It is 6.30am on Sunday morning but I’m wide awake and can hear the hotel in which we are staying stirring into life. Time to reflect on what has been a long and busy week, rather than the start of a long and relaxing summer holiday as some assume academics enjoy. That’s a myth: summers for many of us are at least as busy as the main teaching part of the year, though that’s not to say we don’t teach in the summer – I have final year project students to advise, and for students who did not pass first time round there’s still re-sit exams and assignments to be undertaken.
Of course I’m not complaining and the busyness is part of the fun of my job, which includes opportunities to travel, as I’ve previously described on this blog. Before any travelling this week, however, Monday was taken up listening to my PhD student Kat Harrold give a seminar about the progress of her research on pollinator mapping and habitat modelling in the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area. This was followed by an hour’s grilling from the supervisory team and an independent colleague, as we drilled down into the research and suggested ways in which Kat could improve on the already excellent work that she’s doing. All of this is a formal part of our PhD programme and Kat aquitted herself very well indeed.
Tuesday was the start of the travelling, and was spent in Chester helping with filming for an episode of a new four-part BBC2 series provisionally called Plant Odyssey, fronted by Carol Klein, Gardener’s World presenter and Honorary Fellow of the University. The series is being produced by Oxford Scientific Films and will be broadcast in the spring. In the following scene we were making a rose perfume based on an ancient Roman recipe from the writings of Pliny the Elder.
Now, I know very little about how to make perfume, but I do know a bit about flower scents and how they attract pollinators, so my role was to act as both a foil for Carol’s scent experiment and to add some science to the mix. This is not the first filming I’ve done with Carol, having also helped out with her Science in the Garden special edition of Gardener’s World a few years ago. While looking for that last link I discovered that all three episodes of Bees, Butterflies and Blooms is also available on YouTube, which is great to see as the BBC didn’t repeat the series or produce a DVD. I was involved in the making of episode 2, which helped to kick-start the RHS’s Perfect for Pollinators plant labelling campaign. Television work is fun and brings science, and the scientists who do it, to a much wider audience.
Wednesday I prepared my talk for Friday’s lecture in Copenhagen (more of which later) and Thursday involved attending the University of Northampton’s annual postgraduate research conference. This is a highlight of the year for me as it’s an opportunity to see the breadth of postgraduate research going on across the university, something that would be impossible in a larger and more research intensive institution. I was only able to attend the first session, but that alone covered research on the research process itself; feminist cyborg literature; the legality of the World Bank’s scrutiny panel; pollinator conservation (Kat Harrold again); and the experiences of families with children who have difficulties communicating. Questions from the audience tended to be broad and non-specialist, and all the better for that: often it’s the straightforward, naive questions which test specialist knowledge.
The rest of Thursday Karin and I packed and then travelled up to Birmingham International for an early evening flight to Denmark. I’d been invited by my colleague Bo Dalsgaard to present a research seminar at the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate. Coming from a small and very diverse department, it was great to visit such a large and specialised group of researchers, though over lunch the Center’s Director Carsten Rahbek told me that a common complaint from his staff was: “Why can’t we employ more people doing what I’m going?” Everything’s relative I suppose.
The title of my talk was “Pattern and process in pollination at large geographic scales”, which gave an overview of some of the research I’ve published over the last decade or so, framed around the following questions:
- Globally, how many plant species are animal pollinated?
- Are plant-pollinator interactions more ecologically specialized in the tropics?
- How predictable are pollination syndromes in different parts of the world?
- What are the historical and contemporary drivers of the relative importance of animal versus wind pollination? [No link here as that manuscript is currently in review!]
Quite a number of people in the Center were out doing field work or were otherwise engaged so I spoke to a modest-sized audience of some 30 people: certainly not the smallest audience I’ve ever presented to – that was three people, including the two who had invited me to give the talk!
The lecture seemed to be well received and there were some stimulating questions afterwards, though also a couple of challenging ones about statistical analysis. One of these I couldn’t answer until afterwards because I’d forgotten the details of the methods we’d used (note to self: re-read old papers before you present their findings). In answering the other I agreed with the questioner that the data could now be analysed in a more sophisticated way (future task, if I ever get the time). If Kat’s reading this, I hope she takes satisfaction in not being the only person to be asked difficult questions about their research this week!
Afterwards I chatted with Bo and Carsten about the limitations of the current and paleo-climate data sets we’ve been using in some studies, which are indeed very limited. But there are only two options. Do we work with data sets that are flawed, whilst acknowledging that any conclusions are tentative? Or wait until better data become available, which could be a decade in the future? My choice is definitely to go with the former, otherwise we’d never publish anything because there are always limitations to data used in studies of ecology and biodiversity. Personal and public honesty about such limitations, and ideas as to how they can be overcome in the future, are surely preferable to stalling research.
Later that afternoon I discussed science with two of Bo’s collaborators, Pietro Maruyama a Brazilian PhD student whom I’d met last November, and Peter, a Danish undergraduate. Both are doing excellent work on that most charismatic group of pollinators, the hummingbirds.
Friday evening I was exhausted, and Karin and I opted for dinner in the hotel restaurant and an early night, as Saturday was to be spent exploring Copenhagen. It’s a great city for wandering around, with fascinating architecture and unexpected additions to buildings, such as bronze dragons:
And parks with statues of artists and writers, such as Hans Christian Andersen:
After a roundabout wander, via a gallery selling African tribal art (which we couldn’t afford) and a small lunch (which we could only just afford – Copenhagen’s an expensive city!) we eventually ended up at the University’s Botanical Garden, which has a superb living collection of cacti and succulents, orchids and other epiphytes, and alpine plants.
It beautifully illustrates the huge morphological diversity encompassed within the 352,000 or so species of flowering plants, one of the many reasons why I love visiting botanical gardens: I always see something new. This included two species of bumblebees (Bombus) which I’m sure don’t occur in Britain. I’ll have to look them up when I get back: from Chester to Copenhagen and, tomorrow, back to Northampton.