Science in shiny wrappers

Scince in shiny wrappers

Posted by Josie Galbraith @Josie_Anya

Something all scientists share is an inherent understanding that science is a worthy pursuit. That knowledge, like pie, is worth seeking. We are prepared to read paper after paper – countless paragraphs of text – for the betterment of our understanding. But even amongst ourselves, we usually draw the line at reading literature outside our fields of interest. And fair call – ain’t nobody got time for that. Papers outside our broad disciplines may as well be written by aliens. Alien subject matter, alien concepts, alien terminology. Crossing the disciplinary event-horizon doesn’t exactly make for easy digestion or light bedtime reading.

We all want sweet juicy visual treats.  

Not paragraphs.

What we all want, what we really really want, is for someone to hand us delicious bite-sized science in shiny wrappers. Sweet juicy visual treats, like graphical abstractsinfographics and animations (check out this sweet as bird feeding animation – yeah you got me… it’s mine). Data visualization and visual storytelling aren’t new concepts, but in this digital age they have become more important than ever. Increasingly, journals across the spectrum are recommending or even requiring visual summaries of research. Visual representations of research are many more times effective at engagement than legions of characters lined up on a page (there’s a graphic of that). Do not underestimate the power of the drawn lines.

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You’ve probably stopped reading already to check out this awesome graphical summary or #ArtStract from  deciphered.com 

What’s more, this kind of science is also perfect to share with all manner of non-sciencey folks. Science communication is, after all, a hugely important part of science and part of our responsibility as scientists (scidev.net editorial, Brownell et al. 2013 ). Not all of us are comfortable giving interviews via conventional channels (TV, radio, articles). Furthermore, mainstream media have a tendency to cover only those articles that are sexy, sensational, or published in the top journals. But, with the age of social media, opportunities for communicating science to the world in graphical ways have skyrocketed and we can do it ourselves. We don’t have to wait to be asked. Make the most of it. Turn your fancy words into shiny pictures, because pictures are great. Great for society and great for our own science.

Don’t wait to be asked. 

Turn your science into a shiny picture today!

It is a vastly useful academic exercise to distill your research down into a single picture or a 60-sec animation. What is it that really matters about your study? What are the vital pieces? And these days we need to do more distilling. While opportunities to communicate science are increasing, attention spans are shrinking. Sharing scientific findings graphically is the perfect answer.

A final comment: don’t let artistic skill or lack thereof stand in your way. Graphics software is pretty awesome these days (your institution may already have a license for Adobe Illustrator, or there are many free apps too). Failing that there are people out there to help you with the research make-over you’re looking for (shout out to deSciphered and maybe future me).

Jo ground cricketJosie Galbraith is a PhD student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is supervised by Margaret StanleyJacqueline Beggs and Daryl Jones (Griffith University, Australia). She is also known to dabble in the dark arts – painting, illustration, graphic design, and animation.

Science in wrappers image © Josie Galbraith.  This image includes vectors designed by zhaolifang and larvarmsg Vecteezy.com.

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Challenges of doing a PhD with a chronic disease

Posted by Carolina Lara @carislaris

 About 15% of the world´s population have some form of disability and this rate has been increasing (due to a multitude of factors), particularly for chronic health problems. Even though chronic conditions are more common than suspected, most people are not aware of what it is like undertaking a PhD while having one. And of course openly talking about it is not easy, because who likes to be seen as vulnerable and weak? So, it is likely that one of your colleagues might be experiencing this struggle but keeping it quiet.

 

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An autoimmune disorder (most of them chronic) occurs when the body’s immune system attacks and destroys healthy body tissue by mistake.

I am now writing about my own Little Beast (as I have named my condition) as a way to raise social awareness about living with a chronic disease and studying for a PhD. I was diagnosed with a chronic autoimmune disorder called Ulcerative Colitis six years ago; eventually, this diagnosis changed to Crohn´s disease. There are all sort of personal challenges to face, especially because each individual and each chronic condition is different. The only similarities shared among chronic conditions are that despite treatment, they will not go away, and they will change our lives. And knowing that makes us experience anger, anxiety and depression. I am finally under remission thanks to a new medication but I am still battling fatigue caused by anaemia (because, well, medication has side effects). I am aware that this state will not last forever, unfortunately. And it has nothing to do with being pessimistic, it just the nature of chronic diseases.

fatigue

Fatigue is a common symptom of autoimmune disorders & often becomes a limitation while doing a PhD.

No one warns us about how difficult doing a PhD can be, not only from an academic point of view, but from the personal pressure it conveys. Add this to a variable dose of daily physical discomfort and fatigue and it becomes unbearable at some point. There are good days, bad days and not-so-bad days. Getting up from bed can become such a challenge but also a great achievement. And yet, we will say we feel alright… but do we? Why can´t we just be honest and say “I feel terrible today, but despite that fact I am working”? Maybe because we only want to become, and be seen as, good scientists rather than “good scientists overcoming health struggles”.

Although this journey might seem lonely, support from family, friends, colleagues and supervisors play a big role. Against all odds, me and my Little Beast made it to New Zealand thanks to Margaret, my supervisor, who was happy to work with me even after warning her about my medical condition. I might talk more in detail about the personal and external challenges of living with a chronic disease in another post, but for now I might just take a nap.

Carolina2Carolina Lara M. is a PhD Candidate within the Centre for Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. Her research interests focus on seed dispersal networks within fragmented landscapes. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Jason Tylianakis, Karine David, and Anna Santure.

How many feral pigs did we kill? And why that’s the wrong question.

Posted by: Margaret Stanley @mc_stanley1 and Cheryl Krull @CherylRKrull

Too often pest control is focussed on the number of pests killed, rather than the actual benefits of removing the pests.

Most monitoring during pest management focusses on ‘results’ monitoring, which measures how many pests are killed during the control operation. However, the often forgotten, but more important type of monitoring is ‘outcome’ monitoring. This type of monitoring measures the true success of an operation by focussing on why the pests were killed in the first place. For example, outcome monitoring for a control operation targeting conservation damage by an herbivorous pest (e.g. brushtail possum) might be the ‘foliar browse index’ – which can indicate whether there is less damage to trees as a result of removing possums. The danger of only doing ‘results’ monitoring is that you’ll never know if you are achieving the biodiversity benefits you think you are. This costs money and the confidence of stakeholders.

stakerholders

The tide is starting to turn, with more investment in outcome monitoring. The key challenge is to link damage and damage thresholds to pest control operations. For example, some neat NZ research has shown that once you get above 4 rats per ha in podocarp forest, you start losing tree weta. Rat control operations can therefore be triggered at ‘damage thresholds,’ rather than undertaking regular control, saving money on pest control, and reducing the use of toxins.

This was our challenge posed by Auckland Council: we know feral pigs are causing damage to forest ecosystems, but how much feral pig control is enough? Feral pigs in dense temperate rainforests are notoriously difficult to count, and control is expensive.

feral pig image

Feral pig in rainforest. Photo Credit: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

In our new paper, we report on how we used a 3-year pig control programme (ground hunting) to understand how control reduces pig densities, but most importantly, how pig control affects the rates of ground disturbance. We (the royal ‘we’ means Cheryl – as part of her PhD research) measured ground disturbance (rooting) by pigs throughout the Waitakere Ranges (Auckland, NZ) for the entirety of the hunting programme.

pig disurbance impacts

Feral pig rooting disturbance impacts. Photo Credit: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

The control operation reduced the pig population by a third, but it reduced ground disturbance by more than half. When we simulated hunting regimes at different intervals, only the 3-monthly hunting interval achieved a constant reduction in ground disturbance. BUT, sending in hunting teams every 3 months is incredibly expensive and over time, starts to yield diminishing returns on that investment. Is a constant reduction in ground disturbance what we want? If managers switched to triggering control at unacceptable levels of ground disturbance (a disturbance threshold), would we still have worthwhile biodiversity outcomes?

So more appropriate questions for managers to ask rather than “how many pigs did we kill?” are “how much disturbance is too much?” and “when should we trigger feral pig control based on ecosystem damage?” One of the biggest issues for pest managers is the enormous cost of outcome monitoring. Getting clever about how we monitor and making sure we know what the monitoring means, is one of the challenges facing managers and scientists.

The next step in this story is about to happen. Masters student Robert Vennell is creating a density-impact function for feral pigs in forest. He’s trying to get to grips with how ground disturbance relates to the number of pigs detected on camera traps. Could this be a cheaper way to trigger control based on outcomes? Watch this space for his research story.

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Feral pig detected by camera trap. Photo Credit: Patrick Garvey

RESEARCH PAPER: Krull CR, Stanley MC, Burns BR, Etherington TR, Choquenot D. 2016. Reducing Wildlife Damage with Cost-Effective Management Programmes. PLoS One DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0146765

me2small Dr Margaret Stanley is a Senior Lecturer in Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland and is the programme director of the Masters in Biosecurity and Conservation. Her interests in terrestrial community ecology are diverse, but can be grouped into three main research strands: urban ecology; invasion ecology; and plant-animal interactions.

 

cherylDr Cheryl Krull is a former member of the Ecology Ngātahi lab group, completing her PhD on feral pigs and then as a postdoctoral fellow in the group. She is now a lecturer in the Institute of Applied Ecology New Zealand at AUT and is continuing her research into feral pig impacts and control, along with other conservation projects.

Harrowed sparrows and shrinking starlings

Posted by Sam Heggie-Gracie @SamHegGra

Birds are one of many taxa seen to be on the downslide globally, with 12% of all birds classified as threatened. Bird trends have been particularly well documented in Europe, and some of these studies have thrown up some interesting findings. In particular, it appears rarer birds are increasing in abundance, whilst the more common species are driving the brunt of the overall decline.

Spock’s famous adage “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” doesn’t normally apply in conservation, whereby common species are often overlooked in favour of protecting those that are rarer. It’s easy to take common species for granted. However, common species disproportionately influence the environment they live in as they form an especially integral part of the structure and function of their habitat. Commonality in ecology is (ironically) a rare trait, with only a few species lucky enough to have the right characteristics to multiply like nobody’s business and dominate an environment (think: humans). A decline of a once common species will be pretty bad news. In Europe, even the cherished, ever-present sparrows have taken a dive, as have starlings.

sparrowHouse sparrow (Image source: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)

Some recent research has shown some of our own common birds such as tui may also be declining. Habitat destruction, invasive species and climate change pose threats to these birds, so it will be important to keep an eye on their populations.

By continuing to undertake informed bird-friendly actions (such as good bird feeding practices!), we can safeguard our inimitable native species from further loss. In terms of policy, a compact city as opposed to a sprawling one appears more favourable for bird communities, and this may be especially true for natives. Such city-scape planning alongside regular population monitoring may be increasingly required in order to mitigate biodiversity loss and assist both the many as well as the few.silvereyeSilvereye (Image source: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)

Check out Josie’s endearing video on good feeding practices, and remember to keep a close eye on your cat this summer as baby birds begin to emerge!

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Sam Heggie-Gracie is an MSc student in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is investigating the drivers of bird composition in cities. He is supervised by Margaret Stanley and Cheryl Krull (AUT).