I’ve debated over the two days since I got back from this amazing experience how best to blog about it. The reality is that we did, saw, and learned so much and it was SO wonderful that it would likely turn this post into something so long no-one would read it [edit, believe me, as long as this post is it could have been much longer]! As a result, I’m specifically aiming this post at two demographics: people who went themselves and might want to reminisce, and people who might consider applying to go next year. This will be both picture and text heavy, however, no matter how much I try to condense it!
[The TL:DR version of this is basically: IT WAS AMAZING, IF YOU GET THE CHANCE, YOU SHOULD DO IT!]
Note: To check out what everyone else thought of the summer school, find #BESUG19 on Twitter and Instagram!
What is the BES undergraduate summer school?
The BES undergraduate summer school is an annual week-long event that takes place in July, organised and run by the British Ecological Society. There are two I am aware of: one is for 16-18 year olds completing their A-levels and considering university, the other is for undergraduate students in their first or second year of a degree of a broad ecological/biological nature.
The event is held in a new location each year, this year it was held at the Field Studies Council’s Millport Centre on the Scottish island of Great Cumbrae. It is free, aside from travel to and from the centre, although eligible students can apply for financial assistance from the BES to help cover travel costs. Places, however, are limited to 50 applicants. You don’t have to be a member of the society to apply or attend, but I highly recommend joining anyway, the first year of a student membership is free.
Is it worth it?
YES, YES, and SO MUCH YES. Obviously you’ll only get out of it what you put in, the more you participate the more you will gain from it! Read on to see all we did and all the benefits of attending, obviously the program will change from one year to the next, but this should give you a feel for what the summer school is like and what you can get from it.
In the run up to the summer school, we had been put into small groups and allocated a mentor. Mentors are PhD students who helped run the summer school and provided a wealth of advice and information throughout the week. Our group set up a chat on Facebook so we could all get to know each other and co-ordinate meeting up on our way to the centre. Unfortunately, I arrived hours before the rest of my group, so I didn’t have the opportunity to meet them first, but the Facebook chat was a great way to get to know them a little first.
Packing was a nightmare; we were given a helpful kit list but there was so much I wanted to take that I simply didn’t have room for, I had to get quite picky!
As per the kit list, I took two field guides (Wildflowers of Britain and Ireland and the Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland, both of which I used extensively) and while I also took my Kindle for night-time entertainment, in hindsight it may have been better (in terms of space saving) if I had downloaded the Kindle editions of the field guides because I could have taken more books. I also took several FSC field guides, but actually found I didn’t use them as often as I thought I might, although I did use some of the centre’s FSC field guides that I don’t have.
I took my bat detector, which did come in handy despite the limitations of the model I have, though they had ones there available to borrow. I really wish I had taken my trail camera. I need to get some smaller binoculars, because while they’re good and powerful enough, they’re heavy and bulky. I didn’t take my camera, deciding to rely on my phone camera instead, and even though my phone camera is reasonably good it would have been nice to get some better photographs and practice photography in general. I didn’t take wellies, but these could be hired from the FSC centre at a low price.
Other useful things were two pairs of hard wearing water resistant trousers, they’re not waterproof but they are splash proof and even when they do get soaking wet they dry within minutes. They’re lightweight, super stretchy, warm in cold weather and cool in warm, have decent pockets and can withstand bramble thorns (though not nettle stings!). They’re long enough on me to tuck into socks to help prevent ticks (though I still found one on my back on the first day!). I’m not getting a commission for this by the way, but I really do love these trousers very much! I also took a lightweight waterproof jacket and this was very much required for the week, as were additional sample pots, a hand lens, some plastic collection bags for plants (I like soup freezer bags because they’re heavy duty, sealable, and can be washed and re-used rather than create more plastic waste) and some good quality gardening gloves (that meant I could collect thistle samples in the field pain free).
I packed everything in a backpacking style backpack as I thought it would be more practical, and the theory was sound; however, it was old and the straps broke the second I collected it at Glasgow airport, which made lugging it around… interesting.
You might have noticed I mentioned Glasgow airport and correctly surmised that I flew (Bristol to Glasgow). I understand that this does somewhat fly in the face of climate change activism, but it reduced my travel time by two thirds and travel costs by half. I justify this by saying that I can count how many times I have flown commercially (i.e. not including two sky dives) on one hand, including travelling to and from the BES summer school, and still have change and none of these were long haul flights. This was the first time I had ever flown solo, and in the run up I was really nervous about going alone! It all went without a hitch though, and while I’m certainly no pro at flying now, if anyone else is feeling nervous about flying or flying solo, I’m happy to chat with you about it.
I got up at 3.30 am, to get to the airport for 5 am for my flight at 7 am. On arrival to Glasgow I walked to Paisley Gilmour Street train station and caught a train to Largs. I was delighted when I reached Largs and saw the viking display, I was listening to Danheim at the time, a Nordic/Viking folk music-style band.
I got to Largs quite early, so I popped to Wetherspoons for a cheap and cheerful yet satisfying “Scottish Breakfast” and a pint of cider, then had a walk along the seafront before getting the ferry to Great Cumbrae. Back home in Bristol in the weeks previously it had been hot and sunny, but it was definitely grey here, though warm and humid still.
When I got into Great Cumbrae I popped my rucksack down for a breather while I debated whether I should take the hour-long walk to the FSC centre or wait for the next bus. As I waited I was approached by two people, Gabriel and Helen, who asked if I was there for the BES summer school. They were also students who were attending, and so the three of us opted to walk in. I’m so glad we did walk in, it gave us a chance to chat and get to know each other which meant by the time we arrived we each had a friendly face to turn to throughout the week having bonded over the walk, but also we saw many lovely things that we simply would have missed if we had caught the bus! We all had different interests, which made the walk much more fun as it meant we pointed out things to each other that we might have otherwise walked past.
The room I stayed in was lovely; it had a beautiful view across the Clyde, and was roomy and clean. I was sharing a room with Thalia, and even though we didn’t spend much time together outside of the room I couldn’t have asked for a better room mate. The only thing that might have improved the room itself would have been the means to make a coffee, but it was relatively easy to go across the centre to make a coffee whenever I pleased. The food throughout the week was great and plentiful too, though the dining room was very crowded, which was a little off-putting even if it couldn’t be helped.
It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t know anyone else there, beyond those in my group I had chatted with online, and Gabriel and Helen from the walk in, and so I was feeling very nervous! Everyone was very welcoming and nice, however, and I think many of us were in the same boat.
The opening plenary with Natalie Pilakouta, from the University of Glasgow, was interesting as she discussed her research in bi-parental care of the burying beetle, and gave me some great ideas, e.g., asking at UWE if there are any PhD students who might need some help with any research projects so I can get more experience in the lab and with research. We then had the opportunity to meet properly with our mentor, Fiona, and the rest of our mentor group, before playing a spot of ‘bingo’ as an ice breaker. This involved meeting everyone back in the conference room and trying to find people who fit the bingo grid and writing their name down; for example, someone who: had a piercing, had a cat, had a dog, played a musical instrument, etc. It was a little awkward at first, but admitedly was a good way to get us chatting with each other!
The day the rain started! And it RAINED and rained for the rest of most of the week! It didn’t stop us from going on a 6.30am nature walk though! No fair-weather ecology for us!
After breakfast we had the marine session with Ashley Le Vin from the University of Glasgow. We participated in an investigation into parasitic platyhelminths and their effect on foot colour in common periwinkles. We investigated periwinkles from two sites: Fairlie and Great Cumbrae, Ashley having collected the periwinkles from Fairlie a few days prior and frozen them. The investigation suggested that there was no link between foot colour and likelihood of parasitisation, but as none of the Fairlie periwinkles appeared to be parastitised this indicated that in all probability something must have gone wrong with being frozen for so long prior, although Ashley said we still should have seen something. Either way, it was really interesting and fun to do, and Ashley was brilliant: just the right amount of humour to make it memorable and enjoyable but at the same time maintaining the professional and educational element. She also ran a photography competition, and I somehow miraculously won some chocolate for one of my submissions!
The entomology session was, unsurprisingly, the session I was looking forward to the most! It was led by Simon Leather, an entomologist who works at Harper Adams University, and I now have a new hero to look up to. I checked his blog out (linked above) and the first thing that struck me is this: “I am an applied entomologist, but by that I don’t mean someone who can identify a huge number of species. I am not a taxonomist. Rather, I am a competent field entomologist who can recognise most insects to Order, some Orders to Family and within some families I am able to recognise individual species, especially if they are of economic importance.” That is perfect! That’s what I want to be like! It’s been rolling around my brain ever since, like an everlasting gobstopper.
I was so engrossed in this session that I only took one photograph! He introduced us to his term “entomyopia” by which he means that most people seem to be blind to invertebrates and their importance, and this is definitely a term I am going to shamelessly steal. We had a walk around the site to find some invertebrates to ID, using things like sweep nets and a huge hoover-type contraption used to vacuum up invertebrates from the ground without disturbing plants or soil. I stuck to my tried-and-tested method of “turn a rock or bit of wood over” and found an interesting beetle to ID. Perhaps this was a bit of a cheat because I knew what it was the moment I saw it, but it was the first I’d ever found, so I got excited. Despite knowing what it was, I used a key to ID it because I wanted to refresh my use of keys for identification. Low and behold! It was a gorgeous Phosphuga atrata (black snail beetle). As I had some time afterwards, I used another key to identify a wasp I found on the windowsill (Vespula vulgaris) and then chatted with Simon and Fran Sconce (who also led the session) about entomology in general and labelling pinned specimens, so now I really have no excuse to get on and label my own pinned specimens!
Glow in the Dark Invertebrates:
After dinner I was thoroughly wiped out, so unfortunately I missed out on Andrea Baier’s Guide to publishing while I took a quick nap; however, I did make it to Simon and Fran’s exciting evening “Glow in the Dark Invertebrates” session. This was not about glow worms, as I had expected (and later saw on the island), but was about the use of harmless UV powder paint to track the movements of invertebrates, it was a lot of fun! Fran also discussed moth trap types, and set out the traps to see if any moths braved the rain ready for the moth ID session the following morning.
With the rain I wrongly assumed that the bat walk was postponed; however, it had not been and I missed it. As a result, I took my bat detector out myself and managed to get a Pipistrellus sp. with it.
Another early 6.30 am start with the moth ID session. Many amazing moths braved the rain, and I was especially happy to see that there was a poplar hawk-moth and a swallow-tailed among them.
Kylie the Dolphin:
Thalia and I were also very excited that morning to find that we could see Kylie, the resident dolphin, from our room! Kylie is a short-beaked common dolphin and she is unusual in that she shouldn’t be on her own! They ususally live in pods of family groups and rarely so close to land. The FSC centre think she was either orphaned or got lost; however, she has provided opportunity for some great research, especially as she seems to have befriended the local porpoises!
After breakfast we attended the mammal session with Phil Stephens and Sammy Mason. We discussed why we monitor mammals, why we monitor biodiversity, and how to monitor for mammals, with a particular focus on the use of trail cameras. In small groups we each set up a trail camera around the centre, with the hope of spotting an elusive otter with overnight recordings. We didn’t spot an otter, but we did get a hedgehog, rabbit, cat, rat, and a lot of birds! All the footage will be uploaded here: https://www.mammalweb.org/
A Walk to Millport:
While I waited for my group’s afternoon marine mammal and bird surveying boat trip, I took a long walk into Millport for a look around the town and a poke in rock pools.
The Robertson Museum and Aquarium:
I also paid the aquarium at the FSC centre a visit:
Marine Mammal and Marine Bird Surveying, and Trawling:
Finally! The boat session! Previous groups had also done some trawling, so we got to have a good look at what they had found.
Out on the boat we were shown how to survey for and record marine mammals and marine birds. We were lucky to see some harbour seals and some young pups! It was a first for me, so I was obviously in love. There are two species of seal living here, but we only saw harbour seals on this occasion. Unfortunately, my phone found it hard to zoom in and focus while on a boat that was bobbing around, but hopefully you get the idea! I really wish I could have got a good photograph of a live lion mane jellyfish, because with all their tentacles out and being so huge they look stunning! (pun not intended aha)
On the way back to the pier, we were treated to a visit from Kylie!
Once again, the day’s activity (and the approx. 30,000 steps I had taken that day!) wiped me out, and though I really did try to attend the Pie and a Pint Policy session and quiz night, I was falling asleep in my chair within half an hour, so I went back to my room for an early night.
Still exhausted from the day before, I sadly missed out on pond dipping that morning, which is a shame as other students reported it to have been great fun! I did, however, really need that sleep and felt much better the following morning. We started with Botany, with Michael Philip, who taught us about county recorders and how to use grid references when recording. He showed us how to use the recording sheet and also ran through some great tips on plant identification, some of which are important and very helpful, so I will list them below:
- Wherever possible: take the [ID] book to the plant, not the plant to the book.
- Do not rely on websites/pictures for identification as sometimes for a positive ID you need to note the smell, hair, and stem shape, and there are many plants that cannot be ID’d from a photograph.
- If you cannot ID a plant, there are people who might be happy to ID a plant for you if you were to send them a specimen, or you can take an expert to the plant, or even return in a different point of the season when the plant may have flowered etc and be easier to ID.
- If removing specimens, this should be a last resort as some, for example, orchids, are protected species by law, and never ever uproot the plant!
I also learned that meadowsweet stems, when rubbed, smell like Germolene, and after posting such on Twitter I was given loads more facts and information about this sort of thing! Brilliant!
Botany, while interesting, isn’t normally my thing beyond “what eats this?” or “can I eat this?”; however, I really enjoyed this session a lot and fully intend to get out with my field guide more often purely to look at plants as a result, it’ll be an extremely useful skill if I can improve it.
Research Projects and Beyond: A Survival Guide
This session was held by some of the mentors and I found it to be invaluable. They gave us tips on keeping field notebooks, note taking in lectures, using R and other statistical programs, how to select a research project, how to get the best out of peer-reviewed papers and journal articles, how to write CVs and cover letters, how to make the most of social media and LinkedIn, what to do if you are rejected for a job or in a degree application, conferences, science communication, volunteering, and possible routes in academia. Of all the sessions we had this week, this is the one I took the most notes in – we somehow managed to cover a lot in a very short space of time and honestly (sorry UWE), I got more advice and information from this hour and a half session than I have had from my entire first year of my undergraduate degree.
The afternoon session of Ecological Consultancy with Hannah Williams and Aaron Middleton was also fantastic, especially as this is the field of employment I am obviously most interested in. They covered the staff structure of an ecological consultancy and their own routes into the career. We discussed preliminary ecological appraisals (PEA) and preliminary roost assessments (PRA) and again, I took many pages of notes! We then split into two groups, one group learned about phase 1 habitat surveys while the other conducted a PEA of the FSC Millport buildings. I chose to be in the PEA group, and it was extremely enjoayble and I have no regrets about being in this group, though I would have liked the opportunity to do both. In the following expert session, Hannah walked us through an ecological survey report and mitigation, Aaron through various methods for recording and analysing bat echolocation, including giving us names of various helpful books and other resources, and they both discussed ways to improve CVs and courses we can do alongside our degree to help us get into the ecological consultancy career.
After dinner was a speed networking session with the various BES staff and mentors. I was dubious about attending at first because I was feeling very ‘peopled out’ by this point of the day, and a bit tired; however, once I got into the swing of it I woke up and really enjoyed it! It was a great opportunity to hear more about each of the staff/mentors’ experiences in academia, volunteering and employment and ask questions of them. It was mostly helpful as a chance to chat to some of the people I’d not spoken to much by that point, and refresh what they had told us about themselves on the first night. Hopefully I will be emailing a couple of them my CV in the coming days to get some feedback on that, and I had some great insight into attending conferences and the benefits of doing so. This was follwed by the mentor drop in, which I did skip out on to have a brief break before the social drink in the bar. I ended the night by standing by the pond getting eaten alive by midges with Chris, Leonora and Thalia with bat detectors listening for bats, and were gifted with at least two different species of bat!
(Final Day) Day Five:
THE SUN FINALLY MADE AN APPEARANCE! I packed the night before, giving me the chance to have a final walk before the last sessions and home time.
The first session of the morning was an interactive talk by Joe Burton from the Linnean Society, he’s a funny man and you can absolutely see why he works in public engagement! He talked to us about the Linnean Society and the work they do, and we participated in some of his activites, including this scientific name generator game…
Chris and Christina then did a talk on who the BES are, what they do and how we can get the best out of membership, and BES specialist interest groups along with more information about attending conferences and other societies we can join and how to make the most out of them too. They also discussed being a BES mentor volunteer for future 16-18 and undergraduate summer schools, the BES bursary, and being a helper at BES meetings/conferences. I’m quite interested in attending one of the undergraduate careers conferences, likely in 2021 when it will be most relevant to me, and I would also like to apply to be a mentor in the future too.
This was a very interesting talk by Aline Finger from the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh about the RBGE, plant conservation science and her work with Cicerbeta alpina, including her route into her career, which was not the smooth step-by-step you might assume! My take-away from her talk was that there’s no specific “best” route to where you want to end up, and where you want to end up might change as you progress, and that is okay!
Last on the agenda was the prizes session! I had completely forgotten about this part of the week, and I hadn’t expecied to win anything at all… but I did! Wildlife Acoustics very generously donated an Echo Meter bat detector to the BES to be used as a prize… and I won it for my interest in the bat talks/detecting! I’m SO grateful for this prize, it’s the bat detector I had considered getting earlier in the year and I decided against this one and have regretted it ever since! I’m definitely going to put it to good use!
A special mention and thanks has to go to one of the other students who introduced me to a method of note taking that I have fallen in love with! It’s called Sketch Notes and is very effective! I wouldn’t have ever thought that this was new to her too!
Finally, HUGE thanks must go to the British Ecological Society and all the staff and mentors who were instrumental in making this week so brilliant and worthwhile. I genuinely feel so lucky to have been able to participate. On previous trips away from home I’ve gotten very homesick and lonely, which has marred the experience somewhat and although I did have moments of feeling overwhelmed it didn’t impact in any big way – the only tears from me was when I left and that’s virtually unheard of from me! It was exhausting but in all the right ways, it was also exhilarating, and it’s no exaggeration when I say it was one of the best experiences of my life – right up there with sky diving! I’m going into my second year of university armed with many new contacts I can turn to for advice and so much extra knowledge. This week has made me stronger and more confident in every way, personally, academically and professionally, and I will always be grateful to the BES for this! And obviously thanks must go to the FSC centre for providing a wonderful location, great food and helpful staff, and the other students for being such amazing company, I hope we all stay in touch moving forward.
End note: This took me so long to type out and edit! It’s only a small fraction of what I could have said, so if you read the whole way through, thank you!