Monthly Archives: June 2015

Some basic tips for PhD students for giving effective conference presentations

One of the advantages of working in a relatively small, non-research intensive institution such as the University of Northampton is that events such as yesterday’s Annual Postgraduate Research Conference expose staff and research students to a diversity of topics and approaches, beyond the narrow silos of our own disciplines.  I spent the day listening to talks as varied as 21st century Gothic fiction, sediment sources in an English river; automating traffic control systems; and the role of younger grandmothers in raising their grandchildren.

It was a great day, very stimulating. However it struck me that whilst the research was sound, in some cases (certainly not all) the presentation of the research could have been improved.  I’m writing this in the spirit of a recent discussion over at Dynamic Ecology about the “advice” posts that they present and why they are so popular.  It seems like the consensus in the discussion is that often supervisors (or advisors as they are called in North America) often neglect to give some basic advice to their graduate students, assuming that they already know those “basics”, and focus instead on very detailed, technical advice.

Conference presentation skills are one such set of basics which, although covered by many universities in their training programmes (Northampton included) need to be reinforced by supervisors and by practice.  In my opinion, the following advice applies to all disciplines, not just the sciences:

1.  Always use a visual aid, such as PowerPoint, even if you think you don’t need it. Even a single slide with your name and the title of your presentation provides a context and focus for your talk.  Better still would be some information about the structure of your talk  on a second slide – “free-form” talks rarely work unless you’re an exceptional presenter.

2.  On PowerPoint, etc. use an absolute minimum text size of 18pt, preferably larger.  This includes graphs, tables, figure legends, screen shots, etc.  Anything smaller is not going to be visible beyond the third row of the audience unless you’re projecting onto a giant screen.  And do you know for certain that the venue has a big screen?

3.  Related to that, use the full width and height of your slides, don’t cram text and figures into the middle.

4.  Keep text to a minimum – just bullet points to give you a prompt as to what you’re going to say.  These bullet points don’t need to make complete sense to the audience as long as they give you that prompt: you’re talking, not reading.

5.  Ask someone (a friend, your supervisor) to double-check all your spelling, grammar, spacing, formatting, etc.  It’s well known that we read what we think is there, not what is actually there.

6.  A good rule of thumb for most presentations is to use more-or-less one slide per minute.  So if your allotted time is 10 minutes, use about 10 slides; if it’s 30 minutes, use about 30 (not including introduction and acknowledgements slides).  Do not try to fit 15 minutes worth of material into a 10 minute talk, it will irritate your audience and your conclusions at the end will be garbled and unclear as you rush to finish.  You can ALWAYS effectively summarise your research into the time allotted – don’t complain that you can’t.

7.  PowerPoint etc. provide all sorts of fancy backgrounds for slides, wonderful fonts, including shading and 3D, tricksy text animations, etc.  Don’t use any of them.  Keep your backgrounds a plain neutral colour, your font a basic sans serif (Trebuchet is my personal favourite), and don’t use animations unless they are really adding to what you’re saying, or building suspense by introducing elements one at a time.

8.  Tell a story.  Start with a broad introduction, take the audience on a journey through your work in logical order, and sum up at the end.  Then let your audience know that you’ve finished by saying something like: “Thanks for your attention, I’d be happy to answer any questions”.  Don’t just stop talking and stare at the audience.

9.  Stay focused and relevant to what you’re presenting.

10.  Enjoy yourself.  It’s hard the first few times but it gets easier.

Finally I should add that I’ve seen mid- and late-career researchers make these kinds of errors, it’s not just PhD students! Feel free to share your own tips, or to disagree with any of these.

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A University of Northampton student interview about bees and pollinator declines

A few weeks ago I was approached by Kady Middleton, a first year undergraduate student studying journalism at the University of Northampton, to be interviewed for a short radio-interview style report that she was putting together as one of her assignments.

The topic was urban bee diversity and pollinators declines – Kady had seen my blog post about urban bees in Northampton.  I was very happy to oblige and I think that Kady’s done a great job; it’s a nice example of how very different university departments can cooperate and collaborate.  You can listen to Kady’s report here:

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A plant-pollinator walk-and-talk, Bradlaugh Fields, 14th June

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Yesterday afternoon I spent an enjoyable couple of hours leading a group of over 30 people around the nature reserves of Bradlaugh Fields in the centre of Northampton.  The participants were a combination of members of the Northants Natural History Society and local residents who regularly use the park.

We discussed the ecology of the area, focussing on the plants and how they are pollinated.  It was great to see such a range of ages on the walk, and a pleasure to tell them some interesting stories and answer their questions.  Over at the Bradlaugh Fields Visitor blog, Serena (who took the picture above and who organised the event) has a fuller account of the day.

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Plantlife’s road verge advice could negatively affect pollinators

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Did anyone else hear the item on Radio 4 this morning about Plantlife’s road verge campaign and associated petition?  I listened carefully to the discussion and am broadly supportive of what they are trying to achieve.  But I was immediately struck by a comment that local councils should cut the verges “from mid July onwards” because most plants will have set seed by then.  I’ve seen this advice given before and whilst it might be an appropriate option for plants, it could severely impact local pollinator populations.

The printed advice that Plantlife is offering (which can be found here) states that if it’s only possible to cut a verge once a year:

“Cut the full width of the verge….between mid July and September. This allows plants to flower and, importantly, gives time for seed to be set.”

This misses a vital point: between mid-July and September there is still an abundance of flower-visiting insects that require these flowers to provide resources for their nesting and egg laying activities, or to build up reserves of energy to allow them to hibernate, particularly newly-mated queen bumblebees.

Where’s the evidence to support my assertion?  It’s been demonstrated by a number of studies, but I’ll point you in the direction of a paper that came out of the PhD work of one of my former students, Dr Sam Tarrant, who now works with RSPB.  If you look at Figure 4 of this paper, you’ll see that on restored landfill sites the abundance of pollinators in autumn surveys (conducted September-October) was just as high as for summer surveys.  On nature reserves, which are routinely cut from mid-July onwards (see Figure 2), this was not the case.

Climate change means that flower-visiting insects are now active in the UK for a much longer period of time than was previously the case, up to at least November in the south of the country.  I agree with Plantlife that road verges are important habitats for plants and other wildlife.  But advice that suggests cutting floral resources at a key time of the year for these insects is simply misguided.  A cut between October and December would be much more appropriate.

I don’t use Twitter so if anyone could point this at Plantlife’s account I’d be interested to see what their reaction is.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Butterflies, Hoverflies

How good is the evidence base for pollinator declines? A comment on the recent Ghazoul and Goulson Science correspondence

In a recent issue of the journal Science, Dave Goulson and colleagues presented a review entitled “Bee declines driven by combined stress from parasites, pesticides, and lack of flowers”.  This stimulated Jaboury Ghazoul to submit a letter to Science criticising the Goulson et al. paper from a number of perspectives, but particularly the paucity of the evidence base for pollinator declines. Dave and his co-authors robustly responded to that letter, as you might imagine. In some respects this was an unsatisfactory exchange, however, as the focus was largely on agricultural pollinators, rather than pollinators of all plants (including the majority non-cultivated species) and I think that (perhaps with more space?) Dave could have outlined the evidence in more depth.

The most striking statement in Jaboury’s letter was that the “evidence for pollinator declines is almost entirely confined to honeybees and bumblebees in Europe and North America”.

Now, even given the fact that Jaboury was possibly referring specifically to agricultural pollinators, that is a very extreme statement to make. Underlying it is the suggestion that global concerns about declining pollinator biodiversity (a subject I’ve discussed repeatedly on this blog) is underpinned by a taxonomically and geographically thin evidence base. Is that really true? I don’t believe so and I think it’s worth presenting a brief overview of the evidence, not least because Dave’s review and the resulting correspondence is pay-walled at the Science site (though if you Google the titles you might, just might, find copies posted on the web…)

Let me state from the outset that I have considerable respect for both Jaboury and Dave, as individuals and as scientists. I’ve known Dave since we were postgrads together in the early 1990s, and have had occasional contact with Jaboury through conferences and via email. So this isn’t meant to be a criticism of either of them.  But I do believe that the evidence for pollinator declines is considerably more robust than Jaboury acknowledges, and even more wide ranging than Dave and colleagues describe in their response (though in fairness, most of the bee evidence was cited in their original review).

Here’s a summary of where I see the evidence base at the moment; it’s not meant to be a full review, by any means, but rather to give a flavour of the taxonomic and geographical breadth and depth of the evidence as it currently stands:

Wild bees (including bumblebees, and solitary and primitively eusocial bees) – significant reduction of abundance and diversity at local, regional and country-levels documented in Britain (Biesmeijer et al. 2006, Ollerton et al. 2014), Holland (Biesmeijer et al. 2006), Europe as a whole (Kosier et al. 2007, the recent IUCN Red List by Nieto et al 2014), North America (Grixti et al. 2007, Cameron et al. 2011, Burkle et al. 2013), South America (Morales et al. 2013; Schmid-Hempel et al. 2013), China and Japan (Xie et al. 2008; Williams et al. 2009; Matsumura et al. 2004; Inoue et al. 2008), and South Africa (Pauw 2007).

Honey bees – colony declines documented in Europe and North America (see reviews by NRC 2007, Potts et al. 2010) and evidence that global demand for honey bee pollination services is outstripping supply (Aizen and Harder 2009).

Hoverflies (Syrphidae) – diversity declines documented in Holland and Britain (Biesmeijer et al. 2006).

Butterflies and moths – diversity and abundance of Lepidoptera has declined in the UK (Gonzalez-Megias et al. 2008, Fox 2013), whilst in North America some 50 species are IUCN criteria Red Listed and there is particular concern about the iconic Monarch butterfly.  Likewise a significant fraction of butterflies in other parts of the world are of conservation concern, e.g. Southern Africa, Australia, and Europe.

Flower-visiting wasps – reduction in country-level diversity in Britain (Ollerton et al. 2014).

Birds and mammals – the major vertebrate pollinators have recently been assessed at a global level by Regan et al. (2015) using IUCN Red List criteria.  They concluded that: “overall, pollinating bird and mammal species are deteriorating in status, with more species moving toward extinction than away from it. On average, 2.5 species per year have moved one Red List category toward extinction in recent decades, representing a substantial increase in the extinction risk across this set of species”.

Of course a number of the studies cited above have shown that some species are doing better than others and a proportion of the taxa they have assessed are stable or even increasing in abundance (including managed honey bee colonies in some parts of the world). But the current evidence base, as I see it, is pointing towards significant declines in pollinator abundance and diversity at multiple spatial scales across all regions that have so-far been assessed with any rigour, for a wide range of taxa.

I’m happy to receive comments on this topic, particularly pointing me to major sources of evidence that I’ve not covered, or if you disagree with my conclusions.

References

Aizen and Harder (2009) The global stock of domesticated honeybees is growing slower than agricultural demand for pollination. Current Biology 19: 915–918.

Biesmeijer et al. (2006) Parallel declines in pollinators and insect-pollinated plants in Britain and the Netherlands. Science 313: 351–354.

Burkle et al. (2013) Plant-pollinator interactions over 120 years: Loss of species, co-occurrence, and function. Science 339, 1611–161.

Cameron et al. (2011) Patterns of widespread decline in North American bumble bees. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 108: 662–667.

Fox (2013) The decline of moths in Great Britain: a review of possible causes. Insect Conservation and Diversity 6: 5–19.

Gonzalez-Megias, A. et al. (2008) Changes in the composition of British butterfly assemblages over two decades. Global Change Biology, 14: 1464-1474.

Grixti (2009) Decline of bumble bees (Bombus) in the North American Midwest. Biol. Conserv. 142, 75–84 (2009).

Inoue et al. (2008). Displacement of Japanese native bumblebees by the recently introduced Bombus terrestris (L.) (Hymenoptera: Apidae). J. Insect Conserv. 12: 135–146.

Kosior (2007) The decline of the bumble bees and cuckoo bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Bombini) of Western and Central Europe. Oryx 41, 79–88.

Matsumura et al. (2004) Invasion status and potential ecological impacts of an invasive alien bumblebee, Bombus terrestris L. (Hymenoptera: Apidae) naturalized in Southern Hokkaido, Japan. Glob. Environ. Res. 8, 51–66.

National Resource Council (2007) Status of Pollinators in North America.  National Academies Press, Washington, DC.

Nieto et al. (2014) European Red List of Bees.  Publication Office of the European Union.

Ollerton et al. (2014) Extinction of aculeate pollinators in Britain and the role of large-scale agricultural changes.  Science 346: 1360-1362.

Pauw (2007) Collapse of a pollination web in small conservation areas. Ecology 88: 1759-1769.

Potts et al. (2010) Declines of managed honey bees and beekeepers in Europe. Journal of Apicultural Research 49: 15–22.

Regan et al. (2015) Global Trends in the Status of Bird and Mammal Pollinators. Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/conl.12162

Schmid-Hempel et al. (2013) The invasion of southern South America by imported bumblebees and associated parasites. Journal of Animal Ecology 83: 823–837.

Williams et al. (2009) The bumblebees of Sichuan (Hymenoptera: Apidae, Bombini). Syst. Biodivers. 7: 101–189.

Xie et al. (2008) The effect of grazing on bumblebees in the high rangelands of the eastern Tibetan Plateau of Sichuan. Journal of Insect Conservation 12: 695–703 (2008).

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Butterflies, Honey bees, Hoverflies, Pollination

Our nature conservation laws need to be defended, not weakened

If you’ve not already heard, there’s a proposal going forward in the European Parliament to review (=weaken) the current EU Nature Directives.  If this happens some of the most important wildlife sites, as well as vulnerable species, could be at risk in the UK and the rest of Europe.

If you have any strong feelings about nature conservation, or if you simply want more information about what’s happening, then I’d urge you to visit the RSPB’s page where you can watch a video about the issue and/or complete a short form to add your voice to the consultation process.

This is important.

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