Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Next year...spread the spider love

It's New Year's Eve, and I'm writing a chapter of my thesis. A close (probably closest) relative of the Cantuaria genus is the Misgolas genus, so I looked it up on Wikipedia to make sure of its distribution.

This is what Wikipedia has to say about Misgolas:
The origin of the name Misgolas is unclear, but may have come from the prosecution of Timarchos by Aeschines in ancient Greece. In it, a particularly unsavory and disrespected individual is named Misgolas, possible prompting the naming of the species.
What? Why? What has Misgolas done to deserve that? Reading that short paragraph cut me deep. It's bad enough that the Maori call almost all spiders "pungawerewere", Punga being the ancestor of all ugly things and "werewere" meaning "hanging". Throughout history, even in taxonomy where people should really know better, spiders have been unfairly represented as ugly, horrible, or disgusting. Why are we so nasty about creatures which have no way of taking on board our criticisms, or of fighting back?

The only way that spiders can improve their image is by proving us wrong, which they have done since prehistoric times, but we have ignored their usefulness, beauty, cleverness and wonder and preferred to keep our heads in the sand and call them ugly.

In 2015, I am going to try a lot harder to make people appreciate spiders. They are important, and they do not deserve our disgust. I urge you to do the same. If we even change one person's mind about spiders, that is an improvement; if we change a few, all the better.

Here are some reasons to love spiders:

  • Spiders are useful. Everyone knows that spiders catch flies, but they don't quite seem to consider the implications of that. Spiders also catch other insects, including pests, and even if the spider isn't hungry her web is there to ensnare things that fly past. Each spider web is an extremely good insect trap, and you don't need to buy them, look after them, or even see most of them. Also, spiders are more than just pest control - their silk is useful in medicine, fabric design, physics (including space) research, and other things besides. Their venom is useful in pest control and medicine. Many larger species are edible, and provide nutrition in countries where people really, really need it.
  • Spiders are beautiful. Instinctively we think of them as ugly. On the surface, many spiders that we come across look ugly. But what about the gooty ornamental, the peacock jumping spider, or the ladybird spider? Many spiders are brightly coloured, unusually shaped, or have big, soulful eyes. Even very common spiders are only ugly because traditionally we think of spiders as ugly. The long, slender legs of the cellar spider are elegant, not creepy. The furry Tegenaria bodies are soft and endearing, not scary. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Look closely at the intricate body parts of spiders - their eyes, their feet, their genitalia - and every spider has a beauty of its own.
  • Spiders are clever. Well, not all spiders. Although one has to admire the clever life history strategies that they have evolved. Some spiders are quite adorably dumb. But others, particularly jumping spiders, are surprisingly smart. They can plan hunting trips, outsmart other spiders, and navigate mazes. Their eyesight is good and they can be trained to perform simple tasks.
  • Spiders are wonderful. These are creatures that have existed for over 300 million years. Silk comes out of them. They are master architects, songsters, and dancers. They court their mates, fight for them, and guard them. They live on the highest mountains, and in the deepest caves, and even underwater. They have colonised the vast majority of land on this planet. And what's more, they keep out of our way for the most part, and we hardly notice their existence.
So, happy new year to you all, and I hope 2015 is a good one, and that maybe we can change a mind or two about spiders.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014


Two nights ago, at 2am, the peaceful village of Prebbleton was shaken by a blast of rock music roaring from the windows of a bashed up Toyota Levin. Houses shook with the racket, dogs barked, and people probably woke up a little bit annoyed.

Sorry, Prebbleton. It was me. I was trying to keep myself awake, because for the first time in my PhD I had to work into the night. I'm not very good at working into the night.

PhD students are expected to work pretty much constantly, including nights and weekends. Most of my friends do that; they wake up some time in the late morning or afternoon, then do science until the wee hours the next morning. They procrastinate during this time too - go for coffee, check facebook, check email, look at the news, go for coffee, chat to friends, check facebook, go for coffee. Their day is homogenous - they spend the entire time doing a mixture of work and procrastination. As they work more, they procrastinate more - it's an even mixture.

I tried that during my masters and undergrad, and it works ok. Unfortunately though, it doesn't leave much time for anything else. If you are constantly doing a low level of work, you need to make sure you keep it up or you won't get much done. Long lunches, trips away, and movie nights with friends are inadvisable except on special occasions. It also frazzles your brain and makes work a bit mundane - going for coffee is a good break from work, because you have to walk around and get away from your desk, but checking facebook and email are terrible ways to take a breather. You're taking a break from staring at words on a screen to stare at different words on the same screen. However, nothing makes you feel like a dedicated student more than working late at night.

During my undergrad, I started making little changes in the way I studied and took breaks. Whenever I took a break, I wasn't allowed to think of anything sciencey. The same applied when I shut my computer down, or when I took a day off. I distracted myself by talking to people, having a change of scenery, or popping out for a walk. I found that having proper breaks concentrated my work a little more and stopped me from procrastinating so much during work time. It also meant I felt less fatigued, because my brain wasn't constantly doing the same thing and had a bit of variety.

This time last year, I went to a conference which had a workshop attached. At the workshop, one of the best tips that I heard was to guard your work time, and your spare time - i.e. don't let people distract you with meaningless conversation while you're trying to write, and don't do work-related things when you're on a break. At the same time, my advisor told me that he recommends treating your PhD like a full-time job: work 9-5 on weekdays, and have evenings and weekends off.

I have mostly stuck to the 9-5 schedule. It really works. If you work in 45 minute increments, with a 15 minute break after each one, and during work time don't check email or facebook or use your computer for anything other than work, you end up pretty exhausted at the end of the day. Nothing is more satisfying than knowing you worked hard and could not possibly have worked any harder. Also, treating your office as a work space and your home as a relaxing space helps me to sleep at night and work during the day. However, it's very difficult when others around you don't have the same routine. For a while I tried car pooling, but gave up when the other person couldn't get out of bed earlier than 10am and always wanted to leave work around 4 to work from home. I also find that social events usually last until late at night, which isn't great when you have to wake up at 7. Finally, there is always that twinge of guilt when I leave the office at 5, but my office mates will be slaving away until much later (although this is somewhat made up for by the smug feeling I get when I'm the first one in every morning). I also feel guilty when I see that in their free time, my friends read scientific literature for fun. Lately I have been doing more sciencey stuff in my free time, which makes me feel less guilty but also makes me less able to work to my full potential during work time.

Working 9-5 frees up time for hobbies, too, and gives me enough time to have a life. However, it's very difficult to break away from this routine if I want to do a bit of extra work - like pulling my all-nighter the other night. I had to go to Illustration Club at 5, then go home and feed the chickens and rabbits and do some falcon training, then hang out with friends for a bit because that's what we're all used to, and then finally when my flatmate was going to bed I headed back into uni to finish some DNA sequencing in time for the sequencing machine's last run before its holiday. The next day I got up early to do some more work, but ended up leaving work at 1 to sleep for a bit because I was so tired. Your body gets used to a particular routine, and breaking it is very hard!

If I had planned a bit better, I wouldn't have had to work late. I think in the future I will just be a bit more organised and stick to what seems to work for me.