Science Media Savvy course, Dunedin

Just back from the Science Media Savvy course. A two-day amazing experience run by the Science Media Center New Zealand. Fantastic opportunity!!  Great opportunity to really work on science communication skills. The course was based in the Audio Visual studio at the University of Otago. Which was great as we had full use of the camera equipment.


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The Tea Bag Saga – Part 1 What’s with the tea bags?


As some of you will know I’ve been slightly preoccupied with Tea Bags of late. So much so that I now no longer have any choice but to write it all out in a blog post. As the title indicates this is a saga and sagas tend to the long winded and winding tales, with many twists and turns, false starts and multiple endings, required to wile away a long dark Scandinavian/Germanic  winter – or glorious southern summer come to that. Hence, for  clarity I have gone for a Dickens style part installment.

Part 1 – What’s with the Tea Bags?

Part 2 – The Tea Bag Index – It’s all about the Tea Bags

Part 3 – (Hopefully) All’s well that ends well

Back in early November 2013 (MEE: Issue 4: (11) ) came out with a striking cover photo of a couple of fancy looking TeaBags and a neat little experimental protocol. And Samantha’s MEE blog post neatly summarizes the attraction.

In the accompanying study, “Tea Bag Index: a novel approach to collect uniform decomposition data across ecosystems”, these contrasting litter types were exposed to decomposition by placing them in soil. Using the litter weight-loss, the tea bag index (TBI) was calculated, which allows the comparison of microbial decomposition dynamics on a local, regional and global scale.” [from Samantha’s Blog post]

This was followed up by two of the authors (Joost Keuskamp & Mariet Hefting from Utrecht University) discussing the TeaBagIndex with MEE Associate Editor David Warton.

All in all I was seduced. It’s a great idea, it’s low cost, they’ve done all the standardization work and testing, it’s brand new and published in a high quality journal – ok I’m a bit based here – but still Impact factors don’t lie 🙂 and best of all its exactly what I needed when I needed it. A simple, cheap method to quantify a key carbon related ecosystem service – Decomposition rate

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What I did this week: sub one

Hopefully this is the first installment in a series of not too long posts describing what I do.

I’ve started this with week sub one. This may seem odd but the plan is that my new position should start at Landcare Research on the first of October. So the end of September has been spent mostly doing all the things that I imagine everyone does on their first week no matter where or what the job.

Induction. Finding out where everything is. Who everyone is. Signing things. Getting keys. Packing/Unpacking/rearranging books, furniture and in my case a surprising number of pens and notebooks (this will not be surprising to anyone who has seen my office or shared an office with me in the past). I reckon I might have found about a third of my books so far – the rest are still in moving boxes in the spare room. As an aside every time we have moved the movers have complained about the volume and weight of books. In my defense I have very few rusty cars and a limited selection of clothes.

Luckily for me this was achieved in a very efficient and friendly manner. I must say so far I’m loving being at Landcare – everyone is very friendly and helpful and the tearoom discussions are lively and a nice mix of America’s cup (OMG if they choke now it’s going to be the worst choke in history)* and science (a mixture of Science and policy). There’s coffee (two pots at 10.15) and a nice picnic garden if the weather seems fine. Also amazingly I actually managed to get a bit of actual work done last week.

Monday I was back on as Associate Editor for my favorite journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution (MEE). I’ve been traveling for most of the last month so the very nice folk there gave me a bit of a holiday. But thanks to twitter they knew I was back. Luckily I had a really nice manuscript to deal with – by which I mean nothing about the paper itself except that it was one of the those papers where you take one look at it and immediately know who would be a great set of reviewers for that particular paper. So Monday morning saw three invites to three reviewers sent out. Number One agreed almost immediately (YEAHHH). Number two never got back to me and I realized on Saturday I’d sent it to a different person with the same name but a different email address; I rectified this first thing this morning (Monday) and they’ve agreed to review. Number three hasn’t got back to me. I’ll give it another couple of days.

I also somewhat rashly agreed to review two other papers – one for a sibling “Journal of Applied Ecology” and one for the competition “Biological Conservation“. I’m never really sure what the appropriate number of reviews that one should do a year is. Except I feel strongly Cory Prof. Corey Bradshaw (over at Conservation Bytes) should definitely be doing more for why see here. I also know I’m going to busy with visitors and field work over summer and I won’t feel so bad saying no if I’ve got a few under my belt in the mean time. Hopefully I can fit them in on Wednesday afternoon.

Thursday was put aside for discussion and sorting out the ins and outs of how my contract would work  here at Landcare – this was surprisingly uneventful. Everything was agreed in a very efficient, friendly (one might almost say collegial), and professional manner which left some time to discuss the science to come.

Wish me luck everyone…

*note I started writing this blog post before they did in fact choke

Edit (14.03.2014): Corrected Cory to Prof. Corey Bradshaw.

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Start here – Rutherford Discovery Fellowship – get your four cents worth

So late last year (last November) I was awarded a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship* from the Royal Society of New Zealand.  This is a fellowship specifically designed for early – mid career scientists and is a five year research fellowship. The scheme started in 2010 and each year the Royal Society of New Zealand awards 10 fellowships across all Sciences in New Zealand. So at any one time there can be no more than 50 Rutherford Discovery Fellows. The total value of the award over the five year term is $800 000 per fellow. Of course this doesn’t all go directly to the fellow; there is a $70k contribution towards the Fellow’s salary; $30k contribution towards overheads and $60k towards the research costs you can read about them here. I googled the current population of New Zealand (as of Tuesday, 17 Sep 2013 at 03:47:15 pm the estimate is 4,482,925). Basically, that boils down to $0.036 p.a. (just under four cents each). Which nicely illustrates the inverse of one of my favorite rules of all time (i.e., Rule #13 “Multiply any number, no matter how small, by a very large number and you get a large number”). So get your four cents worth – keep reading and find out what I’m doing.

As the New Zealand public is sponsoring my research for the next five years I thought I’d try and keep a more regular blog telling everyone what I’m doing. Originally I had intended to start this Blog series on the first of July to coincide with the start of my Fellowship. Unfortunately things don’t always go to plan and to avoid any unpleasantness I’ll just say that I’ve been “self-funded” for the last we while which included my very exciting trip to Germany (visiting collaborators in BIK-F) and the UK (IntEcol13 and more visiting collaborators from BioSS, The University of York and the Durham University) – all of which (the exciting travel, meetings, conference and collaborations) I will post about in the very near future in separate posts. Luckily we also had the evenings and some of the weekends to catch up with some family and friends. More about the pros and cons of an academic life in following posts.

So what is my fellowship about?

I guess this depends on a) who’s asking and b) how much do you want to know? Given I’m not sure who if anyone is reading this blog post I might start off with the short answer and elaborate over time as, hopefully, the public clamor to see how their 4cents are being spent.

So the really short answer is in the title of my research program:

“Battlegrounds and safe havens: disentangling the roles of ecology and evolution in the response of biological communities to climate change”

The slightly longer answer is in my press release when they announced the 2012 Rutherford Discovery Fellows:

Alpine environments have steep climatic gradients and therefore represent ever-changing battlegrounds. Here, species’ interactions and responses to changing climatic conditions are played out in small arenas.  Temperature decreases with elevation; therefore, in a warming climate the expectation is that species will shift their distribution upslope.  The combination of aspect, slope and shading within mountainous landscapes gives, at any given elevation, a variety of cooler and warmer microclimates. On a local scale, this landscape heterogeneity creates safe havens.  Using ecological niche models to locate climatically suitable areas through time this research will identify potential past, present and future distributions of species.  This will be compared with genetic data to assess how these niches coincide with hotspots of current genetic diversity on a local and regional scale.  This research aims to balance advances in ecological modelling with new empirical data bringing significant applied benefits to the New Zealand conservation community.

I’m planning to look at three things:

  1. Thermal refugia and population genetics/dynamics
  2. Community structure and biotic interactions
  3. Conservation prioritization for individuals, communities and ecosystem services in a changing world


I just looked back at my title and realized that’s a bit of a mouth-full. Ok. So by biological communities I mean groups of species that live together in the same place and time. I’m planning to do this mostly in New Zealand montane and alpine environments and mostly with Plants, but also with Bacteria and hopefully some pretty cool Invertebrates (probably moths and butterflies). I started out as a botanist studying plants and investigating the interactions between plants on different scales. This means the group of species I know best are plants so I’m starting with plants (there are other good reasons for starting with plants that we can explore later – but start with what you know is not a bad rule).

The aspect of biological communities that I’m interested in investigating is how these different species and groups of different species respond to climate change. Firstly, how they may have responded in the past in response to natural climate change that the cycles through ice- ages or glacial periods produce. Secondly, how they might therefore respond to the future anthropogenic climate change. While I’m doing this I’m trying to understand the processes involved and I’m especially interested in disentangling those that are ecological from those that are evolutionary. This basically boils down to short time scales vs long time scales (don’t quote me on that this is a gross over simplification).

In any case five years is a long time, not in evolutionary or even ecological terms, or even mortgage terms – actually I’m not at all convinced it’s a long time. To me it seems like a really short time. But then time is one of those concepts which is all a bit whibly – woobly isn’t it.  In any case I think its long enough to do a lot of really cool stuff.

*Note: I was briefly at James Cook University (Townsville), but largely at the excellent University of York, UK. Based in Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand NOT at the University of Otago but at the adjacent wonderful Landcare Research building next door.

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From tropical storm to snow storm

Woke to a winter wonderland surprise. Snow everywhere and lots of it. Apparently this is very very unusual for this area which seems right looking at the vegetation subtropical (sealevel) stands of bamboo somehow don’t quite look like they ought to have snow all over them. But what do I know…. Tetsuya (resident Japanese vegetation scientist) was even more surprised then me.. But breakfast with a snow covered backdrop around the carp ornamental pond was a sight to see….ohh and what a breakfast it was!! Every imaginable thing you could think of (aside from proper coffee – but you can’t even complain of that because everyone is so friendly and obliging and sorry for the snow and the disruption and he passport checks and everything else. But back back the breakfast every crazy thing you could think of available in one room. You could have a different breakfast every day for a month and not eat the same thing twice. Even the rice was a delight – white sticky rice with speckles of pink (some sort of flavoured salt) and green (flecks of wakame/Undaria/seaweed). Beautifully grilled strips of something that looked like mackerel, many types of mixed seaweed and boiled/pickled vegetables and a whole other table that I meant to go back to but didn’t manage it. Followed by miso soup!! Ahh the joy of being in Japan!! But there was also pancakes and bacon and maple syrup and all the normal continental stuff in abundance.

Delays in clearing the road so we could get to the airport to catch a bus or train to the office where Tetsuya works (2hrs away) whilst a huge annoyance for those with urgent flights meant I had time to take a couple of photos and then finish my talk!!! Yeah!! Hope it goes ok as I haven’t practiced it at all. Will have to remember to speak slowly and clearly (which is obviously a trail). But at least all the slides are there and sort of in order with some minimal prompting text. Well wish me luck in any case because it doesn’t seem as though there will be time for practicing.

Can’t wait to get to the hotel/office and not have to carry all this gear around with me.






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Rutherford Discovery Fellowship



So having decided that following the worst interview I’ve ever had (including the worst presentation I’ve ever given) I was completely convinced I would NOT be offered the prestigious Rutherford Discovery Fellowship. Hence, my slightly distracted (was in the middle of tricky piece of coding) answering of THE phone call, even after the caller identified himself as from the Rutherford Discovery Fellowship office I thought “ohh that’s decent they’ve even rung up to let me know in person I didn’t get the fellowship”. When they followed up with “we’d like to offer you the scholarship” I went into stammer overdrive.


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The Bat Tree

The Bat Tree

On Wednesday we had a picnic lunch in the botanical gardens. Salad from our new ice bags (the miniature version of the extreme 4WD vege shopping bag).
After the pleasant lunch break we decide to take a stroll and check out the “tropical parrots” that were making all the noise. Immediately obvious on seeing this tree was that it wasn’t the “tropical parrots” but 100s of fruit bats!!! hope you can see them

Have a small video but I can’t work out how to get it to load…

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