Advice from Tamás Székely for young shorebird biologists

Thank you to Tamás for advice to those in our field. I find this to be applicable for research scientists in general and wanted to share. This is taken directly from his recent publication in supplementary material.

Ten pieces of advice for young shorebird biologists.

  1. Love what you are doing. Shorebirds are wonderful organisms and by watching their behaviour and studying their ecology and evolution, you not only do good science but also have fun. Scientists often contrast the SPECIES-focused research against the QUESTION-focused research: don’t buy this argument. It is false: you need both detailed understanding of the organism and good knowledge of the subject to make discoveries.
  2. Respect the organism you study and learn from them. The animals you study can teach you important skills. Open your mind, and watch and listen to what they say. Do not gloss over strange behaviours or weird features: there may be a good reason why the animals have these traits.
  3. Be driven by discoveries – remember the Szent-Györgyi quote above. Scientists often boasts about their achievements (e.g., how many papers they wrote, how much grant money they have, how often they are invited to conferences, how many students and post-docs they command): don’t buy these. The most important measure in science is discoveries.
  4. Be prepared to work hard toward an objective BUT keep your eyes open for opportunities. You need to find a balance between moving toward your targets and allowing minor detours that may eventually help achieve your goals.
  5. Failures can be important. “Success consists of going from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm” (Winston Churchill) – this is true in science. Learn from your own failures but do not take them too seriously.
  6. Admit your own weaknesses. No scientist is perfect. It’s true that some scientist knows more than others, although good scientists should know their limits of knowledge and skills.
  7. Never put all eggs in one basket; neither scientifically nor career-wise. Do have several irons in the fire: diversify. Working on a small number of topics will teach you new skills and ideas, and you might find that the knowledge in one field will help you solve issues in a very different field.
  8. Respect others but do not afraid of disagreeing over a scientific issue. Debates and arguments are part of scientific progress; don’t afraid of being wrong.
  9. Hard work, serendipity and curious naturalist – these are some of the main components of success in science. Research is rarely an easy ride to fame: there are lots of hurdles. Be aware of these hurdles, but don’t lose the objectives out of your sight.
  10. Remember, science is a network of people; you depend on other scientists, peers and junior colleagues at every stage. Even if you are a head of department or director of a research institution, you depend on others in many ways. You need to find a balance between fighting your way up the pecking order whilst en route not losing friends and colleagues. You need to respect your peers, whoever they are from the technician to the student to the administration. By respecting their work and their opinion it is then easier to find the balance between fighting and bonding.

Our Shared Heritage: Arctic Breeding Birds in the Yellow Sea

A great video to bring awareness to the struggles our migratory birds are facing globally, and particularly across the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Thank you to Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna, Arctic Council and Lab of Ornithology for this Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative video. A Must Watch!


The damaged passport

Liquids, we never fly with them in our carry-on bags. That is a no no. Typical commercial airline flights force customers to adhere to the “no liquids” travel requirements for safety reasons and sometimes I bet just plain human order.

So you can imagine it was hard to describe the occurrence at which I attempted to explain to the Canadian Passport agency the circumstances of how my carry-on bag leaked Deet (an insane bug spray known to melt plastic) and made contact with my passport, not only making a watermark but actually liquefying the front cover and preventing the barcode from scanning.

Research scientists may travel extensively, and they often travel outside of the common commercial airlines. A helicopter pilot won’t give you a retinal scan and pat you down before climbing aboard, he will however show you where the little throw up baggies are.

A few hours after this photo, I needed one of those special baggies.

I did not realize the condition of my important travel document until I dragged it out of my bag from this past summer field season when flying from Toronto to Virginia for a shorebird conference. “What happened to your passport ma’am” a stern customs officer asked me. “Oh ugh, I didn’t see that before now, does it still work?”. Having a damaged passport is serious business so after that trip I went to the Canadian Passport office to have it replaced. I had to fill out the circumstances describing the events of how this said passport damaging event occurred but they only gave me 3 x3 inch space on the page. When they called my number to meet with an agent, this is what the poor lady heard, “Okay…..I’m a biologist. So I travel to some unusual places and I do this sometimes travelling by twin otter, this is a small plane, it’s cold inside and we sit with all our cargo. There CAN be a lot of mosquitoes in the summer in the arctic, weird I know but I swell up really bad when I get bit,plus I itch them too much and then the bites scab over. So I was on one of these flights, I can look up the exact date, and I had my passport in my bag. What I didn’t realize is that the bug spray I had was so intense that some of it was leaking and actually melted through the Ziploc bag. The probability that my passport was in direct contact with this little bag is really low, I know, but it happened. This bug spray is something like 98% deet, a carcinogen actually but I don’t like to mess around when it comes to potential scabs on my face. In no other circumstances would I have liquids near my passport and I respect this document, it’s also really close to expiring as well…..”

At this point there were three ladies behind the counter. They had slowly accumulated as I had proceeded with my seemingly endless and partially insane story. At the end of the day I got my passport and even opted for the 10 year document, THAT is how confident I am that I can do better at taking care of this copy. The inner workings and hours we contribute just to the logistics of research can be overwhelming sometimes. Permits, licenses, travel documents both personal and work related materials are essential to be able to do our work. Learn from my mistakes and always keep your passport somewhere safe, or at least away from toxic chemicals.



PhD; year one, what did I even get done?

Year one of four is gone. Where did it go? It seems like just yesterday I was packing up my life and moving to a new place, new University, and starting on the next adventure. The most disappointing of having a year go by so fast was that it was a great year, busy, but one for the books. I’m sad because I wouldn’t mind re-doing year one again. Let’s be honest, all proceeding years are bound to be tougher, with increasing expectations and the added pressures of the looming deadline.

Time is really a sweet sweet thing and I hope I’ve maximized my experience so far; learned as much as I could, was most productive and met as many people without losing myself entirely to my academic life. So what did I do this year?


-Field season 1; fairly successful from a data collection standpoint, complete success with spending 2.5 months with great people!

– Applied for scholarships, and got one that will support me through to the end of the four years. (HUGE WIN)

-Was a teaching assistant for 8 months (great experience, Trent undergrads are great)

-Hired all the technicians for field season number two

-Got training for handling biological samples and prepped the lab space for blood sample analysis

-Wrote PhD proposal to submit before second field season (time crunch)

-Attended three conferences, Arcticnet 2014, Comparative Physiology 2015, NAAGC 2015 (presented poster)

-Fingers crossed, manuscript resubmission from first review

-Consumed 25,000 gallons of coffee

-Knitted four pairs of socks and two hats (yup this made the year list)

Looking back, whether I’ve had my personal life together is of little consequence to this progress, at least for now I’m happy with this year’s list. One thing at a time…..



The 2015 Shorebird Crew Hoodie

I was happy to have this year’s shorebird crew hoodies arrive in the mail this week! We’re gonna be stylin’ a custom cotton hoodie equipped with Ruddy Turnstone drawing artistically provided by Victoria Putinski and on the back; the logo. Our crew consists of SEVEN people this summer, it’s going to be a fun and busy camp. I couldn’t be more excited. 



Forget science, let’s talk survival

June 3, 2014

What many people will never truly know are the intense logistics in doing remote fieldwork in extreme climate, and how would you? I’ve been thrown into a two month venture after being specifically interviewed and prepped for the whole thing and even I’m standing in the Iqaluit dirt streets thinking….I have no idea what I’m doing.

The Coats Island Crew organizing their gear on the tarmac, Iqaluit Airport
The Coats Island Crew organizing their gear on the tarmac, Iqaluit Airport

Luckily for me I’m surrounded by super capable veterans/primary investigators that for them, this field season is a walk in the park. However, I had no idea we would spend collaboratively more than twice the time preparing for a field season than actually being IN THE FIELD. And on top of that, a good chunk of being ‘in the field’ has nothing to do with conducting any science. Jet fuel, propane, kersosene, generators, solar panels, planes with cargo weight limits, flight/weather conditions, waste management, 800+ lbs of food……

Stephen Parmiter in the East Bay Camp food trent
Stephen Parmiter in the East Bay Camp food trent

What food? Where are the stores in Iqaluit? How do I contact people (I was one of the unfortunates without cell service…). Where do I pick up shipped cargo, personal safety gear, ammunition, antennas, radios? How much does an ATV weigh? Don’t forget to pack scopes, binoculars, cooking gear and the boat motors on the plane, I kept relaying to myself. As you can see, for a detail oriented person, I was in over drive.

Victoria Putinski inside a Twin Otter full of gear
Victoria Putinski inside a Twin Otter full of gear

How we purely exist in areas this remote is a task requiring the efforts of dozens of people both on site and down back in Civilization (aka the Ottawa home base). Additionally, satellite phone check-in calls are made each day to the Polar Continental Shelf Program (PCSP), a lovely group of people, keeping tabs on us camp folk, helping coordinate flights and relaying messages. This is not some small town show, this is a Big Apple Production. It is also one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had.

Me and the crew in the warehouse....we spent a fair amount of time in here weighing boxes, organizing and generating inventory lists.
Me and the crew in the warehouse….we spent a fair amount of time in here weighing boxes, organizing and generating inventory lists.

I’ve been in Iqaluit for several days; long, full working days and I’m realizing how this kind of work doesn’t happen without the assistance of a huge network of great people. I can’t imagine a better two months. One thing I can say right now is that this is a unique kind of learning experience.

Stephen Parmiter, Heather Mariash and Emma Davis loading the plane! A wee bit of anxiety may be seen in this photo.....
Stephen Parmiter, Heather Mariash and Emma Davis loading the plane! A wee bit of anxiety may be seen in this photo…..