Dr. Julia Cooke is a lecturer in ecology at The Open University in Milton Keynes. She is a plant functional biologist, who enjoys fieldwork – from counting thousands of seedlings in outback Australia, to making measurements from the top of a gum tree in a canopy crane to teaching on field schools. Julia is the author of an Australian picture book, My Little World, about natural history from a child’s perspective. She was a speaker at a previous Soapbox Science event and is now a local organiser lead.
Julia is the organiser of the Soapbox Science Milton Keynes event, which takes place on 30th June 2018 from 12pm to 3pm at Middleton Hall, Centre: MK
Combining archaeology and plant ecology
I grew up on a farm in rural South Australia and my childhood was filled with climbing trees, peering under rocks and exploring creek lines – I was always fascinated by the natural world.
At high school I did a project measuring the marks left on tree trunks by the burrowing larvae of scribbly gum moths and another on the impact of weeds on endangered plants. Through these projects I was mentored by several researchers who inspired me further.
I did an arts / science degree at the Australian National University – archaeology was the arts focus and plant ecology my science major. The two fields frequently overlapped, but never more so than when an archaeology essay topic (The use of phytoliths, or plant silica bodies, in paleoenvironmental reconstruction) alerted me to a lack of information in the ecology literature about how plants use silicon.
This planted the seed of an idea which became the focus of my Ph.D. some years later, following a stint researching invasive species biology. After four years studying how plants use silicon for my thesis, I held three short one-year post-doctoral research positions at different universities across Sydney. I was looking at growth rates in trees, tree responses to increasing atmospheric CO2 and using massive data sets to explore patterns in plant traits across the globe – before securing a permanent lectureship at The Open University.
I was always teaching during my studies and research positions – either as a private maths tutor, tutor in practical classes, guest lecturer or course convener for third year and master’s level courses. It has been a challenge to translate my skills into teaching by distance context, but the opportunity to develop online interactives and videos has made that much more interesting.
The Open University (OU) is a distance education university, so there are rarely undergraduate students on campus, and course material is delivered predominantly online, especially for science subjects. This means that instead of preparing lectures and face to face tutorials or practical classes, I write website text, devise interactive activities that are then developed by computer programmers, and we also do a lot of filming.
We run live tutorials too – I’ve been part of the team which has developed student-led investigations broadcast live from the field. I’m now used to teaching in front of at least one, if not several cameras. Feedback from the producers and camera crew is always helpful and I enjoy the challenge of trying to incorporate that immediately for the next take, while remembering what I wanted to say and which camera to look at.
I also take every opportunity to teach on field schools as I value being able to interact with students directly and am able to use my earlier experience to help students on a more individual level, which is very rewarding as the students are really dedicated to their studies.
A week of work at The Open University is very varied. This week I spent Monday in a woodland with a film crew making a video, and we used a drone to get a site overview so that we could relate the specific, familiar examples we were talking about with what is found in meadows and woodland more generally – we are aiming to give students a field perspective from their computer.
On Tuesday was a meeting talking about strategic future directions of the School (I asked about ways to develop study material more efficiently) and I also had an annual progress review. On Wednesday, between addressing comments on course teaching material from a critical reviewer, I ran an R-club session (group with shared interests in statistical programming) and in journal club discussed some papers about how pollution could be interrupting signals between plants and insects which could in turn reduce pollination frequency.
Thursday was a day of editing – I gave feedback on a project report draft by my Ph.D. student who works on bee orchids, on several blogs that Soapbox Science participants are preparing for our Milton Keynes event and I’m an associate editor for a journal so I was considering if manuscripts should be sent out for peer review or not.
Today is Friday, which I try to keep aside for writing new things – such as this post, and I’m also developing a new assignment for a module on biodiversity and conservation.
How the work of ecologists contributes to the future of the planet
Ecology is the study of interactions between species, and their environment. Ecological systems often involve countless interactions between species, that have evolved over millions of years, which means they are incredibly complicated.
Teasing apart the interactions and looking for repeating patterns is the great challenge. Ecology is a field with a mixture of big picture perspectives and investigations into very specific interactions at small scales, and it is having viewpoints at these diverse scales that makes such a significant contribution to understanding how life on Earth works.
Today, there is no part of the planet unaffected by humans, and with a changing climate, many of the interactions among species, or the relationships between species and their environment are being altered. Ecologists are able to identify which processes might be at risk, and the implications of these for both us and the species themselves. Ecology can also contribute to understanding how to conserve and restore ecosystems.
From Soapbox Science speaker to organiser
In 2015 I moved from Australia to the UK to start work at The Open University. I didn’t know many people and was keen to make connections both within and beyond my university. I put my hand up to organise our school seminar series as a way to integrate into my School and one of the speakers we invited was Dr. Nathalie Pettorelli, who co-founded Soapbox Science, alongside Dr. Seirian Sumner.
We chatted after her presentation and she encouraged me to apply to be a speaker. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to talk about my research to a new audience, but I especially valued the connections I made with other speakers and the organising committee.
The following year I was invited to become an event organiser, and this year I’m leading the local group. I aim to give our Milton Keynes participants the same networking opportunities that I have benefitted from, and it feels good to pay things forward.
Reaching out to people who might not normally attend a science lecture
Soapbox Science is a super initiative to engage the public because it reaches both a new audience and a very diverse audience. It is an opportunity to reach out to people who might not normally attend a science experience.
Our event is in the Milton Keynes shopping centre, so the people who stop to listen to us are shoppers of all ages. Over the hour in which a speaker is on their soapbox, the audience changes as people come and go – one minute you might be talking to a group of adults, then the next minute you have several kids listening in.
Speakers must be able to adapt how they are explaining things on the hoof to make it as enjoyable as possible for whoever the audience is at the time. It is not just an opportunity share the things we have discovered and the science that fascinates us, with the next generation, but also to increase the visibility of women in science amongst young people.
Einstein was a brilliant mind, but we seem to stuck with his image as the quintessential scientist – Soapbox Science seeks to challenge that stereotype for everyone, but it is particularly important for the next generation.
Advances from careful observation and open minds
The big advances in science come from careful observation and open minds. Most important science doesn’t happen in isolation, as the work of just one person – ideas and results are discussed, challenged, interpreted and reconsidered in lab groups, meetings, conferences and the process of publishing in journals.
It is my view that more diversity in the voices taking part in these conversations increases the richness of these discussions and the probability of making significant advances.
There is a creative aspect to science, not in terms of making things up, but rather in a capacity to consider things from new perspectives and considering new possibilities. Those new perspectives can come from applying diverse viewpoints, and that includes diversity in research field, gender, sexuality, culture, career stage and more.
In the last three years much of my time has been spent teaching – we have been completely remaking several study modules, which at The Open University is a multi-year process and involves large teams. I’m looking forward to shifting towards more of a balance between research and teaching. It would be nice to do some fieldwork again – I do miss days collecting data in the field.
I seek to teach students the current state of play in science, which means being aware of the latest developments. It is my preference to be part of some of those discoveries, through my own work and being part of larger research networks, and share it with students, rather than being a more passive conduit. But to do that, I need the time to keep contributing through research to our understanding of this complex and amazing world that we inhabit.