PhD in a pandemic

It’s been an interesting few months, globally and personally, and I haven’t had the time for this blog that I would have liked. But things are settling down (personally), at least for now, so it’s time for an update.

When Covid-19 hit the UK in March, I was in the process of writing up my first analytical chapter (of three), and was in early planning for the second. The write up was a really challenging process; I’ve written it as a paper for submission, and as with many other stages of this doctorate, I hadn’t done that before so it was a real challenge. It is nearly done now, and I’m very proud of it. We have some really interesting and new Fody behaviour to analyse and present and I think I have succeeded in communicating that. Pretty soon it will be ready to submit, and then I might see my name and my science in print. More on that later.

Leo’s school closed in March; and suddenly I became a homeschool teacher, on top of everything else. Tom had been working from home for a couple of weeks, and his employers are very flexible, so we-organised the day. He started work at 8; I homeschooled for the morning and then made lunch. At 1, Tom stopped work for a 2-hour lunch break and took over looking after Leo and I shut myself away and did PhD for two hours. At 3 we swapped back again- Tom went back to work and I took over with Leo and whatever remaining schoolwork we had to do that day. Two hours a day is not tons, for doing a doctorate, and I did (briefly) consider suspending until Leo was back at school. But in the end I was very glad that I didn’t, as it turns out that two hours a day actually works really, really well for me and I’ve made a huge amount of progress, both in terms of the thesis chapter and my own scientific development and knowledge.

My first chapter was about quantifying reproductive behaviour of the Fody, which eventually we unified under a single metric of ‘non-breeding time’, which is simply a total of the available days in each breeding season that each bird is not engaged in breeding behaviour. The results showed that birds able to minimise their non-breeding time had greater fledgling productivity than their peers who waste more time. The second chapter considers variation in this metric; some birds have very little non-breeding time (and lots of fledglings) and others have a lot (and fewer fledglings). There are many, many potential reasons for this, and we looked at two different types of factor. The first affect all birds equally; population density, sex ratios, and environmental and climate factors. The second are individual and affect birds differently; age, territory quality, and social network. I’m still collating the results, but it’s nearly ready to be written up, and some of the results are fascinating. More on that when it’s complete.

I have learned a whole host of new statistical methods in R to build a picture of how these seasonal and individual factors play into non-breeding time and reproductive success. My data is nested; I have multiple observations of the same individuals across seasons, and variance partitioning tells me whether non-breeding time varies more across seasons or between individuals. Repeatability analysis compares each bird’s performance against the seasonal mean, and tells us if birds are generally good or generally poor across years or whether there’s random scatter. And, my new favourite, global modelling followed by dredging and model averaging tells me which of the many factors we included are most significant in influencing each bird’s non-breeding time.

There’s a lot of detective work in this sort of science, and a lot of working out what the correct questions are; a lot of the answers are very simple, but working out the proper questions takes time and a lot of jumping through hoops. Luckily my supervisory team are excellent, and willing to take time to work out how I work and learn most effectively. As a result of their patience, and a lot of hard work, I’m still on track to finish this chapter and move on to the last one right on schedule, which is incredible. This last few months have been very tough at times, but the science hasn’t stopped.

Thinking like a scientist

Being a scientist, or even working towards being a scientist, changes the way you think. It does for me, anyway. For example, I’m currently reading (and loving) The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon.

My favourite type of book- long meaty fantasy that starts with a map, female characters who DO things, lots of action. Dragons. Awesome.

Near the start there’s a throwaway comment about a bird, the peach-faced mimic, which is described as mating for life, and which recognises it’s mate by song. I love details like that in stories. But, that raises so many questions! OK, I grant that this is niche; my research is about mating systems. But I still want to know:

  1. Does the female use any extra-pair copulation, like great tits do?
  2. Is the genetic mating system the same as the social mating system? Some birds appear to be monogamous but genetic research shows that they really aren’t!
  3. Do environmental conditions change this? What about other constraints on breeding activity? Would the males try to be polygynous if they could, like my fodies?

Important questions!

In summary, thinking about things like a scientist changes your appreciation of many different types of media. It’s still a great book, though. Go read it.

More Fody talk

Yesterday I did a talk for the Science in Reading group; a bit last-minute as their planned speaker pulled out on Monday, so there was a panicked tweet sent out asking for any female speakers available on Wednesday. Initially I didn’t think I could because I’d need a babysitter; but I managed to make it work so I agreed to help out.

I had most of the content I needed anyway so it only took a couple of hours to put together a talk, and in the end I think it went really well. I enjoyed it anyway, even though I had to use a microphone for the first time!

Next week is Biology Week and I’m doing my usual Skype sessions with schools via ZSL. I really enjoy these; much like science group talks I never know what questions are coming up, and I like having to think on my feet and trying to answer clearly. It’s a very different skill to talking to an academic, but equally valuable.

On My SoapBox

On Saturday we all headed to London for my stint at SoapBox Science. It was the perfect day for it- sunny and bright but not too hot. We got to Observation Point at around 1:15 and I checked in with the team and got my station set up; I was on first and it was breezy enough for me to be very grateful we’d brought tape to stick the Great Eggspectations game boards down onto the table.

People were milling around all the time, and as soon as I was at my table with everything set up, they began approaching me even though it was before 2pm- I think because we had the great idea of putting my mini-egg cakes out on the table. I had spent most of Friday making 48 of them!

So I started playing the game with people a while before the official start time. There are pictures of the game board and instructions in my previous post. After a little while I realised that I could explain the game to kids and at the same time talk in more detail about the science to their parents; this allowed more discussions to happen and I got some insightful and interesting questions from adults and kids. The hour went so quickly, and I had really useful help throughout from Eleanor Stewart from Imperial who had volunteered to help out.

Eleanor on the right here.

I’m almost sad it’s over- I had a blast planning for it and doing it, and I really hope I can find a way of using Great Eggspectations again, as I think it worked as intended and showed the people who played how complex it can be for birds to fledge a nest. So many times people got to four out of the five butterflies they needed to win, and then drew bad weather or a predator, and there was lots of laughter when cyclones happened.

ZSL Tweet about the day

Because of how the game worked I didn’t end up actually standing on my soapbox the entire time, but Tom got a photo of me on it at the end. Fabulous day out and I really recommend finding a SoapBox near you and going along to hear about the science that is happening in your area.

On my SoapBox (photo by @tjrobinson)

Niche Gaming- developing a bird game for SoapBox Science

As I started preparing for SoapBox Science, I knew I had to choose just one aspect of my PhD to discuss, for my own sake- so that I can keep on topic on the day and not gabble at people too much. A neat good news / bad news aspect of my current analyses is how the environment is determining how my Mauritius Fodies breed, and how it’s (probably) changing their breeding behaviour, so that was an easy choice to make.

A male Mauritius Fody

During the excellent training and introduction session at London Zoo I had the idea developing a game with chocolate nest cakes with mini chocolate eggs as the prize. I’ve spent many hours since then perfecting a game that I have, with CONSIDERABLE imagination, called Great Eggspectations. It’s possibly the world’s only game designed to illustrate environmental limitations on bird breeding, though I realise that niche is small.

Mauritius Fodies are insectivorous, and so to successfully fledge a nest they need to gather insects. In the game insects are represented by small wooden butterflies which you draw (without looking!) from a tub. The game progresses as follows:

  • If you collect five butterflies you fledge a nest and win a chocolate nest cake! However there are many perils along the way.
  • A lot of Fody nesting attempts are ended by predation, so if you draw a dragon you lose all your current butterflies and must start again.
  • Many birds, fodies included, don’t like to forage in the rain; so if you draw a raincloud with a rainbow you miss a turn.

There are increasing threats to nests from unpredictable and changing weather patterns and cyclones, which can devastate large areas of ecosystem overnight. So, if you draw a heavy raincloud, all players lose their current butterflies and must start again.

Great Eggpsectations play pieces

All of this is within a time, set by an egg timer (!!), which represents the available length of the breeding season, which is where the good news comes in. The majority of the world’s Mauritius Fodies, and my entire study population, live on a tiny offshore islet reserve called Ile Aux Aigrettes. The habitat here is different to the mainland where they lived previously, with more of the year being suitable for breeding. The Fodies are making the most of this by cramming as many nests as they can into each season. Some breeding seasons last for more than a calendar year before they take a break. This has played a part in the recovery of the Fody from Critically Endangered to Endangered, and the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation are working hard to get the species downgraded further. Reduced pressure on the breeding time available will be represented in the game by a longer time set on the egg timer for some rounds, although of course the other limitations of predation and unpredictable weather still apply.

Game rules

The Fodies are making things even more interesting by practicing polygyny, where a male has more than one nesting attempt at the same time, with different females. So I might try to incorporate this into the game by getting people to team up and drawing twice each go instead of once; males that are polygynous raise more fledglings than those who remain monogamous.

Play board. A fledged nest wins cake!

This process has been a fascinating learning tool for me to try to condense some complex ideas (that I don’t even fully understand myself yet) into bite-size chunks that I can easily communicate to others. My son Leo and his friends Emily and Charlotte (aged 6-8) have had fun recently testing Great Eggspectations for me, and there was laughter and lots of questions, so I’m feeling fairly confident that it will work on the day. They weren’t even being bribed by winning chocolate at the end!

Please come along to SoapBox Science London, on the Southbank, on the 25th May, and play Great Eggspectations for yourself and see if you can win a cake!

A female Mauritius Fody

On my #SoapBox

Previous SoapBox Science speakers

Earlier this year I was thrilled to be asked to be part of SoapBox Science, a great event going into it’s 9th year, showcasing nearly 1000 female scientists worldwide who all seek to inspire people and increase visibility of female scientists by talking about their research directly to the public. So, on May 25th, I’m going to be literally standing on a soapbox on the Southbank of London, talking to anyone who will listen about Fodies and how awesome they are!

I attended a training programme last Friday about developing ideas for the day and what to expect, and one of the really useful things that we did was try to summarise our talks using only the 1000 most common words in English. This is what I came up with:
“There are less animals. We are making things worse. More rain and more warm air means less baby flying things. But a long year means more baby flying things! How do we know? And how can we help?”

I will be on my soapbox for an hour, sometime between 2 and 5pm. I’m going to split my talk into two sections; I want to cover intrinsic and extrinsic limitations on Fody reproductive output, and how changing environments can negatively and positively impact on bird species.

The first section will be something about climate change and climate unpredictability; I haven’t yet worked out how I’m going to use props for this, but I will talk about synchronicity in nesting efforts by Fodies and how unpredictable and changing climates are really bad for them.

The second part will be more optimistic; I’ll talk about the long breeding season that the Fodies have on Ile Aux Aigrettes, and how the environment determines the number of nests that the birds can fit into each season. I’m going to illustrate this with a little game based around chocolate Shredded Wheat* nests and Mini Eggs**, where people have to gather resources to a certain level before they are allowed to lay*** a nest within a breeding season of a particular time. I might even use an EGG TIMER (get it??) to time attempts, and then show how more time in a breeding season means more time to gather resources and make nests.

These ideas are still very much in development, but I’m having a lot of fun thinking about how to demonstrate these ideas and I am so thrilled in general to be part of events like these. Science is totally accessible, but kids need role models; if even one girl looks at me while I talk too fast at her about my science, and thinks that one day she could talk too fast at people about her science too, then I’ll count it as a success.

*Other wheat cereals are available.
**Other sugar coated chocolate eggs are available.

British Science Week

This week is British Science Week, and one of the things that ZSL do to get their message out is organise Skype sessions with schools from across the country, for kids who might not get to talk to scientists otherwise. I did some of these for Biology Week last Autumn and really enjoyed myself, so I volunteered again this time.

I had two sessions today, with Surbiton High School and All Saints Catholic College, and the questions the kids had were great.

With Ruth from ZSL, talking science (photo credit- ZSL)

My favourite animal, my scariest animal encounter, the first animal to go extinct- along with loads of questions about fodies and my research. The most important message I want to get out to kids is that science is *fun* as well as being worthwhile. Also, that there’s no one thing that scientists look like. We have a Lego minifigure called Zoologist, and while it’s great that it’s a woman….

Copyright Lego!

…. not all scientists are fieldworkers. I spend my life in front of Excel and R; fieldwork is vital, but so is rigorous analysis. Neither can have significant (p<0.05) impact without the other.

Earley Environmental Group

A couple of weeks ago I did a talk, sort of a short lecture, to this local conservation group about my research, and my trip to Mauritius. It was the first time I’d presented my work in this way and I really enjoyed filling in a bit of the background to the project.

Discussing a fieldwork day on IAA

The audience wasn’t huge, but it was really good practise for doing that sort of talk, and there were some really great and insightful questions at the end. For example, if the Fody population isn’t limited by needing to find food, why are they still territorial? The answer (partly provided by my supervisor Deepa), is that territories also provide other benefits like disease regulation, and also that evolutionary tendencies will control behaviour even if their original purpose is no longer necessary.

They also had cake and biscuits. Great evening all around!

Talking science

I’m doing some more science outreach tomorrow, at the Earley Environmental Group, which is partly run by a friend of mine. Pitching the talk has been interesting, as they have a wide range of scientific literacy in the members, but I’ve ended up with a ramble through Mauritius and it’s wildlife, and more detail about my analyses. I’m really looking forwards to it- I haven’t done a talk like that before; they want me to talk for about 30 minutes, so I’ve been able to include a lot more detail on topics that I can’t use for shorter talks.

It’s also so fun to illustrate talks with my own photos, since I’ve been there myself now, and as I’m not presenting my science for assessment I can include photos just because I love them, like this one of sunset over Mauritius, taken on my phone from the jetty on Ile Aux Aigrettes.

I’ll report back after the talk.

Lost for words

In early November I was lucky enough to spend 12 days in Mauritius. I’m not sure I’m eloquent enough to explain how much I loved it there, or the impact it had on me, but I’ll have a go.

I spent nine of the days on Ile Aux Aigrettes, a tiny islet off Mauritius where the majority of the world’s Mauritius Fodies live. The field team working there at the moment were incredibly welcoming, and made me feel part of the team right from the start, although it took me a few days to get my head around the routine. But I got there, and spent the rest of the time helping out with all of the fieldwork (they work really hard), and taking thousands of photographs.

My PhD is based on the long-term individual-based Mauritius Fody dataset; so I wasn’t in Mauritius to collect data but as a site visit, to get to know the system and increase my background knowledge. I think the most valuable aspect of it was the beautifully stark reminder that, though I spend my days in front of Excel and R, this project is really about a bird. A small, obscure, but incredibly charismatic and interesting one, that I was thrilled to be able to photograph at my leisure. They make the job of photography easy, really, because they are familiar, and there is such a high population density on IAA.

Male Mauritius Fody

This shot of a male fluffing himself out is one of my favourites. I got most of these photos while helping record Fody attendance at the aviaries in which they are fed; there are as many as 30 or 35 around at once, and this provides great photo opportunities as they fly in and out. I had a moment of awe when I realised that this is 10-15% of all the Fodies in the world, surrounding me!

Sunlight on feathers

There is one male called Amarula, whose territory is very close to the field station, and he’s even more tame than others; he hops around on the field station table and flies in and out of the kitchen, helping himself to whatever he can find to eat, even if it’s food set aside for the Mauritius Olive White-eye, another species reintroduced to IAA and currently more endangered than the fody.

The males get a lot of attention and camera time because they are so bright, but the females are also subtly beautiful.

Feather maintenance

I will post again about the work I did, the benefits to my study, and the other species on IAA later. For now, this post is late enough so I need to post it!