Life After a Biological Sciences Degree

Alumni Careers Event (3rd May 2019)

‘So, what do you want to do after uni?’ is a familiar question that undergraduates face when discussing their degree, too often answered with something along the lines of ‘I have no idea!’. Due to its versatility, life after a biological sciences degree can be open-ended, leaving those without a career plan feeling overwhelmed. So, what better way to explore your options (biology-related or otherwise) than to hear from the University of Bristol’s own Biological Sciences alumni? During the evening of Friday 3rd May, nine speakers presented short summaries of their post-university life, including how they utilised their degree and gems of wisdom for current biological sciences undergraduates looking to make the most of what their degree offers them.

Sophie Lanfear – Producer, Silverback Films

 

First to present was Sophie Lanfear, a producer at Silverback Films, having been recently involved in the Attenborough series ‘Our Planet’ on Netflix. Graduating from Bristol in 2005 with a BSc in Psychology-Zoology, Sophie emphasised how she combined her passion for science and creativity through photography whilst studying meerkats at Cambridge University’s Kalahari Meerkat Project. The film crew of the TV series ‘Meerkat Manor’ advised Sophie that going directly into the filmmaking industry would be more worthwhile than a PhD, leading her to the BBC for 8 years where she provided insight into animal intelligence for documentaries. She recently specialised in the Arctic and filmed for the BBC series ‘The Hunt’, during which her unique on-location experiences included a polar bear breaking into their accommodation! Aside from the adventurous elements of her career, Sophie said that her degree has helped her put scientific integrity into filmmaking and aided her research discussions with the field biologists working with her team. She is glad that her work is now having as global a reach as Netflix provides!

Niall McCann – Director of Conservation, National Park Rescue

 

During the summer of Niall’s second year at Bristol, he proved his keen interest in research by organising an expedition to Bolivia to study giant otters for seven weeks. Following his graduation in 2004, he ignited a passion for conservation whilst studying biodiversity in Guyana, leading to a successful campaign preventing a river he worked on being claimed by gold miners. He continued working in conservation through a PhD at Cardiff University studying Baird’s Tapirs in Honduras, realising he wanted to act against the extinction he was witnessing. Therefore, he founded a community ranger programme in Honduras, which still continues today. He later established his charity ‘National Park Rescue’, identifying Africa’s most at-risk national parks and integrating law enforcement and conservation to protect endangered species. Niall had already attracted the attention of the media through presenting docu-series on PBS and partaking in extreme hobbies, such as rowing across the Atlantic Ocean and cycling over the Himalayas (twice!), aiding the publicity of his cause. He currently works closely with the UK Government’s response to the illegal wildlife trade and recently became a National Geographic Explorer. Niall’s closing words of wisdom to the audience were ‘do something you’re passionate about, be tenacious, volunteer and say yes to every opportunity’.

Shaaron Leverment – Deputy CEO, UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres

 

Shaaron followed a different path after her graduation in 1997 by creating her own science-outreach business ‘Explorer Dome’, engaging young people’s interest in space through taking a portable inflatable planetarium to schools. She has since obtained qualifications in astrobiology and is the former president of the British Association of Planetaria. Now, Shaaron is the Deputy CEO of the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres, working on national programmes with organisations such as the UK Space Agency and the Royal Society, promoting science engagement and education. She is particularly passionate about tackling inequalities in STEM education, highlighting how those of different gender, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds are still left out. Shaaron recently completed an MSc in Applied Neuropsychology on the effects of chronic inflammatory conditions on sleep, illustrating that it is possible to be involved in multiple scientific fields after university! She laughed about how 20 years on you still might not know what direction you are going in but emphasised that the course she did at Bristol and the people she met were central to her career path. Her top tip encouraged undergraduates to build their network as early as possible.

Hendrikus van Hensbergen – CEO, Action for Conservation

 

Hendrikus graduated with a BSc in Biology in 2010 without a career plan, and settled on an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at Oxford University. His first job advised timber companies on sustainable sourcing, providing the basis for his subsequent job as Forest Policy Manager for WWF. Hendrikus was invited to speak about his career at his secondary school, leaving surprised at the engagement and energy that young people had for conservation. He noticed a gap in the market for conservation engagement schemes aimed at teenagers and filled it with his charity Action for Conservation – offering workshops, residential camps and ambassador programmes engaging 12-18-year-olds in UK conservation. Focusing on those from disadvantaged urban areas and minority groups, Hendrikus hopes to create systemic change in the wider sector, pushing NGOs and the government to engage youth groups. Next month they launch the UK’s first large-scale youth-led restoration project in the Brecon Beacons and continue to engineer change with their campaigns. Hendrikus demonstrates that his degrees laid the foundation for an influential and fulfilling charity which could integrate his passions for education and conservation.

Jon Davies (& Paola Reason & Will Trewhella) – Ecological Consultants, Arcadis

 

Jon opened by admitting he initially came to Bristol specifically for wildlife filmmaking but got somewhat side-tracked. He followed his Zoology degree with an MSc in Conservation at UCL, encouraging the audience to do something they’re fascinated with. Since then, he has researched baboons in Namibia, fruit bats in the Comoro Islands (whose descendants currently live in Bristol Zoo!) and specialised in beetles at the Natural History Museum. After completing his “interesting stuff”, he began work at a small independent ecological consultancy company which became part of Arcadis, one of the world’s largest environmental consultancies, and remains there 22 years later. Ecological consultants work with developers to make development more sustainable and reduce the impacts on local biodiversity. Jon said it is now a common career and can be tailored to your interests, from practical surveying to office-based work. Now the Head of Ecology at Arcadis and leading a team of 65 ecologists, Jon doesn’t do fieldwork anymore but has fond memories of the late nights, early mornings and long hours made enjoyable by the team he worked with. He joked about how his is a more accessible career than Niall’s or Sophie’s, but nonetheless crucial to the conservation of British biodiversity!

Sam Harris – Host, Growth Mindset Podcast

 

Sam’s life since graduating in 2013 takes an alternative route. During the first year of his degree, he spent his spare time coming up with business ideas, settling on a successful cycle logistics company and jumpstarting an entrepreneurial career. Sam admitted that he hasn’t technically had a ‘real job’ since university but has been volunteering at start-ups and charities to gain valuable experience. He now hosts the ‘Growth Mindset Podcast’ where he interviews and tells the stories of fascinating individuals, teaching him to learn as much as possible rather than following the money. Sam had an interesting take on the use of his degree, comparing evolution, competition, niches and resource exploitation to key business concepts, and explored the similarities between running a business and an experiment. Alongside the podcast, Sam has spent time in North Korea, lived tech-free in a forest in Tasmania, and spent ten days silently meditating in the Himalayas, and reflected on how such experiences have influenced the way he views the world and society today. You can hear more about Sam’s explorations on his podcast at www.growthmindsetpodcast.com!

Lewis Honey – Delivery Manager, Humanity and Inclusion

 

Lewis graduated in 2015 without knowing what he wanted to do. He spent 2 years working for the NHS in Emergency Preparedness and Business Continuity where his curiosity for public service developed, consequently applying to the Civil Service Fast Stream as a way to fulfil this interest. This path immediately provided him with the unique opportunity to spend six months living in a condemned Navy submarine fort in Portsmouth whilst working as a Programme Manager at the Ministry of Defence. His second placement was as Delivery Manager for Humanity and Inclusion, a charity working in situations of exclusion, conflict and disaster to help vulnerable and disabled people meet their basic needs and promote respect for their fundamental rights. Lewis has since moved onto an exciting new posting in the Home Office where he is working on Brexit! Aside from his career, he still wanted to make the most of his science degree and in January 2019 he became a Trustee of ‘Lightyear Foundation’, a Bristol-based charity that breaks down the barriers to disabled children taking part in STEM subjects. His final message was that it’s absolutely fine to not know exactly what you want to do before finishing university; the important thing is to challenge your own preconceived ideas of what is your ‘ideal’ career choice, and then make the most of the opportunities you seek out.

Guy Cowlishaw – Senior Research Fellow, Zoological Society of London

 

During the second year of his Zoology degree, Guy was set on a career in research, so began searching for experience for his PhD applications, eventually studying rhesus monkeys at the Caribbean Primate Research Centre. He then studied a PhD with Professor Robin Dunbar in Anthropology at UCL on primates. Whilst initially apprehensive, seeing himself as a zoologist rather than an anthropologist, that exposure to anthropology broadened his horizons and benefitted his subsequent work, particularly that on the bushmeat trade. Guy then spent two years teaching on UCL’s MSc course in Conservation before taking up an ESRC research fellowship back in the UCL Anthropology department. During this fellowship, he applied for a research fellow position at the research branch of the ZSL, the Institute of Zoology. Whilst unsuccessful, his well-received application gained him an alternative position and he now works there as a Senior Research Fellow. Guy’s current research involves long-term study at the Tsaobis Baboon Project, the impacts of the bushmeat trade on wildlife and local communities, and the dynamics of species extinctions. His presentation finished with a reminder to keep an eye on the bigger picture and be prepared to make short-term sacrifices to meet long-term goals.

Simon Carley-Smith – Physiotherapist, NHS

 

Simon graduated in 2005 not knowing what he wanted to do except stay in science. He also went to Bolivia the year after Niall McCann but discovered he wasn’t ‘cut-out’ for fieldwork and wanted to have more of an impact. He accepted a PhD with Professor Mark Viney at Bristol, studying nematodes in rat faeces, finding that he didn’t enjoy the day-to-day process of research enough to continue in the field. So, following his PhD he focused on his other passion and started a rock-climbing company in Cornwall, highlighting that the analytical aspect of his degree gave him the necessary skill-set to do so. After some time running this business, he decided he no longer wanted to live in Cornwall and trained to be a physiotherapist, ensuring he could still incorporate science into his career. Simon now works with British gymnasts, such as Olympic-potential Amelie Morgan, is a Level 8 Clinician in Hampton House, and runs a rock-climbing physiotherapy business ‘Rise’. His advice was to be passionate about what you want and you will achieve it, emphasising the importance of surrounding yourself with passionate people. If you don’t know what you want, try as many things as you can!

After the presentations, students, staff and alumni met in the Sky Lounge of the Life Sciences Building for food, drinks and networking. The chance to hear from alumni left the audience with a sense of renewed motivation and relief from the pressure of making theoretically ‘life-changing’ career choices so early in life. There is a certain comfort that can be found from hearing happy and successful people who didn’t follow a rigid career path that love where they have ended up today! This really was an invaluable opportunity for undergraduates to become inspired to explore their career options whilst gaining some important advice to help them along the way. The key message to be taken away from the evening was to be passionate about your interests and make the most of every opportunity you can to end up doing something you truly love.

Written by Ellie Jarvis, Zoology (MSci)



The colourful world of crab camouflage

How changes in colouration and behaviour enable marine arthropods to survive in a diverse environment

Who is the hero of Professor Martin Stevens? As he told the staff and students of the university this Monday, it is the famous naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who inspired Professor Stevens to pursue research into camouflage and colour in nature.

“Among the numerous applications of the Darwinian theory… none have been more successful, or more interesting, than those which deal with the colours of animals and plants” (Wallace 1889).

This Monday, the School of Biological Sciences was visited by Professor Stevens, who spoke about the mechanics of camouflage and its adaptive value in nature through studies of within-species diversity and habitat matching inshore crabs and chameleon prawns.

Camouflage seems like an easy concept to grasp.

We have all heard of the rapid colour change in chameleons. However, as Professor Stevens explained, it isn’t quite that simple. Firstly, the majority of colour change in animals is continuous and gradual, unlike that of the famous chameleons and cuttlefish. Additionally, this style of camouflage (background matching) is just one of many types that animals employ to disguise themselves in their environments.

Professor Stevens elaborated on this in his case study of the common shore crab Carcinus maenas. This highly adaptable organism shows a huge variation in colours and patterns, which seems in part associated with background matching to the environment individuals are in. Both in mudflats and in rocky shores, the two differently coloured habitats we find these crabs in, the crab’s colour pattern is related to their habitat. Professor Stevens also revealed that crabs showed behavioural preferences to match to certain backgrounds as well.

Interestingly, these crabs also change appearance with age, gradually become duller and tending to lose their markings and converging on a universal dull green colour.

They seem to all adopt this generalist camouflage because while they get less mobile as they age, it might not be adaptive to keep matching the background if constantly moving; this strategy was found to be surprisingly effective, through analysis of a citizen science game at the Natural History Museum! Additionally, it was interesting to hear how individual diversity in these crabs is due to different camouflage strategies, such as disruptive colouration, and how complex markings can defeat predator search images and drive apostatic selection (i.e. rare appearances being more successful in avoiding predation).

Chameleon prawns (Hyppolyte varians) have even weirder and wonderful camouflage than the crabs, some being bright green, red, or transparent.

These creatures can change colour to match seasonal changes in substrate, although again this change takes 14-21 days; it is not quick like the chameleons! Therefore, some behavioural choices are needed to allow them to effectively camouflage in the short term. They seem to prefer seaweeds that match their body colour, and this is an effective strategy as survival rate has been shown to be higher on matched background. Parallels exist with a more exotic species in Brazil; nicknamed ‘carnival prawns’, the males can also be transparent, since they are less likely to sit on algae and are more mobile while in search of females.

Finally, Professor Stevens discussed questions for possible future study: Why do they change in colour at night? Why does light intensity affect the strength of camouflage? And, most intriguingly, can these prawns see in colour vision? To finish, the influence of anthropogenic change on these organisms was discussed in the context of how increasing water temperature and ship noise pollution might affect their camouflage abilities.

Written by Esme Hedley, Biology (BSc) and Miren Porres, Zoology (BSc)


Ecotoxicologists take over LSB!

During the second week of April, 11 biological sciences undergraduates undertook the challenge of becoming ecotoxicologists during the a field course lead by Professor Marian Yallop and Dr Gary Barker. Ecotoxicology is the study of toxic substances on biological organisms and the students had the responsibility of choosing their topic, designing their experiment, conducting the experiment, collecting the data, analysing the data and presenting their findings…all within a week!

The week kickstarted with a great lunch at Cosmos and a lot of discussion on what the students were going to research. By the end of the first day the students had decided to look at the ecotoxicology of pesticides and nanoparticles on microalgae, the effects of UV-C on microalgae, and the effects of UV-C on marine and freshwater plankton.

By day 2 everyone was preparing all of their equipment, toxic substances, algae and plankton. Day 3 and 4 consisted of data collection including cell/plankton counting, using PAM to measure cell health and chlorophyll analysis. On the last day the students finished up their data analysis and created presentations on their research findings. Each group presented their findings and displayed very interesting results. They found that the pesticides and nanoparticles inhibited algal cell growth, UV-C repelled some planktonic species but not others, and UV-C provided some short-term inhibition of algae.

Overall the undergraduates gained some great experience in the MSci laboratory; they became very independent and were very well organised, they learnt the correct aseptic technique, quickly picked up how to plan an efficient experiment, stuck to time-constraints, conducted experiments correctly, understood the data they had collected and presented their findings.

The students showed so much enthusiasm throughout the week and we were all very happy with the outcome! Well done ecotoxicologists and good luck with writing up your reports!

Written by Katie Wojcik, DemonstratorSchool of Biological Sciences

 



Smart scientist studies smart butterflies

During his seminar on Monday, Dr Stephen Montgomery explained how his multi-disciplinary team tackles questions of cognitive adaptation, neuroecology and evolution in butterflies. Coming to us from the University of Cambridge, Dr Montgomery’s presentation was all the more interesting as he will be joining us in the School of Biological Sciences in September.

How does cognition relate to evolution?

This may seem like a daunting question, but Dr Montgomery has made it his career. Whilst initially working on primate brain evolution as part of his PhD, Dr Montgomery now leads a team of scientists studying ecological neurobiology in two clades of Neotropical butterflies, Ithomiini and Heliconiini. His research involves many collaborators and a range of experimental methods.

However, what Dr Montgomery described as “the main story” of his research concerns pollen feeding in Heliconius butterflies. The story begins in the 1970s when Larry Gilbert and colleagues pointed out that Heliconius butterflies were the only butterflies that collect and digest the pollen grains of Cucumis anguria. These pollen grains are the butterflies’ ‘elixir of life’, as they provide rare amino acids, which lead to greater longevity and halt senescence. However, whilst these plants are a reliable food source, they are very sparsely distributed. Gilbert thus concluded that Heliconius learned specific “trap-lines” to attain this food source. Later on, John Sivinski suggested that this enhanced ability for learning and memory is associated with an enlarged region of the insect brain, the mushroom bodies.

Dr Montgomery and his colleagues are now investigating the Heliconius mushroom bodies and their relationship to cognition and evolution.

The Montgomery team started with morphometric analyses of the Heliconius mushroom bodies and compared these to closely related Lepidoptera species. Although the data are not entirely collected yet, Dr Montgomery told us that the Heliconius mushroom bodies are “ridiculously bigger” than in other butterflies.

Whilst it is clear that Heliconius have enlarged mushroom bodies, Dr Montgomery wanted to know if this translated into different processing of sensory information. In an impressive feat of computer modelling, Dr Antoine Couto, a member of Dr Montgomery’s team, produced 3D models of Heliconius brains that suggest the presence of a relatively larger projection zone coming from the ventral lobula, which receives visual information. This would be consistent with the hypothesis that Heliconius learn these “trap-lines” with visual cues.

But Dr Montgomery was not content with a suggestion, he wished to confirm this with a large-scale behavioural experiment. Designing this experiment was challenging as Heliconius seem to only learn visual cues on a large spatial scale. Thus, Dr Montgomery and his team sought out ways to conduct comparative behavioural experiments.

This work is still ongoing, but Dr Montgomery already has pilot data coming from his PhD student Fletcher Young in Panama which explores whether enlarged mushroom bodies are associated with differences in learning performance. For example, Young is testing whether Heliconius can reverse an initial colour preference bias through conditioning training. Heliconius and other closely related butterfly species are being put through this training and after a certain amount of time, they can be assessed to test subjects had retained the information. Therefore enabling a test of whether or not enlarged mushroom bodies are associated with variation in learning and memory traits.

As previously mentioned, Dr Montgomery’s investigation of butterfly cognition is impressive by its scope of different approaches. As part of his team, Dr Francesco Cicconardi and Laura Hebberecht-Lopez are also investigating the developmental process of the Heliconius mushroom bodies. They will be undertaking a comparative developmental study of mushroom bodies across several species to identify the “turning point” which characterises Heliconius’ enhanced cognition.

The study will involve monitoring brain anatomy from larva to adult stages and analysing the corresponding transcriptomes.

Finally, Dr Montgomery expressed his wish to conclude this study by a functional characterisation of the candidate genes associated with the mushroom bodies, although he admitted that it might take them a few years until his team gets there. Nevertheless, his results so far are outstanding. I was particularly impressed with the scope of disciplines that his team unite to offer a solid and complete investigation of insect cognition, to an extent which I had never heard of before.

As usual, the seminar ended with some friendly drinks in our building’s Sky Lounge. Whilst overlooking Bristol on a sunny afternoon, Dr Montgomery expressed his excitement at the prospect of moving to our vibrant city and joining our just as vibrant academic team. I can say without a doubt that the sentiment is reciprocated.

Written by Violette Desarmeaux, Biology (MSci)

A dive into the world of dolphin communication

Dolphins are almost celebrities of the animal kingdom, globally adored for their intelligence, personality and aerial displays.

But to what extent do we know why they do what they do? Someone who tries to answer this question is Dr Stephanie King, one of the University of Bristol’s newest senior lecturers who has spent years studying these charismatic mammals. Those of us in this Monday’s seminar were treated to a fascinating look into what life is like studying bottlenose dolphin behaviour, and a sneak peak at Dr King’s new research which investigates the mechanisms behind how dolphins communicate, and the ways in which they can coordinate their behaviour.

Firstly, Dr King introduced us to the social structure of bottlenose dolphin communities.

Her research focuses on males, which congregate in groups called alliances, of either first (2-3 individuals) or second (4-14 individuals) orders. Alliances are aggregates of males, who form lifetime bonds with one another to coerce females into copulation with chosen members of the alliance. Associated behaviours have been analysed by Dr King and her colleagues during follows of the KS alliance, which habituates Shark Bay in West Australia. Currently made up of 7 males, each member can be confidently identified from characteristic nicks and cuts in the dorsal fin of each individual, acting almost like dolphin fingerprints. We were also told that alliance hierarchy is mysteriously complex: there is no linear dominance hierarchy; allied preference is not with kin; and that in fact age (mainly bonding in the juvenile period) can predict alliance formation. The adaptive value of these alliances is high, as male fitness (lifetime reproductive rate) is dependent on alliance formation and membership.

Throughout her talk, Dr King ensured the audience saw the dolphins in action, allowing us to understand and visualise exactly what the behaviours were that she was talking through.

This was done with the use of drone footage that accompanied the explanations, which included incredible birds-eye view shots of phenomenons such as the coordinated butterfly display. Other alliance behaviours explained by Dr King were those such as a ‘tangos‘ and petting.

Not only are visual behaviours important for the efficient functioning of the alliances, but so are acoustics.

‘Pop trains‘, like the name suggests, are a series of successive popping sounds which encourage females to come closer to the males. Dr King and colleagues wanted to know if these pop trains could be synchronised within the alliance. The adaptive value of this was discussed, one idea being that it could possibly encourage bonding through cooperation by promoting oxytocin release. Also posited was that highly synchronous pop trains could be a signal of a high-quality alliance.

Dr King gave the audience a first look at some unpublished research

While the ability of the dolphins to cooperate has been steadfastly proven, the question remains whether the dolphins actually understand what cooperation is; that is, do they understand that they need the exact role of their partner in doing certain tasks (Fig. 1)? Or are individuals actually responding to learned social and environmental cues? Dr King gave the audience a first look at some unpublished research that is pulling apart the possible mechanisms behind previous findings regarding these ideas. Dr King signed off the seminar with other suggested hypotheses for further study, such as whether personality influences cooperative partner choice. The seminar concluded with an animated Q&A and some lively debate, which without doubt continued afterwards in the Sky Lounge over lunch.

Figure 1: Photograph lifted from Jaakkola, Guarino, Donegan and King (2018). An aerial view of a cooperative task apparatus used to test dolphin understanding of cooperation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Written by Esme Hedley, Biology (BSc) Year 2

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A Biography of Professor Jane Memmott

“I’m still smiling!” was Professor Jane Memmott’s reply to being asked her feelings about becoming the newly-elected president of the British Ecological Society. In an office filled with shelves of books, a case of preserved butterflies, feathers from various species and a plant collection to rival the rest of the life sciences building, I interviewed Professor Jane Memmott on her career, interests and her journey towards the prestigious position she holds today.

Like so many of us, Jane’s lifelong fascination with nature began at an early age. It was during her childhood camping trips to County Clare in Ireland that Jane, inspired by her surroundings, developed an interest in ecology. In 1981, Jane began studying zoology at the University of Leeds. She described herself as a “keen and enthusiastic” student but mentioned that she still has “a horror of a few areas of biology from not liking them as a student!”. Jane went on to explain that it wasn’t until her third year at Leeds, when she really enjoyed everything she was studying, that she truly excelled as a student.

Professor Memmott took a year out after her BSc at Leeds, during which she took her first flight to Peru, where she worked as a tour guide in the Amazon rainforest for three months. This was Jane’s first taste of the tropics, and she became captivated by rainforests, leading her to write a PhD to be based in Costa Rica. Jane described one of her most memorable moments during her PhD in Costa Rica, when she encountered a sloth crossing the bridge of the field station. “They’re quite difficult things to catch- you can’t just unhook them from the handrail. We got it into a large dustbin and had the cutlery tray from the dishwasher over the top!” Once captured, the sloth was safely transported to a tree buttress to see what effect it would have on Jane’s experimental phlebotomine sandflies. Professor Memmott explained how she’d spent a lot of her life in tree buttresses, describing them as being “like a series of rooms around a big tropical tree.” The tropics can be a paradise for entomologists, and Jane recalled iridescent Morpho butterflies the size of dinner plates and giant damselflies that fly like helicopters.

“Jane described her endless fascination with understanding how the architecture of the network can affect pollination interactions and the robustness of the system to species loss.”

After her PhD in Costa Rica, Jane returned to the tropics for her first post doc. The project was to create the first food web to come out of the tropics, putting together a picture of the trophic interactions between the plants, leaf-miners and parasitoids of the rainforest community. This project got Jane hooked on studying ecological networks as a way of sampling whole communities. She explained, “rather than homing in on species x or species y, you kind of look at the whole alphabet at once.” Jane described her endless fascination with understanding how the architecture of the network can affect pollination interactions and the robustness of the system to species loss. Jane spent her second post doc working on the biological control of invasive plants. During this project, Jane spent time in New Zealand, which proved to be a contrast to the hot, sometimes gruelling nature of her project in Costa Rica. She spoke of her time in New Zealand, describing it as one of her favourite places in the world: “I lived a life of eternal summer – it was easy to live in a little house in paradise and travel round the country doing experiments.”

After ten years travelling the world and living out of a rucksack, Jane returned to the UK, where in 1996 she obtained her lectureship at Bristol. Jane stressed that returning to the UK did not mean forfeiting amazing wildlife encounters, mentioning the amazing views of peregrines that can liven up staff meetings in the sky lounge. From 2012 to 2016, she became Head of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol. This position came with some challenges, including leading the movement of the school to the new Life Sciences Building that we know and love today. Nowadays, one of her favourite parts of the job is teaching – especially first year lectures. Jane also enjoys seeing students from all around the world progress through university to do PhDs, and she loves to see the effect that the publishing of a big research paper can have on the young scientists leading the project.

 “I asked Jane what advice she would give to students interested in getting into academia. Her reply was “it’s absolutely worth it!”.”

Outside of her work, Jane enjoys gardening, dog walks and getting out and about in nature with her family; having recently been searching for short-eared owls on the Severn estuary. Professor Memmott describes herself as “always reading”- she enjoys novels, adventure books and books related to ecology. She also mentioned that her two teenagers take up a lot of her attention. I asked Jane what advice she would give to students interested in getting into academia. Her reply was “it’s absolutely worth it!”. She spoke of the “tremendous freedom” associated with being able to do your own research but warned to be prepared to put up with lots of rejection. “You can learn a lot from your rejections – it’s not wasted time.”

The British Ecological Society is the oldest ecological society in the world. The society has six journals including the Journal of Ecology and Ecology and Evolution, and it provides research grants and supports ecologists in their early careers. Jane joined the British Ecological Society as a PhD student and has been a member ever since. She described the society as having been very supportive over the years; providing her with a grant that enabled her to employ a field assistant to help carry out the field work that began all of her pollination research. I asked Jane what it meant to her to be elected as the president of the British Ecological society. She replied, “I’m very honoured – I’m still smiling!”.

Written by Jenny Stewart, MSci Zoology



From protists to whales: predicting the future of biological systems

Complex biological systems are notoriously unpredictable, but forecasting their fate has arguably never been more important. In a recent seminar in the School of Biological Sciences, Dr. Chris Clements describes his latest research in this emerging field at the interface of ecology and conservation science.

The world is facing an unprecedented biodiversity crisis. As mankind’s ecological footprint grows ever larger, the rate of environmental change continues to accelerate. Identifying at-risk populations or ecosystems before they are irretrievably lost or damaged is becoming an increasingly important goal for conservationists, but predicting how complex biological systems will respond to evolving pressures is challenging.

One way of forecasting the future trajectory of biological systems is to use system-specific models founded on a detailed understanding of the underlying ecological processes. In practice however, scientists’ ability to do this is constrained by a scarcity of in-depth knowledge for the vast majority of ecosystems. An alternative strategy is to concentrate on inferring changes in the underlying state of the system from trends in more readily available data, such as estimates of population abundance. This approach is based on detecting statistical patterns or ‘early warning signals’, which can potentially be used to alert conservationists to the imminent danger of a sudden and catastrophic shift within an ecosystem, or the impending collapse of a population. A large part of Dr. Clements’ current research is focused on testing and extending these techniques.

“Under sustained pressure, the system will eventually reach a tipping point where it is so unstable that even tiny disruptions can trigger an abrupt change”

Dramatic shifts within ecosystems can occur when a change in conditions overwhelms the capacity of the system to return to its original state. Under sustained pressure, the system will eventually reach a tipping point where it is so unstable that even tiny disruptions can trigger an abrupt change. A classic example is the rapid transformation of pristine coral reefs due to declines in the abundance of algae-grazing marine life. While transitions to so-called ‘alternative stable states’ are often difficult to reverse, in theory, it should be possible to detect them in advance: as tipping points approach, predictable changes in statistical signals should become apparent.

Despite the potential usefulness of abundance-based early warning signals, the inherently noisy nature of population estimates can sometimes lead to unreliable predictions. Animals living in complex and inaccessible landscapes are usually elusive, and it can be tricky to estimate population sizes with confidence. One possible solution to this problem is to combine or replace abundance-based early warning signals with information on trends in key individual traits, such as body size, which can be estimated more reliably. Crucially, shifts in the distribution of body sizes within the population at-risk can be indicative of deteriorating environmental conditions, and of a population under strain.

“Dramatic shifts in the variability of body size also predicted plummeting worldwide populations of blue, fin, sei and sperm whales during the historical period of commercial whaling”

By describing his recent experiments on microcosm populations of the predatory protist Didinium nasutum, Chris showed that the collapse of stressed populations was preceded by a sharp decline in mean body size. Switching focus to an analysis of whale populations during the 20th century, Chris went on demonstrate how dramatic shifts in the variability of body size also predicted plummeting worldwide populations of blue, fin, sei and sperm whales during the historical period of commercial whaling. In both cases, trait-based early warning signals produced more accurate predictions about timing of population collapses, compared to those based on measures of abundance.

While our understanding of trait-based early warning signals is progressing rapidly, there is still much to learn about how these techniques can be applied to identify at-risk biological systems in the real world, where populations differ markedly in the rate of environmental change they are exposed to. Using both mathematical models and experimental microcosms, Chris’s research group is currently focused on tackling a range of unresolved questions in this area.

Written by Andrew Szopa-Comley, PhD student in Biological Sciences



Ageing in a social world; what can animals tell us?

A prominent voice in the field of animal behaviour, Dr Lauren Brent discusses her research into the interaction of ageing and sociality with a fascinating look at the lives of two charismatic social mammals.

Dr Lauren Brent seems to live an animal behaviourist’s dream. Not only does she travel the world studying some of the world’s most interesting animals, but she also shines a light on the physiological and evolutionary explanations behind their behaviour. This Monday students and staff were treated to a look at how age affects an individual’s engagement with the social world, and on the flipside of this, how the pace at which individuals age is affected by social processes. These two themes were neatly explored using Dr Brent’s research on the southern killer whales of British Columbia and the charismatic rhesus macaques of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico.

It became immediately apparent in the seminar how passionate Dr Brent is about her work and how carefully she selected the subjects for her research. Breaking the talk into two sections, she first spoke about how aged based differences in these two animal groups affect their social interactions. The killer whales were followed to see how this impacted on their collective movement, questioning whether, and if so why, older, post-reproductive females led group movement. On the other side of the world, data associated with grooming and aggressive encounters between female rhesus macaques were collected to see whether age affected the frequency and reciprocity of these social interactions.

“Southern resident killer whales are one of only five species known to undergo menopause”

Southern resident killer whales are one of only five species known to undergo menopause, and there is no sex-based dispersal in populations, with the family unit choosing to stay together for life and outbreeding. The long post-reproductive period of females (lasting any time up to fifty years) is similar to humans’ in its length, and it was unknown what influence this had on the sociality of the older females. In Dr Brent’s 2015 paper, a study of over nine years’ worth of video footage of the whales was visualised into leadership networks. This resulted in the discovery that in comparison to males, females were more likely to lead and that relative to younger females, post-reproductive female whales were the most likely leaders. To understand these results, further study was undertaken to find the situations in which the older females were more likely to lead. This research revealed that older females were more likely to lead when populations of chinook salmon (the species making up at least 85% of southern killer whale diet) were low. It was apparent then that as their age increased female whales became more important in directing the collective movement of the pod, perhaps a clear indicator that the enhanced world experience that comes with age influences how these individuals engage with their social world.

“The population of rhesus macaques on Coyo Santiago was perfect for her research because of its extensive life history records and closed gene pool”

Described by Dr Brent as ‘despotic and nepotistic’, the population of rhesus macaques on Cayo Santiago was perfect for her research because of its extensive life history records and closed gene pool. Like the killer whales, the social structure of the population was explained as being a close-knit community in which the females stay (philopatry) but where the males disperse. Habituating a predator-free, food-rich environment exposed the social pressures of group living and highlighted the aggressive, competitive nature of the macaques. To see if the age of the individuals affected the frequency and intensity of their social interactions, the exposure of females to grooming and aggressive encounters was studied. No evidence was found to show older females received less grooming than younger females, and no evidence was found that they ‘gave’ less aggression. However, it was discovered that older females gave out less grooming and received less aggression, clearly showing at some level age is affecting social engagement. Dr Brent discussed with us the questions left to answer as a result of this research; these older females were still active and engaged with the group, but what were the consequences of age in relation to this interaction which meant they were received differently by their relatives?

To analyse the interaction between ageing and sociality from the opposite direction, Dr Brent now wanted to see whether the pace at which individuals age is affected by social processes. In the macaques, it as was hypothesised that more socially integrated females lived longer. In this study, as a proxy for social integration, the number of close relatives in the troop was recorded for each of the 276 females in the study. Dr Brent revealed to us that for ‘prime-aged females between the ages of 6 and 17, every relative added decreased the probability of dying the next year by 2.3 %’. Interestingly, this was not the same for older females, where their level of social integration had no effect on their survival the next year. Again, this poses the question of why; as Dr Brent proposed, “do females have an alternative route to success?’.

The lecture was rounded off with an exclusive look at some of Dr Brent’s unpublished research and a first look at the new projects she has coming up, including investigating the possible evolutionary drivers behind sociality and ageing. The audience was also left with some questions to think about regarding the physiology behind ageing in a social world. Do all tissues age at the same pace? Are they equivalently impacted by sociality? And is this ageing the same for males and females? While ageing may be the focus of this field, it is young in its development and there are many exciting questions yet to be answered.

Written by Esme Hedley, Biology (BSc)



University of Bristol researchers embark on a programme to develop crop production technology

Dr Antony Dodd, whose internationally leading research at the University of Bristol focuses on circadian rhythms, plant physiology and environmental signalling, has been awarded a Royal Society Industry Fellowship to contribute to product development at the Bristol-based start-up company LettUs Grow.

LettUs Grow was co-founded by University of Bristol alumni Charlie Guy, Ben Crowther and Jack Farmer in 2015. Since then, they have become rising stars in the world of green technology, winning multiple awards for their application of innovative technology to creating more sustainable food production. They have developed novel aeroponic technologies for application in greenhouses and “vertical farms,” which are systems for crop production using stacked indoor systems. Vertical farms reduce water use by up to 95% compared to traditional growing methods, significantly boost yields outside traditional growing seasons and allow crop production in densely populated urban areas.

Dr Dodd will be working closely with LettUs Grow to apply fundamental plant sciences to the advancement of their vertical agriculture technologies. This will involve combining Dr Dodd’s expertise in circadian rhythms and plant physiology with the work of LettUs Grow’s biologists and engineers to design optimal aeroponic cultivation recipes. This will enable LettUs Grow to optimise their systems for individual crop species and consistently increase yields.

Dr Dodd said, “This represents an outstanding opportunity to apply fundamental plant sciences to the development of the next generation of technologies for food production by vertical agriculture.”

Jack Farmer said, “The alignment of plant circadian rhythms with lighting photoperiod represents a real opportunity to improve yields, whilst reducing the cost of production. We’re very excited to work with Dr Antony Dodd to optimise a wide range of indoor farming techniques.”

The year-long Fellowship provides funds to allow Dr Dodd to dedicate time to working closely with LettUs Grow.

Written by Jess Bowers-Martin (year 3 Biology)



New degree will train next generation of plant biologists

A new Plant Sciences degree that will train the next generation of plant researchers to tackle major issues such as global food security for a growing population has been launched by the University of Bristol.

Bristol is home to world-class plant science, with over a third of the research at the School of Biological Sciences related to plants in areas ranging from evolution, growth and development, plant pathology, ecology, plant environmental interactions and precision agriculture. Bristol students also benefit from having a Botanic Garden at the University.

Students will be taught by experts from different areas of plant science including Dr Antony Dodd, who investigates how plants respond to their environment and have evolved ways to tell the time.

Dr Dodd, Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences, commented: “Plants underpin all of the food that we eat. Therefore, understanding how they interact with the environment at scales ranging from cellular to ecological processes is fundamental to securing our future food supply.”

Another lecturer on the course is Professor Alistair Hetherington whose research focuses on stomata, tiny pores on the surface of leaves, which mediate the movement of gas and water between plants and their environment. Studying this is important in the context of global food security – if plants can be engineered to improve the efficiency of how they use water, perhaps crops can be grown in deserts.

Professor Hetherington, Melville Wills Chair in Botany, added: “Providing the world with a sustainable supply of healthy food in the face of global environment change is one of the greatest challenges to face society in the 21st century.

“Graduates from this degree will be well-equipped to help produce the new varieties of crop which can thrive under changing environmental conditions and thereby contribute significantly towards meeting the requirements of a sustainable supply of healthy food for future generations.”

The new degree is launched the same day [Thursday 21 February] that Simon Pugh-Jones MBE will be awarded an honorary degree from Bristol, for his development of the Writhlington School Orchid Project. The project, which has been running for over 20 years, has involved secondary students in research, expeditions, horticulture and conservation of orchids. They maintain a nationally important collection of orchids and have been gold medal winners at the Chelsea Flower show.

Jane Memmott, Professor of Ecology said: “Plants are important for people for many reasons – for food, shelter, culture and wellbeing; they are also the foundation of biodiversity with many species of animal dependent on them too.”

Nicholas Wray, Curator of the Botanic Garden, added: “Training the next generation of plant biologists will be key if we are to meet the challenges caused by climate change and the pressures of growing food and conserving wild habitats in an uncertain and unpredictable environment.”

Plants are soon to hit the spotlight as the BBC have recently announced the production of Green Planet, their latest documentary series and Blue Planet’s equivalent for plants. Sir David Attenborough will narrate the surprisingly emotional stories of the plant world to wider audiences, promising to inspire the plant scientists of the future.

Studying at Bristol

The new BSc Plant Sciences degree will welcome its first students in September 2019.

Further information

Simon Pugh-Jones MBE is the founder of the Writhlington School Orchid project, which since 1993 has been leading conservation education initiatives in Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Simon will be awarded a Doctor of Science on Thursday 21 February at the 1.30 pm degree ceremony.

  • In recent years there has been huge investment in life sciences in Bristol, including the £56 million Life Sciences Building with state-of-the-art research facilities and the launch of the new Faculty of Life Sciences led by Dean, Professor Jeremy Tavaré.

Written by Freya Cohen (Biology MSci)