How I got my fellowship – and how you might get yours

In my previous post I wrote that I recently got awarded a very competitive BBSRC David Phillips fellowship! And I promised I would dedicate a post to this. Applying for this fellowship has been a lengthy, exiting, and exhausting process, which has taught me a lot about how to write a grant proposal and how to prepare for such an important interview. Although I have applied for grants previously, none of them was anywhere near as much work, and as stressful, as this one.

So, here I will outline the points that I think are crucial for being successful in getting a very competitive fellowship like a BBSRC David Phillips fellowship. I think these points, together, can greatly improve your chances of being successful. But who am I that I think I have advice on this? Well, since 2008 I have applied for seven personal research grants (a Royal Society Newton International Fellowship, a Dutch Rubicon fellowship, a L’Oreal For Women in Science fellowship, a British Ecological Society Early Career grant, a Royal Society International Exchange Grant, a Royal Society University Research Fellowship, and a BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship), of which three were successful. If you consider that the average success rate of this type of grant is around 10%, then that’s pretty good. Moreover, I think I have learned a lot from applying for these grants and getting feedback on them, and I believe that as a result, I got better at it. Also, I regularly review grants for a range of funders, and I think this has improved my own grant writing.

Here are my tips. Continue reading

A very short history of creativity in science

Is science creative? I know that the process of scientific discoveries can be, or ought to be – is inherently? – creative. You can find some interesting opinions here, but it boils down to having to be resourceful and imaginative to design experiments for answering difficult, or big questions. I agree. However, I think that increasingly, the process of scientific discovery is constrained and pushed into a straight jacket, with implications for the creativity that is necessary to come to great scientific discoveries. Who still has time to wander through nature, observing and thinking? To have long discussions during coffee breaks, and philosophise about new ideas and approaches?

Yet this is what early scientists did. They studied the patterns they observed in nature, through spending time in nature. Think about Newton being sat under a tree when the apple fell on his head, or about Darwin and his voyage on the Beagle. Think about their books, that read like adventure novels. In the early days of the Royal Society, in the 1600’s, science and philosophy, or metaphysics, were inseparable, and doing science consisted for a large part of talking about it. Later, there were close ties between poets and scientists, and romanticism had a major impact on 19th century science. For example, the romantic poet Samuel Coleridge travelled to Germany and presumably influenced natural scientists such as Alexander Humboldt. Coleridge and his friend Wainwright got their inspiration while going on long and exhausting walks, often for weeks on end, and having opium-fuelled discussions through the night. Continue reading

The diversity beneath our feet

Yesterday, Georgina Mace gave a seminar in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. Of course, I was at the front row (well, almost), as I have only just started at Manchester and I was employed to reinforce ecology and environmental sciences in the Faculty. I have seen Georgina Mace speak before, and today she spoke about biodiversity, and specifically, the decline of it.

In her talk, she highlighted trends in the decline of plants, birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, and amphibians, mainly as a result of habitat destruction. She spoke about mechanisms of these organisms to cope with disturbances; some species just cope with changing circumstances, some move away to new habitats, and some (or, rather a lot, as evidenced by the graphs in her presentation) go extinct. At the end of her talk, she spoke about why biodiversity is important for humans. First of all, humans value biodiversity because of its intrinsic value – we simply want to know that there are elephants in Africa, or panda bears in China (although personally, I couldn’t care less about panda bears).  Second, we want to conserve species because we want to preserve the genetic library of life, and all the information about its evolution that is locked up in genes. And finally, we want to conserve biodiversity because it provides ecosystem services that are directly beneficial for humans, although the science underpinning this relationship is still thin on the ground. Continue reading

Blog and Twitter etiquette in academia?

Three weeks ago, I was a social media virgin. This is only my third blog post, and so far I have tweeted 37 times (that includes my tweet about this post!). I deliberately started both my blog and my Twitter account from a professional point of view – I don’t have the illusion that strangers want to read about my social life (I might write about this on Facebook), or what I have for breakfast (something that I would never write about on Facebook). But, I do think I might have something sensible to say about science, and I do think that maybe others, who are in a similar career stage, or maybe a bit more junior, might find it interesting to read about my career. But, I have already written about why I decided to write a blog here.

There seems to be a fair amount written about general etiquette in blogging and tweeting. For Twitter, here it says that you shouldn’t scream or stalk, which seems quite obvious to me. Then, for blogging, obviously, you need to comply with copyright law and cite your sources (but I am assuming that everyone on academia does this anyway), be polite, and don’t make spelling mistakes. Here, you can find some content on how to promote your science blog, with the general message that this is a good thing to do. I also found a rather old Guardian article about whether journalists’ professional guidelines apply to their personal activities online. Continue reading

A little bit of background on my latest paper

In my latest paper, Extensive management promotes plant and microbial nitrogen retention in temperate grassland, published in PLoS ONE last month, we show that traditionally managed, species rich haymeadows lose less nitrogen with drainage water from their soils than more intensively managed grasslands. This is important, because nitrogen that leaches from the soil can pollute ground and surface water, reduce plant species diversity, and cause problems for human health if concentrations in drinking water are getting too high.

In this paper, we used both extensive field observations and a mechanistic glasshouse experiment to show that traditional haymeadows have lower nitrogen leaching because of more uptake of available nitrogen in plant roots and in microbes. Specifically, we found that a greater biomass of soil fungi increased microbial nitrogen uptake, and that this in turn increased the retention of nitrogen retention in soil.

These results confirm an ecological theory, namely that ecosystems with a more fungal-dominated microbial community are more efficient in their nitrogen cycling, and have thus lower nitrogen losses. This is not a novel theory at all – in fact, it is often assumed to be true, but it has never before been experimentally tested. To illustrate this, in this Science paper, it is said that ‘Because fungal-based soil food webs promote less leaky nutrient cycles that are more retentive of nutrients than do bacterial-based food webs…’ and subsequently, a paper by Coleman et al. from 1983  is cited. However, on further inspection, this appears to be a review paper, which by no means proves that this theory is correct. Moreover, it is not possible to adequately test this theory, since it is not possible to take the microbial community out of its environment, and thus it is impossible to test whether it is the composition of the microbial community that is responsible for lower nitrogen leaching, or its environment, for example the amount of organic matter in the soil.

Continue reading