Scientist Abroad

If my previous blog hinted at a degree of panic, then that is only representative of how I actually felt. Back then I was about to embark on 6 weeks of field work in Spain, which was closely followed by a week-long workshop in Switzerland.

testing cricket personality using a brush on a stick

testing cricket personality using a brush on a stick

In Spain I was collecting data and setting up cameras for my project. This is the ultimate big bug brother, where we set 120 cameras in a meadow in Spain and record 24/7 the trials and tribulations of a population of field crickets (Gryllus campestris). The rest of the year I spend watching these videos back (you know you’re in trouble when you’re handling boxes of hard-drives and talk about terabytes in 10s) so it’s nice to spend a good bit of time outside. I was also adding to the project an additional component, testing cricket “personality”. So are some crickets more cautious than others, are some more exploratory than others, despite the fact they live in the same field with almost exactly the same environment. I don’t know exactly what I’ve found yet, so stay tuned for an update.

The workshop in Switzerland has been running for 24 years, and aims to bring together early-stage PhD students to do something quite unusual: practice thinking. This may sound a little daft, but allegedly thinking is something scientists do a lot, yet we never get much time to develop it. In the workshop we were split into groups based on interests, and then spent 6 hours a day simply working out some questions that if answered would really impact our field, and then developing a project that could tackle these questions. Constantly criticising each other’s ideas is actually a fairly brutal but invaluable experience, as we need to be good at forming ideas that stand up to intense scrutiny from our peers. Plus the Alps are pretty good inspiration for big ideas.

Sounds nice eh? I must admit it is a part of my current work I really cherish; I never had a gap year so every different place to visit is exciting. I’m even excited to be going to Newcastle in August. I’ve seen wild Ibex, eaten giant empanadas as a mountain side; got sunburnt a little bit and got sunburnt a lot. I’ve made many great friends, annoyed countless locals with my lack of Spanish, French and German and sampled as many local dishes as my meagre funds allowed.

you need sustenance to survive miserable weather..

you need sustenance to survive miserable weather..

As I have a NERC studentship, my funding comes from the government, and hence the taxpayer. So I guess the taxpayer wants to know why they are paying for me to travel around Europe?

The reasons for all my travelling are twofold. First, for me, and many others (a sample from other CEC researchers here, here here and here), my study species does not live in the UK (or if it does it is endangered to the point of being un-touchable). So to actually answer the questions we are interested in, travelling to countries where these animals are abundant is completely necessary. Again perhaps you can ask why; why do we need to study these particular organisms, what’s wrong with the common fox or bank vole or grass snake or honey bee?

The problem is that these animals might not express the behaviour we are interested in researching. If you want to understand co-operative breeding in mammals, your options are limited, making choosing mongooses or merkats the most sensible option. If you need to understand bird migration you may need to study the birds both at their UK base but also where they spend alternative seasons. If you need to prevent turtle populations declining you are pretty much forced to work at turtle nesting sites or feeding grounds. The UK is not that species rich compared to larger land-masses, and with our changeable climate a field season can be easily ruined, which would mean a complete waste of time and money. Doing fieldwork abroad can actually work out cheaper than in the UK as well, since once you are out there the cost of living and lack of available distractions mean you spend very little.

The other reason travel is such an integral part of our work is that we have colleagues all over the world. We work both directly and indirectly (through contributing to the same field) with pretty much anyone who can access the internet. If I want to know about a certain piece of research I can simply email the person responsible, without thought about where they actually are in the world. However, there are some things that can really only be done effectively face to face, such as discussing ideas or presenting research to stimulate debate. For this reason most societies (e.g. European Society for Evolutionary Biology) hold annual conferences, inviting researchers in the relevant fields to a venue for around a few days to a week to present their own research and hear about what others in the field are doing. These conferences are really important to get an understanding of the state of the knowledge in the field and which areas are currently attracting the most interest, helping you to work out where your research should go next.

They are also incredibly important for junior scientist like me as opportunities to network; once my PhD is over I’ll be thrown back into the desperate scramble for employment so I’d like to know as many people who might like to work with me as possible.

I’m an ecologist, call me maybe?

Thus despite the advances in the internet and global connectivity, it’s still really important to get out of the office and physically meet people. This is kind of nice I think; we’re still squishy, warm, social animals to whom communicating electronically isn’t natural.

Actually its especially good that we’re still squishy, only ever fly with budget airlines so it pays to be able to squeeze into confined spaces for a few hours!

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