Travels with my grant

18 March 2016 - By: Sarah Blackford

Travels with my Grant

By Sarah Blackford

A summary of reports from the winners of the Company of Biologists early career scientist travel grants.

Broadening horizons is the theme of this round of travel reports, demonstrating that the trips we fund are so much more than just presenting research findings or learning about others’ work.

Natasha Phillips (Queen’s University, Belfast) used her funds to support her fieldwork season in Italy to determine the swimming costs of sunfish and to identify and quantify their diet. However, despite detailed catch records showing hundreds of sunfish caught each year, the 2015 summer season turned out to have the lowest numbers in living memory as Natasha explains: “During our field season (planned to coincide with peak sunfish bycatch), we encountered only one sunfish; however we successfully collected accelerometry data along with full measurements and tissue samples from this individual. Following this success, we have arranged data sharing with Japanese researchers of sunfish accelerometry data that has not been previously analysed, which will provide sufficient data for me to address one of my main objectives.”

Natasha with supervisor Dr Jonathan Houghton taking blood and mucus samples from a sunfish before attaching the harness and releasing it. Photo: Isabella D'Ambra

Over the summer Natasha collected a huge amount of data and is using twitter (@SunfishResearch) and blogging ( to disseminate her findings more widely: “Publicising such findings beyond scientific journals is an essential part of academia and I hope will benefit others. The charismatic nature of sunfish has attracted international broadcasters and during this field season we worked with Discovery Channel filming a mini-documentary on our work. This was a wonderful opportunity to engage with an international audience which we hope will be well received. At present, I have little experience of media engagement so this project can help me develop these core skills. I was also invited to discuss my research with a journalist and the resulting article was published in the local paper.”

Meanwhile, Fatima Abbas (King’s College London) used her funds to travel to Chicago to attend the Society for Neuroscience conference which, with around 30,000 delegates, is the largest of its kind in the world. “The conference provided me with the perfect opportunity to see current work in fields outside of my own, as well as allowing me to catch up on novel techniques and findings”, explains Fatima.  “I attended the wonderful Presidential Lecture by the inspirational Nobel prize winner, May-Britt Moser, as well as a plethora of enlightening career development events, including a networking session. My poster was met with great interest, and I managed to make several key contacts during the session, including several prospective employers”. Blogging and reporting from conferences is also becoming a more popular and mainstream activity and so an unexpected encounter with the editor of a large open access journal “who was especially interested in increasing the quality of blogging and online coverage of science” may also have opened up an unexpected opportunity for Fatima to improve her writing style: “The editor was particularly interested in recruiting early career scientists to blog on new papers and discoveries and I discussed potentially writing for the journal's blog”. 

Peter Falkingham, Liverpool John Moores University

And talking of digital technology, Peter Falkingham (Liverpool John Moores University) reported on a fascinating trip he made to the Geomuseum Faxe, Denmark, in order to digitise a collection of cast crocodile footprints. Previously collected by Dr Jesper Milán, Danish palaeontologist and curator of Geology at the museum, the tracks represent the most comprehensive dataset of extant crocodilian tracks, including traces from 12 species. Peter explains the aim of his research visit: “Because the tracks have been preserved as cement casts, many have begun deteriorating. The purpose of my trip was to digitise these casts using photogrammetry, producing a digital dataset that can be accessed and used by anybody, and preserving the data before the casts deteriorate too much. Having met Dr Jesper Milán briefly at conferences and worked on a paper or two together over the past few years via email, the chance to work closely with him over several days was great. Over the three days we were able to discuss aspects of footprint formation in great detail, and this was a highly enjoyable, fruitful experience”. 

It was Peter’s first trip to Denmark, as well as his first glimpse of the Geomuseum Faxe itself, which he describes as “a beautiful modern museum overlooking a very large, active limestone quarry”. Obviously being able to see close-up the fantastic resource that was the range of extant crocodilian tracks was a major highlight for him, but he also spent an afternoon looking for fossils (crabs, corals, and shells) in the limestone quarry”. His data is now freely available online:

Mauricio Urbina Foneron, University of Exeter

Mauricio Urbina Foneron (University of Exeter) used his financial support to participate in an advanced course, 'Marine evolution under climate change', organised by the University of Gothenburg and held in The Sven Lovén Centre for Marine Sciences, Kristineberg (Sweden) in December 2015. “This was an excellent opportunity to show our work and discuss its potential implications under the future predicted climate change scenarios”, reported Mauricio. “The course was also a great opportunity to interact with colleagues with different backgrounds, greatly enriching the discussion on climate change and evolution”. 

student ambassadors1
Student ambassadors pictured with John Kirkegaard (centre back), CSIRO

Finally we hear from Christina Clarke, who travelled from the University of Reading to the 9th ISRR symposium at CSIRO, Canberra, Australia as one of 24 student ambassadors. Led by Dr John Kirkegaard, the ambassador scheme involves the engagement of PhD students from around the world to help encourage and promote attendance from other research students and early career scientists. Christina reports on her experience: “I helped organise and create a networking handbook for student attendees to help boost their confidence and skills in networking during conferences and how best to present and discuss their work. We also had an organised trip to the CSIRO experimental farm Ginnindera, where researchers demonstrated how they sample roots in the field and take root cross sections in the lab”. 

During the week-long conference Christina was able to visit Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve to see some of Australia's native wildlife, such as kangaroos, wallabies, cockatoos and even a platypus. “The relaxed environment of the trip made it a good afternoon to get to know some of the other conference attendees and their own research areas while having a guided walk around the park”, she says. Another valuable aspect to the ambassador scheme was pairing up with a mentor, as Christina explains: “My mentor was Dr Greg Rebetzke, an experienced research geneticist who gave me invaluable advice on how best to statistically analyse my field data”. 

Summing up her report, Christina provides a nice conclusion: “[The trip] taught me a lot about my research area, allowed me to make contacts which will be very important in my future career and provided feedback that will improve my own research.”

Category: grants
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Sarah Blackford

Sarah Blackford is the head of education and public affairs at the SEB and the editor of the SEB magazine. As a qualified careers adviser and MBTI practitioner, Sarah provides career development and support for SEB members and the wider scientific community. Sarah is also an active member within SEB+, focusing on a number of initiatives aimed at improving gender equality and diversity in the science field.