Biological Sciences Graduation Party Group Photographs
Thursday 25th July 2019
Life Sciences Building
Photographs by Sue Holwell
I must say, you are looking exceptionally intelligent and ravishing today, I love what you did with your hair.
Now they do say:
Flattery is telling people what they already know about themselves
I won’t flatter you anymore and will instead be telling you awesome things about you that you don’t know. Firstly, you are reading a blog about just what an awesome life you can lead with the skills you already have. As long as you make the right decisions at the right time, anything is possible and that’s just a case of having the right mindsets that will influence your decisions.
Decision 1. Keep reading ;-]
That was easy.
I’m going to tell you things you learnt during your degree that you might half know already, things that you had no idea about, and why you can win at everything. Followed up by a few rules for life to help make the most of the skills you didn’t know you already had.
Now let’s dive into some more pre-amble self-qualification so you can understand where the hell this advice is coming from.
Who is Sam?
I studied Biology BSci 2010-2013 and had the honour of Gary Foster as my Tutor, Clare Grierson for my mini-thesis project and Alistair Hetherington for my research project. I couldn’t have asked for a more brilliant set of human beings. Sadly, I was rather pre-occupied from my studies due to starting a business at the same time, before I go too far into the details it was basically Deliveroo before Deliveroo. I did pretty well out of it in that it didn’t fail, I employed actual humans and made stuff happen reliably and somehow sold it. But I’m not yet a millionaire which is woefully unimpressive. I managed to not fail my degree and learn some useful stuff from it.
Since uni I have done an array of things mostly highly unrelated to Biology.
The two things most related to biology:
Less related to biology I’ve learnt a lot about coding and marketing and I’ve travelled the world with highlights including:
I currently run the Growth Mindset Podcast where I get to interview some of the worlds most fascinating humans. From leading scientists to Olympic athletes, tech billionaires to an actual real-life Hitman. Since starting it two years ago, I now know the inventor of Siri, the founder of Graze, the guy who built the BBC iPlayer and one member of the team that discovered the Higgs Boson (and yes a hitman).
I’ve even exchanged letters with Sir David Attenborough himself.
This letter of rejection has now been framed by my mother (which she strangely hasn’t done with my degree yet).
Back to the point. I may have only left Bristol 5 years ago but I’ve learnt a lot about life so hopefully I can impart some wisdom on you that I wish I had known back then. In an ideal scenario, I might just save you the monumental amount of failing that I’ve done in the process of achieving these things.
Your degree is very important. But remember that it only opens doors for you (or perhaps more accurately it buys you a window of time to explain why you should go through the door.) You still have to deliver and generally be a useful person to be kept around in whatever you do. And there are other ways you can find to help open doors.
Some cool things that might not have been obvious that you can do with a degree in biology straightaway.
Biotech is the new big thing. Food innovation is hot, whilst Beyond Meat was the most successful launch on the stock exchange this year, even here in Bristol companies like Lettus Grow are doing super cool things. Deep Branch Bio are capturing carbon dioxide in industrial processes with bacteria that turn it into protein.
You don’t need years of experience to do this. Just research something that interests you and there is a whole team within the University to help you turn any inventions into a business (Basecamp Enterprise Team). You don’t need 20 years experience in industry before starting a business, people will take you seriously. Young people are considered smart these days, they’re unbiased approach to new ways of thinking is very valuable. You don’t need money, people give it to you to build your ideas, it’s pretty neat.
(see Anthony Rose Podcast for advice on how to raise money)
For some reason conservation seemed like an awesome thing that I could never quite get round to spending a lot of time on. Documenting the decline of a species seemed rather depressing. I didn’t see how it really stopped anything bad from happening when you need to stop the economics of what is destroying the habitat rather than just measuring the resulting effects.
It turns out if you work in conservation you need to also get involved with the rest of the world. Tourism, politics and economics and then stuff actually starts happening. If you go and talk to leaders of countries with the right message you can get entire areas protected and national parks established with your work. Not only does this save species it also prevents deforestation and thus helps combat climate change all at the same time.
(see podcast episode with Dr Niall McCann about conservation and his work with National Park Rescue where he is actually doing this. He also finds time to get on TV and do mental things like rowing the Atlantic, skiing across Greenland and cycling the himalayas. My last email exchange with him was rather ‘snappy’ because he was busy rescuing alligators…If you want something meaningful to do you might find some life purpose helping them out)
Some cool things you definitely weren’t told about how great your degree is:
Seeking truth is one of the most important things in life that humans happen to be terrible at. You would think that an intelligent ‘rational’ human would be open to new information that improves their knowledge about the world. But actually we much prefer to keep hold of the current idea in our head and use our intelligence to think about why the new information is wrong. (Confirmation Bias)
If you read a few different blogs about a topic that you have an opinion on, the ones that agree with your viewpoint confirm to your brain just how wonderful its opinions are. The ones that don’t agree must be written by idiots because your brain has a good view of itself and wouldn’t be wrong. (Confirmation bias in Online News)
If you can constantly challenge your thinking to seek truth, to cultivate a constant cycle of feedback and learning, then your life will be amazing. Your decisions will be correct so much more of the time, and whatever you choose to do, you will rise to the top because most humans can’t do this. (read books like Principles, by Ray Dalio, Creativity Inc by Ed Catmulll or biographies of Andrew Carnegie, Warren Buffet etc… The genius quality of these rich people isn’t that they are instantly correct about everything, it’s that they encourage other people to tell them when they’re being stupid and change accordingly).
If you have learnt anything from your degree I hope it is to scientifically seek truth. Look to find out exactly what is going on rather than seeking to prove your ideas right. It took me a long time and I genuinely always thought I had it fine because that’s how the ego works. In my third year Clare Grierson marked down my epic amounts of research due to being too selective. To this day, being sat in her office feeling like a melon is still the most memorable moment of my degree. Suddenly a whole tonne of things clicked into place. I sat there reflecting how much of an almighty idiot I was and I’d spent three years thinking I was doing something that I wasn’t.
Now just consider the vast number of papers published that show the writer had a great idea and proved it right, versus the number of papers that prove the writer’s idea was stupid. Being wrong is valuable information for future researchers. Science is still rather broken. Hopefully you aren’t.
I often get looks of surprise when people find out I studied Biology, this is swiftly followed by the question. ‘That has nothing to do with business. How did that lead into startups?
’The theory of evolution, adaption to the environment, competing for a niche to survive, game theory for optimal choice in partner selection or resource acquisition, the replication and proliferation of the genes which are the blueprint for a successful entity. This is all business, literally Biology is Business.
Companies are just individuals fighting for survival over scarce resources in their given niche. They are constantly evolving and adapting to change. Those that stay agile and quickly react to new opportunities proliferate whilst others die (e.g. Amazon became huge whilst Nokia disappeared).
A business franchise is literally just replicating the blueprint of a successful formula the same as replicating your DNA.
Not only do you know a tonne about business, you also know about Biology and Science which is more than any business graduate. Two degrees in one and no one ever told you!
So you’ve learnt that you can start a business, save the world or get to the top of just about any field with your degree. Now some candid advice before you get too excited.
“You can do anything” does not mean “You can do everything”.
The Growth Mindset attitude is an amazing thing. It teaches us that with hard work you really can learn any skill, achieve greatness and constantly advance yourself.
It is important to remember that “hard work” actually means “focused work” and implies sacrifice of other things. You could spend your life working “hard” all hours of the day on a million different things, but you would only go backwards.
There’s a reason Mo Farah doesn’t compete in weightlifting, he’d be average at both running and weightlifting if he did. He also doesn’t “run” a business or “jog” patients back to life or “canter” through Netflix documentaries or “pace” himself through a long night out on the Triangle or “shuffle” his way through a PhD (or “lope” his way through awkward synonyms for “running”…). He just spends a lot of focused time training one skill and the rest of it smiling an inordinately.
The world is a brilliantly exciting place. There are also a million things you ‘could’ do and if you are doing one thing that leaves 999,999 things that you aren’t doing.You can quickly feel pretty inept when your Instagram feed shows a mate surfing in Bali, another getting a doctorate in curing cancer whilst another launched a million $ marketing business. This can lead to huge urges to quit what you’re doing and do something else that looks more fun.
Going back to the reflections on time earlier: If you are in your early twenties we can assume you will probably live until you’re 90, so that leaves almost 70 years to do all the things on your list. If you dedicated 7 years to each major project urge you are having, that is 10 projects you could go really deep on. You can really nail it safe in the knowledge that you can get down your list of awesome cool things that you will also nail. Now it seems pretty sensible that having a list of 10 projects you’ve completely bossed is better than a ridiculously long list of things that you started and stopped before you got any good at them.
So you’re finishing education and about to embark into the world of actually doing stuff and becoming a productive member of society. Well actually your first 7-year task should be do more learning. Sorry.
It does slightly conflict with the ‘focus and only do one thing’ message, but try and learn as much as you can initially by working in different industries. Experience life in startups, corporates, science. See more of the world. Advice from the billionaire founder of Siri: never focus on money in any job you take and always optimise for learning. Whilst you’re young you can handle sleeping on a mate’s sofa and eating ramen etc… you don’t need money.
Money actually comes with it’s own set of problems and the whole overhead of managing it and not losing it which is another faff. It’s wise to acquire as much experience as possible and find out what you’re passionate about. You can learn what you would enjoy dedicating long periods of time to, when you’re older and more settled.
I don’t mean change what you’re doing every month. Do put time into actually doing the thing you’re doing. Just be open to trying different things that look interesting and get you out of your comfort zone. Switching it up every year or so till your 30s. By then you should have acquired a unique set of skills and can really start doing something you’ll smash out the park.
Just because you see people being ultra successful at 22 or whatever, you really don’t need to worry.
Firstly, remember that other people are irrelevant and the only thing that matters is that you keep on improving each day in comparison to yourself.
Secondly, 90% of these of ultra successful wizz-kid geniuses are actually just super lucky. In fact, I’d say I feel sorry for some of them because it goes to their heads and they genuinely start to believe their own crap and completely lose any ability to really seek truth and take on feedback (which was the all important quality I alluded to earlier). It took a while to realise that I am not a genius and that my first business took off due to sheer luck. Being honest, it was successful in spite of me and the number of mistakes I was continuously making rather than because of my innate business genius.
So now when I see a list of Forbes 30 under 30 etc.. I don’t think, “Oh God these people are so amazing and I’m such a failure”. Instead I think “Wow, look, a bunch of ridiculously lucky people who have no clue what they are doing but are under this weird illusion that they are geniuses. They’ll learn”
As humans we are built to think pretty highly of ourselves and you should. If we lived in constant awareness of our ineptitude at almost everything we’d soon lose the Growth Mindset we should be cultivating. However, I think the gravity of how much more your elders know only hit me after leaving university.
The idea that you reach the phase of being an “adult” when you’re 20 is a very dangerous illusion. The bracket of working adults is 20-65 years old; thinking that this means you are on a level playing field is actually quite bonkers when you look into it.
My brain slightly explodes just trying to comprehend all the multitude of experiences and lessons I’ve learnt in the last 5 years. Trying to explain these things feels vastly more impossible than anything Tom Cruise has ever done (this includes the impossible achievement that for some reason I still like his movies which no amount of science can explain).
A few crushing realisations brought this about:
In my anticipation of David Attenborough’s sure to be wildly enthusiastic letter of acceptance, I thought about the fact he is 92. Collectively our combined ages add to 120 years of life experience. That’s impressive! But 71% of that is his experience. Him talking to me is directly equivalent to me talking to an 8 year old. This is rather humbling to say the least and made me feel like a baby.
Taking this a step further, we can look more broadly into the age of humanity or the earth and consider that your life is the merest blip on its timeline. You are literally just out of the womb with you eyes bulging at the monumentally mind-blowing phenomenon of taking a breath for yourself. And then that’s it, your life is already over.
Whatever you know now, a few years later you will look back and think of just how naive you were. This phenomenon never stops as you get older. Thus, you can conclude that your current self is an embarrassing idiot for your future self to deal with. This helps you take yourself less seriously, take others more seriously and forgive any mistakes of your own or others.
There have been times when I’ve been asked to tell my own stories to people of stupid / genius things I’ve done and generally pass on fantastic wisdom. I often recognise a look of mild indifference that I know I used to have. Topics such as:Showing someone how to save their business from a huge mistake
The story of being unlawfully arrested in ParaguayGenuinely accepting my own impending death in the alps and being weirdly chill about it
Miraculously finding myself staying in a drug dealer’s house on the border of Mexico when I was trying to get to an organic farm to do some WOOFing.
All these things somehow didn’t seem to have the full gravity you’d expect.“Yea that’s cool but well. err whatever…”.
As young people we just seem to have this mild indifference the stuff older people tell us which causes them irrational annoyance. They will often wistfully accept that whatever they do there is nothing they can do to illustrate the importance of what they said or just how much it means.
This may sound weird, but it was at this point that I finally understood that other people’s stories are truly deeply real, whether it was exotic stories from a traveller, a business mentor explaining his mistakes or my grandfather talking about the war. It always felt a little, not quite ‘real’ when you’re younger and everything you’re told is just, well, a story. It took telling my own stories, and seeing them not quite sinking in, to recognise that there is so much behind the stories other people tell.
You shouldn’t just listen politely to others, you should listen with intense empathy and interest, and even if the subject means nothing to you, it means something to them.I made an interesting observation during my speech at the alumni event in the Biological Sciences building. All the other alumni with life experience seemed to really resonate with what I was saying. The students were visibly not so impressed by it. It’s not like they hated it, I guess it was just fine, whilst some of the alumni there were having ‘oh shit’ moments. But this makes logical sense. When I was young I wanted to play computer games all day and eat sweets and this seemed vastly important. Having my mum tell me that cleaning my room and doing homework was more important seemed odd and gave me the feeling she might be really stupid or something. Telling my friends 14 year old little sister that she doesn’t need to spend every hour on her phone messaging friends she’ll never talk to again when she’s older grants a similar reaction. It was about as effective as telling Trump the climate has issues that might be more important than building a big wall.
The point is that at every stage of life has different stages of what is important at that time and it can be hard to see other people’s viewpoints. As you get older you start to realise that any one who is older than you and tells you something they think is useful and interesting is inevitably always right.
Now considering how young you are and how real and beneficial other people’s knowledge is, we can start to take onboard a lot more when we realise it is a resource to be treasured.
I really wish I had understood just quite how precious the delightful bundles of knowledge those people we call lecturers are. They have so much incredible experience in life, science, and just making things happen. The University just lets these insanely valuable entities wander around the department freely. What’s more, they will even talk to you if you ask questions, and to all appearances they seem to take you seriously. You can really make the most of them by finding excuses to get involved with anything you can, asking for advice and genuinely listening to it.
If knowledge were chocolate then the University is Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: Do your best to fill your pockets before you leave.
Author: Sam Harris
‘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.
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!
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 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 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 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’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 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.
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 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)
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.
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.
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).
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)
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, Demonstrator, School of Biological Sciences
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
Written by Esme Hedley, Biology (BSc) Year 2
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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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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, 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.
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)