On Saturday, Mustard and I headed to Port Augusta to visit the Friends of the Arid Lands Botanic Garden to talk about wasps, parasitoids and our citizen science project! We had a lovely time chatting to everyone and sharing our love of wasps. The botanic garden is an beautiful site, with over 250 hectares of plants from the arid environments of Australia. These plants have evolutionary adaptations to survive the extreme drought and high temperatures. It's a wonderful place for a walk, bird watching and the cafe does great coffee and food! The garden has also recently opened an Arid Explorers garden for children and families to explore nature together.
There's a beautiful view of the Flinders Rangers from the garden!
I appreciated the insect artwork!
The Friends of the Garden gave us a lovely arid land plant to take home and add to our garden - it smells divine!
It's been a while since Mustard and I wrote a blog post! But we haven't left our PhD in a burning pile of notes and pipette tips... we've just been slack in writing.
One of the most exciting things we've done in the past couple of months is take part in a science communication competition called FameLab. It's an international competition run by The British Council where you have to explain your science in 3 minutes of talking (no powerpoint slides!) in a way that anyone could understand it.
It all started when a friend forwarded me the email calling for applications. “I think you should totally enter it and show the joy of dead caterpillars”, he wrote. Why not? I thought. I can talk, and it beats doing more PCRs right now!
To apply for Famelab you had to make a 3 minute video of yourself talking about your PhD thesis. I recorded mine on my super duper iphone camera (read: really old iphone camera) in the lab to make it look more ‘sciency’, just in case that would help… I decided it looked more professional than filming it in my lounge room, anyway. I got through the semi-finals, but since there were so few applicants from Adelaide, we were flown to Perth to compete in the Western Australian semi-finals.
Writing the talk was so much harder than I thought it would be. I’ve done a reasonable amount of science communication in my time, but I didn’t realise how very different talking about your own science would be, compared to, for example, explaining why bicarbonate soda and vinegar react and cause a film canister to explode… the sci-com-outreachers reading will get me! It’s a totally different kettle of fish (or wasps in this case) explaining your own science, and I think it’s because all the jargon, all the intimate words and phrases and meanings that you literally speak all day to your office-mates and colleagues and supervisors are so ingrained. I found it really quite difficult to take a step back and think… ‘do people know the word gene? Will they know what I’m talking about if I say DNA? Do most people know that wasps undergo metamorphism like a butterfly does? Do most people even know what metamorphism is?’
In the end I had a fun talk written and had a blast meeting the semifinalists in Perth and making the audience boo the evil caterpillar in our superhero story. Whilst I didn’t win a place in the semifinals, I was selected as one of the British Council’s wild card entries to go through to the national finals. So back to Perth with a refreshed talk I went, and again had fun with a really cool audience in one of the nicest buildings I’ve had the pleasure to present in – The Western Australian Museum. If you have three minutes to spare and want to be grossed out, you can listen to my national final winning talk here!
So yes, I was hugely honoured to be chosen by the judges as the Australian winner – there were some absolutely amazing talks that night, and I’m still not sure how on earth the judges would have made a decision. Winning the finals meant that I was rewarded with a trip to the UK to compete in the international famelab competition. The international competition takes place as part of the Cheltenham Science Festival, and there were 27 countries competing. Meeting 26 other young scientists from all over the world, all so passionate about science communication and sharing their joy of science was the most amazing experience. Thanks to the modern inventions of social media, I hope to stay in touch with these inspiring people for many years to come.
The international competition was broken up into semifinals, from which we were selected to go through to the final event the next evening. The catch? You had to have a talk ‘significantly different in content’ for the next night, so I chose to talk about my honours work on the stygofauna (animals which live in underground water) in the Pilbara of Western Australia. The three winners of the international final were the loveliest people and gave brilliant talks – and it was a pleasure to stand alongside them and entertain, educate and inspire an audience for a few hours.
I can’t thank the British Council enough for the chance to head overseas to the international competition, and for continuing to support the training of PhD students as science communicators here in Australia. So if you’re a PhD candidate and talking about your science gets you bright eyed and bushy tailed, think about applying for Famelab next year- trust me, you won’t regret it!
Sorry we've been so quiet for so long! It's been busy and hectic in the PhD world the last few weeks - but Mustard's here to fill you in on what we've been up to!
We went to some bioinformatic workshops, including learning how to talk to the computer in scripting language. Bioinformatics is a combination of computer science and statistics focussed on understanding and analysing huge amounts of biological data, like genetic sequences. It's a booming field because lab scientists (like me!) are generating huge amounts of genetic data that they don't know how to deal with. Bioinformaticians work out how to process the data and turn it into something usable.
We also gave a talk at our weekly lab group meeting on our project, as a practice for the presentation we need to give at the University as part of our PhD program, and also for a conference in December.
We also took a week off to deliver science holiday workshops at the South Australian Museum as part of their Opals exhibition. The opals exhibition is pretty awesome, so you should definitely check it out if you're in Adelaide!
Meanwhile, we've been doing lots of work at the microscope, and are getting pretty good at identifying the wasps!
Last Friday night, Mustard and I attended a BioBlitz at Morialta Conservation Park, run by the Discovery Circle. It was great fun! We set up a light trap to attract insects, and helped people collect and identify the critters that came to visit us.
A light trap is a white sheet hung between two trees, with a bright light strung up in front of it. The light we used was a mercury vapour light, which produces lots of the UV light that insects are attracted to. Exactly why insects are attracted to bright lights, such as your porch light at home during the evening, or our light trap, is not definitively known.
Whatever the reason, we had lots of tiny moths and flies come land on our sheet!
There were plenty of other things happening at the BioBlitz - spider surveys, bat surveys, spotlighting possums and birds, nocturnal ant hunting... it was fantastic to see so many families heading out around the park with scientists. Data from any identified animals and plants was uploaded to The Atlas of Living Australia, which is a great place to find out what lives around you! It is also a great site to upload anything you see (and know what it is). If you find something and want help getting it identified, head to BowerBird, where there is a great community of people uploading sightings to projects and helping each other identify things from photographs.
BioBlitz brought lots of great organisations together. There were even some educational displays about how feral animals (like cats and foxes) cause so much damage to our native wildlife. Mustard was not so keen on the taxidermy cat.
BioBlitz was a bunch of fun - thanks to the Discovery Circle for having us! There are more BioBlitzs coming up later in the year - find out more about them here, and head out to learn more about our amazing environment!
On Sunday, Mustard and I helped out at our University's Open Day. This is the day when the university puts on displays and has presentations about the different degrees on offer. It attracts a lot of year 11 and 12 students who are trying to work out what they want to do after school, but also families and general public who are curious about what the uni has been doing.
I ran a display about insects (of course) and we even had some live stick insects hanging around for people to hold. Stick insects make awesome pets - they can be easy to look after and friendly to handle. The stick insect Mustard is holding in the picture above is Extatosoma tiaratum, commonly known as a 'spiny leaf insect'. It has been suggested that they rear their abdomen up in the air to make them look like a scorpion, perhaps as defence against predators. They also have great camouflage, disguising themselves as a dried up gum leaf. Can you think of other animals that use camouflage to hide from predators?
I really enjoyed studying a science degree, and it was fun to talk to lots of high school students about what they were interested in and how they might pursue that! It's now Monday again so we're back to work learning to identify wasps and finishing off our project proposal.
Mustard and I had a great day at Science Alive yesterday. We had lots of insects and some microscopes and magnifying glasses so that people could get up close and personal. There was a huge crowd and so many interested kids and parents wanting to chat about insects! Being a scientist is not just about doing research - it's also about getting out there and sharing what you know! We're back in the office today, writing our research proposal and identifying wasps.
Today we're getting everything ready for the weekend, when we'll be part of a massive science festival in Adelaide, South Australia. I'm bringing along some specimens and microscopes for people to be able to have a closer look at insects.
Science Alive is on this weekend (8-9 of August 2015, 9am-4pm at the Adelaide Showground). The event brings almost all of the science-based organisations in Adelaide together for two days of fun for the whole family. Check it out here! What's even more exciting is this year the Shell Questacon Science Circus are visiting Adelaide and will be at Science Alive!
Myself, Mustard and the insects will be there on Sunday at the University of Adelaide stand - so come say hi!
PhD student and her trusty dinosaur explore the world of science. Check out our Citizen Science Project, The Caterpillar Conundrum!