Tag Archives: science

Taking a walk on the Wild Side: My adventures in radio

I have found myself doing a lot of unexpected things over the years–singing in an a capella group, for example, and moving to England–but one thing I certainly never anticipated was having my own radio show.

My father is a radio journalist, so perhaps I should have seen this coming. When I was younger, I used to spend quite a lot of time at his office, where I would sit in the recording studio and pretend to be on air. I remember being particularly enthralled with the act of erasing old broadcasts from previously used tape cartridges. I also recall learning how to sort through old press releases and decide which ones should be broadcasted for a second day, and which should be tossed. I was even on air a couple of times–once because I won some sort of writing contest and was recorded reading my piece aloud, and another time because my dad had recorded me playing piano so that he could use the clip as “natural sound” in the background of a piece. With that kind of history, I was practically destined to grow up and become a radio personality.

The thing is, pretty much everything about radio broadcasting goes against my natural inclinations. I dislike speaking extemporaneously because, when I do, I say unbelievably stupid things. I’m not funny. I am not very good at interviewing or chatting with people. I can’t juggle too many things at once, so I don’t feel comfortable switching between CDs and microphones or doing fancy things with the sound. Really, the only thing I’ve got going for me is the fact that I can’t stand the idea of avoiding something because it scares me–well, that and the skill of being able to speak at length about things even when I don’t precisely know what I’m talking about.

So how in the world did I end up hosting my own radio show? It was suggested by a colleague at the University of Exeter who knew about my interest in science outreach. He had done some guest spots on some previous science-themed broadcasts at our local station, The Source 96.1 FM, so he knew the people in charge and had an inkling that they might want to host a show devoted to science. Before I could think twice and say no, he’d sent an e-mail to the Powers That Be, and I found myself signed up for a training day.

This is what I found when I arrived at The Source for my introduction to the studio (although this particular photo was taken later–station manager Matthew Rogers wasn’t picnicking outside on that first day). The mobile office units were donated to the station by construction companies at the University of Exeter; they allowed Source to move out of their quarters at the University College Falmouth and exist independently. While they may not look too exciting from the outside, they were a pretty big step up for the radio station; besides, the magic results from what happens within.

This is the main studio, from which the majority of shows are broadcasted; there is also a smaller second studio that is mostly used for pre-recording (on the rare occasions when it is necessary). On the training day, I was one of 4 people who showed up to the station to find out about possibly getting a show. We heard a little bit about Source’s origins and scope, then were quickly ushered into the studio to get our first lesson on how to work the equipment. That was when I realized that thinking about having a radio show is a very different thing from actually having a radio show; staring down a microphone and resting your hands on the soundboard very much help turn a mere concept into a reality.

I tried to drag my feet as much as possible, but after a couple of follow-up training sessions, there was not much more I could learn about operating the soundboard–basically, you play a song by pushing up one switch and pulling down another, then do the reverse in order to go back to talking. Once I had that mastered, I really had no excuses to put off my first show any longer.

To make things easy on myself, I decided that the theme of my first broadcast would be the topic on which I am (theoretically) most expert: birdsong. Conveniently, I was also in the midst of writing a magazine article on that very same idea, so I was able to use the written piece as a framework for the oral version of the presentation. The one last hurdle I had to clear prior to the first episode was coming up with a name for my show. I toyed with the idea of calling it “Anthrophysis” in honor of my science blog of the same name, but I didn’t want to restrict my scope; “anthrophysis” loosely means “humans” and “nature,” and I anticipated plenty of times when I’d want to talk about the latter without trying to connect it to the former. I’m not sure where my inspiration came from, but I realized that at some point I had started thinking of my show as the “Wild Side,” and that is the name that ultimately stuck.

I was pretty terrified on the day of my first broadcast, to the point where I was physically ill the night before and the entire day of the show. Ditto the next week and the week after that…in fact, things didn’t start getting any easier until my 5th or 6th episode. You would think that after all these years of performing in front of people, it wouldn’t bother me any more, but it still does. It doesn’t matter whether I’m playing an instrument, singing, acting, running a race, giving a lecture, or, now, hosting a radio show; I still feel absolutely miserable. It’s an especially weird reaction to broadcasting because, as far as I can see from my position in the studio, I am completely alone; I’m basically sitting in a room just talking to myself. My mind, however, is aware that there is (potentially) an audience out there, so I still get the nervous adrenaline rush and all the fun side effects that come with it.

One of the things I do to minimize the stress is make my shows as simple as possible. Eventually I may do “fancy” things such as taking calls and interviewing guests, but for now I essentially do a lecture not unlike one I might give to students at the university–only in this case I take occasional breaks to play music. I started off discussing topics for which I already had presentations prepared and/or research compiled, including animal communication, deception in the animal kingdom, and the ecology of urban environments. After that, I had to step out into the great unknown and talk about things that I’d only just researched during the week prior to my show. That was a nerve-wracking transition to make, because I hate saying anything that I am not 100% sure of, and for me, being 100% sure requires doing months and months of reading. Each week, I type out notes that I can use as an intellectual crutch to get me through the broadcast. I don’t read them out like a manuscript, because I’m pretty sure that would bore listeners stiff. I do, however, use them to make sure I discuss things in the right order, say the correct names and dates, and know when to break for songs.

The songs themselves are probably the most fun thing about doing the broadcasts. I have a truly massive music collection, including lots of stuff that I acquired simply because I found it odd or amusing. I now finally have a reason to own all of this music. I prefer to choose songs that refer to the overall theme of each week’s broadcast–for the birdsong week, for instance, I chose songs with “bird” in the title or, where necessary, the name of a particular bird (“dove,” “eagle,” etc.). Occasionally that is difficult to do, and I have to choose songs that express the different topics or themes I discuss throughout the broadcast. That is what I had to do for my show on science history, because, as it turns out, there aren’t lots of songs with “history” in the title.

If there is anything that could be considered my broadcasting kryptonite, it is distracting bird activity outside the studio window. I have had to train myself to ignore all the little house sparrows, dunnocks, wrens, and blackbirds that come and go while I am on air. There was one early episode during which I realized that I’d completely zoned out for about 5 minutes–while talking–because I was watching the birds outside. Another thing I find totally distracting is the sound of my own voice. Frankly, I’m not really sure why I even wear headphones while I’m in the studio, since I have the volume turned down so low that the speakers are basically not transmitting any sound into my ears.

Listeners (again, assuming there are any other than my family) may not be aware of too many obvious differences between my first and most recent shows, but I certainly feel different. Since I first went on air, I have become much more comfortable with the whole broadcasting process, from the rushed turnover between shows to adjusting volume levels while talking to shrugging off the errors I make while speaking. Much of this is thanks to studio manager Jerry Padfield, who has coached me from Day 1. I still have a long way to go, but I am no longer feeling as much pressure to be perfect all the time (if only I could apply this same attitude to the rest of my life!). I have even relaxed enough to start taking a video camera in to record my episodes for later uploading to YouTube.

Of course, the purpose of the show is not to expand my horizons or make me popular or get me a job with the BBC (all of which, however, are fine by me!), but to teach people about science. While I have absolutely no idea whether it is succeeding at that goal, I have my fingers crossed; if only one person learns one thing each week, I have succeeded. I’d also be happy to learn that someone discovered a new musician thanks to the songs I play. (That possibility, incidentally, is one of the things that first attracted my father to radio.) If nothing else, though, I’ve had the chance to meet new people, learn new skills, conquer old fears, and gain a tiny bit of perspective on what my dad has been doing every weekday for the past 30 years. I may not get paid the big bucks for hosting “Wild Side” (or, in fact, any bucks at all), but those achievements are reward enough.

If you want to hear “Wild Side,” tune in to Cornwall’s The Source 96.1 FM from 1-2 PM GMT every Wednesday (over the airwaves or online). Podcasting is coming soon, either via The Source or my own website. You can also visit the latter to access YouTube links to episodes 8 (“A Brief History of Science”) and 9 (“The Science of Bird Migration”).

ISBE 2012: Lund, Sweden

The biennial conference of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology may not sound, to most ordinary people, like a romantic event, but it is where my husband and I were first introduced (Tours, France, 2006), where we had our first date (Ithaca, New York, 2008), and where we had our belated honeymoon (Perth, Australia, 2010). In other words, it’s a fairly big deal in our little family, and also, of course, in the field of behavioral ecology. Earlier this year, we wasted no time in signing ourselves up to attend ISBE 2012 in Lund, Sweden–a location that, happily, allowed me to finally fulfill my dream of visiting Scandinavia.

Unfortunately, getting to Scandinavia required getting past this: a seemingly endless line of cars. Funnily enough, this is the seemingly endless line of cars that we encountered on a detour we took in order to avoid another seemingly endless line of cars on the main road off the western peninsula of England. All told, our trip ended up being about 8 hours long when it should have been about 6. The only benefit of our meandering was an encounter with one of Britain’s most iconic landmarks:

(Tiny Stonehenge in the distance.)

We’d hoped to reach our destination, the Harwood Guest House, in time to watch Mo Farrah’s bid to win a gold medal in the 5,000-m Olympic run. Tragically, we were still on the road when his race began, but my iPhone saved the day and we were able to see the big event in miniature (our excitement, however, was supersized). Once we finally did arrive at our B&B, we wasted no time turning on the television in order to watch more of the night’s competitions:

Sadly, we did eventually have to leave our room in order to go have dinner. For the second time, we tried and failed to eat at Indochine, an Asian-themed restaurant highly recommended by our hosts. This worked out well for us, since it meant that we ended up having dinner at Dunmow’s China Garden Restaurant.

Having Chinese food in situ seems kind of novel and exciting these days, since this has been the go-to take-out genre for the past 2 decades of my life. Sasha and I had a really excellent meal consisting of pepper shrimp, veggie and tofu stir-fry, and mushroom stir-fry. It was ridiculously affordable, and Sasha and I were well aware that we would look back on this cheap meal with wistful fondness once we got to Sweden.

(…and after.)
The next morning, we headed over to Stansted Airport for the second (and final) time this summer. We browsed through the Olympics store while we waited for our flight, more out of curiosity than anything else. The merchandise was generally too expensive to be tempting, but a part of me still wanted to buy something to commemorate the year that I saw the torch in my very own town. That’s when I saw this:
Given my sudden and peculiar obsession with the rhythmic gymnastics events this year, I just couldn’t say no. Treasure in hand, I reported to the gate to finally head to Sweden.
Once I arrived, a mere 1.5 hours later, I was amazed to discover that Sweden has these:
(7-11s in Sweden. Amazing.)
I also quickly realized that they have terrible taste in architecture and/or exterior decorating: 
(Malmo Airport, from which we took a ~30-minute taxi ride into Lund.)
Our journey into Lund was memorable only because the taxi driver tried to rip us off. The conference paperwork emphasized the need to negotiate taxi prices before getting into the vehicle, and our experience demonstrated why this was a vital tactic. Even though we had already agreed upon a particular price–with not only our driver but also another driver from the same company who was simultaneously taking a car-load of our colleagues to another hotel–the driver suddenly tried to charge us more once we reached our destination. Sadly for him, the driver did not count on Sasha’s haggling skills, honed during a lifetime of living and traveling in third-world countries. Needless to say, we did not pay a penny more than the original quote, and we also did not pay a tip.
We had booked ourselves a room at the Hotel Djingis Khan, which, at the time of our registration, was the cheapest conference-recommended hotel in Lund. Unfortunately, it was also one of the farthest away from the conference facilities; it took about 25 minutes to walk into town. This ultimately had two benefits. First, because we were situated away from the hustle and bustle of the city, our room was exceedingly quiet and restful. Second, the walk into Lund involved a shortcut through the north “kyrkogarden,” or graveyard. That sounds like a dubious benefit, I know, but as the Swedish name suggests, the graveyard really was a “garden,” and it was quite lovely:

 (I have no idea what this building is–a crypt? a chapel?)
I wandered around the graveyard every day and, uniquely for me, even at night–we had to pass through it in order to get home at the end of the evening. I’d never actually been in a cemetery at night, thought it is something I’ve always found appealing in a sort of morbid, horror-movie-loving kind of way. This particular cemetery was far removed from the haunted ones you see in films, because it was incredibly clean and well-tended; as the photo of the gravel patterns shows, there was a sort of Chinese rock garden quality about the place. People come in the evening to light candles and lanterns at some of the plots, so when you walk through in the dark, you can see the lights winking in the distance. It is all very calm and peaceful.
Although I attended both the opening and closing events at the conference, I spent most of the week holed up in my hotel room doing work; such is life. However, I did make time to take my normal daily walk, only in this instance I was doing it in an interesting foreign town, with my camera in hand.
(I can’t believe people live in homes this cute. I want one of these, hollyhocks and all.)
One of the nice things about sightseeing on foot is that you stumble across places you’d never see from a tour bus, or when taxiing from one landmark to the next. This incredibly picturesque neighborhood, for example, was something I just happened to find when taking a short cut back to the town center after sussing out the location of the botanical garden.

Likewise, this cat “graffiti”–which is probably my favorite find of the whole trip–was a pleasant surprise along a new route that I took one day into town.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I avoided the famous sights, such as Lund’s cathedral, or Lund Domkyrka. Actually, it would be pretty hard not to see the cathedral, since it’s right in the center of town and is a pretty obvious feature of the skyline. It is a Lutheran cathedral, and the seat of the Church of Sweden’s Bishop of Lund. Lund’s first cathedral was built in the 11th century, and this more recent version–bits of which date back to the 13th century–may or may not stand in the same place. Its exterior is not as impressive as many that you will see elsewhere in Europe (particularly in Italy, Spain, and France), but it has many lovely features nonetheless. These include a 15th-century astronomical clock, giant organs (I’m not being euphemistic here–I’m referring to an instrument), and a crypt that dates back to the 12th century and has unusual and mysterious carvings on its columns. You’ll also find standard cathedral-y things like ornate choir seating, impressive frescos and mosaics, and giant candelabra:

(Someone’s going to need a loooong match.)
(The 15th-century clock, which still works.)
 (One of the tombs in the crypt, which has remained virtually untouched since the 12th century.)

Another “attraction” that you really can’t miss is Lund University. Consistently ranked among the world’s top 100 institutions of higher learning, LU (as I’m sure the Swedes don’t call it) dates back to 1425, when the Franciscans founded a university next to the cathedral. LU’s buildings were designed and crafted during a variety of different eras, but all manage to exude that stereotypical learned European vibe:

(Why doesn’t my university have a turret?)
For most of our stay in Lund, the weather was absolutely beautiful; the skies were brilliant blue, the clouds were picturesque, the air was warm (sometimes even hot!), and the landscape was dotted with all sorts of wildlife. It was hard to think about spending any unnecessary time indoors, and so I bypassed Lund’s many museums in favor of al fresco attractions such as the Botniska Tradgarden:
(I love it when plants are labeled with little signs so that I don’t have to wonder what in the world I’m looking at; sometimes when I spend too long in botanical gardens, the next time I’m out in nature I get confused when I can’t find any plaques.)
 (Look closely and you will see a baby water rail among the reeds.)
The garden was huge, featuring both indoor and outdoor plantings representative of seemingly every major biome. It was also free, which, thanks to Sweden’s incredibly high prices, was an even better deal than usual.
On our final evening in Lund, we hopped on a bus to Luftkastellet, the venue for the ISBE conference banquet. Because the facility is located along the shoreline looking out over the strait between Sweden and Denmark, I had assumed it was a historical building–like the castle where we banqueted in Italy. I was a little disappointed to discover that it was, in fact, a nearly brand-new building, but I was certainly not disappointed with the view:
The next day, there was not much left to do other than check out of our room, loaf around in the hotel lounge (taking advantage of the free wi-fi that we were not able to detect in our room), and get a taxi ride (from a former professional international football referee!) back to Malmo Airport. I did, however, manage to squeeze in a quick photo op with my faithful pink travel companion:
(Florian, making friends with the gnome in our hotel’s back garden.)
I don’t know whether I will ever again be an ISBE delegate, since my academic career may be winding to a close. Sasha, however, will undoubtedly remain a fixture at the event, and I will tag along when I can. ISBE 2014 will be held in New York City, so my next conference report will be filed from the motherland!

The Eden Project

Last week Sasha and I had houseguests: his sister and her daughter, both of whom were visiting Cornwall for the first time. One of the places that we took them was a must-see attraction here in the Southwest: The Eden Project, winner of a 2011 British Travel Award and home to the world’s largest indoor rain forest. Sasha took me there the first time that I visited him in the UK, and since then we have returned many times for many reasons–to see the plants, to attend an outdoor concert, to buy unique Christmas gifts in the extensive gift shop. It is a great place and it was nice to have the chance to share it with someone new.
The Eden Project was born way back in 1995, when a clay pit in Bodelva, Cornwall was nearing its end as a productive mining site. Botanical developer Tim Smit–who is responsible for the restoration of another of my favorite Cornish attractions, the Lost Gardens of Heligan–found out about the site while looking for a place where he could establish a collection of internationally important plants. Architects eventually thought up the idea of placing the plants under a series of bubbles, which could be comfortably settled on any surface–even a reclaimed mining site. According to the Eden Project’s website, the resulting construction process set a world record for the amount of scaffolding required. It took several years to improve the landscaping and construct the greenhouses, but finally, in early 2001, the Eden Project was ready to open its doors to visitors.
The whole point of the Eden Project is to celebrate plants and the connections between plants and people. So, if you’re not really into botany or gardening or eating your fruits and veggies, then I suppose it’s probably not the place for you. That said, the Eden Project does its best to have mass appeal, regardless of your attitudes toward all things green. The facility has both indoor and outdoor portions, both of which are sprinkled with displays that showcase plants and culture, and some of which allow you to have a hands-on experience with the flora.

The outdoor bit has species from a number of habitats, but there is a particular focus on Cornish plantlife. In the past, there was a large earthen sculpture by a local artist who also provided decorations for Heligan; this time around I noticed that the Project had acquired one of the locally made recycled metal sculptures that I’ve wanted to buy for a long time. I am not sure of the name of the artist, but he used to sell his pieces–many of which were birds–out in Discovery Quay. If you look closely at the eagle above, you’ll see that many of its feathers are made from forks and other “upcycled” cutlery. These things probably take forever to make, which is likely why they cost a small fortune. Anyway, I think it’s great that the garden profiles and celebrates local artisans.

Many of the Project’s displays are aimed at educating people about the diverse ways in which we humans interact with plants–sometimes unknowingly, as when we use plastics made from corn products. The displays also provide information on the ways we intentionally harm plants in the wild. For example, there are exhibits showing how native plants are impacted by intensive mining efforts (an issue of particular interest here in Cornwall), and both agricultural and grazing practices.

The garden also showcases the many benefits of flora–as medicine, food, decoration, perfume, whatever. One of my favorite finds this visit was a huge field of lavender, a plant that has long been valued for its scent. It was particularly popular among the Eden Project’s small, flying, buzzy visitors.

Pretty much every time I’ve gone to the Eden Project, the visit has been timed to take advantage of the tasty menu in the eating hall. Unfortunately, we were not able to do that this time around because we had a bit of an emergency prior to our departure from home–Sasha’s niece got locked into the guest bedroom and had to wait there until we could find a handyman to come dismantle the door and get her out. After that traumatic experience, we were all willing to give her pretty much anything she wanted, so of course we indulged in some of the unusual Cornish cream ice cream flavors on offer at Eden. I passed up the intriguing lime-and-cardamom in favor of mango and passionfruit, while the others sampled fancy versions of caramel, chocolate, and strawberry.

Cones in hand, we toured the two biomes–the Mediterranean and the rain forest. Although it is the latter that gets all the attention–it does, after all, contain over 1,000 different species and have a roof high enough to fit 2 Big Bens stacked on top of each other–it is the former for which I have a soft spot.

One of the things I love is how it recognizes/celebrates ancient bacchanalia festivals. I’m not really into sculptures and carvings in general, but I have always liked these particular statues, placed amidst the grapevines; they convey a sense of movement so you feel as though you’ve just wandered in and disturbed the locals in the middle of a big party.

Although much of the Mediterranean biome is devoted to showcasing edible species such as grapes, citrus fruits, and olives, there was also a display on plants that are frequently used in perfumes. I’m not sure whether this was a new display or one that I just didn’t remember very well from before, but, either way, I enjoyed reading about all the nice-smelling species and how they are joined together into concoctions that make us smell nice. In many cases, you can rub the leaves gently and get a whiff of the scent left behind on your fingertips.

In fact, one of the neat things about the Eden Project is that there are few barriers between you and the plants; not only are you not prevented from coming into contact with plants, but these sorts of interactions are actually facilitated and encouraged (especially in the education center). The plant above was something I ran into–literally–in the Mediterranean biome. I accidentally brushed my arm up against it and then I couldn’t stop petting it because it was so soft.

Once I could finally be dragged away from my new friend, we headed over to the world-famous rain forest biome. It has been previously been visited by numerous celebrities, including Queen Elizabeth II, David Attenborough, and Bear Grylls (Angelina Jolie may also have swung by during her visit to the Eden Project in 2005). Since our last visit, they’ve installed an indoor helium balloon and a lookout platform, both of which allow visitors to get a bird’s eye view of the tropical plants. Unfortunately, because we were there so late in the day, we didn’t get a chance to try those out. Still, the view was pretty nice down on the ground.

One of the weird things about the biomes is that local birds always find their way in; it can be very jarring to stand under a papaya tree and then look over and see a blackbird or a robin hanging out in a nearby patch of bamboo. There are also some captive resident tropical birds–most notably white-eyes–that help keep the invasive ant population in check. You used to only catch occasional glimpses of these, but during this last visit we saw lots of them flitting about in the branches.

The curators (if that is the right word) at the Eden Project work hard to create a “total experience,” recreating not just habitats but also touches of the human cultures that can be found in those environments. As you wander around, you find little paintings and sculptures tucked into the foliage, and there are entire displays devoted to explaining how plants impact particular groups of people, and vice versa. A large portion of the rain forest biome, for example, looks at the effects of banana plantations on tropical habitats.

We were the last people in the biome, much to the annoyance of the guards. They eventually had to round us up and usher us out so they could close up for the evening. We happened to time our visit so that it coincided with the first night of some sort of festival, which was a bummer for us but highlights one of the great things about the Eden Project–they have all sorts of things going on. During the spring and summer, there are several evening concerts known collectively as the Eden Sessions; Sasha and I attended one with Martha Wainwright and Paolo Nutini a while back, and it was pleasant despite some intermittent rain. During the winter, the staff create an ice skating rink and turn the garden into a winter wonderland. Other special events have included the Eden Marathon, a circus, and an eco-motor car show.

As I mentioned earlier, I am also rather a fan of the Eden Project’s gift shop, which is stocked with many things edible, artsy, garden-y, and fair trade. It’s a great place to go to find interesting and unusual presents for people; although the items can be a bit on the pricey side, at least you know that you are spending your money on ethically-made products created in sustainable environments. Despite the fact that I’ve got practically a biome’s worth of plants already, I couldn’t help but buy a new addition to my botanical collection during our last visit, and I also picked up a few edible items to include in my next Foodie Penpals package.

My best souvenirs were free, though: some good photos of flamingo lilies (anthuriums), which I hope to include in my upcoming book in the section on “other things that are named ‘flamingo’.” To boot, I have memories of time well spent with family–which, of course, is priceless.

Note to travelers: The Eden Project is a great place to go during Cornwall’s notorious rainy weather, since many of the garden’s attractions are indoors. If it is nice outside, you can take advantage of the newly-installed climbing wall and zip line. However, all of this comes at a cost–tickets are a rather steep £23 apiece these days, so make the most of your purchase by staying all day!