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When Adventure Comes Calling ~ Foreign Perspectives

By Paul Manning, Post-doctoral Researcher, Dalhousie University

Sometimes when you’re least expecting it you can find yourself presented with the adventure of a lifetime. This recently was the case for me. My adventure took me to the United Kingdom, from September 2013 to August 2016, where I completed my DPhil in Zoology at the University of Oxford.

I didn’t have any long-standing plan to attend the University of Oxford. While finishing my undergraduate degree at the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University (Truro, Nova Scotia), I decided to apply for a Rhodes scholarship on a bit of a whim. The application was daunting but nonetheless, I managed to put something together and received word that I was a regional finalist. Roughly a week before my final interview, I scanned the University of Oxford – Department of Zoology website and came across the name Owen Lewis. I read through a couple of his papers and sent him a quick e-mail explaining my situation. I received a near-immediate response. Owen enthusiastically wished me the best of luck with my interview and agreed to act as my supervisor should I receive funding. Through a combination of luck, privilege and merit I found myself presented with the opportunity to study at the University of Oxford. I submitted my application to the university a week later. Opting to spend three years being supervised by a stranger based on a single e-mail exchange is not something I would advise to others, but it is exactly what I chose to do. Fortunately, I landed in an incredibly supportive and inclusive research group – and Owen’s first exchange perfectly predicted his supervisory style: helpful, available, and incredibly kind.  

I fell in immediate love with the city of Oxford soon after my arrival. The first thing you might notice about the city is the architecture: medieval walls, ivory towers, and ancient gates seem to appear around every corner. The second thing you might notice is all the bikes – they easily outnumber the cars on the road. The squealing of rusty brakes and pinging of bells is the soundtrack of a morning commute. The third thing you might notice is the gigantic slugs and snails that appear at night – that was my experience at least.

Looking West down High Street Oxford from the top of the Magdalen Tower (L). A delightful garden snail (Limax flavus) that would greet me at the entrance to my flat (M). A delightfully plump slug (Cornu aspersum) with a pound coin for scale (R).

My DPhil research explored the importance of insect biodiversity in perturbed environments using dung beetles as a model system. I did a fair amount of my fieldwork in Southwest Wales, where I was introduced to my co-supervisor Sarah Beynon. Sarah had recently completed her DPhil with Owen as a supervisor and was in the process of setting up “Dr Beynon’s Bug Farm”, which is probably best described as a mixture between a research centre, tropical insect zoo, and working farm. It also is home to Grub Kitchen, UK’s first restaurant with edible insects on the menu.  I spent my first summer living and researching on-site, while the start-up was in its initial stages. It’s a beautiful place – in the early spring the farm is blanketed with yellow iris, red campion, and various orchid species. It was a short bike ride to the coast which I frequented to enjoy steep paths, white sands, and impressive waves.

One of the things that I truly loved about the United Kingdom was the widespread appreciation and knowledge of natural history. The entomology and ecology circles that I ran in certainly would have amplified this signal, but it seemed to run deep in society-at-large. When a server interrupts your book-in-face breakfast to offer her insights about myxomatosis, a viral disease of rabbits, you might just be in the United Kingdom.

A late afternoon rainbow spotted at the Bug Farm (L). Some red campion (Silene dioica) blooming near St. David’s, Pembrokeshire UK (M). Blue skies and strong current on the Ramsey Sound (R).

Some of my favourite memories from my time abroad were natural history outings. Richard Comont, a DPhil student in our research group took me out in the winter of 2014 to see the impressive minotaur dung beetle. We arrived at a local park in the pitch black of night, armed with a couple flashlights. Richard, who bears a certain resemblance to Hagrid (the brawny groundskeeper for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry), also carried a pooter, umbrella, and beating stick. We found the minotaur beetles, they were certainly impressive, but perhaps more memorable was a vivid image of a grinning Richard whaling on a bit of gorse with a broom stick, in the pitch black of the woods.

Another dung beetle memory involves Darren Mann, Head of the Life Collections at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Darren invited me out for a day of dung beetle recording as part of a Scarabaeoidea recording effort known charmingly as Team DUMP. We left at six in the morning, drove two-and-a-half hours to rural Wales, and sifted through animal dung on sand dunes until it was so dark that we couldn’t see our hands in front of us. Darren found one species he expected was locally extinct – upon realizing what he found, he gave a fantastic howl of excitement. I’d expect there are few people who are more enthusiastic and knowledgeable about insects than is Darren Mann. If you ever get the chance, make sure to ask him about cockroaches sometime.

A third dung beetle memory is a day I spent collecting with Sarah and her partner Andy. We were getting ready to run a few experiments, and set-up a dung beetle demonstration at a tradeshow. Of course, the powers that be sent along torrential rain. To this day, I don’t think there is a more miserable feeling than kneeling in prickly shrubs, soaked to the bone, sifting through sheep dung. Nonetheless, that’s what we did for hours and hours. Upon returning to the vehicle, I cleaned up and towelled off only to have a bird defecate directly onto my head and shoulder. There couldn’t have been a more fitting end to the day.

An impressive Minotaur beetle (Typhaeus typhoeus) in Shotover Country Park, Oxfordshire (L). A vial of dung beetles containing 104 Onthophagus joannae removed from a single pile of dog dung (Photo by Darren Mann) (M). A collection of beautiful Geotrupid beetles found on Ramsey Island (St. David’s, Pembrokeshire) (R).

While my experience in Oxford was overwhelmingly positive, it did not come without its challenges. The biggest challenge I encountered was dealing with low points caused by an all-encompassing imposter syndrome. The ease and speed at which my colleagues could process and synthesize information was nothing short of intimidating.  Meanwhile, I had trouble getting my first few experiments off the ground; while simultaneously everyone around me seemed to be successfully completing ground-breaking research. I felt slow, unaccomplished, and lazy.  I tried to compensate by putting in additional time: arriving earlier, staying later, and working on weekends – but this just left me feeling burnt-out. Plenty of exercise, structuring my work days, limiting social media, and hours of conversation with my partner, friends, family, colleagues, and supervisors helped me get back on my feet.

I’ve been home in Canada since the summer of 2016, working as a post-doc and a sessional lecturer. I think often and fondly about my time spent abroad in the United Kingdom and would highly recommend it as a study destination. While competitive, there are many different funding sources that Canadian students can access, including the Commonwealth ScholarshipsNSERC – Michael Smith Foreign SupplementRhodes Scholarships, as well as numerous other international scholarships offered at the institutional level. Living in a foreign country provides you with a fresh outlook and opens your world to a range of new experiences, ideas, and perspectives. If international study is compatible with your other commitments, mull it over a little, and think about giving it a shot – becoming an international student might be just the adventure you’ve been looking for.

Are you a Canadian resident spending time abroad to conduct entomological research, or are you coming to Canada for the opportunity to study? If you’d like to share your story and experiences as part of the Foreign Perspectives series, please get in touch with us by email.

This post is also available in: English