meat-really-combat-climate-change-a6753466.html

 

The Elevator Pitch

Sell yourself and your entire career in 30 seconds. Its as easy as that.

The age old dilemma of how to sell yourself intensifies when you realize you may in fact be an awkward, semi-introverted PhD student with a chronic infection of Impostor’s Syndrome (the continual fear that you, as the least qualified person in the room, are about to be found out at any moment!).

Today, in an attempt to remedy this predicament, I attended a training course entitled “Networking Skills” – the catch all for how to sell yourself as a scientist – something, I think we can all agree that the scientific profession as a whole could do with some training on!

The challenge: an elevator pitch. 30 seconds to sell yourself and everything you are about to a potential collaborator or future career prospect.

The art: bullshit, but bullshit truthfully.

What seems to be required is an out of body experience of sorts. Whereby, you project your ideal professional perception of yourself as a confident, intelligent professional, onto your awkward actual self, whilst attempting to ‘network’ in a room of the scientific world’s high flyers at the next big conference.

What is also required is a complete, concise condensing of one’s scientific work, and passion for it, into a 30 second spiel. You can find my first draft below:

“Hello, my name’s Laura and I am currently a PhD student at Rothamsted Research. I really care about ecosystem services and their provision in agricultural landscapes. Anthropogenic conflict with nature, through intensive farming practices, has led to pollinator deficits worldwide. In China, this is reflected in the complete loss of pollination services in some provinces, with apple orchards in the regions being entirely hand pollinated. I will, with my research, aim to stop such an apocalyptic scenario occurring in UK arable landscapes. Through ecotoxicology research in both laboratory and field settings, providing a complex view of pollinator risk factors.”

It was a painful exercise even typing that out and you can deem for yourselves if it has the intended impact! However, I think this exercise highlights a deficit which is becoming clearer and clearer in the scientific community, the ability to truly communicate how important our work is. I think it is essential that we work on our capacity to network successfully through tools such as the elevator pitch. As gimmicky as it sounds, the tool may allow each of us to clarify in our own minds, as well as others, the purpose of our work and ultimately of our careers. Clearer purpose and clearer communication between scientists, stakeholders and industry partners can, in my opinion, only further

facilitate scientific progress and real-world research applications.

 

The Aliens are Coming!!!

But seriously what’s the deal with invasive species?

I recently came across an eye catching article on the front cover of BBC Wildlife magazine titled in large letters: “Are invasive species good for Britain?”. Everything I have ever learnt in lectures as a Biology undergraduate immediately answered the question in my head for me; NO, of course not, how could they be? To me an invasive species was one which didn’t belong, one which destroyed native flora, out-competed native animals and played havoc with ecosystems the world over.

However, I decided to give the article a chance so I flipped to page 71 and read on……

The article made me think. What if all this negative propaganda was just that; propaganda. There are countless well-publicized examples of “Alien species” all over the world. The Grey Squirrel terrorizing the nation’s precious red squirrel, the American mink preying on the Britain’s wonderful water vole, the toxic Cane toad in Australia, Ring-necked Parakeets in London and Japanese knot weed plaguing English gardens. All this emotive language paints a certain picture and reminded me of many talks at the organization where I work promoting the use of Mink rafts to eradicate the American mink and procedures for reintroducing the Beloved British water vole. But one talk came to mind in which I remember a map of the River Monnow Catchment in western Britain being displayed with red dots demonstrating mink capture sights, and the speaker’s glee as one by one the graphic made the dots disappear as the years progressed and the eradication increasingly successful. On a species level, as a biologist it made sense to me that if one species was out competing another then something should be done about it, but on an individual level I wasn’t so sure. I remember feeling not glee but empathy for this animal which had been trapped to the edge of existence whilst simply trying to survive the only way it knew how.

I can’t help feel that their designation as “aliens” alone brings negative stigma to these species. As the BBC article suggests it brings to mind the urgency of “THE ALIENS ARE COMING, AND THEY HAVE TO BE STOPPED!”.

The author of the article very enigmatically states that he has always been perturbed by the notion that conservationist can go “round obliterating the bits of nature they don’t like”. This really made me think; is it ever the species or even the individual’s fault? Often species are transported via human means to new areas; carried on ships or in cargo, a seed on the bottom of a traveler’s shoe.  Those which are termed “alien” are in fact those which have adapted to the new environment they find themselves in so successfully that they wildly out compete the natural flora and fauna of the area. Are we not therefore persecuting the species, which, often through our own volition, have demonstrated the very key Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest? Are the species not just doing what they do best? And why, therefore, should we interfere?

The article suggests that much of the stigma around “invasive” and “alien” species may root back to our teachings of biology and ecology that there are these perfect, pristine, set ecosystems which we, as conservationists, must endeavour to preserve at all costs. Realistically this “at all costs” came to $1.4 trillion dollars globally last year. $1.4 trillion dollars directed to eradicating species. Good intentions or not this seems to me a lot of money and effort directed into killing and removing rather than promoting and enhancing.

Biologist Daniel Botkin suggests that actually ecosystems and the species within them change all the time and this in turn suggests that there is nothing intrinsically bad with the notion of “aliens” or new species entering an ecosystem. I believe it has more to do with scale than the nature of alien species themselves. As the article goes on to say; each species should be judged individually on its merits as well as its flaws. For example, many invasive species are, contrary to popular belief, beneficial for biodiversity; the term which is often so closely linked with healthy ecosystems and conservation. Extinctions of native flora and fauna are surprisingly very rare. Usually the “invader” may fill a niche not previously taken by native organisms and may in fact increase productivity of that ecosystem.

We do surprisingly have many honorary invaders in this country which we have allowed to slip under the “alien” radar of bad publicity due to their beneficial nature. For example, the rabbit brought over from Spain for its meat, the Horse Chestnut from the Balkans and the Snow drop from Brittany. These invaders are so ingrained in the image of Britain we all know so well that I doubt any of us even remember they are invaders any more.

I know that not everyone will agree with the opinions expressed here, and it is by no means a black and white issue where all “invaders” are good or all are bad. But this research has certainly been an eye opener to me of the possibility of invaders not intrinsically being a menace and I hope it has made you think too!

I strongly recommend reading the article in BBC Wildlife magazine on which this post is based, the author Fred Pearce is very well informed and insightful.

Until next time,

Laura

Sustainable Palm oil: The myth, The legend, The mystery

More and more recently I have been made increasingly aware of how my every-day choices may be “sinful” to the conservation world. My love of Herbal Essences shampoo has been shunned and I have begun to feel guilty about using my favourite beauty products. Why you may ask? PALM OIL.

Palm oil is becoming in a way the new conservation passion meter, the bar by which keen conservationists judge others’ true loyalty to “the cause”. As from my previous post “Palm oil: the GOOD, the BAD and the UGLY.” you can see I have always been gruesomely interested in the socio-economic conflict with nature which is represented in the Palm oil debate and to some degree it certainly has affected my lifestyle habits. However, no matter how wrong we acknowledge palm oil is, how realistic is it to be able to cut it out completely?

When food shopping now I will always check the label of processed foods I am considering buying and the addition of “palm oil” to the label definitely holds some power in my salty snack purchasing. However, I find the moral dilemma presents itself when I come to well loved brands which I have habitually purchased for years. As, after much trial and error, I find they DO actually work. A clear example of this is my beloved Herbal Essences. The green packaging and floral illustrations, coupled with their infamous rainforest adverts creates an eco-friendly, loving brand image. However, the reality is that Herbal Essences contains Palm Oil and so I have come to the conclusion that this will be my last bottle.

All this moral turmoil over unethical shiny hair led me onto the WWF website, which has a very informative “Which everyday products contain Palm Oil?” -section. At the bottom of the article the author introduces the “What can I do to help?” -section, which as any morally compromised aspiring ecologist would, I clicked on. The section introduces the notion of “Certified Sustainable Palm oil” which is regulated by statutory bodies such as the “Round table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)” and “Green Palm Sustainability”. This is a concept which I briefly explored on my trip to Malaysia in March this year, where is was abundantly clear that some palm oil plantations were far more ethically and environmentally managed than others. Plantations which are classified as “sustainable” are independently audited by these organisations and must hold up the the environmental standards set by the RSPO (seen in the featured image) with the aim of promoting social, environmental and economic good practice. In order to make it easier for the consumer in the modern world, these more sustainable products are given a special RSPO approved label.

There is no easy answer to Palm oil, and as I explored in my earlier post, there essentially is no “GOOD” palm oil. The practice usually involves mass destruction and deforestation of the world’d most bio-diverse habitats and eradicates the flora and fauna once previously found there for mass monoculture. However, in countries where the industry is (for now) benefiting local communities, it is essential that there are ethical and environmental standards which may help prevent further decline and prevent further species loss.

The problem is that in a consumer led, shopping obsessed nation such as ours, PALM OIL IS EVERYWHERE. It is near impossible to live an efficient life without buying a single product with it in. But the answer seems to be that we should all TRY HARDER and DEMAND MORE. If we try switch just a few products a month to sustainable or palm oil free, then maybe an increase in demand and a demand for higher environmental standards can help to cease the decimation of our planet’s wildlife.

WWF also have a really great scorecard system to help consumers assess which products are more sustainable than others, which can be found here: http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/footprint/agriculture/palm_oil/solutions/responsible_purchasing/palm_oil_buyers_scorecard_2013/

So I am both sad and happy to say there will be no more “YES, YES, YES” from this girls hair!

Until Next time,

Laura

Congratulations! Its an……APHID??

But seriously how do I look after them?

I have recently acquired 500 bouncing green new mouths to feed; a colony of Sitobion avenae or Grain aphids as they are more commonly known. My new aphid family members are a vital component of my current research into Neonicotinoids and their food chain effects on predatory ground beetles which I am carrying out as my undergraduate dissertation project. These small bugs therefore hold quite a lot of weight in the “KEEPING THEM ALIVE” importance scale of things.

Having never reared 500 aphids before (I know shocking isn’t it!!) I decided that a little research was necessary!

And here it is:

Sitobion avenae are aphids of the superfamily “Apidoidea” of the order “Hemiptera” or the “true bugs”. Aphids do not have animal hosts like most parasites but instead have plant hosts, feeding on the sap of their host, giving them the common name “sap suckers”.  Aphids attach themselves to the host plant (as can be seen in my photograph) and protrude a “stylet” into the plant’s Sieve elements. The stylet is made up of a food canal and a saliva canal and is highly beneficial way of quickly transfering sap from the plant. this method, however, is less beneficial for the plant itself as it represents an easy vector for disease transmission into the plant.

Aphids are therefore seen not only as a direct crop pest in their feeding method and weakening of the plant but indirectly due to the viruses such as Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus (BDV) which they can transmit. This disease causing capability means that farmers often spray potentially vulnerable crops with large amounts of pesticide (such as Neonicotinoids) as a preventative measure against possible aphid colonisation and damage. Which is where my research comes in! (but more on that at a later date!).

The aphids require a constant source of fresh, juicy, viable plants to munch on. I have therefore supplied mine with a large amount of Winter wheat (grown in a grow room at a controlled humidity and temperature) to ensure they have all the sap they could ever drink! I am keeping my colony in a large wooden framed saw fly box with large insect mesh panels and a removable lid – this ensures no escapees but also allows easy removal of specimens when I need them for experiments.

So far I have had my new arrivals for 1 week and they are thriving wonderfully! Every 2 days or so I notice tiny new aphid nymphs arrive on the wheat and feel as proud as any Grandma would!!

Watch this space for more aphid family updates!

Until next time,

Laura