PhD Estación Biológica de Doñana

Research, science, ecology, animal, plants, conservation, tips…

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The evolution towards a post-doctoral research

The first snows of the 2014 also brought the first roundtable of the year. This month Ivan Gomez-Mestre has spoken with the PhD students about his scientific interests and his scientific career.

Ivan started the meeting introducing the field he is dedicated to: evolutionary biology. He explained the most important arguments to understand the great biodiversity that we find both at a micro- and macro-evolutionary scale. He started with a retrospective look, comparing elements of the classical evolutionary theory with the new knowledge that incorporates the extended synthesis, such as environmental induction of gene expression through epigenetic regulation.

Moreover, he presented many examples showing the evolution of phenotypic plasticity as a possible mechanism to understand the great diversity observed in nature, arguing that it cannot be solely explained via gradual accumulation of mutations in protein coding genes. It is not only the genes we have, but also the way they are regulated, that determine the phenotype. The most extreme phenotypes are normally expressed by the most plastic genotypes. The plasticity evolution via genetic accommodation can ultimately lead to new species.

Furthermore, Ivan passed some advice regarding the postdoctoral period. He suggested to find a highly motivated advisor, possibly in his/her tenure track. It is a time to be productive while trying to maintain a coherent and personal line of research. He also spoke about how he formed their current research group after obtaining the Ramón y Cajal contract and how important it was. He thinks that a scientific career is a long-term quest that has to be enjoyed as much as possible along the way.

So, Ivan’s tips for after the thesis were:

–       Enroll in a dynamic group whose advisor is productive and enjoyable.

–       Investigate what you enjoy and that you feel you have more questions to answer.

–       Never stop improving English.

–       DO NOT GIVE UP!! The Spanish science situation will get better!!


Link to the group’s website:

By: Pablo Burraco and Rosa Arribas

la foto-4


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PhD seminars – A little bit of “human” science

Due to the closeness of the summer, the round table scheduled for July has been brought forward to this week. This time our invited researcher was Curro Braza, from the department of Ethology and Biodiversity Conservation at the EBD.

Curro has focused his carrier on the behavior of mammals in their natural environment. He started his carrier working with ungulates, he then moved to primates and for the last twenty years he has been working with humans. Being humans his study species, apparently, makes him a kind of rara avis at the EBD. Therefore, we wanted him to tell us about his research and the similarities and dissimilarities that the methodology he employs with humans has with the one that we employ with our study species and systems.

Ending up working with humans was for Curro the natural outcome of a carrier focused every time in more intelligent and alimentary efficient species. However, it also implied a qualitative change in the literature he reads, that now embraces areas of Psychology, Physiology, Neurophysiology and Anthropology.

The main objective of his research is to detect social behaviors in children of four-five (sometimes up to 11) years old that could be early signals of certain future risk behaviors (aggression, depression, anxiety) or syndromes (e.g.  autism). The underlying idea is that behaviors that are observed in children irrespectively of their origin, culture, education, etc. might have an adaptative meaning andthere might be mechanisms to minimize their deleterious effects. In that sense, he is currently involved in a study about bulling in schools, a worldwide extended behavior that shows and increasing trend.

To illustrate the similarities and dissimilarities in the methodology he employs, Curro presented us one of his latest papers: “Girls’ and boys’ choices of peer behavioral characteristics at age five” (this and his other publications are listed in As Curro told us, his work is not that different from ours and we could make some analogies with the Material and Methods section of our studies:

Study species = children of four-five years

Study site = schools’ playgrounds

Selection of study sites = meetings with directors, teachers and parents

Sampling data = films of children interacting, surveys and saliva samplings (for hormone tests)

Response variables = frequency of certain play and behavioral patterns

Independent variables = sex, social status, parental group, levels of certain hormones, etc.


Of course, during the round table many curiosities and questions about the results and conclusions of Curro’s investigations arose, but that would need another post…


by Ana Montero 

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PhD seminars – Tips for scientific writing

This month we hosted a round table discussion led by Carlos Herrera, who chatted with us about how to write scientific papers. We all have the task to communicate our results and the truth is that, even if theory of writing seems easy, the first time we face it, it is not.

Carlos told us that the first thing we need before start writing is a story. It could be something new that we discovered, something that no one did before or something that changes a view or a paradigm. You may describe it, broadcast it and it must be verifiable.

Everything started four centuries ago, in 1665, with the publication “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society“. For instance, Leeuwenhoek or Darwin used to publish there. And the aim has always been the same, communicate your story. What has changed is how, where, the style, the trend, etc. all of these things are secondary but also important.


When we have our story, the first thing before starting to write is having a clear idea of what are we going to say. If you don’t, a good advice is to read, read a lot of everything! Even of those papers that are opposite to yours because they will set your brain on fire. It’s common to have good ideas while reading or when we’re doing research, never waste this enlightenment! Write it down wherever you want, a notebook, on the edge of a sheet,… but if you don’t you’ll lose it and never will come back!

A good headache is the introduction – How to give the exact importance to our work? We don’t want to be pretentious and neither underestimate it. However, when starting to write this is difficult to know, so a good thing to take into account is to choose our publication thinking of our public and then decide how to write or ask for advice to our supervisors. Publishing in journals you read will be a sure shot too, as you may like the contents in them.

Another problem is to decide which ideas should be included in the introduction and discussion sections. Carlos advised us that if you hesitate, it must go on the discussion. What’s more, it is useful to do so, because later you can connect introduction and discussion by these points. Remember, in a common paper, an introduction should never have more than three pages. So all that excess could go in the discussion! If you don’t know how to start the discussion, mention those points from the introduction.

Finally, Carlos commented some common errors in PhD students. We usually fail to put things in a logical order (I must admit I did it today) and we don’t connect a chain of structured ideas. We also tend to concentrate only in one hypothesis but we have to strive to be the devil’s advocate! All the alternatives hypothesis we are able to think about might be recorded in the discussion, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!


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PhD seminars – Good oral presentations make you shine

One of our biggest problems is to talk in public, and even if after college and a few seminars we overcome this, there is still a long way to achieve the main goal: to appeal public and make them learn something of your work.

That’s why we decided to organise a round table about how to do oral presentations and Jordi Bascompte was our month’s guest. He and his group work on networks of ecological interactions and spatial dimension of population –the architecture- and community dynamics; all within the framework of conservation biology.

But Jordi is not only a good researcher, he is also a good speaker and he proved that during our round table. He prepared a document with tips that I’m going to use -and slightly modify- for this post. And here they are!

I. Some simple rules

1. Be brief. As a rule of thumb, use three quarters of the time allocated (e.g., no more than 45 minutes for a presentation of an hour). Brevity is the mark of distinction of great presentations. Indeed, several sociological studies conclude that we can keep our concentration up to between 4 and 10 minutes, and never more than 20 minutes. Never use more time than allowed.

Everybody hate when someone surpass the scheduled time, so never do so, it’s a deadly sin! If it happens that you have to speak longer than 20 minutes, try to plan your speak in blocks, so when concentration is decaying you change of topic and everybody will listen to you again. You can use those topic-change breaks to answer questions.

2. Think of the presentation as a story. It should have a logical flow that works its way smoothly towards a good ending. Never use it as an enumeration of an independent collection of papers.

The audience will find your speech intriguing. As magic for magic is important the economy of moves, for lectures is the economy of text.

3. Less is more. Do not overload your talk with too much information. Actually, the more information you provide, the less will the audience remember. Never conclude with more than three points. Do not overload visuals: be clear, be simple.

Don’t include all you now and you did, we have to make an effort- a selection exercise. It’s useful to keep information because it could be used during debates.

4. Make the take-home message persistent through the talk and at the end. Use a powerful last slide.

This is what people will remember, we draw it for them. Mainly, we retain what is said at the beginning and at the end. Bear in mind that this message is one sentence, not the conclusions.

5. Use analogies.  They are the most powerful way to deliver complicated ideas.

Use them prudently, too much would end in a very simple, childish concept.

6. A talk has a different format than a paper. Use a different language, e.g., do not write little sections of a paper, but speak about them while highlighting a good visual. Try to avoid writing too much in slides and never read your talk. Walk the audience through a complex figure or equation. Only then make the point.

This is the other speeches’ deadly sin. As a book is different from a based film, your talk must be different from your paper. Too much text indicates lack of experience, knowledge and self-assurance. If the audience have to read, they won’t listen to you. Also try to coordinate what you say with what you show and explain figures before saying the conclusion.

7. Face the audience. Make eye contact, move around the stage, and avoid hiding behind podiums or desks.

Take into account that body language and acting behaviour will mean more than your words. Technologies, such as wireless presenters, help you to control the space. Another tip is to ask for a lapel microphone to avoid fixed microphones.

II. Sources and further information

Jordi gave as a few resources that could help us to improve.

1. TED talks. A great selection of oral presentations given by outstanding speakers. See as many as you can and keep asking yourself: What makes of this a good oral presentation? Two of his own top choices are Steve Job’s speech during a graduation ceremony at Stanford (“How to live before you die”) and Ken Robinson’s talk on “School kills creativity”.

2. Alvarez Marañón, G. (2000). El Arte de Presentar. Gestión 2000, Editorial Planeta. An excellent guide on crafting outstanding talks, from the planning and design to the delivery.

3. Bourne, P.E. (2007). Ten simple rules for making good oral presentations. PLoS Computational Biology, 3: e77.

4. Tufte, E.R. (1990). Envisioning Information. Graphics Press. A beautifully illustrated book on how to plot information in a visually arresting, easily to understand ways. Statistics meets art.

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Call for proposals for transnational access to Doñana

ExpeER (Distributed Infrastructure for Experimentation in Ecosystem Research), through its coordinated programme of Transnational Access (TA), aims to improve and facilitate access to state-of-the-art research facilities throughout Europe, promoting observational, experimental, analytical, and modelling approaches in ecosystem research.
The deadline for TA applications to be submitted is the 31st July, 2014.
The deadline for TA visits to be completed id the 30th Sep, 2014.
The TA programme offers external users free access to the 31 ExpeER research sites (including DOÑANA) and facilities as detailed in the TA site description sheets including a contribution to users travel and subsistence costs. Users are encouraged to refer to the “infrastructure” part of the ExpeER website for detailed descriptions of each facility, including the modality of access, the offered services and any individual conditions.
ExpeER offers “Fast Track” transnational access applications to researchers interested in *visiting one or more TA sites for a brief
period (max. 5 days)*. “Fast Track” applications aim to facilitate researchers wishing to perform basic activities (e.g. short sampling
campaigns, measurements, run a small experiment, access data archives, etc). In contrast to the regular application procedure (i.e. short
pre-application detailed full application), only a brief application (max. 1 page). Application procedures can be found here.

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PhD Seminars – The importance of “WHAT?”

April’s roundtable was chaired by Eloy Revilla, scientific researcher at the Conservation Biology Department. He chatted with us about his own scientific career and how it evolved from his thesis times, struggling to know “life and miracles” of the Eurasian badger in Doñana, to the “modeling world” in which he is more immersed now.

This apparently big step is just a question of focus, his piece of advice was not to concentrate just on our study system but to go beyond and find the common characteristics that this system has with something more global. We sometimes are too worried about proving the singularity of our system trying to differentiate from the rest to enhance its value, forgetting that it could be even more valuable if we could transgress with our findings to something more general. (Look at your thesis data again… maybe you are able to find a common methodology for sampling in a determined biome, or design a model to predict probability of presence of your study species which has not been used before!)

The important thing is the researching question and not the system itself.

He encouraged us to not being afraid of apparently arid tools as programming languages, which can help us to do exactly what we want and not only “canned functions” wrapped in fancy programs that we often don’t know what are exactly doing. Programming is a versatile tool useful in many fields, and the maximum abstraction with which we’ll be able to answer nearly any ecological (and not) question. However, if Math are not your piece of cake, don’t despair, Wilson have other suggestions for you ;).

The important thing is the “WHAT?” and not the “HOW?”. If you don’t lose your objectives, many ways of solving your problem will come out (maybe in the form of lines and lines of code in strange languages that you thought were just for those computer geeks at the Informatics faculty).

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PhD seminars – CVs in a scientific career

New month, new seminar! This time by Andy Green, who told us about his career as a researcher. His path has been quite motley and curious. First, he studied zoology at university and he did his PhD on amphibians in Oxford. As much of us, he nearly left it after an awful unsuccessful year. In the end, he kept on trying and he came up with his desired results. His advice was “do not listen to your boss”. Of course, don’t follow this as a rule but sometimes it’s a good idea to think for ourselves, even more if we’re stuck.

Then, he stopped what we understand as a “researching career” and he moved into another field, the NGOs world. He worked at worked “The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust”, an NGO whose aim was mainly bird conservation. He held the position of head of the Threatened Species Unit within the Research Department, and he mostly published informative articles and wrote conservation projects. Such a change –moving form science to animal conservation- in Spain could be seen as the end of our career, but nothing further, and Andy is one example of that. After a 4-year period at this task he moved again to science and came here, at the EBD!


The moral of this story, as Andy said, is that not everything is scientific production,    biology is a multidisciplinary doctrine and the found of wisdom won’t be in our tiny filed. Perhaps in our country hiring PhDs for NGOs isn’t very common and it’s seen as a loss of time, but in others countries with a longer tradition in animal conservation it could be an advantage.

Here I link a few webs about CVs in science and science students:

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PhD seminars- How to prepare a great research project?

As every month, PhD students had our seminar dose. Yesterday, it was the turn of Pedro Jordano, scientific researcher in the EBD and member of the evaluation panels of the “Starting Grants” and “Plan Nacional I+D+I” projects. He talked about how to prepare a competitive research project in order to obtain funds and gave us advice to avoid common mistakes.
I highlight here some points commented by Pedro:


It´s time to sell your ideas!
  • Take your time getting information about the funding institution, read carefully the application instructions and focus your project accordingly. Don´t use the same proposal for different calls!
  • Avoid pompous redaction and  “overselling”; any excess is bad.
  • Budget your project in detail, some  may not be funded due to vague proposals.
  • Finally…Review, review and review the project once again. Before applying, it is a good idea to send your draft to people you trust, so you can get a critical review.


PhD seminars – Steps to get a postdoc

Within our series of PhD seminars, where every month we invite an EBD researcher to talk about scientific careers, tips and science in general, last Tuesday we had Manuela González as our guest researcher. She provided us with a great bunch of tips to get our dreamed postdoc (here you can find the pdf in Spanish and here a list of useful online resources and job posting sites). As a brief summary these are a few of the ideas commented:

Be aware of jobs offered in e-mail lists such as EcoLog or Society for Conservation Biology.

Applying to a job be careful! Read and follow the instructions, try to know the group in advance and prepare a great cover letter (as it would be in most of the cases the only thing they will read.

For the interview, get ready!! Prepare in advance the possible questions and behave! In this practical guide you can get some ideas about how a potential employer could think.

Become important online: create a web site, be active in academic networks (e.g. and take care with Facebook pics!