A scientist by any other name: more disciplinary diversity in science communication please

What do you say when someone outside your work circle asks what you do?

I’ve tried a few different responses, depending how much time I have to explain details. I sometimes think I should say ‘I’m a scientist’…it’s more recognisable, and maybe more ‘legitimate’ to doubters (ecology is a misunderstood discipline), and it makes the point that ecology is a bona fide science. But it’s also ambiguous.

What if the person I’m talking to thinks ‘science’ is just the physical or medical sciences? It gets a bit awkward when I hear back something along the lines of ‘Oh medical research is so important, I’m so glad you’re doing something to help’. When I say I’m an ecologist, it’s equally disheartening how many blank or confused looks I get. Continue reading

Moving for academic careers is not ‘just like other jobs’

Recently, I’ve been hearing a recurring argument for why academic relocation is not a big deal compared to other jobs, usually in response to early career researchers discussing how often, and how far, they’ve had to move for work (e.g. this recent post over at Scientist Sees Squirrel).

Yes, the need to diversify one’s experience by moving locations is common to many careers. Most people will move once or twice, usually early on, to establish their future job or career path. Some careers demand continual relocation, even after establishment.

However, moving for academic careers is very different to most other mobile careers for one very important reason that is often glossed over: the mismatch between expectation and support. Continue reading

Starting a citizen science project on a shoestring budget: the Australian Wild Pollinator Count

Some years ago, I had a bright idea. I’d just finished my PhD researching communities of wild pollinators and other beneficial insects in Australian orchards. During that time I’d discovered that lots of people (scientists and non-scientists) thought that European honey bees were the main, if not only, pollinator in Australia.

Most people I spoke to about my work were amazed to learn that we had 1800+ species of Australian native bees, let alone the thousands of other insect species that also pollinate flowers.

I approached my friend Karen Retra, a local bee enthusiast, with a simple plan. Why not try and raise awareness of the forgotten pollinators by getting people outside in their backyard to look for insects? With the myriad of free online tools available, I thought it would be pretty easy to run a regular insect count that anyone could get involved in, just like the UK’s famous Big Butterfly Count or the Aussie Bird Count.

So we started the Wild Pollinator Count, an Australian citizen science project focused on pollinator insects. It runs in the second full week of April and November every year. The idea of this was so that regular contributors have the opportunity to notice differences in their local pollinator communities as the seasons change. Contribution is easy: find a flowering plant during the count week, watch some flowers for 10 minutes and record what you see, enter the data via our submission form. Continue reading

My first podcast!

Thank you to James O’Hanlon for inviting me on to his awesome science podcast In Situ Science. It was my first podcast, but it was just like a good radio interview where you’re given the time to have a conversation, not produce soundbites.

We chat about the Wild Pollinator Count, the challenges of running citizen science projects (data quality, science vs. engagement etc.), how ecosystem services might be one of the most unifying but misunderstood concepts in research, media portrayal of science, James Bond, science community blogging and more!

You can listen to the podcast here (and if you’re new to the site, be sure to subscribe and check out the previous episodes!):

Ep. 41 Pollinators, Bond films, and ecosystem services with Manu Saunders




Flower Visitors vs. Pollinators: no evidence that honey bees are the most important pollinator worldwide

Pollination is a complex process. It’s not as easy as an insect simply visiting a flower.

This is important to remember when talking about which species are the ‘best’ or ‘most important’ pollinators. Simply observing an animal visiting a flower is not, on its own, evidence that the animal is pollinating the flower.

Many insects (and other animals) visit flowers, to feed on pollen, nectar or other flower parts. Many of these interactions result in pollination…although some visitors are better pollinators than others. Some of these visitors commit floral larceny – they are robbers or thieves (there’s a difference!) of either pollen or nectar, and they leave without pollinating. Some might even damage flower parts so much that they indirectly affect the flower’s capacity to be pollinated by other visitors.

To know for sure that an insect is pollinating a particular flower, we first need to know what kind of reproductive system that flower has. Is it male, female or bisexual (containing both male and female parts)? Can it self-pollinate, or does it need to be outcrossed to another flower or plant of the same species? Once we know this, we then need to watch the behaviour of the insect that visits that flower. Does the insect visit one flower and fly away, or many flowers in a row? Does it move between plants? Does it actually touch the reproductive parts of the flower when it visits each flower? Continue reading

Science needs Nature: so why keep them apart?

A few years ago, I wrote an article for Ensia about how popular media tend to separate science and nature stories as if they’re unrelated categories. Most major online news websites have separate pages for ‘Science’ stories (predominantly technology, space and medical research) and ‘Environment’ stories (mostly pieces on nature, wilderness, environmental activism, or cute wildlife, sometimes with a few pieces on climate change thrown in for good measure). Continue reading

‘Tis the season for Christmas blogs: but what about the archives?

The cultural traditions of Christmas, like every aspect of our lives, are embedded in stories of science…botany, ecology, chemistry, entomology etc. If you blog about science and nature, Christmas-themed posts can easily become an annual habit.

Unfortunately, because of our distracted relationship with the internet, many timeless Christmas posts are read once and discarded, just like the wrapping paper and festive napkins at the end of the big day.

So here are a few Christmas posts from the archives that you may have overlooked, or might just enjoy reading again! Continue reading