Posts Tagged ‘PhD Thesis’

I’m normally not a big fan of citizen sciences. Because as trained scientists we strive so carefully to achieve the upmost rigour, I always have this irrational uneasiness when it comes to handling data that have been collected by thousands of uncontrolled volunteers, good-willing but sometimes scientifically unqualified. Citizen science is a great idea though. In a nutshell, it is the fact of using the network of citizen to gather simple raw data and send them to a centralizing team that will assemble it into a giga-dataset that we scientists, with our slow performing slaves, sorry students, cannot even dream of achieving on our own. That way, we can learn about the changes in arrival dates of migrating birds all over Europe, we can more quickly identify star clusters and exoplanets, or reconstruct past climates from thousands of log books of old ships.

So citizen sciences means science made from data collected by citizen. It is nice because it gives enormous datasets to scientists, but also a nice feedback to citizen: in general those implied are interested in birds, or stars, or ships, and are happy to be involved in projects and know the results on programmes in which they have contributed.

It’s a win-win situation, but I thought there could be more to gain for the citizen. This is why, in the days to come, our group – Biodiversity Dynamics – will present a new project in which citizen can do more than collect data and find out the results. Way more.

We have been awarded a grant from the Fondation BNP-Paribas to study the effects of climate change on invasive insects. If you want to know more about why insects could very well invade our regions in the near future and how this is going to be bugging, read this post. If you want to know more about which species are likely to invade where, and when, than this is for you: we will propose in this project to involve citizen in a way they have never been so far. Citizen will not collect the data here, they will instead play (some of) the scientist role: they will ask questions. That’s right. You will start by choosing (some of) the insect species that we will work on. We will propose a list of interesting cases and you will be able to select one from them. We will set up an interactive website to post our results such as distribution maps and graphs and you will also be able to ask for more (e.g., “would it be possible to model the potential distribution of invasive fire ants in England in 2050?”). If the requests are reasonable and within our reach, we will do it and post the results (with the explanations). If they are not, we will explain why (so that you can stop taking us for scientists from the TV shows and ask us irrealistic things).

There is a catch though. This “novel citizen science” project will exist only if we win the vote of the public, which will select one project over 6. I will post soon the vote links so that you can unleash the mad clicking-beast that hides in you and thus allow us to serve you better. For, always remember that, as scientists, our ultimate goal is serving Humanity.

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Of course Gibbs, every scientist is like me: an expert in all possible fields that will give you awesome results within the hour

I have been working for years on biological invasions. You know, the species that are put into regions in which they don’t belong and that just expend madly and outcompete everything, unchecked. A bit like Mcdonald’s in France. Because I’ve also started working on the impact of climate change on biodiversity, I’ve naturally wondered (like many) whether climate change would affect biological invasions.

My group – Biodiversity Dynamics – has produced already some awesome work on that. For example, see here, here or here. Or here and here. Or here. Ok, I stop. You see, they produce too much, I’m not the only one to say that.

Anyways, because climate change is likely to make winters milder and habitats climatically more suitable year-round for cold-blooded animals like insects, we have been wondering whether invasive insects would be able to invade other regions with climate change. There are many very nasty bugs out there.

For example, the Asian predatory wasp is an invasive hornet in Europe that butchers pollinating insects, especially bees, thereby affecting the production of many wild and cultivated plants. And we all remember what Einstein said about pollinators: « if bees were to disappear, humans will disappear within a few years » (we all remember that because it’s one of the few things he said that we understood). The highly invasive red imported fire ant is feared for its impacts on biodiversity, agriculture and cattle breeding, and the thousands of anaphylactic shocks inflicted to people by painful stings every year (with hundreds of deaths). Between the USA and Australia, over US$10 billion are spent yearly on the control of this insect alone. The tiger mosquitoes are vectors of pathogens that cause dengue fever, of the chikungunya virus and of about 30 other viruses. And I could go on.

Most of these nasty creatures are now unable to colonize northern regions of Europe or America, or southern regions of Australia, for example, because they cannot survive cold temperatures. But how will this change? Where and when which species will invade with rising temperatures? What will be the costs in terms of species loss? In terms of agricultural or forestry loss? In terms of diseases to cattle, domestic animals and humans? What will be the death toll if insects that are vectors of malaria can establish in new, highly populated areas?

All these questions, we’ve proposed to study them from a list of 20 of the worst invasive insect species worldwide. And we got selected (ie financed), so brace yourself, we are going to provide some answers. Soon. I just need to hire a couple of postdocs first to do all the work for me.

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I don’t care; I don’t like popcorn anyway

Yesterday was the first day of the fall quarter for about 35 000 students at UCLA. And I thought the campus was impressive before. It is now… intimidating, with all these new guys around. Looks like a Parisian metro with a crowd wearing flip-flops and sunglasses. Chatting with a student today, I realised that many of the first-year have no clue about the type of studies they want to do. If you are in this case, here, this post is for you.

I am sure pretty much anything is interesting to study, from arts to sports and history, to economics and to science. But studying is – unfortunately – not an end per se. You need to get knowledge to get a job. And you wouldn’t want to end up in a looser job like banker or lawyer. I mean, a job in which you realise at the end of your life that, although you’ve made big money allowing you to wear a Rolex (that will only impress other bankers and lawyers), the purpose and meaning is essentially artificial and inexistent. (wink to my few friends in these branches; for the others, well sue me!).

You could study art, sport, history or economics, but of course it is much less rewarding than science. And in science, let’s face it, you don’t want to become a friend of Sheldon Cooper, so you can rule out physics. All the other disciplines are obviously rather useless. What would you do with maths, now that there are calculators on Iphones? What would you do with chemistry, apart from  polluting our environment and our bodies? What would you do with medicine, apart from repairing the mistakes of the chemists? Nah, really, the only option that makes sense is the study of the functioning of our planet and of the beautiful, unfathomed depths of biodiversity: ecology.

Ok, perhaps I’m hinging a bit too much towards the ironic side, but if you think about it, it does kind of make sense. We need ecology more than ever. And not only because of the dire challenges that humanity faces in its damaged environment. Just because we still know too little about where we live. Let’s take Panthera leo, the lion. The king of animals. The iconic, charismatic species that is on every logo, blazon, story and cartoon all over the world. Do you know what we know about lions? Not much. We don’t even know how many lions there are on Earth! We know how many stars are in our galaxy, we know how many neurons are in our brains, we know how many consumers will buy any new product before they do. But the best specialists simply don’t have enough data to know how many lions there are. Needless to say we know little about all the other species, apart from a few. Hell, we don’t even know how many species there are on Earth! Not by an order of magnitude!

So, we really could use a hand (and a brain) there. Come do some ecology, String Theory can wait…

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As you have noted with bordering despair anguish, I have not posted anything here over August. This is simply because everyone told me not to ever stop posting, even for summer, in order to build an audience, and I generally don’t like being told what to do. Plus, I had nothing to say and was too busy seeping cocktails in the spa of my new residence.

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But I am not that cruel, and will now put an end to your misery with new, regular, posts. Yeah! So, let’s start by some news on the changes in our beloved Biodiversity Dynamics lab over the summer.

Several people have left our group. James and Ben, both invited professors are now back in their lab, trying to recover from their French experience. They looked sane enough when they left, so if something goes wrong after, it’s not us! Alok and Noelia finished their postdoc and are now, Noelia in Bordeaux, and Alok a bit further, in India. Carmen has not left (although she has left the group web page): having hired an Assistant Prof and an Engineer, and having a PhD student (Amélie) and a postdoc (Fernando) and several interns, she is now setting her own research group. Good luck for this new stage! Cleo has finished her PhD Thesis and is currently doing a postdoc in Australia. Céline has finished her PhD Thesis too and is due for a postdoc in London, but remains in the lab until that postdoc starts. Boris has found an Assistant Professor position in Paris (at the MNHN) and Camille has been selected for a civil service to the sub-Antarctic island research stations: huge congratulations to all four for these major achievements!

We’ll miss them all!

Now, the lab won’t remain empty and new comers are joining the surviving crew to keep it as we like it: strong and warm, like coffee, and vibrant like… well, something that vibrates. After a Master in our group, Pauline and Irene are starting a PhD Thesis here, both with Elsa, while we welcome Olivier as a new postdoc with us.

I’ll miss them all too!

Yes, because I forgot to mention, I have deserted the lab for one year, starting a sabbatical year at the University of California Los Angeles. But I’ll stay connected, and visit them regularly, hopefully, when I miss too much camembert and strikes.

Last bit of news: I got lucky and received two major grants. Meaning that we are going to hire several postdocs quite soon. So stay tuned!

Among the specificities that make academic research a really special world, one stands out as an amazing achievement: the peer review process. Scientific results exist from the moment they are published and available to the scientific community. So we need to publish, but we need to publish good, verified science and for that, we have developed a system whereby each scientific study must go through a thorough check by independent experts in the field before it can be deemed worthy of publication.

For the reviewer, it means taking time on your already very busy schedule, to provide constructive comments on the work of someone who is likely a competitor, who may even be doing something you didn’t think of, or on which you are currently working.So picture this: you are going to help this competitor publish – because this really should be the ultimate goal of a reviewer – either by accepting the manuscript for publication, and/or by making suggestions for improvement. You will do so on you own time, meaning at the expend of your own work and your student’s progress. You will do it for free. And your altruism and professional conscience will not even be rewarded by gratitude, because you will likely do it anonymously.

So, are we scientists utterly stupid? How can such a system really work in this world? Could you picture Ford sending (anonymously and for free) constructive comments on how to improve the latest prototype of Toyota? Yes, it works for us, and pretty well with that, thank you very much. Of course, there are glitches, with the occasional sloppiness, unfairness or other form of unprofessional behaviour. But globally these are exceptions and this system is really something I am proud to be part of.

There are many reasons why reviewing papers is good not only for the community but also for the reviewer, if only to hone skills of critical thinking. But here I want to insist on the necessity to participate to the system. Indeed, for this system to work, we need reviewers and these are increasingly difficult to find, especially with the rise of publication numbers. Each paper is reviewed by two to three experts, obviously more if it is rejected and submitted elsewhere. So do the maths.

I’ll do a post later on how I consider one should approach and conduct a manuscript review, but for now the message is this: for the system to function, everyone must play along and review at least as many times as he/she has been reviewed. If you count on average four reviews per publication, you can easily check if you are giving to the community, or profiting from it.

Chances are you should review more papers than you currently do! Or, you could also decline the next review request and instead send my post to 100 people, hoping that one of them will be convinced and do more reviews. That will probably even the balance…

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If you have been following my blog – or if you know me IRL – you know that I am a bit provocative at times, and you are probably cynically rubbing your hands at the title of this post. Tsss. This is serious.

So, we’ve seen already how students should choose their research topic (here) and how they should select their supervisor (here). Fortunately, we supervisors also have a say in the matter. In fact, many of us receive loads of applications, and we have to make a selection. So, what are the criteria of this selection? Or rather, what should they be? I mean, apart from the check in the envelope.

Someone made a retrospective study about this, looking at criteria that matched best the less and most achieving students (here). Her finding, quite unsurprisingly, is that previous research experience is the largest discriminator. Not the university grades. Nor the university of origin. The previous experience. Successful, or course: recommendation letters from previous supervisors are one of the most important items in your application file.

This shows that having done some research internships, preferably several, in several places (abroad is even better), is a big plus. Or in this era of ultra-competitiveness, not having done several might be a big deterrent. Also, it is noteworthy that in the European system at least, but it is true elsewhere as well, supervisors tend to take their own Master students into PhDs, both because they know them (and know they get along, that’s important – see here – and how well they work) and because the student has advanced on the project. But then the students were often selected for the Master because they had an earlier research experience.

So it is very clear: if you think you want to do some research later on, stack as much research experience as you can, from early on. If you don’t know, doing an internship in a lab will help you know.

Ultimately, everyone has his/her own system for selecting Master and PhD students. Some rely overly on grades (probably unwisely), some solely on previous experience at earlier levels and some mostly on gut feeling. The Chair of the Anatomy Department of Cambridge once told me that he had, for years, recorded the speed at which graduate students walked in the corridors of the lab, and that it was highly correlated with scientific production. I believe him. Obviously, each one of us has honed a personal method of appreciation over the years, but it seems safe to say that to get that Master/PhD it is easier if this is not your first research experience. And if you don’t come in dragging your feet.

 

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Personnaly, I use the very effective selection method of paper plane throwing

Students of today… not only students, the young in general! Pfff… when I was young…

Take these two quotes, by famous people:

What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?

&

I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.”

This seems very fitting to our times, right? The first quote is attributed to Plato, 4th century BC, while the second is attributed to Hesiod, 8th century B.C. There are similar quotes dating from a papyrus of pharaonic Egypt of 3000 BC, or on a Babylonian clay tablet even older. If this shows a thing, it’s that “mature” generations always tend to see the replacing ones as worst than their own.

I cannot recall the number of times I’ve heard that students now were really bad at this or that, and that the general level of knowledge and competence had really decreased a lot. That in our generation students were stronger in science, more dedicated, more autonomous, working harder, …

The truth is, previous generations of students have probably never known the current level of competitiveness and difficulty to get an academic position. As a result, most students now know very early on a lot on stats, how to program in R, how to write papers, how to present their results orally or analyse and criticise a scientific paper.

I’ve supervised perhaps over 75 students by now and few were bad. In fact, most were better skilled and more knowledgeable than I was at the same study level. My seven PhD students were all brilliant, and some were even stunningly bright and competent. I wouldn’t want to compete now for a job with this generation. Very few of us would.

This is a very nice thought: the science of tomorrow will be in good hands.

Especially with our generation as mentors (because without our wisdom, these little ungrateful pricks would do nothing good).

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