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Forging ahead

August 21, 2013

Quietly at the moment. I’m just out of hospital. Had a minor operation yesterday, that has been awaited since the middle of April. Thankfully, it’s nothing serious and I am well on my way to making a full recovery (it could have been serious but after some short weeks of anxiety, that turned out not to be the case. And I’m grand. ( Really. However, I now have some time off that I can validly take as time off, so time for a blog post.

Newcastle was wonderful. My talk was at 12:05 on Monday the fifth of August, which was great, meant I could enjoy the rest of the conference. And I managed to learn enough R to get my stats completed before I went. Granted I worked like a maniac for the three weeks beforehand, was still adjusting my talk the very night before, but it was all worth it. The talk was well received, and after about the fourth slide I began to forget my nerves and actually just talked. Even enjoyed it. When it was done, an American-accented man asked the first question. Because it was the first question, I did what I try not to do, I plunged straight into my answer before I was clear what he’d asked me, and it was waffle. Granted waffle I managed to straighten out, and I felt ok about it. The next question was easy, then it was time to sit down. Later that day, after lunch we were trailing into the huge main hall of the Sage (purpose-built conference centre) and the same man walked by me. “Loved your talk” he remarked. I looked at his name badge. Andrew Sih. Andrew Sih. ( Andrew Sih, who writes the most amazing stuff about behaviour and plasticity, who I’ve been reading for years, Andrew Sih loved my talk!!!

Anyway, that took a bit of recovery time. Later that evening, there was a social event involving a cruise (nothing glamorous; a rather smelly party boat) on the Tyne, and I had a long conversation with him and his wife, and that was lovely too. Except later, I noticed the probable reason his wife had been staring at my name badge quizzically. In fishing to get my “River Cruise” ticket out of the back I’d forgotten to turn it around with my name facing out. So now Mrs Andrew Sih thinks my name is “Conference Dinner”. Well, it’s memorable at least.

There were four days of the most amazing plenary talks and symposia. Prof Andrew Sih isn’t the only mysterious hero I met. That’s the thing about science. People are famous, but not in the generally understood way. You meet your heroes and they’re not glamorous (sorry folks, but you’re not; and certainly not when witnessed on the dancefloor after said conference dinner). But they are bright, nerdy, ordinary, obsessed, and wonderful. You meet your heroes before you even know who they are. What was amazing also was the number of women. Of course from Jane Goodall onwards, behaviour has always attracted a lot of women, but still it was encouraging. Marian Stamp Dawkins. Katherina Riebel. And lesser-knowns who are doing brilliant work on birdsong. This was the first conference I had the confidence to ask questions at myself. And nobody seemed to think my questions were ridiculous or off the point. I spoke to one of the authors of the paper which sent me into a tailspin (this time last year) over the validity of spectrogram analysis, which set me back ages in my analyses (but it’s ok, my tackling of the issues raised has given me a whole chapter of my PhD, so while it’s cost me time, it’s ok; it’s worked out), and it was a good conversation.

There were people there from all over the globe, probably 3000 delegates in total. It was really exhilarating. I revelled in being able to listen to talks where the minutiae of birdsong, the details of its analysis, were discussed. I learned new terms and where it might be useful to revise my invented vocabulary for some of the details of my own analysis.

Then, all too soon it was over, and just when I’d been getting used to the daily routine. The next day I took a train to another northern English town and stayed the weekend with a young lecturer who gave me a personal workshop on phylogenetic analysis, ie, how to take account of the evolutionary relatedness of my bird species when discussing my findings. This I am doing, or will be again very shortly, using the absolutely latest phylogenetic tree of  almost 10,000 bird species published in Nature (See Jetz et al 2012) last year (of which my mere nine are a part!). Every now and then I pinch myself and remind myself that this is real. I am doing this. Middle-aged me. The 2ii reject of 25 years ago is dead in the water. Sometimes I find myself almost hyperventilating with the excitement of it. That’s not to say that the actual analysis isn’t drudgery. It is. But it’s drudgery with a purpose, drudgery that like my morning swims, is about achieving a goal from steadily doing the groundwork. One lap after another. And I’m learning all the time. I’ve moved from SPSS to R, to programming in BayesTraits (package for phylogenetics; don’t ask, I don’t know the details, but I know how to work it) in a matter of weeks. Whew!

Anyway, as I said, I’m at home in post-op recovery at the moment, so there’ll not be too much progress for a few days. However, by the end of the month, my analysis will be complete. Then it’s just write like a maniac. That I can do.


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