It’s okay to not be okay

Recently I’ve been struggling. And it’s okay. It’s so prevalent in the PhD life that people are so totally unsurprised to hear this. Even research colleagues and support staff are all feeling the pressure and it’s nice to commiserate.

But it is more than that- I’ve had a lot of problems with my mental health over the years. From depression to severe anxiety, I really thought I’d got it under control. These feelings never truly go away, they’re our bodies natural defence mechanisms and as such only become a problem when they go into overdrive. However, it seems I had never tackled the root cause of the problem, and with personal and general work pressure, the bad stuff started to show its face again.

This is not a sign of weakness- as much as my influenced and conditioned thoughts try to tell me it is! Inspired by young scientist’s diary’s brave post (reblogged in my last post), and my recent mental first aid training, I think it is necessary to share my experiences. There is too much glorification of overworking and not enough wellbeing focus in this sector. This needs to change.

I’ve been finding it hard to think straight, keep my priorities in line and get my work done effectively. The most important component in my project is me! And if I’m not working to my full potential, just like any other component, I need to understand why and fix it.

I’ve been taking time for myself- yoga and meditation, affirmations and positive thinking, and getting out with my friends more. This is working; my old negative patterns of thinking I am weak, knocking myself down every time something isn’t perfect, taking things personally when my project wasn’t going well- I am making changes and turning this around. Now I tell myself:

Done is better than perfect.

My best is good enough.

I really am doing great work.

Other people’s progress does not equate to your own.

My wellbeing is the most important thing.

It still is hard to not think I’m flaking out on my work. I love what I do but I cannot let it define me. I’m lucky in the support I have- but a few bits of advice from my recent experience:

  • Talk to others, friends, co-workers, staff support, mental health first aiders, mentors, supervisors. All of them are there to help you, in slightly different ways. You are part of a team and not a burden, people really do want to help.
  • Work in wiggle-room and plan in your wellbeing activities. Also plan for the worst- I have researched what support is in place for time off and extensions, just as a safety net. They don’t necessarily have to be used.
  • Don’t feel weak. Don’t feel alone. It is no different me going for counselling, as someone attending a course of physiotherapy. I know this- and getting towards fully feeling it- so I’m making myself post this, so others start to feel the same way.

I hope this post helps and anyone who wants to chat about this, I can be there to hear you.

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#4-Coming out: I am a quitter

So important to share experiences like this. amazing honesty ❤

Young Scientist Diary

I was once told I was brave for quitting my PhD studies. I did so after about 18 months of giving it all I had. At the time and for the previous 5 years, doing a PhD was all I had in mind,  but I refused to sacrifice my health. I could only make this difficult decision when I started thinking along the lines of:

“The quitter I want to be is someone who gets out when there’s no value to be added, or when that value comes at the expense of something more important.”

From <https://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/why-im-trying-to-become-a-quitter.html>

Following on my realisation on the above statement, I felt at peace and I never regretted my decision to quit. I moved countries to work as a Research Technician in a great team for over 3 years and when another PhD position came out, I applied. It was the right time, place…

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Busy busy…

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A very quick update:

It’s that awkward time for ecological scientists, when we are initiating our fieldwork, whilst frantically trying to finish off all the analysis and write up that we should have really  completed over the winter.  Ah well, the best laid plans of mice and men….

I am currently rushing through my paper resubmission;  trying to get a bearing on two other papers  I have in the pipeline;  designing some engagement activities; sorting through my samples from last summer (still 😦 );  making some trap parts;  and awaiting one last field to be drilled with oilseed rape, so I can start my summer sampling!

…So then I will be terribly busy again with fieldwork…  but I hope to update you all with exciting pictures at least 🙂

Seasonal cake thoughts

And now for my annual kneejerk reaction to festive marketing overload:

 Why is it that our society can’t get past the economic valuation of wellbeing? If a child has too many toys, other children are often jealous; but the majority of parents would feel concern about the child’s mental (and often physical) wellbeing in the long run. If it is generally accepted that money and possessions (after a basic level of subsistence) do not bring happiness, then why do we continue buying into the neoliberal dream of market based freedom? Are people that desperate for short term catharsis that it overrides the dissonance, or are we really sheep; to follow the herd to a perceived green pasture?

Habits are hard to change. I know this, it took excruciating pain of gastric illness to spark a change in my consumption patterns. But I really would think society is advanced enough to put forward some better systems; and the need really is escalating.

We’re not happy. The divide between rich and poor is growing. The planet can barely support us.

There is hope though. I feel we’re getting towards the turning point: the environmental movement is grinding the gears and starting to convince entrenched systems that ‘progress’ is not necessarily positive. You only have to cite the Green revolution; and closer to home, the influence of post war productivist agriculture on our countryside. The results are irrefutable (if you’re unfamiliar with these- google will bring you up to speed I’m sure; or if you fancy an impassioned hour-long lecture, feel free to query me).

Now sustainability is a buzzword. Though we have still yet to fully discern what it means, and how we can carry it out- whilst ensuring a sufficient, safe, and healthy diet for all. Just a shame so much time is wasted in meaningless bureaucracy, prevalent in ambiguous and inaccurate measures that guide and measure policy towards human wellbeing.

But the basis of this is still our beliefs. Whilesoever as we allow materialism to govern our lives, the cycle of insustainability and societal divides will continue. Change has to be bottom up. We should never forget that we do have influence over governance. Sadly, as it is recently seen in the influence of a misinformed few over a fearful majority (I like the E.U. ).

I think the key to this is reconnection, across the whole of society. Chiefly to me, the disconnect between consumers and food production; and the rift between agricultural science and application for sustainable food production are achievably reconcilable. If we can get people to see the impacts of their consumption; especially to local environments; they will likely change their patterns quickly. If we can get convincing and applicable findings tailored to on farm management decisions; farmers are likely to take them up with alacrity.

No-one wants to damage the environment. No-one wants to store up trouble for the future. They just need to know what, why, and how they can have an impact. This is what drives me to carry on with my work, in spite of the odds.

I think we can have our cake and eat it: so long as it’s part of a balanced diet.

sustainability-cake

this cake isn’t mine: but isn’t it amazing! see https://waiber.com/research-cake/sustainability-cake/

The best of times…

It’s that time of year again, when ordinary folks get together in misty eyed reminiscence- and introverted scientists escape the festivities to (finally) update their blogs…

office

This year really has been a rollercoaster ride. As my title suggests, I think it has actually been the best year of my life- but not as the phrase continues: the worst; rather the most challenging.

Moving south to pursue my PhD studies was one of the most scary things I’ve ever done. As a former agoraphobic, anxiety prone creature of habit, making a new life so far away was very difficult. But I’ve never felt so accepted as I do at Rothamsted. There are so many weird and wonderful individuals that I have so much in common with, and so many people who have travelled much, much further from home to reach their goals. The community here continues to comfort and inspire me.

My work has been hard too. This year has seen a cavalcade of setbacks to my project, a battle with the elements, continual adjustments to experimental design, steep learning curves in techniques, and associated health problems. I’ve managed to get one set of robust field data, and one paper submitted, with two more in the pipeline! All with more than a little help from my friends. It’s also been great to help out with other projects and initiatives in the institute, commiserate on fieldwork failure, and celebrate project successes.

The best thing about this year has been regaining a work-life balance. Admittedly I love my ‘work’; but in my MRes it was literally all I did, and I suffered because of it. This year I’ve had more time to diversify my work related interests. One of these that I find very important is science communication. I had a great time participating in Rothamsted’s Festival of Ideas- and my ‘tree of trade-offs’ concept was a big success. I also helped with the insect survey exhibit and did a flash talk about my work. I’ve participated in a teenager engagement event for LEAF (linking environment and farming) and helped with Soapbox science public engagement. I’ve already planned a large farmer engagement project (watch this space), and applied to present at Soapbox science 2019.

Otherwise I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being active in Rothamsted’s gym committee, improving my own fitness and helping others to do so (mostly with shiny, shiny new kit). I’ve had some time to indulge in my art again. And I’ve actually left the house to go out of an evening: events at Rothamsted’s ‘pav’ are great, with people who love dressing up as much as I do!

It’s been a hectic year, but in retrospect this has made my successes all the sweeter. With good friends and fun to balance the stress and uncertainty, it really has been the best of times.

Here’s hoping for a challenging yet fabulous 2019!

Also- couldn’t write a retrospective without honourable mention of a certain dark entomologist; without whom I would most certainly have expired this year- from heat exhaustion if nothing else. Thanks Mr.

“How should you be? You should be like a rocky promontory against which the restless surf continually pounds. It stands fast while the churning sea is lulled to sleep at its feet. I hear you say, ‘How unlucky that this should happen to me.’ But not at all. Perhaps say instead, ‘How lucky I am that I am not broken by what has happened and I’m not afraid of what is about to happen.’ For the same blow might have struck anyone, but not many who would have absorbed it without capitulation or complaint.”
Emperors Handbook, Marcus Aurelius.

 

Subterranean vs standard pitfalls: Run 1

 

Having learned some valuable lessons from the pilot run (see last post); and encouraged by initial data analysis showing potential differences between both trap type, and plot; I decided to start the first run of trapping with subterranean and standard pitfalls at Brooms barn.

LSRE

Unfortunately the grass was harvested just before my run, damaging and obscuring the traps in these plots; so for this first run we set out in just wheat and barley. Still, this comprised 14 of the 20 plots I will be using from the rotation experiment (see picture) and 42 traps of each type!

The weather conditions were still rather unfortunate, and combined with my long pole markers not being delivered (finding traps still time consuming), my gingerness under extreme high temperatures forced us to split the setting and collecting into two offset trap occasions.

The drought did provoke some interesting distinction in the trap types however: the standard pitfalls nearly all dried out, despite my entomologically expert assistant advocating extra water in in the trap fluid. This caused the traps to be filled with live specimens: particularly carrion beetles who were attracted to the rather ripe odours; an unanticipated pleasure for me, since they are so gorgeous!

This is a great comparison to the subterraneans that did not dry out, and had a pretty equal volume of coleopteran catch, including smaller and undamaged beetles, yet more general invertebrate catch (since live carabids predated). Whilst this run is obviously biased: I cannot know to what extent the subterranean nature of the trap affects the catch composition, against in-trap predation; it suggests a clear advantage of subterranean traps in drought conditions.

The time since the traps were collected on the 26th and 30th of July has been spent entirely counting beetles. So many beetles. Around 3,800 carabids. Identification has been a steep learning process, even given my past experience. I haven’t yet identified all the tiny ones, but I wanted initial data to present at an upcoming conference, hence the full on rush. A couple of tips:

  • 1) Don’t rely on just one guide. Alex Greenslade of the Rothamsted insect survey kindly pointed me to Duff, which I found much more accessible than Luff, and some great online guides including mike’s insect keys (https://sites.google.com/site/mikesinsectkeys/Home/keys-to-coleoptera/carabidae). I found going between these sources was much easier and cleared up subjectiveness in singular interpretation.
  • 2) Ask others. If you’ve been banging your head against a dichotomous key for hours, it’s easy to lose the plot. Chris Shortall and Dion Garrett, my entomological PhD colleagues, have been most benevolent in this regard.
  • 3) Utilise past data/ collections. Consulting species records for Brooms barn gave me a springboard on a couple of species, and Alice Mauchline, my Reading uni mentor kindly lent me her beautiful reference collection of carabids, caught in agri-environments.

Though I have just started data analysis, I am already seeing some stark differences in trap type (incorporating those weather biases of course) and crop. I have also found some larvae, despite an overall dearth of soil moving invertebrates!

With so many traps I hope to pick apart some nice nuances, especially since the experimental plots comprise till and no till treatments… The next run should elucidate and further the distinctions, especially with inclusion of soil core samples and grass plots.

But if you want to know more you’ll have to wait awhile; or come and chat to me at Ento 18! https://www.royensoc.co.uk/event/ento-18

 

 

Pitfall pitfalls

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I finally got to set my pilot pitfalls at Brooms barn the other week (see last post update with happy cartwheel), and, rather typically of any fieldwork, things didn’t go quite as expected…

Problem 1- Where did I put them again?

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I had decided to run 3 of each pitfalls (subterranean and standard) in one plot of each crop type. However, the first plot on the list was grass. As you can see it got a bit tired and decided to have a lie down. All over my traps.

They do have short markers (see this in barley) but we couldn’t find a single one.

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Lesson 1 = Bigger markers next time. We decided to just do the pilot on two plots: Barley and wheat.

 

Problem 2- Weather conditions

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Always a kicker with fieldwork. On this occasion it affected the settling of the traps, and the catch. The settling as you can see is not great, the soil should set in close to the wire, and inverts should be able to move naturally through the soil. With it being so dry, rain and soil biota hadn’t acted to settle in the traps well and some subterraneans had carabids trapped at the bottom in the hard soil. Poor guys, we couldn’t even get them out!

My objective is to test pitfall trapping efficacy on soil active carabids (adult and larvae, see past posts), so it is a worry that i won’t get much in these conditions. Indeed when we went out to collect the traps last week, the catch was so low (few arachnids, slugs and adult carabids) that we decided to leave them another week.

Lesson 2 = Extra soil filling in before first set. Soil moisture measuring to measure dryness as a factor on activity density.

Problem 3- Unintentional catch

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Anyone familiar with pitfall trapping will have a tale of mice in traps, but this shouldn’t have been a problem with the subterraneans, they have a lid so that surface active organisms don’t fall in. However this charismatic fellow was sheltering under the hat, at the side of the trap. Then when my lovely assistant lifted the lid, the poor guy was so shocked he jumped into the trap! We had to go away, leaving a ladder of wheat stems, and come back to set that trap last.

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The standard pitfalls were unset with lids on the cups. However, one lid was damaged, and we discovered a rather frantic community of starving carabids, with remains of the less ferocious denizens unlucky enough to fall in! This did actually present an opportunity for these unfortunate souls to be the stars of Rothamsted’s festival of ideas; gracing the ECN stand, and my flash talk. They are now happily living on a diet of ham, turkey, and banana in my office.

Lesson 3- Wire down the ST hats. Take care on setup, and check traps regularly.

 

For all the hiccups, it was great to get out there again, and I’m so excited to start getting some data of my own to work with… Watch this space 🙂