Of dormice and birds

Researcher Prize winner Jan Engler is obsessed with birds. So why go to a conference about dormice using his Sparro currency? The answer: to better understand what climate change does to species’ distributions. We asked the German post-doc from the University of Ghent to tell us about the conncetion between dormice and birds, how to deal with negative feedback as a PhD student and why science needed a better work/life balance. Here are the answers in his own words.

Cute customer: a hazel dormouse

On choosing science as a career

I always wanted to learn about the world and nature, so very early on I decided to go into science and work with animals. My interest started with reptiles and amphibians and very quickly shifted to birds during my undergrad studies. I was very eager to learn more about how environmental factors like climate change or habitat loss affects bird distributions .

So many people are attracted to birds in general, doing bird-watching as a hobby. I also started like this, but [as a scientist I think birds are also] great messengers for flagging up environmental problems we have.

“Birds are great messengers for flagging up environmental problems we have.”

Staying in science and making a living out of it

First of all, I would like to stay in science, but these days it is complicated to find a career path that’s sustainable in the long run. Basically, the question is: how can you make a career so that you can stay in science?

One thing that makes it difficult is the shortage of research funding , especially in our field, where there’s not a lot of economic interest.

The other thing is that the training of many early career researchers starts very late.

And the third main reason is the bias we have in job opportunities.

Why is it hard to carry on researching in Germany?

In Germany (where I did my PhD and my studies), it’s very easy to find PhD positions, but it’s not so easy to find post-doc positions, because PhD students are cheaper than post-docs and they’re easier to get grant money for.

This results in a high number of PhD students, who at some point would like to stay in science, but it’s hard for them to find proper jobs. It’s like a very steep pyramid. There aren’t enough positions between PhD student and a professor for people to stay and do the research they‘re intersted in.

“But, I definitely want to stay in science. No matter what. And I’m optimistic about it”

Why my research field matters for biodiversity

I study the effect of environmental change on species distribution in order to understand what we can do to protect biodiversity by using bird and other species as model systems.

I think the main problem we have in Europe and other parts of the world is that we are just entering the sixth mass extinction phase of our experience, which means that we lose the abundance of species.

“We are entering the sixth mass extinction phase.”

This is mostly because of more intense land use, urbanisation and, to some degree, climate change. In addition, climate change also affects the distribution of species on a large scale, which are shifting northwards, losing areas in the south.

One simple step to save species

The solution could be so easy. It could be, simply, to stop logging rain forests and have more protected areas that are actually protected. That’s a very easy solution from the research perspective, but since politics and society are not working in this way, of course, we will face ever increasing human/wildlife conflict.

So, I’d say, we need to make a better job, as scientists, to reach out to society and to policy in order to come across with our message — about what we are actually losing.

“It’s not simply biodiversity, it’s the wealth on the planet. It’s not just the species we are losing, we lose quality of the planet, which is for our own wellbeing.”

Spreading science globally: the need to break down the language barrier

I am writing research summaries of research papers for a German-speaking ornithology magazine, which is run by the German Ornithological Society. The main purpose of this is to give members access to English language literature. We are talking about people, who are not all scientists, but also naturalists, people who are working in the field and have no access either to the literature or are not that proficient in English.

“I think it’s important to deal with this language barrier as people in the US, UK or Australia tend to forget about it when they are publishing English language literature.”

And people in non-English speaking countries may be a bit more hesitant to read this literature, because their English might not be as good. This causes a disruption of communicating research worldwide.

We got quite good feedback for translating and summarising English language papers over the years, people find this very helpful.

We focus on a lot of studies about conservation, for instance when there’s new work about the conflict between birds and wind power planning. There’s a lot of interest in Germany, actually, because of all the renewable energy transition.

On coping with the challenges of a PhD

For me, doing a PhD was a very easy decision because I wanted to stay in science and I needed to have a PhD for this (for instance, you need a PhD to be eligible to apply for grant money in Germany).

I didn’t have much problem, to be honest, doing the PhD. I already started, very early on, writing papers, developing learning skills to analyse data, which, I think is one major issue for many PhD students. So, I was already prepared when I started my PhD.

How to deal with negative comments during your PhD

Also, I had experience of having negative comments on submissions and learned how to deal with those.

If you do something more often you get more experience and you learn to embrace criticism and what a bad review basically is.

“At the beginning it hurts, but then, if you look at it from the outside, there’s a lot of things you can actually learn from and realise that criticism is nothing you need to fear and nothing that relates to a kind of failure. It’s something positive in the end.”

It’s not always phrased in a positive and motivating way. But this is the kind of mindset you have to develop. I had very good colleagues, peers and supervisors who were stimulating in this kind of thing, so if I found myself in the ‘dark valley of demotivation’, I had the right kind of people surrounding me, that kept me motivated.

They told me it wasn’t that bad, actually.

Going to a conference as a ‘rookie’

I used my Sparrho prize money to attend the 10th International Dormice Conference in Liège, Belgium in September 2017.

Dormice, are very small mammals, resembling mice, but not rodents.

So, why going to this event as a ‘bird person’? It’s because we’ve launched a project that concerns the hazel dormouse, which can act as a nest predator and we are studying its bionic interactions.

So, this was a very special case for me because it was a conference where I didn’t know anybody and where I was very curious to see how could enter an entirely new community.

This was very interesting and was a success, because it was a very small conference, also — only 70 participants — so it was like a family of people working with dormouse and was the odd one out, a rookie or a white raven.

I was the absolute beginner, here, and my intention was to get in contact with experts, to learn from experts, and to present our work in order to foster new collaborations.

“It worked our very well. I met some really interesting people who were interested in our project. I’m very happy about this, that we have people who are attracted to the science and are helping us with the field work.”

For instance, we have one professor who’s working with ticks and Lyme Disease transmission and who’s using the hazel dormouse and other dormouse species to study this transmission and how Lyme Disease is spread as a model species. And so, with our infrastructure we set it up. It’s a nice playground for her to get new data and this fosters, hopefully, a good collaboration in the future.

What can early career researchers get out of conferences?

Actually, I wrote a blog piece about it and summed it up in four points! So, here we go!

  1. Always present. Whether it’s only an outlet of what you are going to do, to get feedback on how to improve your research, always present, because people will recognize you and start talking with you. So if you’re just there and consume, basically, by attending only talks and not engaging with people there’s less opportunity to build up a nice network.
  2. Get out of your bubble, because that’s what I frequently see, especially in younger scientists, that you stay with the people you already know. And if you go on a conference for the first time, you’re always in your bubble of lab mates or your supervisor.
  3. Don’t go to all the presentations, because your energies are not limitless, and after the second or third day it becomes difficult to process all that information. What I do now is only go to the talks which are interesting for me and which are very useful for me and try to free up as much time as possible to talk to people. If you only focus on the environment but not on the people surrounding you then, basically, you lose a chance to connect with people.
  4. Go to your favourite conference. If you want to stay in research, pick out one or two conferences important to your field and go there every time if possible. This is because most benefits of a conference fully unfold when you show up more than once. People will remember you. So, if you want to be on their radar, show up regularly.

I’d like to achieve work-life balance as a scientist

I became a dad in mid-December. It’s an entirely new world, and what I would love to do is to have a sustainable work/life balance — to show my daughter all the beauty of the world, while still being able to do science the way I am doing it now.

I think it’s possible. I know professors, who have a very sustainable work/life balance.

“Funding organisations are getting more and more aware of it, that it’s not about the number of papers you publish or the impact factor you achieve, but that you’re also being a positive member of society. If you don’t need to worry about maintaining a healthy private life, you will get stronger as a researcher .”

Many funding organisations, already stipulate as conditions for applying for certain grants that you have kids. That’s valuable for women in science but also for males who want to become a dad.

I love my work — my research is my hobby

The good thing in my case is that my research is kind of my hobby as well. I love to go out and watching birds and study them for science. Recently, I was at the Belgian coast for seabird watching, which was fantastic. There was a record-breaking, incredible influx of sea birds, due to a storm. But, I don’t have, preferred locations. Basically, I like to do my birdwatching after conferences, and when there’s an international conference, I would use the opportunity to ‘bird’ at a new place in the world.

Jan attended the 10th International Dormice Conference in Liège, Belgium. Inspired, submit your application for the Sparrho Early Career Researcher Prize for the chance to get £500 conference travel funding.

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