Clever communication of ideas to generate interest in your research

As students and researchers working on long-term projects, we often have to wrangle with complex datasets. Producing thoughtful conclusions from such data is something we have been trained to do for many years. Likewise, our keen eyes have been trained to interpret conclusions when they are published within the scientific literature. But, the day will come when it is time to report information to audiences outside of the scientific community. The same jargon and quantitative results used to increase comprehension within scientific literature will likely decrease comprehension when reported to a general audience!

So, what is a solution to this problem??? My answer is to use….

snazzy visuals

Well… maybe not quite as snazzy as WordArt… but the inclusion of purposeful visuals will help audiences understand your message and also keep them engaged. Furthermore, a nice visual can always be added to a thesis or powerpoint presentation to help communicate your ideas effectively.

To bring this idea home, take a look at the images below:


memePresenting your relational database to the general public will leave you looking like the over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived PhD archetype you are trying to separate yourself from (image:

The first image is of my current relational database for invasive mammalian pests throughout New Zealand’s offshore islands. The second image is of how I’ll be perceived if I try to explain it to anyone else. Although informative, the database’s complexity makes it difficult for others to understand. The time required to explain its “in’s and out’s” will ultimately take away from the message I am trying to get across. As a solution to this issue, I decided to amend my database to ArcMap as a way of making it visual (see the picture below).

arcmap pic
An ArcMap image of New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf. The different coloured polygons and data-points represent different features of the implemented database. I think we can all agree that this is much easier to explain than the other image!

Not only is it more interesting to look at, but the visual representation of my data clearly and concisely demonstrates what is going on (it’d help if I put a legend on the figure, though. Semantics.). Doing so has helped me spatially understand my dataset, too. instead of looking at lines of code, the visual form has provided context with which assist in the identification of geographic patterns.

zachpicZach Carter is a PhD student in the University of Auckland School of Biological Sciences. He is developing eradication prioritisation models to assist in the removal of invasive mammals from New Zealand. He is supervised by James Russell and George Perry.


Taking over at Huapai (and a very wet autumn)

Posted by Ben Cranston

Forest greetings

Out with the old and in with the new: a phrase which does not apply to long-term vegetation plots. Earlier in the year, I began taking the reins at one of the University of Auckland’s scientific reserves, Huapai, in the northern Waitakeres. Apart from my primary task at the site of implementing a droughting experiment on kauri (Agathis australis), I am also responsible for overseeing the continuity of long-term monitoring operations for projects past. On rare days when there is a spare moment to soak in the surroundings, I am still awestruck by the intricacy of Aotearoa ngahere urutapu (New Zealand’s virgin forest)…


… The Tasman Tempest

Thanks to data provided by NIWA, I have at last found validation for making such claims as “the rain never stops on field days” and “mud is definitely soupier today than last time. Glad I insisted on the Wellies!” because many parts of Te Ika-a-Māui –Tāmaki Makaurau included- experienced their wettest autumns on record. Indeed, the winter up north was not as wet, but the trails never quite recovered from the “Tasman tempest” of early March making the, er, march up to the site always interesting.

NIWA Mar 2017


My outlook for spring is hopeful. The sky is already bluer, the ponga seem livelier, and though the mozzies are becoming a nuisance again, they are a welcome trade-off for fair weather. Soon the apparatus for the drought shelters will be fully installed along with the tree sensors and, as they say, we’ll be off the races on a first-for-NZ drought experiment. By summertime, the lab group will be faced with the new challenge of recruiting volunteers for tree-climbing days to take canopy-level measurements.

Post Release Evaluation – Not just an Expensive Luxury!

Posted by Hester Williams @HesterW123


Classical biological control, i.e. the introduction and release of non-native insects, mites, or pathogens to give permanent control, is the predominant method in invasive plant biocontrol. A successful biological control programme eventually reduces, or in some cases removes, the need other methods of control for an invasive species that is growing prolifically in the absence of its natural enemies. The benefit-to-cost ratio of successful control can be very high, especially when earlier successes in one country form the basis for repeating the introductions elsewhere.

New Zealand has a long history in biological control of invasive plants and is one of five countries that are very active in this field. In a recent analysis on the benefits of biocontrol in New Zealand it was found that 30 % of releases (of those that could be assessed because of sufficient passage of time) resulted in significant beneficial effects. Cases with negligible benefit (36%) included agents that failed to establish, and cases with minimal benefit (33%) included some cases where predation reduced the realized benefit of established agents.


Post-Release Evaluation

An important component of all biocontrol projects is Post-Release Evaluation, the process of assessing how successful the projects have been and to understand why they succeed, fail or achieve intermediate results, and to determine and evaluate any non-target effects. Such information would not only provide better justification for biocontrol funding, but would also inform the agent selection process for subsequent projects, assist in the improvement of pre-release screening, help to increase establishment success and provide gateways to integrating biocontrol with other management practices.

Identifying biocontrol successes

Remarkable successes have been achieved through biocontrol projects, including the

St johns wort and beetle

Chrysolina sp., one of the biocontrol agents that is contributing to the successful control of St John’s wort in NZ.

control of St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) which used to be one of the worst four weeds in New Zealand. This plant displaced pasture in the dry high country and poisoned stock. Two beetles that defoliate the plant and a midge that stunts growth by deforming the plant were released as part of the biocontrol programme. The lesser St John’s wort beetle was the first to be released in 1943, while the greater St John’s wort beetle and the gall midge were released about 20 years later. All three agents established and today the plant has declined to the point where it is no longer considered a problem. A recent economic analysis has estimated that the Net Present Value of introducing the beetles is between $140 and $1490 million over 70 years, a benefit to cost ratio of 10:1 and 100:1 respectively. A remarkable return on investment!


Identifying biocontrol failures

Biocontrol programmes of course do not always result in successes, and failures are inevitable. Failures include inability of released agent populations to establish, or underperformance of agents. For example, here in New Zealand, the heather beetle (Lochmaea suturalis), has underperformed as a biocontrol agent when compared with the damage it does to native heather in Europe. Post-release evaluation studies have indicated that the smaller body size of beetles in NZ, probably mostly due to a severe founder effect, resulted in higher winter mortalities and therefore underperformance of the beetle in NZ. In 2014, an effort to genetically rescue the NZ population was undertaken; more beetles were collected from Scotland and mated with New Zealand beetles. These new genetic lines of beetles were released in November 2014 and currently post-release evaluation studies are underway to confirm establishment. Future studies will compare the performance of the new and original populations. This project represents a novel approach to explore the possibility of enhancing the performance of already established biocontrol agents so that they can better adapt to the local conditions and more effectively control the target weed.

Identifying Non-target effects of biocontrol

  • Direct risk to non-target plant species (usually closely related species).
Rhynocyllis larvae

Rhynocyllis  conicus, a biocontrol agent for musk thistle in the USA, also utilizing native thistle species.

The case of the weevil Rhinocyllus conicus is particularly well known. First introduced from France to North America in 1968 to control invasive musk thistle (Carduus nutans), then widely distributed in the United States, this seed predator utilizes at least 22 native species of Cirsium in North America, including some species of conservation concern that have been shown to be seed-limited. Additional studies have found that the observed level of seed predation by the weevil to not be sufficient to limit seedling recruitment.

  • Indirect non-target effects, for example, via interactions in food webs.

A highly host plant–specific weed biocontrol agent, the tephritid fly, Mesoclanis polana, introduced into Australia to control bitou bush, is associated with declines of local insect communities. As the agent shares natural enemies (predators and parasitoids) with seed herbivore species from native plants, a study implicated locally significant competition causing negative effects on indigenous seed feeding insects.

  • Conflicts of interest.
South western willow flycatcher

The endangered south-western willow flycatcher, using an invasive species (Tamarix sp.) for nesting sites in the USA.

The proposed biological control programme for saltcedars (Tamarix spp.) in North America is associated with concern about the wellbeing of an endangered species—the south-western willow flycatcher. Originally this bird species nested in indigenous riparian vegetation. Many western riparian areas are now dominated by introduced invasive saltcedars, which the south-western willow flycatchers are now using for nesting.




Post Release Evaluation – necessary but expensive

Post release evaluation is expensive, and requires long-term funding commitments and community support. Modern biocontrol practices recognize the need for post-release evaluation of biocontrol programmes, but in the past it has been seen as ‘an expensive luxury’! This is because evaluation is often perceived as basic research with no additional benefits to the community and the funding agencies. When a project has clearly been highly successful it is unappealing to channel further resources into a former problem when so many others still require attention. Likewise, if a project appears to have failed there is little incentive to spend precious resources documenting this in more detail.

The cost of undertaking Post Release Evaluation studies has to date proven to be a major obstacle both in New Zealand and worldwide. In 2015, the National Biocontrol Collective (NBC), the major funder of the development and release of new weed biocontrol agents in New Zealand, accepted a National Assessment Protocol developed by Landcare Research to ensure some level of assessment is undertaken in biocontrol projects in New Zealand. The protocol outlines minimum standards plus further options where additional resources are available.

Role of Post-Graduate Research Programmes

This is where Universities and their post-graduate research programmes can and are making major contributions, as evaluation studies are often incorporated into their research programmes. We as post graduate students (low-paid but reasonably intelligent – or just amazing supervisors?) can indulge in detailed population and ecosystem level studies – the ultimate goal of post release evaluation. Student cartoon


My Research

Neolema adult

The focus of my study: Neolema ogloblini, a biocontrol agent for Tradescantia fluminensis


My PHD study focusses on the dynamics of small populations. Many species benefit from the presence of conspecifics but at low population densities the fitness level of individuals in the population decrease. This phenomenon is known as the Allee effect. The Allee effect can drive very small populations to extinction and can play a major role in the establishment and spread of biocontrol agent populations.

I am studying how population size, dispersal and host patch connectivity interact with the Allee effect and how this influences the establishment and persistence of the leaf feeding beetle, Neolema ogloblini, a biocontrol agent for Tradescantia fluminensis. As mentioned in the introduction paragraph, 36 % of the biocontrol programmes in NZ has negligible benefit, in many cases because of establishment failure. My studies will help us to understand why some releases of biocontrol agents result in successful establishment and why others fail to do so.



Hester WilliamsHester Williams is a PhD candidate in the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland and is stationed with the Landcare Research Biocontrol team in Lincoln, Canterbury. She is interested in invasion processes of both insect and plant species. Hester is supervised by Darren Ward (Landcare Research/University of Auckland) and Eckehard Brockerhoff (Scion), with Mandy Barron (Landcare Research) as advisor. Her studies are supported by a joint Ministry for Primary Industries – University of Auckland scholarship. The project is an integral part of an MBIE program “A Toolkit for the Urban Battlefield” led by Scion.



The good old days of splattered bugs on windscreens

Posted by: Jessica Devitt @Colette_Keeha

Recently, a colleague of mine asked: “Have you noticed that there are less insects squashed on your car windscreen these days?” And I thought about it, and yes, there are definitely less bugs on my windscreen after a long drive now, as compared to when I was younger.

As a child, my family used to regularly drive across the North Island of New Zealand, from Wellington to Auckland and back, and I do distinctly remember there being numerous splattered insect remains on the car windscreen; and I remember mum or dad cleaning the insects off at the gas station, with the windscreen steadily becoming re-splattered within another hour or so of driving.


The reason my colleague brought up this issue was due to an article published in The Telegraph, which discusses the aptly named ‘windscreen phenomenon’.  The Telegraph article follows on from an earlier article published in Science News, and Radio New Zealand also covered the story here.  The jury is still out as to whether this is a sign of actual insect decline, or perhaps it is a result of other factors, such as the more streamlined modern car.

The windscreen (or windshield) phenomenon was coined by entomologists to define the relatively recent apparent lack of insects inadvertently colliding with car windscreens during transit.  This is purely observational, but it does correlate with recorded decreases in pollinators, and other more charismatic insect species albeit still pollinators, such as butterflies.

This got me thinking about the insects that I saw regularly, and captured, as a kid – have I seen that particular species recently?  When was the last time I saw it?  And does that necessarily mean they are declining just because I haven’t seen them?  This exercise for me is purely speculative and observational, however, I thought it would be interesting to research a couple of the insects that I haven’t seen much of, and then see if there is any information on how they are faring these days. Maybe they have experienced some population decline or range restriction…or perhaps I just need to look a little harder!

1). Native praying mantis (Orthodera novaezealandiae)


 Female New Zealand Mantis (Orthodera novaezealandiae) from side. (McQuillan, 2009.)


Left: Native female New Zealand Mantis (Lee, 2017). Right: Female South African Mantis (Lee, 2017)

Now this one I know is recorded as declining (Buckley et al., 2012).  I haven’t seen one of these guys for ages, but I do remember seeing them fairly consistently circa late 80’s early 90’s in suburban Auckland.  It is thought that the decline of the native mantis is due to competition with the introduced South African mantis (Miomantis caffra).  Further, the native male mantis has been found to be attracted to the South African female mantis, for which he tries to mate with and is invariably eaten.

Conclusion: Declining


2) Striped flower fly (Orthoprosopa bilineata)


Orthoprosopa bilineata (Bundle, 2015)


Coming across one of these was a rare find, maybe I saw one a handful of times over a year but at this point I have not come across one for a very long time!  I see on Nature Watch they are still being sighted in the Auckland area, but there is not much information about them online. Something I did learn was that this species is only found in New Zealand.

Conclusion: Look harder?


3) Emperor gum moth (Opodiphthera eucalypti)



Top: Emperor Gum Moth, Opodiphthera eucalypti, female; Swifts Creek, Victoria (fir0002 /, 2007).
Bottom: The caterpillar of the emperor gum moth in its last stage before pupation (Fir0002, 2005).

This is not a native species to New Zealand but a favourite of mine as a kid.  It is originally from Australia and its most common host plants are within the eucalypt family, leading to the moth being considered a pest for commercial eucalypt growers.  I do actively look for them when I come across any eucalyptus trees but have not seen one for a few decades now.  However, they are still considered common.

Conclusion: Look harder

This exercise was probably more of an excuse for me to reminisce about carefree bug-catching days, whilst I work like crazy to grow as many beetles as possible for future experiments.  However, I do think it is important that we take the time to notice the natural environment around us – what are we seeing lot of?  What have we not seen for a long time?  Are we noticing the emergence of certain species of flora or fauna at different times of the year than what we would normally expect?  These sorts of observations can lead to future projects that may highlight population level changes, changes in species distribution, changes in behaviours and/or growth patterns, and at the very least provide more information on often overlooked less charismatic data deficient individuals.

jessJessica Devitt is a PhD student at the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland and Plant and Food Research. She is researching the respiratory responses of the golden-haired bark beetle to advance fumigation techniques. She is supervised by Jacqueline Beggs from the University of Auckland, Adriana Najar-Rodriguez and Matthew Hall from Plant and Food Research.



Buckley, T. R., Palma, R. L., Johns, P. M., Gleeson, D. M., Heath, A. C. G., Hitchmough, R. A., & Stringer, I. A. N. (2012). The conservation status of small or less well known groups of New Zealand terrestrial invertebrates. New Zealand Entomologist, 35(2), 137-143.

Bundle, P. (2015).  Orthoprosopa bilineata. Retrieved from

fir0002 / (2007). Emperor Gum Moth, Opodiphthera eucalypti, female; Swifts Creek, Victoria. Retrieved from

fir0002. (2005). The caterpillar of the emperor gum moth in its last stage before pupation.  Retrieved from

Lee, S. (2017).  Praying mantis identification.  Retrieved from

McQuillan, B. (2009). Female New Zealand Mantis (Orthodera novaezealandiae) from side.  Retrieved from



Hedgehogs: Prickly Pests on the Rampage

Posted by Cathy Nottingham @cathy28495357 

Hedgehogs are an underrated mammalian pest in New Zealand – there are even groups of people who ‘rescue’ them.  Hedgehogs have been shown to have an impact on native ground-nesting bird, lizard and weta populations, but little research has been carried out on them in urban environments. In particular, we don’t know what their impact might be in urban forest patches (fragments).  That’s where I come in, for my Masters research project, I’ll be investigating the impact of hedgehogs in urban forest fragments.  I’ll look at what hedgehogs are feeding on in this environment through gut content analysis.  I’ll also be working on understanding the relationship between the number of hedgehogs in a forest fragment and the severity of the impact. This is called a damage function. This will enable managers and community groups to initiate hedgehog control once their abundance surpasses a critical impact threshold.


Hedgehog. Photo credit: Gaudete / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-2.5

Having recently received permission from the council to start working in the reserves, I’ll will be soon heading out at night to find hedgehogs.  This will involve using thermal imaging cameras, volunteers and some oven mitts!


Thermal image of a bird using Seek Thermal Camera

As part of creating a damage function, I’ll be using crickets (as a proxy for weta) and quail eggs to measure survival or death by hedgehog. Camera traps will be used to monitor predation by hedgehogs, and the survival rates of the experimental crickets and eggs. I’ll be using chew cards to monitor the relative abundance of hedgehogs and rats in the reserves. With councils and community groups increasingly controlling rodents in bush reserves to help native birds, might this let the hedgehogs run rampant?  So remember, next time you see one of these prickly pests, ambling along at night, there is a killer in your midst, but I’m on the case, and I’m planning on finding exactly what they are up to in our urban bush patches.


Trialling predation experiments: using crickets and camera traps to monitor hedgehog predation


cathyCathy is a MSc student in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is investigating the impact of hedgehogs in urban forest fragmentsShe is supervised by Margaret Stanley and Al Glen.

How to get the most out of a writing retreat

Posted by Cate Macinnis-Ng @LoraxCate

This week a group of us from the Centre for Biodiversity and Biosecurity had the pleasure of attending a writing retreat at the fabulous Aio Wira Retreat Centre in the Waitakere Ranges. A writing retreat is a great way to get away from the office and specifically concentrate on writing, enhanced by the pressure of others madly writing around you. Here are a few things you can do to boost productivity before, during and after a writing retreat.


A beautiful spot for some writing

  • Plan, plan, plan

Work out what project you want to work on and plan your time so you can hit the ground running when you arrive. In our line of work, a writing retreat might include data analysis, reading papers, designing experiments, preparing figures and of course, writing about it all. It can be a good idea to plan a few different tasks so if you get stuck on one, you can still make goood use of your time by getting on with another. That said, prioritising the most important tasks is still important. Perhaps discussing your plans with a colleague or supervisor will keep you accountable.

  • Gather everything you need

If a writing retreat is about progressing your work, it’s important you have everything you need to do that. Before arriving, make sure your data are in the right format, you have the references you need and you have your work plan. Bring your computer and charger or pen and paper if that works better for you. Perhaps gathering thoughts is the most important thing to do in preparation for a productive time.


Funky footwear is essential

  •   Comfortable gear

On a winter retreat, being warm and comfy is a must so wear your warmest, most comfortable clothes.



  • Don’t forget down-time

Having time away from the computer is just as important as time at the keyboard. There are some wonderful walks in the Waitakere Ranges so walking shoes are a must out here. It’s pretty muddy at this time of year so cleaning shoes and sticking to tracks is essential to avoid spreading kauri dieback but getting out in the bush or on the beach is a great way to prepare for the day or take a break from it all.


Good food helps power brains

  • A writing retreat doesn’t have to be away from the office

Continuing momentum is easy with virtual writing retreats. Try Shut up and Write Tuesdays for an online community and some great writing tips.


Close to the fire is always a popular spot on a winter retreat


Other useful resources

Stephen Heard’s The Scientist’s Guide to Writing is a great read for postgraduate students and early career researchers across many fields. It is a comprehensive guide to the structure, content and style of scientific writing. My only criticism is that there was very little said about writing abstracts.

Duke Graduate School Scientific Writing Resource has writing lessons and exercises to improve writing.

For the academics of writing, the University of Auckland’s writing website has a blog, projects and events.

Happy writing!

Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng is a Senior Lecturer and Rutherford Discovery Fellow, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland.  She is a plant ecophysiologist and ecohydrologist working on plant-climate interactions.




If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it…

The demise of long-term population monitoring

Posted by Margaret Stanley @mc_stanley1

“Is there any evidence that an introduced insect – other than a social insect – has caused the decline of a native species in New Zealand?”

A feeling of total frustration and helplessness came over me when I heard those words – while standing before an EPA panel deciding whether to allow a generalist insect predator into New Zealand for biocontrol of a crop pest.

The answer to this is “no”. The frustration comes from the fact that we have no evidence, because there is no long-term monitoring of native insect populations in New Zealand. The Dept. of Conservation (DoC) may have data for a few threatened species (perhaps wetapunga?), but not for common insect species – those that might follow the fate of the passenger pigeon if an additional invasive predator is the thing that tips the balance for that population. The example I gave the EPA in answer to that question was anecdotal – the decline of our native mantis as a result of the invasive South African mantis. There’s certainly no long-term population monitoring that has picked up the demise of the native mantis.

The lack of long-term monitoring for non-charismatic species (e.g. bees) has also been lamented in Europe lately, where a massive decline of insects in Germany over the last few decades has been detected by the Krefeld Entomological Society: a group of mostly amateur entomologists, recording insects since 1905. They have recorded declines of up to 80% since the early 1980s – that’s a lot of bird food (if you care only for vertebrates!).

biodviersity weather station

Plans for long-term biodiversity monitoring in Germany (Vogel 2007)

Changes in science funding over the last few decades, and the vagaries of politics, means that long-term population monitoring is no longer ‘sexy’ and not worthy of funding (‘Cinderella Science’: unloved and underpaid). These types of datasets are difficult to maintain because they exceed cycles of funding and government administration. In New Zealand we now lament the loss of amazing datasets that have provided the foundation and impetus for some amazing science around ecology, conservation and pest control: e.g. the Orongorongo Valley dataset, and the long term monitoring of wasps, pests and birds in Nelson.

beech seed

Seedfall of hinau and hard beech trees in the Orongorongo Valley 1968-1991 (Fitzgerald & Gibb 2001)

DoC and some councils do undertake regular biodiversity monitoring where they can, but on a reduced number of taxa (usually birds and vegetation), not often at a population level (except for threatened species), and the data are often held within these organisations, rather than open access sites. Some scientists also try to sneak in a long-term monitoring project where their (often unfunded) time and resources allow.

Instead, community groups in New Zealand, those groups undertaking pest control and restoring ecosystems, are taking up the slack in long-term ecological monitoring. At least for vegetation and birds, they are the ones undertaking regular and long-term monitoring via vegetation plots and bird counts. There is also the rise of citizen science – with large numbers of people recording biodiversity: counting kereru and garden birds. Although scientists are doing what they can to give community groups technical advice, and make citizen science more robust, will the data being collected be robust enough to understand how disturbance, invasion, and climate change are affecting biodiversity? Community restoration often takes place primarily where people are (close to urban centres), and restoration projects are dominated by lowland coastal forest ecosystems. Hardly representative of New Zealand’s ecosystems.

Needless to say, there was great excitement within the ecological/entomological community with the initiation of NZ’s National Science Challenges. The idea was mooted that we could have a Long Term Ecological Research network (LETR) like that funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the USA. This network of sites provides the research platforms and long-term datasets necessary to document and analyse environmental change. There are numerous papers that summarise the benefits of long-term ecological datasets, such as: (1) quantifying and understanding how ecosystems respond to change; (2) understanding complex ecosystem processes that occur over long time periods; (3) providing core ecological data to develop, parameterise and validate theoretical and simulation models; (4) acting as platforms for collaborative, transdisciplinary research; and (5) providing data and understanding at scales relevant to management (Lindenmayer et al. 2012). Surely gaining an in-depth understanding of New Zealand populations and ecosystems over time would allow us to understand their resilience to the effects of long-term and large-scale drivers like climate change, and even the effects of new invasive species, such as myrtle rust?

However, it was not to be. And although citizen science and community monitoring is valuable in its own right for specific purposes, it doesn’t allow us to respond to the opening salvo.

If an insect goes extinct in the forest, will anyone know?

Postscript: The EPA decided not to allow import of the predatory insect – not so much because the ecological risk was perceived to be particularly high – but the industry benefits were seen as too low relative to the risk.


MargaretDr 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.

My top eight tips for surviving a PhD

Posted by Jamie Stavert @jamiestavert

I’m sure this has probably been done a millions times before, but here’s my top eight top tips for surviving a PhD (I was aiming for the classic “top 10 tips” but I could only think of eight). Please keep in mind these are things that have helped me through my PhD and they may not work for everyone. Another disclaimer: I haven’t officially handed in my thesis which means i) these top tips haven’t actually got me over the line yet and ii) I’m still deep in the throes of writing, so my ability to clearly communicate ideas is somewhat diminished. Anyway, here they are:

  1. Remember your mum. Mums can be of great use, as can dads, brothers, sisters and other family members. At the lowest point of my PhD, somewhere in the midst of potting 8,000 plants for a ridiculous experiment that seemed doomed to fail, it was my mum who saved the day. She took time out of her busy schedule, drove to Hamilton (if you don’t know it, Google it…) and helped me pot plants. That got me through a super tough period and it’s fair to say I couldn’t have done it without her. So make a special effort to give your family time. Keep them in the loop and communicate regularly. I know for international students this can be tough, but there’s Skype etc. Sometimes a chat is all you need.
  2. Get physical. I’m of the firm belief that too many “academic type” people consider their bodies solely as a vehicle for their brains. Also, this guy who has way more credibility than me, thinks the same (watch from 9:40). Physical exercise releases feel good hormones, such as endorphins, and reduces nasty stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. I find exercise helps me come up with new ideas and solve problems. I’m astounded at how often I find solutions to problems while running or at the gym. I don’t know anyone who is creative or productive when sitting at their coffee stained desk, with adrenaline coursing through their veins.
  3. Care for your brain. The only thing worse than neglecting your body is neglecting your brain (I’m often guilty of this)! As an academic, your brain is your most important asset. It’s where ideas come from. It’s what writes papers and grant proposals and R code. But if it ain’t working properly, it makes PhD life tough. Meditation is a great tool for keeping your brain healthy. It helps you to centre yourself, clear thoughts and momentarily vacate your intellectual mind. You’ll start smiling for no reason! If you don’t believe me, then check out this guy. He’s living proof that a biologist can also be the happiest person in the world. Give it a go – 20 minutes a day will make a huge difference.
  4. Compartmentalize. A PhD is a massive undertaking. It’s often difficult to “see the light at the end of the tunnel”, as wise supervisors often say. I can now see the light. But when you’re one or two years in, all you can see is a steaming river of shit, somewhere deep in the sewer. In this case, you need to compartmentalize. Break the big thing down into smaller manageable things. Make a plan – what do you need to do in the short-term to achieve the long-term goal? This will help you stay in the present moment and be mindful.
  5. Confide in your peers. Yes, you might think that your struggle is unique and no one truly understands what you’re going through. Many of us PhD folk are after all, millennials. But guess what? Your PhD peers are usually confronted with the same barriers/problems/issues as you. So take no shame indulging with them in complaining about supervisors, reviewer number two and ridiculous university bureaucracies.
  6. Have a beer. Or something else that fires up your reward system. For me it’s a tasty double IPA on a Friday night. It’s super important to have something to look forward to. A reward will give you impetus to trudge on through debugging that nasty code or counting those last 100 seeds.
  7. Do something else. Yes your PhD is important but it shouldn’t be your everything. There will be times when you have to make sacrifices but don’t let a PhD get in the way of doing other things you enjoy. Prioritize and make time for the other stuff.
  8. Don’t be too stiff. It’s easy to become too serious in academia. I often cringe at my seriousness. Being a competitive person in a competitive environment will make you serious. But try to remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. Have fun with your research. Embrace your childish curiosity and try not to focus too much on the end game.

So that’s my eight top tips for surviving a PhD. Remember, there is light at the end of the tunnel, but embrace the journey.


Jamie Stavert is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is interested in how functional traits influence ecosystem function and species’ responses to environmental change in pollination systems. He is supervised by Jacqueline BeggsAnne GaskettDavid Pattemore and Nacho Bartomeus.


Communication: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Posted by Lloyd Stringer @lloydstringer2

In this age of mass communication, you’d think that we would be able to communicate our ideas well without any misunderstands occurring. Because of the junk that is filling the internet, we are encouraged to write short and punchy articles (providing supplementary files where the reader can actually find out what was done), and then advertise what we have done to improve the likelihood of being read.

I have been lucky enough to experience different sorts of science communication. I have tried tweeting, but I freely admit that social media isn’t my style- I rarely access my facebook account, so you can imagine how well I treat my twitter account. Another approach I gave a go, was a press release of an article I wrote a few months back. At least with this medium I was able to gauge the uptake by the public. After it was published in the Herald (probably in the online form only) it was picked up by Farmers Weekly (online and printed). It was at this point I knew it was out as I had family members and work colleagues contacting me.

Now there is a point to me blowing my own trumpet. While the press release we made was accurate, the rapid Herald release contained inaccuracies- which I believe looks bad for me (if any of my peers read it).


The second Farmers Weekly article was a much better experience. I had a phone interview with the reporter, then the reporter sent a draft of the article so I could confirm and revise if needed, leading to better outcome for all.

A more recent experience is being caught in the ugly cross-fire between two groups of scientists with ‘opposing’ ideas of fruit fly eradications. I write ‘opposing’ as it appears that both groups are having separate conversations. An article which I am a co-author on was severely criticised and it all looks to be a misunderstanding based on our use of the words ‘same data’, we meant eradication data, where the group with the concerns has interpreted it as exactly the same dataset as theirs. In hindsight this is understandable. Rather than get pulled into the mire, we have decided not to reply to the accusations as:

  1. The journal (tabloid) appears to be trying to egg the discussion on with the use of boxing gloves above the article titles (to increase sales?)
  2. This type of communication is prone to misunderstandings and any outsiders or policy makers will be starting to question the validity of any of earlier reported results.

Boxing gloves

I guess where I am going with this is that we do have the pressure to communicate our information quickly, we are responsible for the words that we write and it is worth the time to ensure that we are as accurate as possible.

Lloyd Stringer is a PhD student at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland, and scientist in the Biosecurity Group and Plant & Food Research, Lincoln. He is studying the effects of population management tools on insect Allee thresholds. He is supervised by Max SucklingJacqueline Beggs, and John Kean

Baby it’s cold outside (where have all the insects gone?!)

Post by Anna Frances Probert @AFProbert

I often get asked where all the insects go in winter, which is a pretty good question considering how conspicuous mosquitoes, ants, wasps and cicadas are during the summer months. The presence of insects may be obvious in summer although they are seemingly absent during winter. We are all aware that there are some pretty amazing animals out there that spend the coldest months of the year in a torpid or hibernation state. But what about all our invertebrate friends that seem to disappear in the cooler months?

winter blog

It’s freezing! Dunedin Botanical Gardens in winter. (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

Like all animals, insects are faced with two options when it comes to the cold: move away, or somehow deal with it. The first option of moving away is something we might generally associate with larger animals – migration. Although insect migration differs slightly compared to that of birds and mammals in that the ‘round trip’ of the migratory path is usually made up of multiple generations, they can indeed travel vast distances to head to warmer climes to overwinter.

This is best exemplified with the North American migration of the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). The winter months in Canada and in many places in the United States proves to be too cold for the Monarch butterfly to survive. So to avoid certain death via freezing, come autumn, populations start moving south towards the equator, where the climate becomes more forgiving. Although a complete round-journey involves at least four generations of Monarch butterflies, individual butterflies have been recorded to fly more than 4000km.

But what if you don’t have the ability to move to avoid the cold? Overwintering and being “cold tolerant” becomes your only option. However, when you’re an insect you have different options of how to spend winter time. You can either overwinter in your egg, larval, pupal, nymphal or adult stages, depending on your life history. Yet insects, regardless of which life stage they spend winter, may be subjected to freezing temperatures, requiring them to adopt a strategy to avoid freezing to death. Essentially, like all ectotherms, insects subjected to freezing temperatures need to adopt a freeze avoidance or freeze tolerance strategy.

Freeze avoidance, the basal trait for cold tolerance in insects, is essentially the ability to maintain body fluids at a liquid state at temperatures below zero, existing in what is called a “supercooled” state. Insects achieve this by producing “anti-freeze” chemicals that prevent ice formation. For insects that adopt this strategy of cold tolerance, if the temperature slips below what they are able to maintain in their supercooled state, they usually freeze to death. Whilst this threshold varies largely between species, at the extreme end there is a species of parasitoid wasp that can supercool to -47°C.



The Drinker moth (Euthrix potatoria) can tolerate the cold and hibernates as a larva during the winter. (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

On the other hand, freeze tolerant insects have the ability to survive the formation of ice within their tissues, via the production of ice nucleating agents in the extracellular body fluid. Freeze tolerance is a strategy adopted by many Southern Hemisphere insects including a species of alpine tree weta here in New Zealand.

So insects are still around during the winter, they may just not be as active, or in a stage of their life cycle where they are not so conspicuous. Although I don’t necessarily welcome the return of mosquitoes and social wasps into my life, it’s neat to know a little bit more about the amazing adaptations insects have evolved to cope with the cold.


MeblogAnna Probert is a PhD student in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is using ants as a model to assess the risk posed by exotic invertebrates to native ecosystems. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Jacqueline Beggs, and Darren Ward.