Not those kind of doctors

So my sister and I decided to start a podcast! (Everyone was doing it.) Since we both either have, or are working towards, PhDs in rather strange-sounding fields of research we decided to name it “Not those kind of doctors”.

Here is our first episode, where we introduce ourselves, hilariously mis-represent each others research and share some cool things from our respective fields (Biology and Culture, Film and Media studies) including the perils of sexual cannibalism and the representation of autism in the media.

Fighting Procrastination

A few years ago now I wrote a blog post over at Inside St Andrews about managing procrastination. Since then I have added another tool to my arsenal in the eternal war against unproductivity and I thought I’d mention it here.

Habit RPG.

For those of you who don’t spend countless hours of you life playing computer games, RPG stands for Role Playing Game. Described as “an open-source habit building program that treats your life like a Role Playing Game” HabitRPG is free to use and recently made Lifehacker’s list of the 5 best to-do list managers (even beating the ever-popular Evernote, which I also use). Upon starting the game you can create your to-do lists, as well as specify habits you wish to build and daily tasks. You can also customise the frequency at which tasks must be done, as well as their difficulty. Overdue tasks change colour and harder tasks give more rewards when completed. These rewards take the form of money (which can be used to buy clothes and equipment for you character), experience (which will allow you to level up) and various rewards such as cute pets.

Failure to complete tasks (or giving in to bad habits) will cost you health and can even result in your character dying, forcing you to start again. Leveling up increases you health and allows you to unlock various skills that can be used to increase the rewards for completing tasks, or reduce the penalties of failure. Obviously it is easy enough to cheat. You set your tasks and no-one is going to spot if you are actually lying about what you have completed. Despite this I have felt very little desire to cheat, it just takes all the satisfaction away.

A screenshot from a few months back.

Once you reach a certain level you can also undertake various “quests” which involve basically doing all your tasks on time in order to damage “monsters” which will also add extra penalties for missed tasks. You can join up with other users to create parties in order to battle these monsters. This is useful because the risk of letting down your party members serves as extra incentive to tick off your whole list. There are even guilds where people share stories and advice, including a Graduate Students Guild.

Looking at my screenshot one thing you might notice is that my habits list includes a lot of basic things like eating meals. This is left-over from when I first started using it during a particularly rough patch. Back then even eating felt like a chore. These days I keep those sorts of things on there to avoid backsliding  (and also for easy points).

The one downside of HabitRPG is it does look unmistakably like a game, making it kinda awkward to use in the office. Then again my co-workers have caught me looking at much sillier stuff.

Researcher of the month

I was recently featured as researcher of the month by the Center of Excellence in Biological Interactions where I work. Here’s my profile for them.

With a background in behavioural ecology and genetics, Emily is interested in investigating how inter and intra-species interactions shape evolution. As a keen entomologist she used insects in order to address a wide variety of questions. Her previous work focused on sexual selection and the evolution of mating systems. More recently she has become interested in variation in predator defense in aposematic species. In particular, the prevalence of “cheats” in aposematic populations in the form of automimicry: where poorly protected individuals benefit from their similarity to better-protected conspecifics. Emily joined the CoE in April 2014 and is based in Jyväskylä where she is working on variation in chemical protection in the wood tiger moth (Parasemia plantaginis). She is currently working in collaboration with the Schulz lab at TU Branschweig to identify the compounds used by the wood tiger moth for protection, as well as looking for variation in protection between individuals, and potential costs associated with this variation.

Photo: EMILY BURDFIELD-STEEL is our featured researcher of the month! With a background in behavioural ecology and genetics, Emily is interested in investigating how inter and intra-species interactions shape evolution. As a keen entomologist she used insects in order to address a wide variety of questions. Her previous work focused on sexual selection and the evolution of mating systems. More recently she has become interested in variation in predator defense in aposematic species. In particular, the prevalence of “cheats” in aposematic populations in the form of automimicry: where poorly protected individuals benefit from their similarity to better-protected conspecifics. Emily joined the CoE in April 2014 and is based in Jyväskylä where she is working on variation in chemical protection in the wood tiger moth (Parasemia plantaginis). She is currently working in collaboration with the Schulz lab at TU Branschweig to identify the compounds used by the wood tiger moth for protection, as well as looking for variation in protection between individuals, and potential costs associated with this variation. For more information on her research see

The St Ivo School Entomology and Natural History Society

It seems like it was inevitable that I would end up in Biology. In fact, looking back at my childhood it is actually more surprising how long I remained in denial of my obvious path in life (I was going to be a ballet dancer). Many of my earliest memories revolve around my love for the Natural History Museum in London. I used to hand in shells and fossils at the info desk and weeks later they would return in the post with little cards describing their species and range. I still have those cards. My love of museums was so great that I tried to set up my own in our back garden, populated by coloured rocks and caterpillars. I kept snails and stick insects as pets. I was obsessed.

There is a good chance, however, that this would have been just a childhood phase, long forgotten by now, were it not for one specific thing: The St Ivo School Entomology and Natural History Society. Despite it’s fancy-sounding name, Ento (as it was known by it’s members) was more commonly known in the school as “the reptile hut” or “that place that stinks”. It did stink. It also housed one of the largest collections of exotic animals owned by a state school*. The collection was in constant flux, but during my seven-year stint (from age 11 onwards) we had everything from jirds, chipmunks and Egyptian spiny mice to several 10 meter boa constrictors. The Society was founded in 1957 by biology teacher Henry Berman. The story he told was that it was originally just an entomology society, until one of the pupils asked if they could get a tarantula (controversial given that spiders are not insects). Mr Berman agreed on one condition, that the responsibility for caring for it would be entirely on the students, not himself.

By the time I joined the school, several decades later, the collection had ballooned to hundreds of different species, requiring the Society to be split into four “departments”: Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians and Invertebrates. All new members had to spend several weeks in each department, learning how to care for all the different animals, as well as some of their basic biology, before passing a series of tests to become full members. At this point they could choose a department to specialise in. Each species had a card with it’s scientific name, family, range and care instructions, and tests involved learning the scientific names of at least three species from your department, and some general knowledge about the working of the society (including out motto “There is no they”. The main determinator of membership, however, was whether the senior members thought you worked hard enough. Despite the huge number of animals, the old deal still remained. Mr Berman was retired from teaching by this point and came in twice a week to supervise us, but the responsibility for the upkeep of the whole collection lay with its student members. Upon Mr Berman’s second retirement (for real this time), the management of the Society was taken over by another biology teacher who changed the emphasis from classical natural history to more practical animal welfare. While the removal of some of the more academic requirements for members was slightly sad, the continuing growth of the collection required it.

The reason you can't see the snake's head is because it was making a break for the bush just out of shot.
The reason you can’t see the snake’s head is because it was making a break for the bush just out of shot.

Long before I arrived, news of the society had (somehow) reached a naturalist working for Disney who send us several animals from the US, including two ornate box turtles, who were still there when I joined. This was not the only donation the Society received. We were considered almost like a local animal rescue center due to the sheer range of animals we kept. During my time there I remember receiving old lab mice left over from undergraduate experiments at Cambridge University, gerbils that had been bought for a small child and subsequently rejected, four leopard geckos, seven hamsters, two corn snakes, a royal ball python and, most memorably, two boa constrictors and two Burmese pythons, all over 5 meters, from a man who was emigrating to Spain. On top of that we had breeding colonies of endangered voles, a slow worm that had been run over by a car and couldn’t be re-released, scorpions, tortoises, terrapins, treefrogs… the list goes on. You can imagine the amount of care all these animals required. Every break and lunch time was spent in the small, windowless building behind the science block that housed the collection, feeding, watering and cleaning. During school holidays we drew up rotas of who would come in when. The workload was intense, and, despite limited supervision by volunteer biology teachers, the hierarchical structure and claustrophobic environment meant bullying was a constant problem. Despite all this we still went. Every day, month after month, year after year. Snake bites (actually less painful than hamster bites we discovered) didn’t put us off. The infestation of cockroaches (escaped several decades before and almost impossible to eradicate in the warm reptile room) didn’t put us off. Hating the sight of each other didn’t put us off.

This is because the benefits were amazing. Each summer we would take the collection round all the local primary schools, showing our animals at summer fetes and open days. We attended the annual Conversazione (a word I could barely pronounce at age 12) of the Cambridge Natural History Society, held in Cambridge University. There I got to meet Cambridge professors and local activists. More than one ex-member has gone on to work in science (and we produced a fair number of veterinarians as well). One meeting with a fellow ex-member stands out in my mind. Several years ago I was volunteering in the Entomology section in the Manchester Museum cataloging scarab beetles. I admit I was slightly bored and had, for some reason, decided to google the society to see if anyone had written about it online. What I found was the blurb of a book on stick insects that said the author had been a member. While reading this my boss appeared behind me. Embarrassed at having been caught slacking off, I told him I was just reading about this guy who had gone to the same school as me. “Oh yes” said my boss, “he’s just upstairs dropping off some new specimens, do you want to come meet him?” And that is how I met Dr Phil Bragg.

On a more serious note, I credit the presence of the Society on my CV with my getting into Manchester University. I later discovered I had some of the lowest intake grades of anyone on my course, yet I graduated with one of the highest degrees. My experience helped me get a position in the Manchester Museum during my undergraduate studies, I think it is still helping me now. It is the one thing from school I will never remove from my CV, and I suspect I am not the only one it helped.

I wish I could finish this post by describing what the Society is up too now. Unfortunately I can’t. In 2007, following the prolonged illness of the teacher in change and with no new volunteers to take his place, the school decided to close down the Society. It survived 50 years, a serious fire and countless idiot children but in the end it seems the school did not value it enough to pay for it’s survival. I don’t even know what happened to the animals in the collection. Despite working for the school during my summers in the years proceeding the closure they never informed me of their decision, or the fate of the animals I had spent almost a decade caring for. I can only assume they were sold or given away. It seems highly unlikely the school received even a fraction of the money the collection was worth, but that is a small price to pay as long as they all went to good homes. The decision still makes me angry to this day.** St Ivo is a good school, but it is still a comprehensive (or rather an Academy these days). Many of it’s students will never get the advantages provided by private schooling, but for almost half a century they did have access to something almost no children in the UK ever will. I got that advantage, and I will always be grateful for that.

*A quick note about the facts and stories I write here. These are all things I remember being told by other members or in some cases Mr Berman himself. That said I don’t know how accurately I am remembering these things (it was a while ago) or indeed how accurate they were to begin with. I choose to believe what I remember, but I could be wrong. There is a section about the Society on St Ivo School’s Wikipedia page though that may be more accurate.

**and not just me. I’m sure it was a difficult decision and that the school had their reasons, however, I will always believe they made the wrong call.

ICBB2014 (or “Impostor syndrome raises it’s ugly head again”)

At the beginning of August I attended the international butterfly behavior conference (ICBB2014) in Turku. This was my first time at this conference as I admit I wasn’t even aware it existed until this year! In my defense, I’ve never worked on butterflies (and in fact still don’t!) but thankfully it seems standards are slipping and they now happily tolerate moth researchers in their midst. Despite the slight mismatch, it was a really good opportunity for me to catch up on what’s going on in the field, and get a better handle on the biology of my new system; butterflies being a lot closer to moths than bugs are!


Cute butterflies at Lammi
Cute butterflies at Lammi
I am now also better acquainted with the rockstars of the butterfly world. I was already aware of the extensive ongoing work on Heliconius thanks to various entomology and genetics conferences, but I never realised the sheer amount of cool work on Bicyclus anynana (other wise known as the squinting bush brown). The Glandvill fritillary, famous for it’s use in the study of meta populations, was also well represented. This at least was one system I was already familiar with, having visited the home of the Glanville Fritillary Project at Lammi back in April (we were there to check out their impressive butterfly-rearing facilities). From the perspective of my current work on the maintenance of polymorphism in aposematic systems there were a lot of very relevant talks, but Erica Westerman’s talk, in particular, on biased mate-preference learning got me thinking more on the role of learning in reproductive interference as well.
Female Bicyclus anynana. Photo taken by Gilles San Martin. From Wikimedia Commons.
Female Bicyclus anynana. Photo taken by Gilles San Martin. From Wikimedia Commons.

So overall it was a very useful and enjoyable experience for me. That said there were moments when I felt very much like an outsider. I’m sure this is hardly an uncommon experience when attending a meeting for the first time, or moving into a slightly different system. For me this feeling tends to surface more at small meetings and in this case was probably made stronger by the references to the meeting’s long history and tight-knit community. To be clear, this is not a criticism. I’m certain the only intent behind these was to highlight both the success of the meeting, and the benefits it has, and will continue to bring, to the field. I wonder if I’m alone however in feeling subtlety excluded and, more importantly, how I can stop feeling that way. I think not having anything to present (either as a talk or a poster) certainly contributed. With a bit of luck I will soon have enough data to ensure I don’t find myself in that position again for quite some time. Still it seems my impostor syndrome hasn’t retreated quite as much as I thought. Bother.


I don’t want to end this post on a down note though, so I will take this opportunity to mention the awesome Marimekko bags we got with our registration packs! As well as making fellow conference-goers easily recognisable, even from considerable distances, they have made those of us who went the envy of our whole lab group. 🙂 I’m still sad that the different colours were not, in fact, an experiment on density dependent selection (several people expressed a desire for the rarest colours). Maybe next time?

Fieldwork is Fun

Two major things happened for me in June. Number 1: I passed my PhD viva! I can now actually go around calling myself a Dr.

Number 2: I did some fieldwork in Scotland. Despite demonstrating on various field courses its actually been a few years since I did proper fieldwork. For this trip we had quite an ambitious plan. Thankfully, despite less than ideal weather, we were pretty successful. Not only was I able to see (and catch) my moths in the wild for the first time, but we got a number of predation experiments set up which our field assistant has the honour of finishing off for us over the next month.

I had ambitious plans to work on a couple of papers and get started on my thesis corrections while I was there, but the long days in the field quickly put an end to that idea. I’d like to say I was sad about that, but one of my favourite things about fieldwork has always been the refreshing single-mindedness of it. Normally I always have at least five things I should be doing at any one time, plus a bunch of side projects that never quite happen, but on field work there is none of that. All the complexities of life drift away and for a little while you have one clear purpose and no distractions. That’s not to say fieldwork doesn’t bring complications of it’s own (it certainly does), but somehow these always feel so much more manageable than my usual day-to-day worries.

Of course the trip wouldn’t have been nearly as fun were it not for my awesome labmates. Despite our rather packed schedule we found the time to visit a couple of whisky distilleries (developing expensive tastes while we were at it), explore a ruined castle on the cliffs and see dolphins, twice! I also got to watch their first experience of BBC radio, in particular radio 2. I’m pretty sure they are now convinced that all British people are insane, or at least that our radio presenters are on drugs. Oh well, at least it distracted them from my driving…

The view from Findlater Castle
The view from Findlater Castle
Moth habitat by the sea
Moth habitat by the sea

Spiders in space

While hard at work (obviously) I recently came across this awesome picture on buzz hoot roar.

Buzz Hoot Roar – a “graphics-driven blog that shares and/or explains a scientific concept in 300 words or less.” Check them out!

This is awesome for two reasons: 1. I had a pet jird when I was a kid called Nefertiti, it’s a good name. and 2. SPIDERS IN SPACE!

But seriously, the fact that Nefertiti (Phidippus johnsoni) was able to not only adjust to hunting in zero gravity, but then back to gravity upon her return to earth is a testament to the amazing behavioural flexibility of jumping spiders.

I’ve written before about my love of jumping spiders, and posted far too many photos of my own but now I want to focus in on their impressive cognitive abilities. In my spare time I’ve been reading though Marie Herberstein’s book “Spider Behaviour: flexibility and versatility”. As the name would suggest this is just full of examples of cool spiders doing cool things but I’m just going to mention a few that relate to Nefertiti.

Firstly, hunting in zero gravity isn’t the only skill these little guys can pick up. Phidippus princeps can learn to associate colours, such as red or blue, with food and use these colours to locate prey in a maze. Not only can they learn rules like this, but they can take the context in which they learnt a particular rule into account. One really neat example (at least for me) involves feeding them seed bugs, in this case Oncopeltus fasciatus. Like most seed bugs O. fasciatus sequester chemicals from their natural food (in this case milkweed seeds) which make them taste bad to predators. If however, you feed them on sunflower seeds, as I and most lab researchers do, they have no nasty chemicals to sequester and taste just fine. (Note, by taste fine I mean to predators like birds and mantids, I refuse to eat one regardless of what it’s been fed.) A study by Christa Skow and Elizabeth Jakob found that the spiders quickly learnt to avoid the bugs if they were fed ones that had been raised on milkweed seeds, but if the spiders were given bugs that had been raised on sunflower they kept on eating them quite happily. So far so good, but what they did next was to train the spiders in two different environments. When spiders that had learnt to avoid the bugs in one environment were presented with them in a different environment they attacked the bugs at a higher rate. Not only is this a cool example of context-dependent learning, it also makes sense as a forging strategy. Given that the bugs take their chemical defense from their food, they may have varying levels of chemical defense in different areas based on the types of plants available for them to feed on. That means that the likelihood that a bug is poisonous may be different in different habitats. So even if you know to avoid the bugs near the bushes, it might still be worth having a taste of this one you found by the river, just to be sure.

Given the intelligence of these little creatures, it is unsurprising that environmental enrichment has also been found to affect their behavior. Lab reared P. audax performed worse than wild-caught spiders in a variety of behavioural tests, (including my favorite, will they attack a video of an insect on a touchscreen?). However, their performance was improved if they had been kept in a larger cage and provided with a green stick. I’m glad to say I took this study to heart and all my spiders had at least two sticks in their cages. By the looks of this video Nefertiti’s cage also had no shortage of things to explore and keep her brain sharp during her retirement.


Herberstein, Marie Elisabeth, ed. Spider behaviour: flexibility and versatility. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Christa D. Skow and Elizabeth M. Jakob, Jumping spiders attend to context during learned avoidance of aposematic prey Behavioral Ecology (January/February 2006) 17 (1): 3440 first published online October 12, 2005 doi:10.1093/beheco/ari094


Braunschweig Natural History Museum

Natural History museums are some of my favourite places to visit and, since I was recently in Braunschweig, I took the opportunity to visit the Naturhistorische Museum Braunschweig. Someone told me this is the oldest museum in Europe, while the museum website has the slightly more modest claim of being the oldest museum in Germany. In any case it was founded in 1754 by Carl I. of Brunswick and Luneburg, and is currently housed right next to the university.

Everyone needs an elephant embryo.

The museum itself is a decent size, spanning four floors (there is a lift of stairs are not your friend). All the information in the museum is in German, but I was generally able to work out what each section was. On the ground floor there is a small section dedicated to its founder, with some cool examples from his original collection. At first it seemed to be a typical, slightly old fashioned, museum, with stuffed animals arranged in little murals. Each mural contained one main species, plus one of two smaller species slightly hidden amongst the fake vegetation. There was also a nice insect section, with information on the huge number of insect species as well as some cool examples of wasp and ant nests.

The museum really comes into its own on the upper floors. There was an impressive dinosaur room, with touchscreens showing information on the excavation programs, as well as ton and ton of fossils. Possibly my favour part was the microscopes they had set up so you could view microfossils and insects preserved in amber. Given that no natural history museum is complete these days without live animals, they also have an aquarium and vivarium in the basement with a good range of animals.


So in summary:

Price? 4 euros for an adult. There is also a student discount and education groups go free.

Interactive? A bit, there were some touchscreens around the place showing videos and other information. The fossil section also had the aforementioned microscopes, plus draws to pull out and some phones playing animals calls.

Educational? Yes. There was a good amount of information on topics like evolution, ecology and conservation. In particular the section on insects has some nice examples of food webs and there was even a display dedicated to human evolution.

Adults or kids? This museum is probably aimed more towards adults, but there certainly seemed to be enough to keep kids happy too.

Shop? The shop was small but carried all the required novelty pencils, plastic dinosaurs and soft toys.

Overall? It was good value for money and the staff seemed friendly despite language barrier. I would definitely recommend a visit if you are in the area.

No electricity for Foreigners (i.e. moving countries is hard)

I hate asking for help. Well…that’s not quite true. From a small subset of people I am quite happy to ask for help, as my long-suffering PhD office mate will attest, but from people in authority? People I want to make a good impression on? Strangers? Forget it.

Thus it was probably not my smartest idea to move to a country where I don’t speak the language. I’m going to start by saying I am well aware that it is way way, easier to be a non-Finnish speaking person in Finland than it is to be a non-English speaking person in the UK. For starters people here don’t get mad at you for not speaking Finnish. They also don’t say Finnish words very loudly at you in the hope that this will magically make you understand. Most organisations have an English section on their website, even if it is a bit limited, and most Finns under the age of 40 speak English. (Quick hint, if a Finn says they speak “a bit” of English it means they are practically fluent.) That said though, there are still problems. Foremost among these is Finland’s apparently unofficial policy that foreigners can’t have electricity.

So you have an apartment sorted? Congratulations! You even managed to do this without asking for much help (though you still needed some, to your eternal shame). Now you need to open a contract with the local electricity company. Unlike in the UK, you need this contract before they will turn on the power to you apartment. Say you want to move straight in when you arrive in Finland? You should probably call the set up the contract about a week before you move. Step one is getting past the Finnish robot voice to find someone who speaks English (if you have a Finnish-speaking friend in the UK you’re going to have to ask for yet more help), but here’s where the fun really starts. In order to open your contract you need to have a Finnish ID number. In order to get a Finnish ID number you need TO ACTUALLY BE IN FINLAND. Once I arrived getting it only took me a couple of days in the end, but it involved a trip to the police station and then to the town hall, all accompanied by a helpful Finn (who also called the electricity company for me after my hilarious failed attempts to communicate with them). Nevertheless, this meant several days of darkness. Good job it’s not winter!

You kind of need an ID number for everything here. It leads to a weird system where you can’t get an employment contract without a number, and you can’t register for a number without an employment contract. Thankfully, the University is wise to this and simply puts a temporary number on your first contract to neatly sidestep this issue.

My current issue is getting a tax card; actually issue makes it sound harder than it is. As you will soon see this particular problem is entirely of my own making. All the online advice says to simply fill out a tax form and take it to the local tax office. Easy right? So form in hand I (eventually) located the nearest tax office and paid them a visit. I walked in, looked at all the different desks and waiting areas, read the (entirely Finnish) signs, dithered for a bit, and then walked out.

Yeah, I suck. I should have just found a staff member and asked them what to do. Failing that I should ask a Finn to come with me and translate the signs. Instead my new plan is to try and send the form in the mail, thereby neatly avoiding any human interaction whatsoever. Problem is I first need to ask someone how the mail system here works….

Maybe I could just pay 60% tax instead? How bad could it be?