Travels to the tropics and loving your subject area

emily-bell-12778Emily Bell (EB) is a PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol. She studies the evolution of social behaviour in tropical wasps, spending most of her summers working out in the Republic of Panama with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Here she talks to Soapbox Science (SS) about what inspired her to enter the world of science and about the best aspects of her PhD. You can hear Emily speak on her Soapbox in Bristol on June the 14th, where she will be talking about “How to have a social life – lessons from the wasps”. Follow Emily on Twitter @emilyfbell


SS: Hi Emily, thank you for coming to talk to us at Soapbox about your love of wasps and what your doing for your PhD. Firstly can you tell us how you got into your current position?

EB: I got into my current position by the fairly traditional route really. Since I was young I have always had a fascination with the natural world and insects in particular, spending summers turning over rocks and catching grasshoppers and butterflies. So after finishing my Zoology degree at University College London I went on to do a Masters at the University of Oxford. During my Masters I gained some fantastic field experience in diverse areas of zoology. This work geared me up to wanting to start a hands on field-based PhD. In previous years I had been in contact with my current supervisor enquiring about the work she did. Towards the end of my Masters she approached me again to ask if I was still interested in doing a project with her – naturally I was and here we are several years later.


SS: So it sounds like you have always had a love of nature but was there anyone in particular you inspired you to study science?

EB: Possibly the person who really inspired me to get a career in science is Dr George McGavin. Although now well known as an explorer, entomologist and TV presenter I am fortunate that George is a family friend who I have known for many years. When deciding what to study at University I went to lots of career events in my local school district. Many of the rooms were filled with professional looking people encouraging students to into law and business. When you turned the corner into the science room it would be full of gasps and laughter. George would be stood near a table covered with centipedes and tarantulas passionately telling everyone why these creatures were so fascinating.  From those moments there was no turning back, zoology was the course for me!


SS: Wow, what good science celebrity links! It sounds like George was a great inspiration to many students. Now you are well into the third year or your PhD what part of your research have you found the most fascinating?

EB: I’m so lucky to be able to conduct large amounts of field work in the Republic of Panama. I love being out in the field. Perching on top of a ladder, the Caribbean coast on one side and thick tropical rainforest on the other, over-heating in my bee suit watching the behaviour of my wasps. When you spend as many hours as I do watching nests of wasps you realise just how human they can be. They fight, bicker and show unbelievable parental care. Amongst all the females on each nest jobs are split up perfectly between individuals to ensure the function and survival of their nest. At the head of this colony is the queen who governs her workers, keeping them in line punishing them if they don’t behave. However she is constantly under threat from her daughters who, if they get the chance, will fight to seize the crown from themselves!


SS: What an amazing opportunity to go abroad to study your wasps in their natural habitat. It sounds like these trips to Panama keep you very busy, what made you want to take back in Soapbox Science this year?

EB: I started my PhD working at the Institute of Zoology where both the Soapbox Science co-founders, Nathalie and Seirian, were working when they started the project. Their enthusiasm about promoting the role of woman in science is infectious. They are so passionate about Soapbox that you cannot help but want to be involved. It is such a great cause, I feel fortunate to be a woman in my position with the opportunity to conduct the work I do and wanted a chance to share this.


SS: We are really looking forwards to hearing all about your work in Panama and the social lives of wasps, can you tell us about how you are feeling about getting up on your Soapbox?

“Anticipation!”  but I’m up for the challenge!


SS: If you could change one thing about the present scientific culture what would it be and why?

EB: I would like to see a change in the way that post-doctoral positions work. Contracts are often so short ranging from only 6 months and occasionally up to 2 years. Not only is there immense pressure to get out many high impact publications during these short periods but it is also a really unsettling time for many people. Not knowing what city or even country you might be in 6 months time can be difficult for people trying to maintain relationship or thinking of taking a career break to start a family for example. These are all important decisions for a woman as the majority of people conducting a post-doc are aged 27 and up.  Longer contracts or increased support and understanding for those people who choose not to not to travel the globe to get experience would encourage so many more woman stay in science.


SS: Finally before we go can you give us your top recommendation for a female student considering pursuing a career in academia?

EB: Make sure that you choose to study in an area of science that you love, don’t just take the first project you are offered. There will be many ups and downs during the course of your PhD. However, as long as you are passionate about your subject area those moments of ups and key exciting research findings will always outweigh any downs.

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