Should environmentalists be optimistic in a time of uncertainty?

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Over at the Ideas for Sustainability blog Joern Fischer posted a really interesting piece on 1st January called “A new kind of hope” about the current state of the world and whether, from an environmental perspective, there’s really anything to be optimistic about.  If environmental collapse via climate change and over-exploitation is inevitable, the collapse of civilization is not far behind.  Joern’s piece is well worth reading, lots to think about in there, and I highly recommend that you take a look.

I posted a comment there which I’m going to copy here and add to because I think it bears repeating.

Going back to at least my student days I always thought that there was only a slim chance of our civilization making it to the end of the 20th century without some kind of catastrophe wiping us out.   So it was a surprise to celebrate the millennium as December 1999 segued into January 2000. Since then, whilst I think there’s lots to be optimistic about such as the increase in renewable energy, large-scale habitat restoration in some regions, and a growing recognition of the environmental damage of biocides and plastics, there’s also the nagging fear that it’s too little, too late.

These days I alternate between wild optimism and deep depression over the fate of humanity and of the planet. It’s so easy to get sucked into the vortex of negative environmental narratives and ignore the positive ones. Especially so if you actively use social media.  So I try hard to be optimistic and resist the urge to just give up, but the political situation across much of the world makes that difficult. As I learn more about the natural world through my own research and that of others’, and as world events such as Brexit and the rise of the Far Right unfold, I realise how little any of us really know about anything at all. Thus I have a deep suspicion of anyone who spouts certainties, whether they be moral, philosophical, religious, scientific, political, or artistic. All we can do is feel our way into the future, cautiously.

With respect to the question that Joern poses of “If we have to re-build something after some kind of collapse … do we have ideas for what that something will be?”, this is the rationale behind the Dark Mountain Project, a loose collaboration of writers, artists, thinkers, etc., who are trying to look for new narratives for humanity and the planet we depend upon. I’ve written a couple of pieces for their journal, most recently for issue 10 where I discussed the role of poetry in science.  And although I don’t buy into their certainty that there will be a collapse, I think it’s an important project for understanding where we are now, where we’ve been, and where we might be going to.  Here’s a link to the project’s website.

The discussion over whether we should be optimistic about the future of the planet that supports us, and how that optimism will play out, is important for scientists, and society at large, to be having.  By coincidence as I was writing this post the map above started circulating on Twitter.  It’s a Russian teaching aid from 1928 showing the different biomes of the USSR and can be downloaded from this site.

What really struck me about this graphic was the certainty with which it represents the natural world, as if all of this could never change. There are polar bears on ice flows and a frozen tundra in the far north; water still fills the Aral Sea, hyenas feast in the steppe, snow leopards haunt the mountains, Siberian tigers prowl the pine forests.  And an optimistic looking whale heads towards Japan.  Some of this is gone, some will almost certainly change, but a lot of it we could save, if we want to, saving ourselves in the process.

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When scientists get things wrong: is coffee the second most valuable global commodity?

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If this blog has a purpose beyond highlighting the importance of biodiversity, and recent developments in the field of pollination biology in particular, it’s to demystify science and the scientists who produce new knowledge.  Hopefully my posts over the past seven years have shown that scientists can have all kinds of backgrounds, even northern English working class, and need not have attended the most prestigious universities.  I’d also hope that what I write about my own research gives some insights into how new knowledge is generated and how it can be communicated to both specialist and non-specialist audiences.

Something should be clear from all of this: scientists are human just like everyone else, with the same foibles, foolish notions, prejudices, passions, and blind spots.  And they make errors.  Just like everyone else.

This is by way of an introduction to admitting that I made a mistake in one of my recent papers.  Not a massive mistake, and not one that requires me to retract the paper, but one which bugs me and which I need to correct for the sake of accuracy.  Hopefully it will stop others repeating the same error.

In “Pollinator Diversity: Distribution, Ecological Function and Conservation” (Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 2017) I stated that:

“Coffee…is second only to oil in terms of its value as a commodity”.

That’s a “fact” that I’ve heard repeated for years, in lots of different places, so I didn’t bother citing a source because, well, it’s just true, isn’t it?  Only trouble is, it’s not true.  It’s been debunked several times over the years, as discussed in this summary on the Politifact.com website:  No, coffee is not the second-most traded commodity after oil.

Mea culpa.  I should have done due diligence and checked my facts, especially as I’ve posted before about how many of the “facts” concerning bees as pollinators are incorrect – see Who is feeding the honey bee bullshit machine?   

But, we all get stuff wrong.  I’m sure I’ve made other errors in the past and not spotted them, and I bet there’s not a published scientist who hasn’t made some kind of mistake in their writing.  We may all be standing on the shoulders of giants, but even giants have their flaws….  That doesn’t make me feel any better though.

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What are my most read blog posts of 2018? A short review of the year

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On this last day of 2018 I thought I’d review twelve months of blogging by highlighting the 10 posts that I published this year which have received the most reads, and the perennial favourites from previous years.

The most viewed post of 2018 was Should we stop using the term “PhD students”? with 1,743 views.  That’s perhaps not surprising as there is a huge appetite for information related to early career researchers.

More surprising, but very satisfying, with 1,081 views The evolution of pollination systems in one of the largest plant families: a new study just published – download it for free was the second most viewed post published this year.  The fact that the paper it relates to has gestated, in concept and in execution, for over 20 years, has 75 authors from almost 20 countries, with a roughly 50:50 gender split, made this my personal favourite of the year.

The guest post by Karin Blak, my wife, on How can academics help students with anxiety issues?  generated a lot of comments on Twitter and Facebook, and comes in third with 729 views.  If you’ve not read any of Karin’s posts on her own blog, which relate to all types of relationships, intimacy, and so forth, they are highly recommended.

Fourth most viewed was Is there really a “battle for the soul of biodiversity” going on at IPBES? (456 views) which I updated just this week to reflect the latest correspondence in Nature.

Number five is XI International Symposium on Pollination, Berlin, April 16th -20th, 2018 (424 views).  I’m pleased that this helped to generate a lot of interest in the conference as I was asked by the organisers to present the keynote lecture, initially agreed, but then had to pull out as the timing in relation to our undergraduate Tenerife Field Course was problematical.  I heard from those who attended that the symposium was great and I’m sure that David Inouye did a much better job than I could have done at delivering the keynote!

The impact of building a new university campus on urban bird diversity and abundance: a seven-year study is sixth with 407 views.  Expect an update on this in 2019 as we complete the final round of winter and spring surveys.

Being ill is good for blogging as demonstrated by the 406 views of the seventh-ranked The good and the bad in biodiversity.  It was also a useful example to use in my first year biodiversity class.

The weird weather of March last year clearly interested people:  Can pollinators survive sudden changes in the weather? (362 views) was the eighth most viewed.

And of course pollinators are always popular: There ain’t no b(ee) in Starbucks (356 views) came ninth, whilst Hunting the Chequered Skipper: an encounter with England’s latest species reintroduction project (296 views) was tenth.

Those are the statistics for posts that I published in 2018.  But all of these are exceeded by a post first published in 2016: How to deal with bumblebees in your roof received 6,395 views this year, six times as many as it has had in the previous two years.  Not sure what has gone on here: are bumblebees nesting in roofs becoming more frequent?  Perhaps so – the main roof nester is the Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) which has become ever-more common since its arrival in the British Isles in 2001.

The second most viewed post overall was also published a while ago, in 2015: How does a scientist’s h-index change over time? was viewed 4,081 times.  This no doubt reflects an increasing focus on such easily measurable (but rather flawed) metrics for evaluation (self- and external-) of an individual’s progress as a scientist.

Interestingly these are also the two most viewed posts of all time on my blog, though the order is different: How does a scientist’s h-index change over time? has had 12,355 views and How to deal with bumblebees in your roof has had 7,549.  I suspect that posing a question in the title of a blog post has some influence on viewing figures – most of my all-time viewed posts are phrased as questions and people searching for information often google a question.  I just pitched that idea to Karin and she half agreed but suggested that it’s also because people want answers.  So they come looking for an answer to the question that is posed in the title, whereas having a bald statement in the title does not inspire them to look any further.  Would be interesting to devise a test to differentiate between these two effects.

So that’s my blogging year in summary.  What were your favourite posts of 2018, either from my blog or from other’s?

Happy New Year everyone, I hope that 2019 brings you things that make you happy!

 

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On the temporal dislocation that occurs in the period between Christmas and New Year

2018-12-12 16.57.27

Today is Thursday.

Keep that in mind

and try

to find

your place

in time.

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Climate change at Christmas: did the hot, dry summer of 2018 cause the record-breaking prices of holly and mistletoe?

Over the past two festive seasons I have posted about the research we published assessing the auction prices of holly and mistletoe, two culturally important seasonal crops that are 100% pollinator dependent for berry production.  The first post was called Insect pollinators boost the market price of holly and mistletoe: a new study just published; the second was The holly, the mistletoe, and the pollinators: an update on an old story.

Follow those two links to get the full background to this research and a link to the original paper published in the Journal of Pollination Ecology.

I’ve collated the auction prices for the 2018 season and added them to the time series data set, and it’s clear that something very interesting has occurred.  Both berried holly and mistletoe have achieved record-breaking average prices, whilst auction prices for material without berries have hardly changed at all.  Here are the updated graphs; each data point is the average price per kilo paid at an auction:

Holly and mistletoe prices 2018

So what’s gone on this year?  What could have affected the auction prices?  One interesting possibility is that the long, dry summer of 2018, a likely consequence of climate change, has negatively affected berry production in these two species.  This could come about if the holly or the mistletoe host trees are water stressed and shed part of their berry crops.  It’s unlikely to be a consequence of too few pollinators as these species flower too early in the year to have been affected by the dry weather.   We have more work planned in the future using these data and this will be an interesting question to address.

Yesterday I popped out to do some Christmas shopping and tried to buy mistletoe at a local garden centre.  That’s the second time I’ve tried this year (the first was at a nearby green grocer’s) and the second time that I’ve been told that they have none because it’s very expensive this year and not worth stocking.  That seems predictable from the wholesale auction results I’ve just described.  Has anyone else in the UK had similar experiences this year?

The British holly and mistletoe market is relatively small and clearly seasonal, and probably not worth more than a few millions of pounds each year.  However it seems to be very sensitive to external factors and may be a microcosm for how some crops, at least, might respond to future extreme weather brought about by climate change.  Brexit might also have an effect in the coming years as we import a large amount of mistletoe from northern France.  But then Brexit is going to have an effect on large areas of British society…..

On that sour note, Happy Christmas to all of my readers, however you voted in the referendum.  I hope you have a restful holiday, spending it as you wish, with the people you want to!  And if you, or someone you know, are spending the festive season on your own this year, take a look at Karin’s latest blog post:  Preparing a Christmas Just For You.

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Should we stop using the term “PhD students”?

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Back in the early 1990s when I was doing my PhD there was one main way in which to achieve a doctorate in the UK.  That was to carry out original research as a “PhD student” for three or four years, write it up as a thesis, and then have an oral examination (viva).  Even then the idea of being a “PhD student” was problematical because I was funded as a Postgraduate Teaching Assistant and to a large extent treated as a member of staff, with office space, a contributory pension scheme, etc.  Was I a “student” or a member of staff or something in between?

Nowadays the ways in which one can obtain a Level 8 qualification have increased greatly.  At the University of Northampton one can register for a traditional PhD, carry out a Practice-based PhD in the Arts (involving a body of creative work and a smaller thesis), or submit an existing set of publications for a PhD by Means of Published Works (“PhD by Publication”).  There are also a couple of Professional Doctorates (“Prof Docs”): Doctor of Professional Practice in Health and Social Care (D Prof Prac) and Doctor of Business Administration (DBA).  Other subject areas are looking at developing these types of degrees, for example in Education.

Some of the “PhD students” who are registered on these degrees fit the mould of the relatively young academic, fresh from a first degree or a Master’s programme.  But many are older, especially on the Prof Docs (which attracts senior staff from business or the public sector), or might be members of staff at the university who teach and do research in areas where PhDs were not traditionally awarded.  And then there are those who are studying for an MPhil, also a Level 8 research degree.

The University of Northampton is not alone in this regard and over the past 20 years the range of doctorates and other research degrees has broadened enormously.  Those studying for a research degree even within the same Faculty may hardly be aware of one another, and some may be long-standing members of staff rather than “students” per se.  It’s important, therefore, to note that there is no single postgraduate community within an institution.  Rather we must recognise that there are communities of postgraduate researchers.

Not only that, but even those on a “traditional” PhD, who are not members of staff,  interact with the university in ways such as involvement in teaching, staff-style email addresses and security cards, etc., that reflects a status that is beyond “student”.  Members of academic staff who are registered for PhDs might certainly resent the idea of being called a “student”.

So for all of these reasons I’m going to try and stop referring to “PhD students” and instead use the term “Postgraduate Researchers” (PGRs).  Because that’s what they are.

As always, I’m happy to receive your comments and views on this.

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Photograph and poem: the only alien here

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Wind the propagator propels air-borne seeds

To urban refuge and new opportunity

Where they germinate, elongate, grow, and flower,

Roots seeking soil, making do with mortar and render,

As, persistent in its invader role,

Buddleia grips a gable cliff, dispensing offspring

From house wall warmth into frigid space

And a clear night of stars backdrops the only alien here.

 

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How can academics help students with anxiety issues?

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This is a guest post from Karin Blak, a therapist with over 15 years of training and experience in helping people overcome issues such as anxiety, including running training workshops for young people and those with pastoral care responsibilities such as teachers.  Regular readers of the blog will also know that Karin is my wife, and I may be biased, but I think she’s written a really useful and informative piece on an issue that’s concerning many academics and their universities at the moment.  If you want to get in touch with Karin to ask about training workshops that she offers, or to follow up on any of this, click on that link to her web site or drop me a line.


 

Listening to and reading about the issues students in higher education have, anxiety seems to be on the rise.  I do wonder whether it is more likely that, with developments in psychology and therapy, we are better able to accept that there is such a condition as “anxiety” and are aware of how to spot it, rather than blaming shyness or laziness.  But whatever the source of this rise, we need to consider how academics can help students with anxiety.

Anxiety is not a disability, but it is a dis-abler.  It is a fear based condition that increases if it is treated with too much empathy.  For example, if we allow students to not participate in group activities because of anxiety, we are being too empathic and instead of helping the student, as was our intention, we empower the condition.  So if too much empathy is a bad thing, what can we do to help?  To answer this question we need to understand what anxiety actually is.

Anxiety stems from our prehistoric ancestors who had an innate strategy to detect and survive threats to their lives.  With the help of adrenaline certain abilities would be strengthened, such as strength, speed or numbness.  Their bodies would shut down all but the most important functions they needed for these actions.  This is also known as fight, flight freeze, or fall (pretend to be dead).  Once the danger was over, the body would return to normal.

We still innately possess this ability to detect danger and our bodies tend to react in the same way.  This is still important for our survival, though at times it can stop us from achieving our potential.  If this ability is activated in situations that do not threaten our lives, but where we feel uncomfortable or lack confidence, we will feel like running away, lose our words, our pulse will increase, we might begin to sweat, and ultimately we will enter into a state of panic.

Social encounters, presenting information to groups, taking part in discussions and debates all activate anxiety for someone who has been fine tuned to this strategy.  As part of developing knowledge, experience and maturity students in higher education are encouraged to partake in all of these experiences.

Almost like being possessed, extreme anxiety will effectively shut down any capabilities a student has and replace them with noise and undermining messages.  At the same time if the student is allowed not to participate, the anxiety is likely to get worse and anxiety will be controlling the student.  It is a cycle that the student will probably know really well but perhaps not be completely conscious of.

The tricky thing is that anxious students believe that anxiety is an integral part of who they are.  They have lived with it for most of their lives and many have not had help.  To feel anxiety so intensely will stop the most capable student from succeeding and academic staff will play a role in that failure if anxiety is treated like a disability.

For a student with anxiety, the most supportive action by lecturers would be to enable participation in classes.

Some suggestions for action:

  1. Referring the student to the university’s counselling services is a must. Counsellors have special training in working with anxiety and should be able to provide coping strategies while the underlying reasons are worked with.
  2. Talk with the student one-to-one and decide what they are going to say or do in an upcoming session.  Make it a short spoken sentence or piece of work initially, even if it is only to agree with something that is said in a seminar for instance, or give them a question to ask after a lecture. Let them know that you are there to support them through this.  Rehearsing the words with them will prepare the brain for participation, and if coached to participate it will be the first step in externalising anxiety rather than letting it rule the present and future life of the student.
  3. After the session, follow this up one-to-one with affirmation so the student can see that they are capable, that they did the right thing, and that they coped.
  4. Refer the student to the following two websites:

MIND’s website has reliable information to aid understanding of anxiety and how to help, as well as self-help. While it is important for academic staff to understand a condition that is affecting a growing number of today’s students, it is equally important for the students living with anxiety to be made aware of this free, valuable source of help:

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/anxiety-and-panic-attacks/self-care-for-anxiety/#.W9LVNWj0nic

Get-Self-Help is an approved Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) website which is another resource for people living with anxiety and it’s also free:

https://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/

It is worth academics  familiarising themselves with the information on here too so that they have a good understanding of the situation and can be of optimum help to students who live with anxiety.

The above advice will not apply to all students with anxiety.  For example, if anxiety is secondary to a primary condition such as bipolar or a personality disorder, then different coping strategies need to be considered and working closely with student support services would be a recommendation.  Likewise, depression is often caused by anxiety as anxiety has a tendency to isolate an individual and destroy self-esteem.  Seeking professional help is again recommended.

We all feel anxious sometimes.  I used to accept invites to social events and as time drew closer I would end up cancelling.  It hasn’t completely gone away, but I know what anxiety is up to and can resist the temptation to dive into the overwhelming feelings it’s presenting me with.

I know of academics with vast experience of presenting their topic to large groups of students and peers, who still feel like running away before they go on stage.  People who have studied their subject in minute detail and still struggle to find the words for what they want to say..…sometimes, only sometimes, not all the time, because they too have stopped listening to the voice of anxiety.

To get to the point of being able to manage anxiety, help is needed.  Training, therapy, self-help, CBT, whatever suits the individual, is a great way of getting to know and control this monster, but most of all it takes support from people around them, including academics.

Ultimately facing the fear and doing it anyway is the only cure, and Susan Jeffers’ book of the same name is still a top seller when it comes to managing an anxious life.  University academics are in the perfect position to help change a student’s life, not just by imparting your knowledge and skills, but in the support you can provide to your anxious students.

 

 

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The biological mutualisms at the heart of sourdough bread

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During the road trip to Denmark that I mentioned in a post back in September – see “There ain’t no b(ee) in Starbucks” – my wife Karin received a special gift from her sister Pia.  It was a small jar containing a starter culture for sourdough bread, a culture that Pia has been using since she received it from a friend, who long ago received it from another friend.  I didn’t know much about sourdough bread and did some reading. That Wikipedia link is a good introduction but don’t be put off by the complexities of “refreshment” – we’ve kept the starter culture in the fridge since early September and it’s been fine.  Karin used the culture for the first time this morning and made the rye bread you see above.

But on to the biology.  In essence the sourdough culture is a mix of wild lactic acid bacteria and wild yeasts, plus flour and water.  When added to the bread mix (which in our case contained water, salt, seeds and molasses, as well as rye flour) the yeasts feed on some of the sugars within the mix and the lactic acid bacteria feed on other sugars that the yeast cannot metabolise.  During that bacterial fermentation, byproducts are also produced on which the yeasts feed.  The yeasts in turn produce carbon dioxide which serves to leaven the dough, and the bacteria produce lactic acid as another byproduct, which gives the bread its slightly sour flavour.  This lactic acid also lowers the pH of the environment and, together with the production of anti-fungal chemicals, the lactic acid bacteria prevent the growth of other bacteria and moulds.  The yeasts, however, can tolerate these conditions and they thrive.

At least six species of yeast and 25 species of lactic acid bacteria have been shown to be  involved in this process, often as multi-species mixtures.  The exact biodiversity of the culture is dependent upon its source: micro-organisms vary a lot across the world.  But the heart of the relationship between yeasts and bacteria is always the same: they each facilitate the growth and reproduction of the other, and so the relationship is mutualistic, much like (most) relationships between plants and pollinators, birds and berries, and sea anemones and clownfish.

Of course there is a third organism involved in this mutualism: Homo sapiens.  By producing the resources on which these organisms feed, and then distributing the starter culture, we are providing the right conditions for the yeast and lactic acid bacteria to increase their populations.  In turn the yeast and bacteria play an important role in producing food for us, and in fact this way of making bread is thousands of years old.  Microorganisms and people all benefit: what could be more mutualistic than that?  Indeed, these interactions could be classified as a rare example of a ménage à trois mutualism.

There’s also a social-cultural dimension to all of this as the passing of gifts such as the starter culture binds friendships.  If any of our local friends are reading we’d be happy to share the sourdough culture once we’ve bulked it up.  The bread that it makes is delicious and from now on we’re going to try to give up buying the shop-bought kind.

If you want to read more about all of this, and have a try at making your own starter culture from scratch, there’s some great information and links on the Microbial Menagerie blog.

Many thanks to Pia for sharing the starter culture, and to Karin for baking the bread!

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Seven things that I learned at the SCAPE 2018 meeting in Ireland

SCAPE 2018 group photo

The 32nd meeting of the Scandinavian Association for Pollination Ecology took place last week, and from Thursday through to Sunday 87 researchers from around the world met to discuss their latest findings.  For the first time the conference was held outside of Scandinavia, at Avon Rí, Blessington in Ireland.  As always it was a friendly and stimulating meeting, and a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and colleagues, and make new ones.

Here’s a link to the full programme with the abstracts.  I gave a talk about our recent work on the evolution of pollination systems in the plant family Apocynaceae which seemed to go down well enough and generated some discussion later in the bar and over breakfast.  The quality of the research and the standard of the presentations was very high and I don’t intend to single out individuals, but I did learn some things during the meeting that I wanted to highlight:

  • Some bird pollinated penstemons produce scent volatiles, even if we can’t detect them (Amy Parachnowitsch, University of New Brunswick).  Relates to this post of mine from earlier in the year on how hummingbirds have a sense of smell.
  • Staying with the theme of dispelling bird pollination myths – many of the supposedly sunbird-pollinated species of Aloe in southern Africa are in fact pollinated by non-specialist passerines such as bulbuls (Steve Johnson, University of KwaZulu-Natal).
  • There’s a data set on plant-pollinator interactions from the far north of Finland from the end of the 19th century and this area is being re-surveyed to assess changes between then and now (Leana Zoller, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg).
  • Farmers who grow watermelons in Tanzania can improve their yields by encouraging more pollinators in their fields; the yields are better than adding fertliser or irrigating the crop (Thomas Sawe, Norwegian University of Life Sciences).
  • A weevil was introduced into Indonesia in the 1980s to improve yields of oil palm by increasing the rate of pollination (Lynn Jørgensen, University of Oslo).
  • There’s strong evidence that the current distributions of plants with specialised pollination systems in southern Africa are constrained by the environmental niche, and thus the distribution, of their pollinators (Karl Duffy, University of Naples).
  • Mobile saunas are a thing!  I took a photo of one (below) just to prove it.  Thanks to Dara Stanley and Jane Stout for organising that, and the rest of this brilliant conference!  Hope to see you all next year in Lund.

There was a lot more tweeting going on at SCAPE this year and you can see comments and images by searching Twitter for #SCAPE2018

If you attended SCAPE, what did you learn?  What surprised or interested you?  Please comment below.

SCAPE 2018 sauna

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