I work at a university, and have know idea what I am doing!

I meant to post this much earlier, but I just haven’t found the time. You see, I started a new job a few months ago– my first full-time academic position – and I been struggling to keep my head above water ever since.

The last year has been a whirlwind for me. Within a few months, I finished my PhD, moved back to South Africa from Belgium, spent two months of unemployment living in my childhood home before taking on the position I have now. Needless to say, I embarked on this new career path in a unprepared and frazzled state.

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What can Sudoku teach us about ecology and evolution?

Evolution is creeping into several different aspects of ecology. The latest buzz is all about integrating ecology and evolution. Perhaps you’ve heard of the  latest research trends in eco-evolutionary dynamics or community phylogenetics?

Theodosius Dobzhansky famously stated that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution“. This claim is undoubtedly true, but I’ve recently found myself wondering whether our obsession with evolution is actually clouding our ability to do good ecological research.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not implying that evolution is not important in explaining patterns in nature, nor am I suggesting that we should disregard evolutionary explanations for these patterns. Instead, I believe that in order to gain a deeper understanding of ecology, we should perhaps partially blind our views using “evolution blinkers”. In fact, I’d even be so bold as to claim that unless we blind ourselves to evolution, we will never be able to fully grasp the true nature of ecological processes. Unifying ecology and evolution might actual limit our ability to build ecology as a science.

Richard Feynman used a useful chess analogy to explain how physics works. I’ll borrow this style of argument to explain my stance on ecology and evolution. However, since chess is too complicated for my liking, I’ll use an even simpler game: Sudoku. Continue reading

Some motivation to get you through your PhD

If there is one thing I hate, it’s the stereotype that PhD students are pathetic, dependent, helpless creatures bogged down by self-doubt and self-pity. It annoys me even more that PhD students are responsible for perpetuating this myth. We laugh along with popular websites like Piled Higher and Deeper (a.k.a PhD comics) and What Should We Call Grad School, which regularly make jokes about the futility of grad school.

Sure, these sites are funny because there is an element of truth in them, but I believe that they cause more harm than good. Although they are well-meaning and try to foster a culture of solidarity among students, they are more likely to cause complacency than empowerment.

We don’t need another shoulder to cry on, we need a kick in the arse!

As I am nearing the end of my PhD experience, I thought I’d share a bit of motivational advice I found especially useful. It is the final chapter of Adam Ruben’s book, Surviving your stupid, stupid decision to go to grad school. Some of you may be familiar with Ruben’s writing, because he also writes a monthly column in Science Magazine, Experimental Error.

Here it is, enjoy.

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Camera trap critters: Part 2

I’ve just returned to South Africa, where I’ll spend the next few months adding the final touches to my PhD thesis. Of course, being back home means that I spend my free time playing with my camera trap. I thought I’d share two of my favourite videos from the last few nights.

The first is a very short clip of the small-spotted genet (Genetta genetta). I’m very pleased about spotting this beautiful carnivore because I regularly found the remains of laughing doves and helmeted guineafowl and always assumed that they were killed by feral cats. It’s always nice to spot natural predators.

The second clip is of a male Impala (Aepyceros melampus) scent-marking his territory.


Classical camera trap critter compilation

Two years ago, I treated myself with a Bushnell 8MP camera trap. I bought this bit of kit purely for my own amusement – without any scientific intentions – but even I can’t believe how much fun I’ve had using it during the last two summers spent at home in South Africa. Below is a little video showcasing some of the cool animals I’ve managed capture on film.

The are some things to consider: I only have one camera so I needed 6 weeks of trapping (over two summers) for this 2 minute compilation. Not that I am complaining; I loved crawling on my belly to set up the camera in a rocky cave. Furthermore, this was all filmed on our family farm – not a nature reserve – so  I am sorry to disappoint if you were expecting the big five (Try the BBC, perhaps David Attenborough can provide that?). Lastly, please excuse my amateurish efforts because I know very little about video editing and even less about classical music.

How many species can you identify?

A how-to guide to getting your paper published in Nature or Science (UPDATED)


As an aspiring ecologist, I am well aware that publishing a paper in Nature or Science would give my career an incredible kick-start. But, like so many others, I didn’t know how to get my name printed on the glossy pages of the two oldest and most prestigious weekly scientific journals. So I did what any good scientist would do – no, this time I didn’t check Wikipedia – I knuckled down and poured over the pages in these celebrated periodicals. I spent countless nights without sleep, trying to crack the code.

Just as I was about to give up, I saw a glimmer of hope: a golden thread linking the fortunate submissions to these two behemoths of academic excellence. I managed to reverse-engineer the path to success and I will be so generous to share my astounding findings with you. But before I do that, a word of warning: my how-to guide only applies to ecological studies. Physicists, physiologists and… um… uh… anyone else (I ran out of alliterative scientific sub-fields) will have to find their own strategies. Continue reading

Nah, mate, they just toss ’em into dog food!


I was in Australia earlier this year to help a colleague with a project he had started; but this post is not about that project. No, this post is about the time I crossed paths with a kangaroo hunter in the middle of nowhere.

We were busy with surveys one night when, like warning shots, a few raindrops started falling from the storm clouds that had gathered above us. Before Mother Nature brought out the heavy artillery, we shuffled down the mountainside and hurriedly set up a makeshift camp at the edge of an abandoned agricultural field. Fortunately for us, she was only bluffing and within an hour we were sitting under a clear sky making general chit-chat until our banter was broken by distant bang. We shrugged it off as the sound of faraway thunder echoing off the mountain side and only realised later that this was not the gentle rumbling of a passing storm; this time it was a real rifle shot. Continue reading