Am Nat paper on Capensibufo published

20 December 2017

Our Capensibufo paper is published in Am Nat

This amazing paper came about during the Honours thesis of Francois Becker when he studied the 7 years of CMR data that we had accumulated on Capensibufo rosei. What Francois found astounded us all, that the survival of these toads was correlated extremely well with rainfall during the breeding period.

Here's the graph that we found so amazing. Survival probability varies between 0.04 and 0.92, and 94% of this variation was explained by variation in breeding-season rainfall. This result seemed completely counter-intuitive. Surely during a period with good rainfall we'd expect animals to do well? The answer we suspect is that they do so well, sitting out in the puddles during the wet weather, that they lose condition and don't make it through to breed the next year. Conversely, in a dry year, the animals don't spend long in their puddles and so go back to ground very early.

In this video clip, you can see some of the amazing scenes from mating behaviour of this species.

We now know that these animals are endemic to the Cape peninsula, but suspect that the other species all have similar life-histories. 


Marike shows aSCR to the BES meeting in Ghent

19 December 2017

Showing aSCR to the BES

Marike Louw spent her prize winning money (from the CIB ARM 2016) on attending the BES meeting in Ghent, Belgium. 

The meeting gave Marike a chance to display a poster on her MSc reseasrch, and meet people who were interested in the technique.

It was great to see the level of interest in aSCR is high, and the enthusiasm with which Marike explained the technique to the masses.

  aSCR  Lab  meetings

INVAXEN informs EU policy

15 December 2017

How does research get translated into policy?

Work on invasive Xenopus laevis by a consortium of labs in Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal and South Africa has produced research that helped to brief European policy makers.

“According to our research, climate change could increase invasion risk of predatory frogs such as the African clawed frogs. Areas in France and the UK are particularly vulnerable to invasions because of their increasing suitability as a habitat with warming temperatures. This situation requires priority setting and better anticipation of future invasions.” Anthony Herrel, coordinator for the BiodivERsA-funded project INVAXEN.

The policy brief above features the MeaseyLab publication: Frog eat frog.

  Frogs  Xenopus

Teaching philosophy

09 December 2017

Teaching Philosophy

From 2012 to 2014, I was a senior lecturer in the Department of Zoology at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, where I taught all years (1st, 2nd and 3rd years as well as postgraduate students). Lecturing responsibilities changed from year to year, but my regular commitments included Cell Biology (approximate class size 120) and Population Genetics (approximate class size 30). During this period I attended a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) course, and for this was required to develop a teaching portfolio, including a teaching philosophy. 

I still teach undergraduates now, and so the following teaching philosophy, adapted from the SoTL portfolio that I wrote in 2013, is still relevant. 

A teaching philosophy statement should be recognised by students as being something that they can relate to and value in their teacher. A teaching philosophy statement should also be something that I can look to in order change and improve my teaching on a day to day and year to year basis. It should be timeless and continually inspire me to improve my teaching content, practices and ideas.

It is with this last thought that I have come to my new teaching philosophy statement:

“To facilitate the learning of acquisition of skillsets for the 21st century workplace, using biology as a model system.”

The rationale behind this teaching philosophy is as follows:

  • The 21st century workplace is not a traditional job (job-for-life) scenario, but one that is dynamic (typical contracts are 1-5 years) and each new job is likely to require the acquisition of new skills.
  • New skills are likely to have a shelf-life (particularly in terms of information technology), but the approach to learning new skills is likely to remain the same. Thus I do not expect students to learn the same skills in the framework that I am teaching them, but I do expect that they will have the ability to learn new skills.
  • The philosophy requires of students that they are open to learning in new ways. This challenges them against their previous learning experiences in school, but also enables and unburdens them to new possibilities of learning in different ways. The hope is that each will discover how to learn in a way that suits them best.
  • I do have a responsibility to teach students biology, but I know for a fact that few will find jobs in what is a specialised field. Instead, I consider it more realistic to use biology as a model for learning core skills in a 21st century environment. Biology is a relevant subject here as it has a long history (they remain as founding departments of most universities), dating back to the origins of human scholarly interest with Aristotle (384-322 BC: Owen 1992), and continues to be at the forefront of human scientific endeavour.
  • I cannot expect that all students will finish their degrees and gain employment in a zoological field, or if they do that this will last anything more than a few years. Indeed, students may come to a biological job after many other contracts and find that it has little bearing on the degree that they did years before. There will be a few (lucky) students who do get jobs that are directly relevant to the discipline and the lectures that they have been taught, but this will be a minority as there are simply not many jobs available that relate directly to this subject. They will not, however, be disadvantaged by this teaching philosophy which will continue to provide all the information and skills that they require. But this approach will benefit them in providing for them as aspects of their job change with time – as change they will.
  • In order for me to achieve this teaching philosophy, I will need to keep abreast of advances in skillsets used in workplaces. An important part of this is done through my own research where I work with many collaborators who are employed in different areas of the biological sciences. Re-skilling has become a constant theme of my own career, spanning some 30 years and (almost) as many techniques and skills. I think that at first the constant need to learn is daunting, then annoying but eventually liberating as the challenge of learning new skills becomes a pleasure.
  • As their teacher, I provide both the environment and materials for students to learn key goals: proficiency in written communication, verbal presentation and team working. To some extent, I also provide the motivation through my chosen model subject area of biology. My approach is to provide this support through as many different avenues as possible.
  • Learning itself becomes the subject of this new philosophical statement, with the (somewhat tautological) “learning to learn” objective of studies.

There are some skills that students must learn for any work place, and these will be at the core of the teaching: written communication; verbal presentation; team working. These core skills will be at the basis of each course and progressive courses should develop these skills as the degree proceeds. These then become the main goals for my students.

One key point is to make these goals (and my teaching philosophy) explicit to the class. Without this, it will be hard for them to set their own goals, or see the significance of tasks that are set. I think that there is a duality between who the students in our classes are, and who we would like them to be. I believe that one of the only ways for teachers and students to come closer to common goals is to make the goals explicit with explanations of how tasks and exercises aim to achieve the goals. To this end, support for students should be given in the context of achieving the common goals with a reiteration of how those goals are relevant to their own advancement.

Owen, R. (1992). The Hunterian Lectures in Comparative Anatomy (May and June 1837), Phillip Reid Sloan (ed.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


A 'native English speaker' is not what you need

05 December 2017

A 'native English speaker' is not what you need! 

This blog is inspired by one of my 'pet hates' that editors (especially non-English speaking editors) so regularly come up with. In my experience, having advice from a 'native English speaker' is no guarantee to getting a well written manuscript. 

Most of the world’s scientists did not grow up speaking English. Yet, rightly or wrongly, English is the language in which science is currently written. So, if English isn’t your mother tongue, should you expect to receive help during peer review?

Should you expect to receive help with your English when you submit a manuscript?

Perhaps I should start from the outset by stating that English is my mother tongue, and that I have spent many hours correcting the language of colleagues for whom it wasn’t. However, most of these hours were spent when I was a postgraduate student or postdoc. I no longer think that correcting English is my role either as an editor, reviewer or as a supervisor.

I did not study English, and would be the first to admit that my grasp of grammar and syntax is by no means perfect. I have read enough correct English to know when something is incorrect, but that doesn’t mean that I know how to correct it. I have spent many long hours trying to decode what others have written, and in some cases this has involved me re-writing entire manuscripts. I still do this as a co-author, although I do remember asking one colleague to please send any further drafts in their native Spanish as it would be easier to translate than it would be to re-write.

The time component is at the crux of my reasoning why, as an editor, reviewer and supervisor, I will not provide an English language service. It is both a time consuming and an unsatisfying experience. We all have our own voice (see blog here), and correcting while maintaining other people’s voices is a painstaking task. There’s an entire profession that specialises in this (think translator). These days there are also services available from publishers to non-English authors to help them correct their English.

In addition, there turns out to be research suggesting why peer review is not the best way to improve writing (Shashok 2008). Peer review works much better at screening technical content than it does at improving the communication of that content. 

Given that I’m not going to correct your English, what remarks would you expect me to make when reviewing a poorly written manuscript?

No matter how you might hope that it isn’t true, a poorly written manuscript will not get a good review. If your reviewer is struggling to understand what you have written, this becomes the overall impression that they will likely pass onto the handling editor. I try to separate my difficulties with English from my review of the science. But this isn’t always possible. Frequently, a poorly written manuscript will mean that I won’t be able to understand why the research was undertaken, what was done or what it means. This is bound to impact the review negatively.

The more I struggle to read, the more negative the review becomes. I see this as inevitable. What shocks me is that some senior researchers consider it to be their right to submit poorly written manuscripts and have reviewers or editors correct them (if you don’t believe me, see here). Worse, I’ve received manuscripts that are co-authored by people I know are native English speakers, but are full of glaring mistakes that appear never to have been checked. For me, this violates the terms that all authors have approved the final manuscript.

So what will I do to help?

Normally, I will highlight poorly written text. If there are just a handful of places, I will report these as minor corrections and there is unlikely to be any comment about English. If there are many (>15) you will probably get your manuscript back with these highlights. If there are more than 20 in the abstract (and I have seen worse), then I will give up even highlighting, but still carry on making an effort to read the manuscript. There have, however, been times when I’ve not been able to finish.

Being a native English speaker, am I above having people complain about my English?

Sadly, no. I do get it wrong, and my English can often be improved. I’m always happy to receive help, and see it as a sign of how I can improve clarity of a manuscript. However, I hope that my manuscript are never so poorly written that a reviewer or editor cannot make sense of them. So it is a matter of degrees.

Do you have to have a ‘native English speaker’ check your work?

No. There are many people who are not native English speakers who write far better than I do. It’s a ‘pet hate’ of mine that reviewers and editors insist that a manuscript must be corrected by a ‘native English speaker’. I’ve seen so many very poorly written essays, theses and manuscript written by native English speakers that I know that having one correct your manuscript is unlikely to be of much help, unless they themselves are good writers.

Being a ‘native English speaker’ doesn’t automatically qualify you to write well, edit well or do any of the things that non-English speaking editors think that it does.

That non-English speaking editors often comment that a ‘native English speaker’ should read my text, simply underlines the problem that many editors themselves are incapable of knowing whether or not something is well written. 

So if not a native English speaker, who should do it?

Anyone you know who writes good English and is willing to help you. One option is the service offered by AuthorAID: Using AuthorAID, you can find a long term mentor who will help you with your English. You can read more about this approach here (Freeman & Robbins 2006).

Failing that, I’m afraid that the best route will be to pay for help. 

  Lab  Writing