Changing Perspectives – The British Ecological Summer School

UV fluorescent powder marking for beetle monitoring and tracking at night - one of many ecological techniques introduced at the BES summer school (Photo: Ron Rotbarth)

UV fluorescent powder marking for beetle monitoring and tracking at night – one of many ecological techniques introduced at the BES summer school (Photo: Lara Bates-Prior)

The subject of the email sounded intriguing: ‘British Ecological Society – Summer School for Undergraduates’. As a member of the society, I had read about it before but was not able to give it a deeper thought until I received that email from my university department. The British Ecological Society (BES) is the main hub for its international members (mainly academics and students with an interest in the field of ecology around the world) and publishes six of the most prestigious scientific journals in evolution and ecology. Needless to say that my decision was made in minutes once I had figured out my summer plans.

50 students from all over the UK including myself were accepted onto the week-long summer school at Malham Tarn (Yorkshire) receiving career advice, diving into different aspects and practical techniques of ecological work and learning about how to properly communicate science to the public and policy makers. To cover these topics the BES hosted guest speakers from a variety of fields. There was Sue Hartley, Professor of Ecology at the University of York, who, in her delightfully refreshing way, talked about food security and how to tackle problems following a non-GM approach by altering the silica availability in soil to increase the plants resistance to pests.

Exploring the biodiversity of Malham Tarn, Yorkshire and discussing conversation strategies with Peter Welsh (National Trust).

Exploring the biodiversity of Malham Tarn, Yorkshire and discussing conversation strategies with Peter Welsh (National Trust) (Photo: Ron Rotbarth)

Andrew Halcro-Johnston and Zoe Webb gave us an insight into their work for Amey and Arup, two of the major players in ecological and environmental consultancy. Their presentations opened my eyes to an aspect of ecology that I had never really considered before. We quickly figured out how diverse and challenging consultancy work can be when we were asked to engage with a real-life case involving the extension of an industrial complex. The range of considerations (and maps!) and the interdisciplinary approach Andrew and Zoe introduced us to, created the temptation to experience consultancy work in more detail. Bravo to their superb job!

My personal highlight, however, has been Ken Thompson’s talk about the effective communication of science to the public. As a former biologist at the University of Sheffield, columnist for The Telegraph and author of several books, he engaged in both academic research and the “translation” of scientific findings into less complex and dry terms. The insights he gave us into his work for The Telegraph and the often misleading articles in the news about science made me aware of the challenge and pitfalls that is scientific writing for the public. This further encouraged me to use my blog to write about my passion ecology.

One of the key messages (Photo: Ron Rotbarth)

One of the key messages (Photo: Ron Rotbarth)

The variety of topics the BES covered in only five days has made us all reflect on our career aspirations and aims. But above all, it brought together bright and motivated ecology students from around the UK to share their thoughts, ideas and experiences. If the talks and presentations opened the gateway to a new rational world of ecology, the interaction with other students was the inspiration that transformed my perspective on how to build my future career. Talking to other ecology students at the University of Stirling was a great (first) way for me to build networks and exchange ideas. My participation in the summer school, however, brought these benefits to a whole new level. Now, the pathway for my last two years at university is much clearer than it has ever been before.

Microscopic identification of insects (Photo: Ron Rotbarth).

Microscopic identification of insects (Photo: Ron Rotbarth)

Universities should make use of the opportunities that lie within professional events like the BES summer school, as it can be a major boost to the students’ motivation – an issue that universities these days struggle with more often than not. The first summer school has been a huge success and represents a valuable instrument for universities in their aim for highly educated and experienced graduates. With that in mind, institutions of higher education in the UK should be encouraged to invest in these schools in order to enable more students to take part in what I can only describe as the most influential event in my student life.

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