Do you have a funding family?

I sit here at the end of an incredible weekend. One of learning, new friendships, valuable connections, fantastic discussions, endless possibilities and, last, but certainly not least, a well-exercised brain! Those are just some of the many things that I am left with as another DAAD (German academic exchange service) scholarship holders meeting comes to an end. This weekend was the 6th of its kind; the In-country DAAD scholarship holders meeting, which took place in the lovely (and very picturesque, albeit cold!) wine capital of South Africa. Yes, we partook in a great deal of product quality checking, and I’d say we are leaving very satisfied! Every year at this time DAAD SA manages to pull off a smooth, well-executed and VERY German-like event. In other words, things work, they run, and boy do they run well! German-time is a thing people, and I think I may be in love with it….This is my 3rd time attending such an event and each time I leave more enlightened and grateful than the last. I have been fortunate to receive DAAD for both my MSc and PhD research, meaning I am a veteran at these events (AKA a fossil), but luckily they keep letting me back!

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Do not let the term scholarship fool you though. This is so much more than a very generous allowance of money to help you get by. You see, DAAD is a family, and while this may sound very cliché, it is not something you can fully appreciate until you have been to one of these events. DAAD actually cares. I think so often you have funding agencies that are quite happy to throw money at students. A kind of, give them things and lets hope-for-the-best kind of attitude! The DAAD does more than that. They are involved, and they make an actual, tangible difference in the development of those they fund. During today’s closing presentations we heard from one young women, funded by the organisation: She spoke of her experience as a scholarship holder and, having come from the rural Eastern Cape (one of the most poverty stricken regions in SA), how this opportunity improved hers, and the lives of ten of her family…think about that for a moment. This bright, talented lady supports ten family members as she fights to make a career for herself in her chosen field. I think that is quite extraordinary and I am sure there are many such stories.

I can only talk of my experience, though I am sure attendees will all attest, to being a truly special one. We all arrive here for the weekend excited, but unsure of what awaits us. Many of us are scientists after all, not well-known (in general, stereotypes are dangerous!) for our expert social skills. I for one am a very shy person, but during these weekends I cannot help but come out of my shell because I am surrounded by like-minded people. I am surrounded by people who want to learn, who want to make a difference in the world, and who I believe will do just that. You need only look at the things some of these people do! At times you might be left feeling overwhelmed, unsure if you even belong here amongst these incredible people, but everyone has their role to play. We all do what we can. One of the truly exceptional things these events allow you is the chance to network, and more than that form strong friendships with amazing people, that I look forward to seeing again soon! Somehow it is easy to do here. DAAD seems to choose a great group of people! I was surrounded by people from so many different branches of science and humanities and each is unique in their own special way. I can assure you, the conversations I was lucky enough to be a part of here were deep and profoundly wide-ranging. From politics to religion, sexuality, morality and even the situation in our country (and of course all the fun stuff in between). What makes these discussions special is that being from different backgrounds everyone has a unique point of view, BUT, we also share a common thread, the ability to debate…no one gets offended, we can talk openly, we can present our views and we can have our minds changed. This, to me, is glorious! I learnt so much, not just about science and being a postgrad, but about life. I get excited by discussions like these as I have never really experienced anything like it before. Not at this level. I think it is because the DAAD brings so many different people together. It is a special kind of interaction and one which I think really is priceless!

During the weekend we also partake in workshops, some of which are presentation skills (science slam style, do yourself a favour and google this!), scientific writing, the postgraduate experience and CV and interview skills. DAAD brings in accomplished facilitators for each of these aspects. One workshop in particular that I found exceptionally good was that of, “The Postgraduate experience”. First off, the individual who ran it, Dr Janet Viljoen is amazing! It might sound mundane but in the workshop we were challenged to think about things that do not necessarily come easy to oneself. What it means to be a postgraduate? What is the perception of ourselves versus how society sees us? (no, we are not the unemployed, time-wasting, scared-of-the-working-world individuals some of society would have you believe). It allows you to think about your choices for doing this, to reflect on the challenges you face, your strengths and also your weakness, and then make these work for you. You know all those things you think of daily, the “Why am I doing this”, the “I am not smart enough”, the “Everyone else copes better than me” mental scoldings you give yourself? Yes? Well guess what, everyone experiences these thoughts! The difference between people is how they deal with them and whether someone has told them it is OK to feel like this. I feel like DAAD gives you the tools to deal with this and many other of the challenges you face during your postgrad life. More than that, it gives you another group of people you can call on to help you through these times.

We were also treated to talks by some DAAD alumni funded over the last four decades. To see what these people have achieved is inspiring. To see what kind of people they are is even more so. I’d go so far as to say that I am sure the opportunity they were given to pursue their dreams is a big contributing factor.

Once you are in you are in. You are part of the DAAD family. And this is something that brings me great joy. I feel very privileged to be a part of something. I know the next few years of my PhD will only be improved by my association with the DAAD and the incredible SA team, scholarship holders, new friends, and important connections.

DAAD gives you the skills to be a better postgrad, a better academic, and a better person. I suggest that where ever you are in the world, you go out and find your own funding family. Preferably visit the DAAD office near you!

I guarantee it will enrich your life in ways you wouldn’t believe.

Perfectly imperfect

Life is seldom perfect…this is something that I have come to realise, often the hard way. You seem I am somewhat of a perfectionist — don’t get me wrong, this has its benefits but perfectionism (albeit in my eyes- so this could be horribly different to that of someone else who may scoff at my work) and productivity are bitter rivals. They rage against one another. This can be a problem. But I recently read the words below and it got me thinking…On a side note anyone interested in biology should read The signature of all things, by Gilbert—yes she is the very same Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote Eat, Pray, Love; which no, I have not read but if this book is anything to go by I am sure it must somewhat live up to the hype.

In the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, ” You must learn how to become a deeply disciplined half-ass . It starts by forgetting about perfect . We don’t have time for perfect. In any event , perfection is unachievable.It’s a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death.”

….I am in a critical stage of my PhD at the moment, the time during which my research proposal is scrutinised by supervisors and thesis committee alike—i.e., a fairly stressful time. I must also now mention that family issues have not made matters any easier but such is life and I am dealing with things as best I can. My way of dealing with things involves a whole lot of thinking, more thinking and thinking about thinking. Over the last few months I identified my problem as being one of agonising over the content of my work, so much so that I end up sabotaging myself because I continuously put myself in a situation where I procrastinate. Procrastination leads to time loss and then I am left with so much to do in a relatively short amount of time— that I inevitably fall short of what I set out to achieve anyways! Frustrating? YES!! Especially because I know what my problem is but I have not yet figured out how to solve it…..As is my MO, I went to trusty google to find a solution, or at the very least a starting point. My first port of call was the wonderfully written blog of Dr Inger Mewburn, who has, for the last 5 years, written a blog called “The Thesis Whisperer”. Seriously, any graduate student should have a squiz through here! There is bound to be something that catches your eye.  The first thing that caught my eye was her post on the “Top 5 PhD emotions”  and her 2nd point (quoted below) made me stop, YES, yes that is how I feel, “I’m not crazy?”. I often feel overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy,  convincing myself that I do not know enough to be successful in my chosen field (this can have its advantages IF you then read more of the literature), that I am out of my depth and that how can I possibly expect to do this PhD justice….apparently I am not alone. Which is a comfort! Thanks to this blog and to google I now know that I suffer from what is called, “Imposter Syndrome”. Not a real syndrome in the strict definition of the word, rather just a set of “symptoms”  describe a large subset of the graduate and academic student body.

2) Fear of being ‘found out’ as fraud, not really knowing enough/being smart enough to be Phd student (@orientalhotel)

Otherwise known as ‘the imposter syndrome’ (thanks @boredpostdoc) this is apparently common in PhD students. As well as possibly being related to self esteem and perfectionism, this emotion could be the by product of the nature of PhD study itself. As the old cliche goes: “The more you know, the more you know what you don’t know”.

The question now is on how to overcome this feeling, I found the following article really helpful (I am still attempting to put all of these tips into practice!); 21 ways to overcome Imposter syndrome.

So the moral of the story?…well at least the one that I have come to—stop trying to be perfect, or to do things “perfectly”. It does not exist and in most cases you simply end up wasting your time and often not writing that piece of work you wanted anyways (humph!). Perfection does not exist kids!, yip you read that right; some people may appear to be gods among mere mortals but even they are not perfect and do not produce perfect work. The important thing is to simply try your best, and yes, your best may not always be THE best, but as long as you work hard at you that is all you can expect. From now on I am going to do my best NOT to fall into the grips of that evil entity, procrastination because I feel inadequate. Also, I will do my best to just do me 🙂 Surely that must count for something, right?

Remember:

Imperfect, is sometimes perfectly perfect the way it is.

 

R- Why we all use it

R statistical computing software is something every grad student and scientist would have been exposed to or at the very least heard of. It has become so popular in the science world for two main reasons- 1) It is FREE, and 2) It can pretty much be used to run any conceivable analysis. Some love it, many hate it and many more still fear it…Once you get over the initial hurdle of coming to grips with the coding it is a fantastic program (as long as you are using it in combination with RStudio!). I recently wrote a very basic introductory guide for my lab and was encouraged to share it. So for anyone who is thinking about using it have a look at this guide- it might help make you a convert! Of course you will still experience those days of complete and utter frustration when I line of code will not run but fear not you are just a google search away from salvation! (seriously I have not yet come across a problem that was not solved by dredging through online help forums).

Also have a look here for other reasons to love R- Why do we love R so much?

BASIC INTRODUCTION TO R

A bigger, older version of earth!

NASA’s Kepler mission has just announced some exciting news! Yes, a new near-Earth-size (NES) planet has been described- it’s name Kepler-452b. What is special about this discovery is that it is the smallest NES planet described so far. Kepler-452b is orbiting the habitable zone of a sun (Kepler-452) much like our own, in terms of size (~10% larger diameter), brightness (~20% brighter) and temperature! The planet itself is about 60% times the size of Earth and has an orbit of 385 days around its sun. While NASA still needs to determine the composition of the planet, previous research suggests that there is a good chance that the planet is indeed rocky. Another interesting aspect- the newly discovered planet is older than earth at 6 billions years. That in itself is exciting as this has allowed ample time for the development of life, especially given that the conditions are so similar to what we have in our own system. Because Kepler-452b occurs in the habitable zone of its sun, this means that water has the potential to pool on the surface of the planet.

We will have to wait and see what we can learn from Earth’s older, bigger cousin as NASA continues to analyse the data!

You know nothing…Jon Snow and graduate school

Did you finish the title by ending with Jon Snow? Its ok, I forgive you and I am sympathetic to your plight! The series is hard not to get caught up in.

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When embarking on a new degree, in a new field or one which is fairly different to your existing background- this may (probably will if you are human) ignite feelings of inadequacy causing you to doubt yourself and your abilities. You may even go so far as to think, I know nothing…Which is of course not true, but tell that to your over-active, woe-me, the sky is falling brain! But do not despair, everyone goes through these feelings, unless you are blissfully ignorant or in denial or simply have an extraordinarily healthy ego.

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Co-evolution, the answer to world hunger?

9.5 BILLION- That is likely what the global population of humans will be by the year 2050. Is that not far away? Do I need to be concerned about this?

Well yes, you should be. As much as it would be convenient, there are unfortunately a finite supply of resources on planet earth and these are running out. Scientists warn that ecological systems are approaching critical thresholds or “tipping points” beyond which alterations to these systems due to human induced impacts will result in runaway, irreversible changes (1).

In 1964, Peter Raven and Paul Erhlich published a study which introduced the concept of coevolution (More information on coevolution) and now five decades later, with the science community taking a renewed interest in coevolution we see a return to butterflies and some fascinating work being done on understanding the mechanisms responsible for this phenomenon (2).

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The next 3 (and a bit) years….Going walkabout in the mountains

So, given that I have just started this blog, I feel it is only appropriate to introduce (briefly and as interestingly as possible) a basic overview of what my PhD over the next three years will entail-besides I have always loved the idea of science communication. So lets jump right in!

Are you familiar with the term coevolution? Many people have some idea of what it refers to and there is a basic definition which I will explain a little further on, but the interesting part is that despite having had a formal definition for decades we have relatively few examples of exactly how this coevolution between species drives diversification (i.e.increases the number of species). Well, I should rather say we have few convincing examples of co-evolutionary diversification occurring in nature. The fact is that coevolution makes perfect ecological sense- because for all the complexity that exists on planet earth organisms have never, and will never evolve or speciate (the development of a new species over time) in isolation. Much of the variety in species is a direct result of the complex interactions between species, i.e. coevolution. Where coevolution is defined as:

 “reciprocal evolutionary change among interacting species driven by natural selection” (1)

What this means is that when say, a pollinator visits a flower- Its picks up some of the pollen in the process of feeding which it then transports to another flower of the same species. It is obviously of benefit to the plant to have its pollen distributed and it achieves this by producing a sugary nectar or floral oil which attracts the pollinator and is then subsequently fed on by this animal. However, the plant also needs to maximise the number of pollinators it attracts (to be successful and survive) and it does this by developing mechanisms which limit the amount of nectar that can be consumed per visit of the pollinator. Some examples (as you will see later in this post) include the development of modified floral structures such as spurs which house the nectar in difficult to reach places. What then happens is that the pollinators must also undergo adaptations if possible (by the process of natural selection) to still gain access to their sugary reward. Examples include lengthened proboses (feeding mouthparts) and insect foreleg length.

Given that there are millions of species, surely the evolutionary trajectory of one species would have influenced another? and would then, as a result of natural selection improve the rate at which new species are formed in either or both of the interacting taxa. The short answer is yes. The difficulty then arises when you go about trying to test for this as there must be some sort of mechanism which can be used to determine coevolution between two taxa and indeed if these interactions increase the rate at which new species are formed This is where my research comes in.

My research

Creating a “family” tree or Phylogeny

Over the next three and a bit years I will get the opportunity to look at this question by undertaking a study of which the broad aim is, to investigate the ecological drivers of species diversification in Diascia (Twinspurs) species across the Drakensberg Alpine Centre (DAC-Figure 1) and the Cape floristic region (CFR) in South Africa. The Diascia or twinspurs get their name from the extraordinary twin spurs that extend from the base of each flower, creating something quite spectacular!

This work will luckily (YAY!) involve a fair amount of field work where I will have to go out and collect as many species from the genus as is possible (plus they are beautiful little flowers!, see Figure 3-5 below) and then sequence their DNA to create a phylogeny (Family tree of how the species are related and how they split). I do not want to go too much into the details but one of the very interesting components of this work will look at if life history strategy (i.e. perennial -has a life cycle of more than 2 years versus annual-complete life cycle in a year) played a role in how the genus historically dispersed across the landscape and how the different species came to be. In the DAC most Diascia seem to be perennial while in the cape they are annual species.

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