Animal Academia

There’s an interesting article in the Guardian criticising London Zoo for offering an unpaid job with an MSc as part of the requirements.

Unpaid work crops up repeatedly in academia, sometimes in terms of “pay your dues”, or “gaining valuable experience”. But I think it’s particularly prevalent in the animal sciences for a number of reasons, one of which being the huge number of people in the field, the cost of running animal projects, and the scarcity of available funding.

There are two other reasons I think unpaid work occurs so often in the animal sciences. First, there is a terrible assumption of class that pervades academia. Most of the ‘old guard’ have come from traditional animal-owning backgrounds. Their families can support them on unpaid volunteer work. If you need to bring money in to the house, then you cannot gain that experience. Whose CV is stronger? Well I remember scoffing when, late in my undergrad, a more privileged student had never written a CV before. And I remember how much more detailed hers was than mine.

And I worry that the feminisation of the animal sciences opens up the unpaid internship bias too. See Oschenfield 2014 and Constance 1996. As a field that is getting more attractive to women, but also has people saying that money is too tight to offer pay, we are going to see more and more of these unpaid jobs cropping up.

Would I say to one of my students “Don’t apply?” I’m not sure if I would. I did my own time, paid my own unpaid dues. They were immensely valuable to my career. No, I think this needs to be tackled from the top. Which is why I have an Athena Swan meeting tomorrow to prep for . . .

Augmented Reality Teaching


OK Glass

I got a chance to use Google glass today in brief interlude between filming a super secret (a new YouTube series, not a secret at all) project. It was amazing!

The digital education office had put some clinical skills videos on the Glass and I could immediately see the applicability of augmented reality in teaching. While practicing a technique, students would be able to immediately see the reference material.

I was also amazed at how unobtrusive Glass was, when a colleague appeared at the door I was able to focus on her immediately and completely forgot about watching my personal screen. The audio is delivered via bone conduction speakers making for clear sound that’s not disruptive to those around you.

Yes it’s definitely still early days. The headpiece got quite hot when I was wearing it and I imagine you would get a headache using it for extended periods of time, but no doubt in my mind this is how we’ll be teaching in five-ten years.

Also it’s so Star Trek I could cry for joy

A packed auditorium for Professor Cathy Dwyer at the Five Freedoms day at SRUC

The Five Freedoms at Fifty – Part Two

Here at SRUC we’re having our Animal Welfare Day celebrating the Five Freedoms at Fifty – a packed day full of talks, demonstrations and a panel discussion.

You can watch the talks on our live stream: here!

And you can come join the conversation on twitter using the #Freedoms50 hashtag.


When You Know Better than the Expert

John Bradshaw, a scientist at Bristol, wrote two fabulous books: Dog Sense and Cat Sense. They are some of the best popular science books I’ve ever read, and helped me to decide that the Animal Personality book could be a good pop science book. I cite Bradshaw a lot in this blog, if you take a look over the companion animal and cats tags you’ll see his name come up a lot.

So I was interested to see the Guardian’s regular “You Googled It So We Asked the Experts” column had been given to John Bradshaw to answer “Why Aren’t Cats Loyal?

You know from the number of Guardian links that appear on this blog that I enjoy a good Guardian article, but there is the phenomenon “Below The Line” where the Guardian commenters turn their rabid, foaming fingers to the columnist.

In this article I was near in stitches reading the likes of:

I thought that study was pretty superficial. My cat is more out going and more assured when I’m around. It may not be immediate like for a dog but they do miss us. At least mine does.

Superficial, this is why I have decided to go into great depth and talk about my one animal.

My cats have a range of facial expressions and have several vocal expressions to let you know what they want.

Which is why your cats have ten times the facial muscles everybody else’s have . . . oh, they don’t? Perhaps your ability to ‘understand’ them is part of this whole scientific question? Who knew.

The studies are a heap of crap I reckon, my cats are totally loyal more loyal than dogs I’d say without a doubt. With dogs its their nature, cats choose who they are loyal to, there is a big difference when comparing the two.

Science communciation, what a joy.

To all those who read the article and feel their cats were misrepresented, I urge you to pick up Cat Sense which is a sublime read and puts a huge amount of effort into communicating the science, because as another recent Guardian article points out, it is everybody’s responsibility to try and understand the science.

Science Outreach All Day, Erry Day

Hi all,

Check out this amazing blog about my good friend Lucy’s work in the Antarctic.

And if that’s not enough science for you, on the 2nd October I have wrangled some of our SRUC Animal Behaviour and Welfare scientists together to talk about the Five Freedoms at Fifty.

You can watch by signing up at the Google + Page here, or watching direct on YouTube.  If you want to submit a question, please feel free to do so by tweeting @SRUCResearch using the #Freedoms50 hashtag :)

You can read more about the event on the SRUC webpage.

About the Book

You will have noticed lately that the posting schedule has been a bit erratic. That’s partly because of work commitments, but also partly because I’ve been got some big news.

I am writing a book!

What? How? Why? Where?

Well after the MOOC and winning the Living Links competition, I was contacted by a publisher to ask if I would like to write or edit a book on animal personality. They, and I, felt there was a gap in the market for such a book. Was I up for it?

What a question to ask!

Surprisingly, it’s a question that does require some thought. Firstly: what kind of book do I want to write? A text book, a manual for personality studies, a review much like those I’ve already written? It didn’t take me long to realise that what I really wanted to write was a popular science book, something that anyone could pick up and better understand animal personality by the end of it.

I suggested this to the commissioning editor a little nervously. A fancy academic text is one thing, but would this be something marketable? Moreover, would anyone want to read something I’d written? So imagine my delight when the publishers responded enthusiastically. They were really interested in popular science books and liked the idea.

The funny thing I’ve learned about the book commissioning process is that after being approached to write a book, you then have to pitch your idea to the commissioning board. Because the topic was unusual, I also had to write a sample chapter to demonstrate that I could write about such a complex topic in an accessible manner. My proposal and sample were sent to reviewers, and I was left bursting with news I wanted to share here but didn’t want to jinx myself.

Well today I got the contracts through and it’s all going ahead. I’ve had some lovely reviews in about the proposal and sample chapter and felt really supported by my publishers (5M Books).

So what does this mean for Fluffy Sciences? Well much as I love and enjoy this blog, I simply won’t have time to update it while also writing a book on the side, so blog posts will become sporadic.

I hope that when the books comes out you’ll all be ready to enjoy it – because I am so excited about writing it!


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An “open” letter to the editor of the BMJ


Important thoughts on editorial responsibility, peer review, and the ethics of publication

Originally posted on Big Up the NHS:

Fiona Godlee


British Medical Journal


Dear Fiona

Imagine that you are about to board a long haul flight on a Sunday morning and you read in your copy of The Telegraph that the airline runs on a skeleton staff at the weekend and as a result your aeroplane is much more likely to crash.

Most people would cancel the trip, or rebook with a different carrier. The consequence for people with no option but to fly would be a very uncomfortable journey. The increase in stress and anxiety for nervous passengers could be very significant.

And the newspapers publishing this sort of allegation had better be confident that it is true. You can be sure the airline will use the full weight of the law to sue for reputational damage and loss of income if there is doubt about the veracity of the story.

Sadly emergency NHS patients…

View original 1,206 more words

Ethical Eating – The Climate

We’ve come to the last of my three considerations for ethical eating, eating with a climate conscious. Much as we have been discovering throughout this set of themed posts, there is no ‘easy’ answer to this. The climate is a complex system that is definitely heating up, but the best way to mitigate these changes is not so obvious.

It’s common to hear about two main challenges here: the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that come from our agriculture, and the GHG emissions that come from our food transport.

Agricultural GHGs

This has been a huge topic within agricultural science lately, and it never fails to make people giggle because it’s all about farts and burps, and as someone who has regularly been farted and burped on by cattle in my life, I’m aware of their abilities in this area. There’s a fairly old (2007!) article about this in the Guardian which I think lays out the issues well, and then almost the exact same article was run in 2010.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of United Nations, worldwide, the agricultural sector accounts for 18% of our global greenhouse gas emissions (FAO). This is unequally split between methane emissions (35% of global emissions), CO2 (only 9% of global emissions) and Nitrous Oxide (a whopping 65% of global emissions). Check out their comprehensive infographic here.

The methane comes mostly from the digestive process of our livestock (from 2001-2010 they emitted 40% of the agricultural GHGs) and this is what the Guardian articles were getting at when suggesting we should eat less animal products. This is not just meat, but dairy products are a big emitter here. (Seems like dairy just can’t catch a break, and seeing as it certainly makes me emit methane . . . well, less said about that the better I suppose).

There are attempts to mitigate livestock emissions, most often through changing their diet (Boadi, 2004; Beuchemin et al 2007; Several PhDs I know), as the fermentation process inside the gut which produces methane is heavily influenced by the microbiota in there too.

De Vries & De Boer (2009) reviewed the entire life cycle of various products and ranked the production of 1kg of each animal product in terms of their global warming potential. Their ranks end up being:

  • Beef, most global warming potential
  • Pork
  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Milk, least global warming potential

However, they are quick to point out the difficulty of comparing all these different life cycles. All the same it’s very convincing evidence that at the very least we need to be drastically reducing our meat consumption.

But what about other produce . . .

Food Miles

Weber & Matthews (2008) have an open access paper looking again at the life cycles of food, but they also investigated transport. Their abstract is really good from a science communication point of view, finishing with a succinct and relateable statement that even non-experts can understand:

Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

How can this be the case? Well as the paper details, transport is only a small part of the overall chain. Edward-Jones et al (2008) have a critical review of the ‘buy local’ ethos and point out that without taking into account the whole life cycle (for which information can be limited), you can’t comment on whether local grown is better (in GHG terms) than imported food. But can it really be better for my Braeburn apples to come from New Zealand than England? Gonzalez et al (2011) conducted a study in Sweden investigating this and the culprit is the amount of heat these non-seasonal and non-native products need to grow. Better to grow them in season in their native ranges and fly them over.

Eating Ethically

With all of these posts I think there’s a common theme, which isn’t going to surprise anyone. We need to eat less meat, waste less food, and buy from sustainable sources. The ethics of buying from the right communities is the part that I find the most difficult, but I also know I lack the food-based skills I need to waste less food.

So here are some resources to get me, and maybe you, started:

Have you got any others I should know about?