Head of School's blog

Life in the School, from the Head of School

Dr Mairi Knight, Wednesday 9th October 2013


Two months have passed since my last post, hardly seems believable. 

One of the most important events over this time in terms of our school has been our graduation ceremony where we said adios to our 2013 graduates - a proud moment! We had a great day and the weather held off so Plymouth Hoe provided a spectacular venue - see our school blog for further details and photos. We hope many of you will stay in touch over the coming years.

The very next day we welcomed our new first year students onto our four main degree programmes (Biological Sciences, Environmental Biology, Animal Behaviour & Welfare and Conservation Biology). We have 130 students joining us this year – a big welcome to all, we have great hopes for you!  We had a welcome party the following night in the Graduation Marquee which was a lot of fun for staff as well as students and a nice way to say hello less formally. 

Before our students departed and arrived at these events we had our first School Research Away Day at Dartington Hall. We shared the morning with our colleagues in the School of Biomedical and Healthcare Sciences and in the afternoon had our first opportunity to think about research activities in our new School of Biological Sciences. Most of our academic and some of our technical staff attended as well as colleagues from Research and Innovation. We are looking forward to shaping a more cohesive and inclusive research environment in the near future. It’s been a busy period for us in terms of research applications with many members of staff submitting project proposals to external funding agencies such as the BBSRC and EU Marie Curie Actions, among them Dr Rob Puschendorf, Professor Rod Blackshaw, Dr Carly Benefer, Dr Dan Merrifield, Professor Mick Fuller and Professor Awadhesh Jha.

One reflective moment last month was the retirement of Pete Smithers, an entomological giant who had been with the school in its various reincarnations for over 40 years. I, along with many other people across the University have very fond memories of spending time in the field with Pete. He is still going to be involved in various projects with the School and University (his contribution to collaborative projects bringing together seemingly disparate interests across the University effectively is unrivalled) so we will still be seeing plenty of him but we wish him all the very best for his retirement and hope that he can proceed with his enthusiastic invertebrate-related endeavours but now at perhaps a slightly more relaxed pace. 


More news is that Dr Sarah Collins has won a PhD studentship to collaborate with Professor Sue Denham, Director of the Cognition Institute and other colleagues to model neural networks associated with behaviour. Sarah also recently took part in a CogTalk where she gave a very convincing account of the sophistication of animal communication systems, notably in birds. This was the first Cog Talk that I had been to and I’d strongly recommend them if you’re around for the next one – there is one every month, they cover a variety of thought-provoking topics, and are open to the public, staff, and students alike.

This month the first of our annual field trips also took place. Students from our second year Biological Sciences and Environmental Biology programmes travelled to the Azores for 10 days where they study various aspects of Island biology and biodiversity. A particular focus is on the endemic and invasive species and how they interact as are extremophile Bacterial and Archeal communities living in the hot springs. According to everyone who went, it was a very successful trip  - see our school blog for more details and pictures.

In terms of my own research we just today had our first Molecular Ecology group meeting where we caught up with what we’ve all been up to in the lab – this was with colleagues and post-grads within our school (Dr Carly Benefer, Sarah Rustage and Kirsty Lloyd) and also with colleagues working within this area across different schools (Dr Lucy Turner, Dr Nicola Foster). Others (Dr Jon Ellis, Vanessa Huml, Dr Manuela Truebano-Garcia) are hoping to join us next time to make it a regular event. 

Finally, I promised last time an update on new staff – we’re really delighted to confirm that Dr Mike Thom will be joining our staff from the University of York. Mike works on sexual selection and mate choice in Drosophila (and other organisms). We’re hoping he will be visiting Plymouth again over the coming weeks before he starts full time in January 2014. 



Dr Mairi Knight, Wednesday 14th August 2013

Welcome to the new School of Biological Sciences! Our new School of Biological Sciences went live on August 1st 2013. Our website is not quite complete yet but a big thank you to Dr Rich Billington and Dr Rich Boden for their herculean efforts to get this sorted out and operational in such a tight time-frame.

Leading up to our official launch as a new School we have had lots of good news. Both Prof Richard Handy and Dr Rich Boden​ have had recent funding success (with the EU Framework 7 and NERC respectively) and our newly refurbished facilities which we share with biologists now in other schools are also up and running. Along with our existing labs we also now have a new molecular lab, a behaviour experiment and analysis suite, a number of controlled temperature rooms, a wet and a dry ecology lab and proper office space for our technicians looking after those spaces. More ​good news is that we have made several recent appointments spanning diverse research fields in biology: Dr Rob Puschendorf, Dr Ben Brilot, and Prof Tom Hutchinson have all joined our staff within the last few months. We are also in the process of appointing a fourth new member of staff which will complete our academic staff for the biological sciences for the coming year. More news on that to follow next time.​

For me personally it’s been an interesting few months. Alongside the administrative issues to be sorted out for the new School, there has been a lot going on in my research group. Kirsty Lloyd, who is working on a project looking at a new species of bumblebee colonising the UK, took off in the late Spring/early Summer on an extensive sampling trip around coastal continental Europe and subsequently around the UK. She had some help on her road trip from one of our undergraduate students (Max Ward, reading for a BSc Conservation Biology). She is now aiming to start investigating patterns of genetic diversity from the samples she has collected. Sarah Rustage, who is working on another bumblebee PhD project looking at fitness and genetic variation across UK populations has spent the summer tying up her lab work, she is presenting her latest data at the upcoming INTECOL​ conference in London next week.​

Not to be outdone, my PhD student John Thorpe-Dixon has just returned from his latest field trip to India where is investigating biogeographic patterns of faunal diversity of the Western Ghats for his thesis. In July myself and my husband Jon joined him and the other two members of his sampling team (Dr Todd Lewis, an amphibian specialist who runs his own ecological consultancy, and Dave Pryce, another of our current BSc Conservation Biology students) for a week to help out. This was a brilliant trip - we spent most of the time trip soaking wet as it was the middle of the monsoon season but we got to places far off the beaten track, searching for frogs and water-beetles (this project is co-supervised by Dr Dave Bilton, a water-beetle specialist of international renown from the School of Marine Science and Engineering). We also caught up with some of John’s collaborators in the city of Pune, including staff and post-graduate students in the Zoology Department at Modern College of Science and the Arts (affiliated with the University of Pune). After that Jon and I spent a week sightseeing at places like the Ajanta Caves near Aurangabad before returning to the UK two weeks ago.

The latest research project to get off the ground in our group just this week is with Steve Megson who won one of our School Summer Bursaries for undergraduate students – this is a School scheme where our undergraduates get an opportunity to undertake paid work within one of our research groups for around 6-8 weeks over the summer to get a flavour for what working in research is all about. Steve has independently been involved in various projects in Madagascar and has a particular interest in frogs, so we are teaming up so that he can start working alongside myself and my research students to have a look at the genetic diversity of some of the frogs he sampled on his recent trip to Madagascar, which was partly funded by Paignton Zoo. We’ve been in the lab these last few days finding the best ways to extract DNA from his samples. Steve is starting his final year of his BSc Conservation Biology later this year.​

Finally, we were really pleased over the last couple of months to see some of our research work published. Dr Jon Ellis and I collaborated previously on a Leverhulme Trust funded project to try to identify regions of the genome that might be useful for assessing functional genetic diversity in invertebrates, and the latest publication from that project was published in PLoS ONE last month.