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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.

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Love, Tiny Flies, and One Big Opportunity for Researchers to Work Together Helping Farmers on Both Sides of the Border ~ Foreign Perspectives

Me at the University of Guelph Elora Research Station.

by Elisabeth Hodgdon, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Vermont

“It’s a story of unrequited love,” says Dr. Yolanda Chen, my Ph.D. advisor, describing our research on pheromone mating disruption. Mating disruption, a pest management strategy that involves inundating a field with synthetic sex pheromone, prevents male insects from finding their mates because they can’t cue in on individual female pheromone plumes. As a result, the males become confused and die without mating. During my time as a Ph.D. student, I’ve spent a lot of time in Vermont and Ontario becoming intimately familiar with the sex lives of swede midge, a serious invasive pest of cruciferous crops.

Swede midge (Contarinia nasturtii, Diptera: Cecidomyiidae) first arrived in North America in the 1990s in Ontario. Vegetable growers started noticing that their broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage plants were deformed and didn’t produce heads, and that their kale leaves were twisted and scarred. On canola farms, yields decreased because of distorted plant growth. The culprit, identified by Dr. Rebecca Hallett and her research group from the University of Guelph, was a tiny fly called swede midge. The midge, only about 2 mm long as an adult, is seemingly invisible to farmers because it is so small. Within a few years, the midge had made its way from Ontario to Québec and other provinces, and into New York and Vermont.

Female swede midge on cauliflower.

At the University of Vermont, we are the only research lab in the US working on this pest, which is currently causing up to 100% yield loss of organic broccoli and kale in our state. Naturally, it made sense for Dr. Chen to reach out to Dr. Hallett in Guelph for collaboration to investigate management options for this pest. Together, they wrote a grant funded by the USDA to conduct pheromone mating disruption research on swede midge that would take place in both Vermont and in Guelph.

This where I enter into the story. I jumped at the opportunity to join Dr. Chen’s lab, not just because I’m interested in insect pest management, but also because of my continuing love affair with Canada. I grew up in Vermont, a small state that borders Québec and has had lots of influence from our northerly neighbors: a history of French-Canadian immigrants, widespread availability of decent quality poutine, and signage in our largest city en français, among other things. I grew up learning French and visiting nearby Montréal and later went on to study agriculture at McGill University’s Macdonald Campus. I was thrilled at the opportunity to spend more time in Canada during my Ph.D. program.

Me and University of Guelph entomology graduate students at the ESC meeting in Winnipeg last fall: Charles-Étienne Ferland, Jenny Liu, me, Sarah Dolson & Matt Muzzatti (left to right). Photo credit: Matt Muzzatti.

I have gotten to know the English-speaking provinces better through my graduate work as a visiting Ph.D. student in Dr. Hallett’s lab in Guelph. Although many Canadians, especially those from nearby Toronto, describe Guelph as being a “small farm town,” it felt like a real city, especially coming from Vermont. I fell in love with Guelph — the year-round farmers market, old stone buildings, beautiful gardens, and emphasis on local food. The large sprawling farms just outside the city were the perfect places for me to do my research on swede midge pheromone mating disruption, which required lots of space between plots and treatments. Back in Vermont, where the farmland is wedged in small valleys between mountain ranges, we just don’t have the scale of crop production that there is in Ontario.

Josée Boisclair, me, Yolanda Chen, and Thomas Heer (left to right) at IRDA this summer getting ready to transplant broccoli for mating disruption research.

Working with Dr. Hallett opened up many doors and expanded my network in Canada. Last year, my advisor and I started a collaboration with the Institut de recherche et de développement en agroenvironnement (IRDA) in St-Bruno-de-Montarville, Québec. Earlier this winter, I practiced my French and mustered up the nerve to give two extension presentations on my swede midge work to francophone farmers in Québec. I was surprised at the number of people who came up to me after my talk, appreciative that I was making an effort to communicate with them in French rather than English. They were genuinely interested in working together with my research group across the border to help strengthen our research efforts to manage swede midge.

In all the time I’ve spent in Canada (which at this point can be measured in years), I can’t think of a time when I’ve felt unwelcome. On the contrary, I am impressed with how open most Canadians are to foreigners. I hope that we can continue to work together, despite language barriers, differing political systems, and other potential challenges, to gain traction in our efforts to find solutions for swede midge and other shared invasive species in the future.

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Czech out research abroad ~ Foreign Perspectives

 

By Dr. Lauren Des Marteaux, Postdoctoral fellow, Biologické centrum AVČR

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No one would describe me as having wanderlust; I am a nester, molding my surroundings for maximum comfort, convenience, and aesthetics. I loved my historic apartment, my extensive set of kitchen gadgets, and all of Canada’s familiarities (AKA Tim Horton’s everywhere, anytime). As a fresh post doc I had no idea what to expect when relocating from populous southern Ontario to a dorm room with a shared kitchen in small-town Czech Republic. Now (six months later), the only way to describe my time abroad would be overwhelmingly happy. Lire la suite