On the steppes of Askania Nova

The circles are the parts of the field that are irrigated, while the drier ‘corners’ are planted with different crops.

Southern Ukraine. From Zaporizhza to Askania Nova we pass field after field on the straight (but bumpy) road. The fields are huge, bigger than any fields I’ve seen. This is farming on the industrial scale. Once upon a time this was the river bed of one of Europe’s largest river, which deposited a thick layer of soil perfect to till. But it is dry, and without pumping water from Dnepr most of the fields would be steppe.

Johannes Rydström and I have traveled here to meet with Denys Muzika and his team of ornithologists and virologist. Over the course of a week, we try and catch ducks to equip them with GPS loggers that allow us to study migratory connectivity and influenza A virus dispersal. Just a few weeks earlier I was doing similar work in Bangladesh, and the contrasts in temperature, landscape and number of people couldn’t be larger.

Our base is Askania Nova, a pristine steppe reserve in the southern part of the country. It is a popular tourist destination and the site has a very ambitious zoo with large ungulates and birds, and a huge park with a collection of diverse trees. It is a gem and as a birdwatcher the steppe birds are amazing to see, with a constant background of singing Calandra larks.

Our team scouted different wetlands in the area and we tried to capture birds most nights using mist nets and duck calls. Depite our efforts and some amazing wetlands, we were not as successful as we had hoped. But at the end of the trip we can note 9 mallards equipped with loggers, of which one directly migrated to Russia. A big part of the trip was to connect and build for the future, because this is a site of strategic importance for influenza and duck research, on the gateway to Europe on the Caspian/Black Sea flyway.

We will be back.

A male mallard is about to be equipped with a logger. This bird is currently in southern Ukraine. Photo Johannes Rydström.

Several nights we worked in a beautiful steppe lake, putting up mist nets to catch ducks. This is Denys in action. Photo Johannes Rydström.

Sweden-Ukraine Duck Team (Denys, Sasha, Raysa, Jonas and Kolja) Photo Johannes Rydström.

This is me!

Ten reasons to love academia (and to forget looming application deadlines)

By Jonas Waldenström

It is application times. Again. That period of the year when researchers look even more tired and haggard than usual. That period when the lingering coffee aroma in the hallway seems stronger, even pungent. A time of frantic scribbles on papers, pulled hairs, and the tick-tick-tick-tack sounds of fingers tapping away on keyboards. And in the distance, the muffled sounds of silent sobs from behind the bathroom door.

Application times are gruesome. Competition for grants is fierce – many apply, but few get them. A simple fact. But regardless of the odds, we pour down our souls on paper, weighing each word, trying to convey the message that this application is the best of the lot, the next Nobel Prize in coming. We wish that it reach perfection, but it seldom does. Because life cannot be paused. There is still teaching to done, administration to administer, student manuscripts to read – and a family to feed and care for.

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For more great stuff of Cyanide and Happiness check out explosm.net/comics/

In this time it is good to remember all the good things of life in academia. So for all you weary and tired, here is a list of remembrance:

1)   You are an expert. Of all the snowflakes in academia, you are one unique little snowflake. There is simply no one who is better than you at being you. Your training, all the hardships and struggle has produce your academic self.

2)   Smell the flowers. Stop for a while, go to your pile of reprints and read one of them. Feel that glossy paper and remember the joyous feeling you had when it was published. You wrote that! It is easy to forget the little victories, but you shouldn’t. There is lots of stuff to be proud of!

3)   Fieldwork. Application times also heralds the onset of spring – soon it is time to roam the green hills and collect new data. As I have written before: the fieldwork is one of the best quirks of being a biologist! More ducks to catch!

4)   The grandeur of science. Our job is not just an ordinary job. We are a part of a human movement for enlightment. We are getting paid to find things out – isn’t that awesome?

5)   Friends in many places. Contrary to peoples’ beliefs, science is all about collaborations. We make friends all over the world, we exchange ideas and sometimes we work together. And we get to learn other cultures, new people, and see things.

6)   ‘The pleasure of finding things out.’ There is a beauty to figure out things, to solve a question. The quote comes from Richard Feynman, a multifaceted scientist and Nobel laureate. Also a man that took part in the development of the atom bomb. There is an hour-long BBC documentary on YouTube that you ought to watch.

7)   You are your own boss. Freedom has always been viewed as a prerequisite for science. Freedom to explore ideas, freedom to participate in the discussion, freedom to think. Although this academic freedom isn’t as free as it used to be, life in academia is still very different from ordinary workplaces. Embrace that.

 8)   Science is a lucid sea to swim in. If you feel stuck, open your browser and explore the world from your computer. There are so many awesome studies conducted, in topics you couldn’t even imagine. Go on Twitter, follow some of the great science communicators – read and enjoy!

9)   Embrace your inner nerd/geek. Isn’t it great to know stuff? I can recite the names of viruses, I know where the Mallard flies, and how to find the best pubs in Oxford. All because of science!

10)                  Play the ‘swap professor with X’-game. If you are really down, and think that everyone else are so great and you are just a little pile of shit on the academic floor, then you should play the ‘swap professor with X’-game. It is simple. Imagine the hotshot professor in a non-academic setting. How would professor X do in a lumberyard, in a marathon, in a grocery store? Refreshing, I promise you.

Now go back to your application. Damn it.


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