Rosie Ford tells her experience as winner of Bristol’s 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition

Rosie recently won the University of Bristol’s 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition for her talk on ‘Fungal secondary metabolites: exploring a kingdom of possibilities.  Rosie tells us about her experience and some top tips about presenting your research in a virtual world.

3MT® (or Three Minute Thesis) is a competition for doctoral students, originating from the University of Queensland, which stipulates that competitors must present their research in just 3 minutes – any longer and they are immediately disqualified. Normally, the competition is held in person, in front of an audience, but due to COVID-19, in the past two years, the competitions have been moved online, presenting a new challenge – how do you engage an audience who can walk away from their screen at any time?

I decided to take part in Bristol Doctoral College’s 2021 3MT competition for several reasons. The first, to improve my presenting skills, especially in a virtual world I wanted to teach myself how to adapt to this. Secondly, I hadn’t set foot in the lab since December 2020, and I was just about to head back to research after a PIPS placement when I submitted my 3MT application – I needed to refamiliarize myself with my research and what made it so exciting (how better to do this than explaining your project and arguing why it is important in a concise way). Lastly, I’d heard great things from colleagues who had taken part in the Bristol Doctoral College 3MT in the past so why not give it a go myself?

The whole experience was hugely rewarding, and the support is given by the Bristol Doctoral College and the other candidates was key in my success. There were never any feelings of intense competition but rather mutual support and a desire to communicate research in an accessible manner. Potentially winning the competition was simply a bonus to all the skills you picked up along the way. So here are the key things I learnt:

1. Eye contact is crucial – we know that this is true for in-person presentations, you can’t stare at the floor the whole time, but how do you convey this when you’re using a computer or laptop? Look straight into the camera. The temptation is always to look at your audience to see how they are responding to you, as you would normally, but if you are looking at your screen you don’t seem as prepared. Perhaps the easiest way to teach yourself to make eye contact with a virtual audience is to record yourself and watch it back. This also helps you to see what your body language is like and if it adds to or distracts from your talk. Not only this but looking at the camera does actually help with nerves since you can ignore anything else going on in that video call and just focus on presenting.

2. Check your presentation is appropriate for your audience by practising it in front of people in your target group. This could be friends, family, or colleagues, and they don’t have to listen to the whole thing, even just 1 slide or the first 30 seconds would be useful. If you’ve lost them already, you need to rethink things. Even though I was lucky enough to be the winner of this year’s competition, I’m definitely guilty of this too. In my first version of my 3MT talk, the first word I said was “peptide”. Admittedly this was key to my presentation but perhaps not the most exciting way to start off, especially if your audience doesn’t know what a peptide is – something my fellow 3MT competitors pointed out to me. On that note, if you have to include something technical or complex in a presentation to a lay audience, give yourself plenty of time to explain it and metaphors can really help with this – but make sure you use something most people will know (i.e., you shouldn’t need to explain your metaphor too).

I’m looking forward to going onto the next stages of the competition, seeing what other doctoral students across the UK are up to, and picking up some useful skills as I go along.

Rosie Ford, SWBio DTP student


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


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

Rainbow Meadow supporting the Bees’ Needs

The beautiful Rainbow Meadow outside Royal Fort House has won the Bees Needs Champion 2018 award!

The annual wildflower meadow is part of the ‘My Wild City’ project – a scheme by Avon Wildlife Trust launched in 2015 as part of the #GetBristolBuzzing campaign. The #MyWildUniversity initiative, works within the #MyWildCity framework and is a commitment set out by the External Estates Department to work within and adopt this strategically across our landscapes within the University of Bristol. This exciting collaboration has combined research from the Life Sciences department at the University and the National Pollinator Strategy for England, and has been brought about by the wonderful Royal Fort Estates Team and students from Roots Community Gardening – a student-led volunteering group who promote positive mental health and wellbeing by encouraging more students to connect with nature and their local community.

The recognition by DEFRA and Keep Britain Tidy for the project’s contribution to pollinators and the local community has been a huge honour. The award ceremony was hosted by the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew) on the 13th November 2018, during which representatives from 26 Green Flag awarded projects were presented with the Bees Needs Champion award by Lord Gardiner (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for rural Affairs and Biosecurity):

“I urge everyone to be inspired by this year’s Bees Needs Champions and take pollinator protection into their own hands through simple actions such as growing more flowers, cutting grass less often and thinking carefully about using pesticides.”

It was hugely inspiring to see the wide range of groups, organisations and individuals (councils, conservation charities, academic institutions and the Pollinator Advisory Steering Group) from across the country taking action to help pollinators and conserve the crucial ecological service they provide. The day included a number of speeches about the work that is being done to protect our pollinating insects, including; Philip Turvil and Richard Pollard from Grow Wild; Huw Merriman from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Bees; Hauke Koch and Phil Stevenson conducting scientific research projects at Kew; the Northumberland Honey company; and Dr Lynn Dicks from the University of East Anglia.

“The economic value of pollination is currently estimated at between $235-577 billion globally. A study in 2011 found that two-thirds of the crop pollination service is provided by wild pollinators, not by managed honey bees (Breeze et al., 2011). It is therefore important that we work to preserve landscapes that support common wild pollinators in the long term, by providing the food and nesting resources they need at the appropriate scale.” – Dr Lynn Dicks

We are extremely proud of the work that’s gone into achieving this award and want to say thank you and well done to all involved. Furthermore, whether you are a farmer, a gardener, or a manager of urban or amenity spaces, there is something you can do to help support our valuable insect pollinators.

There are five simple steps you can take to help pollinators in your area:

  1. Plant for pollinators
    Grow more nectar- and pollen-rich flowers, shrubs and trees
  2. Leave patches of land to grow wild
    Wildflowers are important for insects and undisturbed areas make good nesting sites
  3. Put away the pesticides
    They can harm bees and other beneficial invertebrates
  4. Leave your mower in the shed
    Cut grass less often to allow plants to flower. If possible remove the cuttings after you mow longer grass.
  5. Make a bee house
    Drill holes in a log or bundle up lengths of bamboo to provide nesting sites for solitary bees

Visit the Avon Wildlife Trust website to find out more about the Greater Bristol Pollinator Strategy and how you can become part of Get Bristol Buzzing campaign.

Top five societies for new biologists and zoologists

If you’re a new undergraduate reading this, then first off, congratulations on getting into Bristol! A big part of university life is the clubs and societies you can get involved with. There’s a huge range of them, and you can find full details of societies at the Bristol Students’ Union page. Joining university isn’t easy for anyone, but societies can help the transition – they’re a great way to meet new people, pursue your hobbies, or just try something completely new. Keep an eye out for freshers fair, where you can walk around and chat with the members of any societies you’re interested in (plus, there’s free food). With all that in mind, we’ve asked current students to recommend their favourite societies that are relevant to Biology and Zoology students!

Bristol University Conservation Group

£3 membership for a year

Most of you are probably already aware that we are having a tremendous impact on Earth, including far-reaching issues such as global warming and plastic pollution, all the way to motorboat noise pollution affecting cognitive learning in fish. Often these issues can seem overwhelming, but if you want to play your part in local conservation, then you should really consider the Bristol University Conservation Group.

The society spends weekends on reserves in and around Bristol, helping to conserve UK’s biodiversity, for example, by removing invasive species to allow native species to thrive. This is hugely important, as UK’s nature is not in great shape – by joining the society, you can help conserve UK’s declining biodiversity! Not only this, as the society’s President and 3rd-year biologist, Lucy Bell, told me, but it’s also “a great way for students of Biology and Zoology to get practical experience of some of the problems that we learn about in lectures and labs”. Indeed, in 1st year you’ll likely have a lab discussion about the impacts of invasive species – the society can complement your studies and aid your learning.

If you take the conservation unit in 2nd year, Professor Jane Memmott will tell you about how incredibly beneficial nature is to our wellbeing, including our mental health. This may seem obvious, but it’s pretty easy to spend the entire freshers week inside, drinking and sleeping – it’s important to get outside too! Owen Iredale, 3rd-year biologist and the Tools and Safety Officer, has “found the conservation group a great way to get out into the countryside”, and has helped “conserve a range of interesting wildlife habitats”. Starting at university is a nerve-racking experience for everyone. The Conservation Group, however, as Owen said, is a “super friendly and relaxed society, so it’s a great way for nervous Biology or Zoology freshers to meet other people”.

Ape Alliance Society

£3 membership, or £6 for a joint membership with Roots and Shoots Society (a primate conservation group).

The Ape Alliance Society is another important group dedicated to conservation. As the name suggests, their focus is on Great Ape conservation, specifically raising awareness about the challenges they face, and funding conservation efforts. The society itself is fairly small and tight-knit, so you can make a big difference from within, as Rosie Street (President and 3rd-year biologist) told me. “During the time I have been involved with Ape Alliance, we have run educational workshops in local schools, abseiled down the Avon Gorge in gorilla costumes and organised a showing of King Kong used a pedal-powered cinema, among many other crazy events.” The showing of King Kong raised over £700 for ape conservation, which is incredible for one night. As Rosie said, you can really make a difference with this society -“if you care about animal welfare, the palm oil problem, the loss of endangered species, and are interested in being involved in some wacky activities with some like-minded people then this is the society for you”.

University of Bristol Underwater Club (UBUC)

For a new diver, approximately £260 to qualify: Open Water qualification, personal gear, UBUC and BSAC membership. You can apply for a hardship fund to get up to £100 to help with more pricey societies:

Many biologists I know are hoping to pursue marine biology as a career, and if you’ve seen Blue Planet 2 then you can understand why. As Lois Flounders, President and 3rd-year zoologist put it, “as biologists and zoologists we should all be enthusiastic to explore and protect the marine world”. If you agree, then the university’s scuba diving society, UBUC, “provides the perfect opportunity to do this with a very sociable and welcoming society.” It’s open to existing divers and complete beginners – they run a taster session during freshers for anyone who wants to give it a go.

If you do join as a beginner, you’ll become a qualified diver over the course of a few months, learning in pool sessions, and doing your qualifying dives on weekend trips – this is a great excuse to get away to beautiful places like Cornwall for a few days with some great people. Lois also highlighted other courses they run too, such as Seasearch, a citizen science project run by the Marine Conservation Society!

Aside from learning to scuba dive, it’s one of the larger societies, as it also attracts ex-students and divers from outside university. You’ll find them at the pub every Tuesday, with socials playing a big part of the society – the highlight being the boat bar crawl. UBUC is a great way to meet students both of similar ages, and across the year groups. Biologists make up a large part of the membership too, so it’s a good way to meet fellow course members!


£3 membership for a year

Dinosoc is the university’s Palaeontology society. Luke Cadd, Social Secretary and 4th-year Biologist, was quick to recommend it, as it’s “been an amazing place to meet new people who are interested in all things fossil related. It is one of the only societies here at Bristol where I have felt part of a family, which is helped by its rather small size, but also the friendliness and acceptance of everybody who is involved”.

The society puts on a lot of events, for example, field trips, pub nights, and barbeques. You can see some of the beautiful places they visit by taking a look at their gallery here. They also have talks from some of the researchers here in Bristol who have published some fascinating findings on dinosaurs! Luke recommends it to anyone “interested in something a little different”, but also for the social side of things; “not everyone that comes is into fossils, but they love the atmosphere and the people”. So, if you’re interested in fossils, or just want to try something new with some great people, then definitely check it out!

Wildlife Film Society

£5 membership for a year; discounted and free tickets to events

The Wildlife Film Society is fantastic for any budding wildlife filmmakers, or just those who love watching nature documentaries, as Siwan Davies Busby (President and 3rd-year biologist) describes. “Since joining the society in the first year I’ve had the opportunity to attend talks by, and meet, people such as Elizabeth White, George McGavin and even the incredible Sir David Attenborough! The society has given me access to valuable knowledge about the industry and has even given me the opportunity to produce a small natural history documentary series. If you’re not interested in entering the wildlife filmmaking industry, there are also tonnes of opportunities to watch great documentaries from both indie film companies and the BBC.  We also have a wide range of other events from tours of the BBC Natural History Unit to camera equipment tutorials.  Make sure to get your membership and come along to our events!”

As Siwan mentioned, they have put on some really great events, and the tickets are often free or heavily discounted. One of the highlights was definitely Chris Packham interviewing Sir David Attenborough about some of the conservation issues we face. A producer of Spy in the Wild, Philip Dalton, also gave a great talk and brought some of their high-tech animal cameras down for people to have a go on – there are loads of events throughout the year you won’t want to miss!

Written by Ben Cobb (year 3 Zoology BSc)

Nature Xposed

Welcome one and all to Nature Xposed

The show which aims to make you think about the natural world just that little bit differently. Behavioural and freshwater ecologists Benito and Amy are here to give you something to contemplate over your cornflakes, every Friday at 10am on Burst Radio or listen to the regular podcasts on Mixcloud.

Benito’s Explanations

YouTube videos from Mr Benito Wainwright – Behavioural Ecology and Animal Colouration.

During Benito’s undergrad, he created a whole series of revision videos which covered content from entire university modules too!

More links: