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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 Scholarships, NSERC – Michael Smith Foreign Supplement, Rhodes 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. Read more

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A Nobel prize and the unknown benefits that come from saying yes

Aziz Sancar delivering his Nobel Lecture for his prize in Chemistry 2015. He said yes.

My early morning wakeup on Wednesday, October 7, 2015 began as usual with a, though admittedly not healthy, quick Twitter check. My internet-induced squint widened when I saw that Aziz Sancar was trending. Dr. Sancar had just been named co-winner of the Nobel prize in chemistry for his work on DNA repair mechanisms. Not at all surprised by the recognition of his career achievements, I was, however, flabbergasted because I actually know Aziz Sancar and in no small way, my career is what it is because of his generosity and kindness.

Twenty years ago, I was an MSc candidate studying the physiological ecology of amphibians at Trent University. At the time I was working with Michael Berrill on replicating and testing the findings of a 1994 PNAS paper by Andrew Blaustein and company. This was important work on declining amphibian populations in the Cascade Mountains. They found that these declining populations were characterised by low levels of a DNA repair enzyme called photolyase. This finding was intriguing because photolyase catalyses the repair of the principal form of damage to DNA from ultraviolet-b radiation. Because emerging ozone holes would result in natural populations experiencing an increased amount of UVB radiation, low levels of photolyase might be a “magic bullet” that explained which populations would be in decline in otherwise “pristine” areas.

Intriguing, but I was actually not ready to test it. With a potent combination of naïve enthusiasm, I figured I could simply contact the authors of the paper and ask them to teach me the methods that I needed to know to further their work. I tried email but could not find an address on the department website. So I phoned the Department of Biochemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They explained that Dr. Sancar did not want or have an email address. I asked that the call be connected to his office. When he picked up the phone, I leapt immediately into my explanation that I was an MSc student from Trent University in Peterborough, Canada, and that I was hoping to visit his lab to learn methods of photolyase extraction that I would apply to my system. To my now weathered academic amazement, but, at the time, only to my joy, immediately and without hesitation, he said yes. If I could get myself to Chapel Hill, he would teach me what I needed to know.

Alex Smith with hair studying amphibian photolysase induction and concentration in the late 20th century.

Alex Smith with hair studying amphibian photolysase induction and concentration in the late 20th century.

So on my spring break of 1997, I rented a car (two cars actually – one died, another story) and drove from snowy Peterpatch to the flowering springtime of Chapel Hill, North Carolina to spend a week in Dr. Sancar’s lab. “Lab” didn’t quite cover it. Dr.’s Sancar (he and his wife, Dr. Gendolyn Sancar) had a floor of the building at UNC. Dr. Sancar met me on that Monday morning and arranged for a postdoc and a PhD student to help me all week and ensure that I could extract and purify the enzyme. He even arranged for another lab to give me some African clawed frog eggs to practice on! He met with me every day to see how I was progressing and answer any questions. I remember him encouraging me to take in a UNC NCAA women’s basketball game while in Chapel Hill (Tar Heels!), and I was very impressed that this academic superman was often watching soccer in his office when I arrived (the knockout phase of the UEFA Champions League, I think). A man of many interests! I left at the end of the week and proceeded to apply these methods successfully in my MSc. Three papers (Smith 2000, Smith et al 2000, and Smith et al 2002), eventually came from this project and one of the principal findings was that this enzymatic system could be induced in individuals from natural populations (previously not considered – and something that dramatically affects ones’ estimation of a populations’ photolyase level).

In my paper I was very critical of previous research – and not surprisingly, the manuscript received quite harsh and negative reviews. I had never written a response to reviewer comments before, and I did not craft them elegantly or with appreciation. Dr. Sancar was the editor at the journal handling the submission. He phoned me to suggest how I might better word my response. Connecting the phone call alone was no easy feat considering I was living in my car at the time, couch-surfing amongst friends on the west coast of North America – I’m still not sure how he managed to find me. But the advice was priceless and likely not something I would have come to on my own (let’s say it was something along the lines of…“I can hear that you’re angry by these comments, and they are not elegant – but you can’t say what you’ve said. What you mean is this……..so try expressing it like this….”). I was so appreciative, and now 20 years later I’m not sure I expressed my gratitude sufficiently.

And so, fast forward 20 years when I wake to read that the world has recognised Aziz Sancar for his pioneering work in the broad field of DNA repair. It made me think about the often unappreciated or unintended effects that saying yes can have on those around you.

At the end of his Nobel Lecture in Sweden in December 2015, Dr. Sancar showed a slide acknowledging his lab and colleagues. In part, these people and their output are the metrics that the Nobel committee evaluated in awarding him the prize. It was an impressive, but I knew not an exhaustive, list, for Dr. Sancar’s direct effect on my career – and indirectly then on all the students I have worked with in the subsequent years – was invisible to the Nobel committee (and perhaps not even remembered by Dr. Sancar). But these effects are significant and they came from a busy scientist saying yes when confronted with a naïve but enthusiastic student. There were many reasons for him to not take my call, not encourage me to come to North Carolina, not host me while I was there nor mentor me through the review process later on. But he did. He did say yes and it had an immeasurable effect.

I now work with insects in the neotropics and Canada on questions of biodiversity. I don’t work with photolyase and I don’t work as a physiological ecologist. However, by saying yes to me 20 years ago, Dr. Sancar’s act of generosity enabled me to follow this path. In the over-scheduled and busy lifestyle that we lead, it is important to consider this ripple that saying yes can have. There are many intended and measurable outcomes of supervision and mentoring – however there are many, perhaps more, unintended and important effects that kindness can have. As Anne Galloway said on Twitter, “We’re all smart – distinguish yourself by being kind”. The Nobel committee judged Dr. Sancar’s academic output worthy of its highest award last year. They were likely unaware of the affect that he has had in other scientific disciplines through his generosity and kindness.

 

I don’t think I said it clearly enough before. Thank you Dr. Sancar.

 

Dr. Alex Smith
Department of Integrative Biology,
University of Guelph

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Entomologist Survey: Life & Living in Academia

This is a guest post by Dr. Laurel Haavik, post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Entomology at The Ohio State University.

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I am a post-doc. I’ve been one for nearly six years. Like many other post-docs, I have been working for over a decade towards my goal: a tenure-track position at a research-intensive academic institution. I enjoy research and teaching, and so a career including both seemed like a logical pursuit. I must be good enough to succeed in this pursuit, otherwise someone would have told me to opt for a different path by now. After all, only a small percentage of Ph.D.s actually become professors. I must be pretty close to achieving this goal, because lately I’ve had several interviews – no offers yet. By now, most of my peers have secured permanent positions, although some have gone on different paths. It must be my turn soon. I had faith in the system; confidence in myself.

Earlier this summer, I was invited to give a talk at a conference, in a session on women in science. I accepted willingly; the subject seemed challenging and relevant. As I began to prepare, I realized I knew nothing about it. So, I did what any scientist would do: I turned to the primary literature on women in science. What I found changed my whole perspective on academia, my career, and most importantly: my life.

I learned that the tenure system is outdated, and filters out many creative and talented people. It was established ca. 1940, when those entering academic careers were mostly men. Assistant professors were expected to live on campus, and work intensively, around-the-clock, on establishing themselves until achieving tenure. Sounds a lot like graduate school, or a post-doc, doesn’t it? There’s not much room in that scenario for having a life outside of this pursuit. It turns out that not much has changed about this in the intervening 70+ years. To make it worse, there are now few jobs and too many of us with graduate degrees competing to fill them. It turns out that women, more often than men, are willing to forgo their academic dreams because of this ridiculousness, in favor of something better – probably a happier life. It seems that there are two issues. One: is it even possible? Women are confronted with the complications of basic biology at the very same time as they would be embarking on a demanding academic career. Most of us are well into our thirties, near the end of our child-bearing years, by the time we’re on the job search. Two: they’re exhausted, wondering if an academic career is akin to never-ending graduate school. In the academic atmosphere, there is intense pressure to do more; for example, publish or perish, fund or famish. Talent and creativity that science badly needs is undoubtedly lost as women and men continue to opt out of this outdated system, and for very reasonable grounds.

I took a long, hard look at my career so far. I’m on my third post-doc. I’ve had two failed relationships and a third that might not make it if I have to move again. I’m not married. I don’t have children. I’m in my mid-thirties, meaning that if I want to have children, I better get situated and do it soon. Maybe academia isn’t for me after all, even though my interests, teaching and research, are so well-aligned with the academic mission. I realized that my adult life so far, 90% career and 10% life outside of work, is a direct product of what I like to call our broken academic system. We need to better understand and voice our discontent with the broken academic system, or it won’t change.

I wondered if others feel the same way. In my field, had others thought of leaving science? And if so, why? Has the disparity in numbers of women and men graduates vs. those occupying professional positions actually changed in recent decades? Most importantly, what allows people to cope with such a rigorous career? I’ve been lucky to have had some great mentors, support from my family, and support and encouragement from the scientific community in my field. Have others had the same kinds of emotional support systems?

My study pursues these questions among three related fields: Forestry, Entomology, and Forest Entomology. In all three of these fields women are not historically well-represented, but this has changed in recent years, especially in Entomology. There are still few women in Forestry. Forest Entomology is a small field with a very inter-connected community, which I hope will provide an interesting contrast to its two larger, sister fields.

Please follow the link below to participate in my study, by completing my survey.

I invite men and women at all stages in their careers, as well as those who are no longer in science, to participate. Please forward this invitation to anyone you know who is no longer in science, but completed graduate school (M.S. or Ph.D.). The results of this study will be published in the primary literature.

Please follow the link below to complete the brief, 28-question survey by September 30, 2015

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/forestry-entomology

It may take 10-15 minutes to complete. I apologize for any cross-posting of this survey. No personal identifying information will be collected as part of the survey, and your participation will be completely anonymous. Answering questions in the survey will indicate consent. Participation is voluntary and you may withdraw at any time without penalty, and there are no incentives to participate. Participation will have no effect upon your relationship with the Entomological Society of Canada. This study has been determined Exempt from IRB review.

Please contact me if I can provide any additional information regarding the aims of or your participation in the survey (Laurel Haavik, 479-422-4997, haavik.1@osu.edu). For questions about your rights as a participant in this study or to discuss other study-related concerns or complaints with someone who is not part of the research team, you may contact Ms. Sandra Meadows in the Office of Responsible Research Practices at 1-800-678-6251 or hsconcerns@osu.edu.