The research niche in academic community ecology

I loved this recent blog by Staffan Lindgren. I followed a very non-linear path to my current position and I’ve been struggling a lot lately with defining my research specialisation.

In high school, I failed chemistry, barely scraped through physics and maths, didn’t study biology, excelled at English, geography and history. I loved nature and being outdoors, but didn’t know there was a science career in that. So I went off to uni and did a Humanities degree (which I thoroughly enjoyed) and spent my early 20s trying out corporate communications, office admin, media, governessing on a remote cattle station, but nothing stuck. By this time, I’d discovered that science wasn’t all about lab coats and test tubes, so I went back to uni to study environmental science.

I didn’t plan to pursue a research career – I nearly failed undergrad statistics and never fit the norm of the ‘successful scientist’ promoted within the academic community. For my Honours year, I followed the well-worn path to vertebrate ecology, but had to switch projects halfway through the year because my supervisor disappeared on his own remote field work for the rest of the year without telling me. The only available project I could feasibly do in the 4 months left of my degree was monitoring a tingid biocontrol agent on its host, an invasive environmental weed. An insect career wasn’t even on my radar then, but that’s when I discovered how much I liked insect ecology. After two false starts at a PhD, I finally found a supervisor and project combination that clicked and the rest is history.

So it’s comforting to read of winding roads that have led others to long and inspiring science careers. Fingers crossed! Continue reading

Informal language isn’t the key to better engagement

A recent editorial in Nature magazine claims that scientific language is becoming more informal. The editorial discusses a new linguistics study, includes a subtle plug for the Active Voice dogma, and ends with the interpretation that modern biologists are now keener to build a connection with their readers, compared to our academic ancestors. Hooray for science communication!

But before we get too carried away, let’s look at the paper and the context.

Lost in translation. The Nature editorial is titled “Scientific language is becoming more informal”. The editorial talks about a linguistics study published in the academic journal English for Specific Purposes by linguists Ken Hyland & Feng Jiang titled “Is academic writing becoming more informal?”. And the author’s actual answer to this question in the first sentence of the Discussion is “it depends”.

The paper is a great read and provides some useful food for thought. But it would be misleading to claim that it provides a convincing argument for informality across all scientific writing. Continue reading

Scicomm is not new

‘Scientists shouldn’t have to do scicomm’ is a thoroughly modern misperception.

Communicating science has been ‘normal’ for centuries, from painted messages on cave walls, to classical orators and beyond. From ancient times, scientists took their responsibility to share science with people very seriously.

Yet today, mastery of language and the art of non-scientific communication are rarely taught or encouraged in modern science degrees. History isn’t taught much either.

Instead, many science students and graduates train to be skilled data collectors and ‘facts’ wranglers. Scientists are consistently bombarded with rigid anti-eloquence ‘rules’ that only succeed in suppressing the power of language – never use passive voice, don’t use big words, shorten your sentences, simplify your message etc. etc. God forbid you should sound like you care about your subject matter. Continue reading

Shakespeare knew his insects

Robert Patterson (1802-1872) was a remarkable naturalist you’ve probably never heard of. At the age of 19, he co-founded the Belfast Natural History Society. He also wrote a number of zoology texts and designed a series of zoological diagrams for use in schools. In 1857, he posted a ‘real Irish Rabbit’ across the Irish Sea to Charles Darwin, at Darwin’s request.

Patterson was also a bit of a Shakespearean. In 1838, he published a little book called ‘Letters on the Natural History of the Insects Mentioned in Shakspeare’s Plays.’

‘Shakspeare’ is not a typo, it is spelled this way throughout the book; Patterson was clearly in the Victorian-era camp that thought the Bard’s name should be spelled as he signed it.

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The book consists of 12 papers that were read out on ‘Public Nights’ held at the Belfast Society’s museum during the 1830s. These public events were common at learned societies of the time. For one night, the doors were opened to non-members to listen to the experts talk science (or literature, or whatever the society scholars were into). Clearly ‘science communication’ was just part of the job in those days. Continue reading

Humanities vs Science. 4. Semantics and Semiotics

See here for the story behind this series.

Signs and symbols are the oldest mode of communication. We were using pictures to show our clan which way the berries were long before the golden arches were invented. A sign is anything that has meaning, including words, and the most powerful signs transcend languages, dialects and cultures.

How is this relevant to science? Communicating scientific research through any medium (yes, even academic journals!) is all about people. Good communication uses signs and symbols effectively to transcend scientific cultures, sub-disciplines and public audiences. Most humanities disciplines teach meaning and context, but two disciplines are particularly relevant to meaningful communication – semantics, the study of meanings and relationships of words; and semiotics, the study of signs.

The Science of Semantics

Words are powerful. The way they are used can completely change their meaning and interpretation. Sentences aren’t just big piles of words dumped on a page. Those words need to be put into groups, and those groups into a meaningful sequence, before the reader can interpret the sentence. Continue reading

Humanities vs Science. 3. Art History

Science and humanities are often segregated in education and professional development. Even as a personal interest, the two disciplines are usually considered incompatible. In reality, they are complementary. Imagine if all science degrees included core humanities subjects in the first year? How would scientists, and science, benefit from a basic humanities perspective? This series looks for answers in some of the most common humanities disciplines.

Studying art is a bit more scientific than simply loitering at gallery openings. The discipline of Art History is the study of how visual art styles and movements have evolved over time. It teaches how to read and interpret art; but it also provides valuable insight into how humanity, society and their values have developed across the ages…insights that are very relevant to science. Here are a few ways that scientists could benefit from studying Art History:

Natural history

In the modern age of Twitter, Instagram and camera-phones, we sometimes forget the natural history we can learn through art of the non-digital kind. Yes, Darwin’s sketches taught us a lot about ecology and biogeography. But he wasn’t the only artist to leave us with a stunning legacy of natural history resources. Continue reading

Humanities vs Science. 2. Rhetoric

Science and humanities are often segregated in education and professional development. Even as a personal interest, the two disciplines are usually considered incompatible. In reality, they are complementary. Imagine if all science degrees included core humanities subjects in the first year? How would scientists, and science, benefit from a basic humanities perspective? This series looks for answers in some of the most common humanities disciplines.

Before you click away…rhetoric is not just a colloquial term for chicanery, hyperbole, and all the empty words that unscrupulous politicians and lawyers use to exaggerate claims and get their way. Rhetoric, the discipline, is the art of discourse – the art of speaking or writing eloquently and persuasively. Studying rhetoric teaches us how to put words together in a way that communicates our point well and builds a convincing argument – a skill that is very relevant to science.

Something happened on the way to the Agora

To understand the foundations of rhetoric, we need to spend a bit of time in ancient Greece, one of the earliest established democracies; here, public contribution to politics was considered really important. Each city-state (e.g. Athens) had a central meeting place, called the Agora. This is where intellectual, artistic and spiritual ideas were aired, shared and discussed so that anyone could contribute and participate in the dynamic process of political and cultural development. Continue reading