Thesis writing is a pain in the arm

Tips for avoiding or coping with thesis-induced tendonitis

I’ve been having some pain in my arm since about January, but since I’ve finished my lab work and been based solely at the computer, it has become unbearable. I tried changing my workspace and taking more frequent breaks, but it just seems to be getting worse. I finally went to the doctor, who referred me to a physiotherapist. It turns out I’ve got tendonitis and possibly a trapped nerve which is aggravated whenever I use my arm, and which is going to require ongoing physio.

Obviously this has a big impact on my ability to work. Typing or using the mouse for more than a few minutes at a time is pretty painful. It’s also made it difficult to do other things – everything from driving and carrying groceries to doing yoga and kneading bread dough now causes problems.

Of course I’m far from alone in experiencing this kind of injury. I know of quite a few people who have developed or aggravated pre-exisiting problems in their wrists, arms, neck or back during periods of intensive computer work. When I mentioned my problem on facebook, I had about a dozen comments from fellow sufferers within a couple of minutes, most offering helpful suggestions along with some sympathy. Given how common the problems seem to be, I thought I’d pass along some of the advice I’ve received from friends, the college occupational health advisor and my psysiotherapist in hopes that it might help someone else.

First of all, if you aren’t experiencing these sorts of problems, do everything you can to prevent them! Whether taknig preventative measures or trying to cope after problems develop, the advice is much the same and seems to fall into three main categories: workstation ergonomics, support software, and behaviour change.

Workstation ergonomics
Ensure you’re workstation is step up properly. This could include adjusting your desk height, chair height, back support, foot rest, or monitor height. Make sure your keyboard and mouse are positioned to minimise stress on your wrists and allow your arms to rest comfortably. Your occupational health department should be able to provide advice on this (Imperial College’s computer health advice can be found here).

Using a standard mouse or my laptop touchpad really aggravates my arm, so the first thing I did was swap to using the mouse with my left hand. However this is still pretty inefficient for me, so I’m looking into more ergonoic alternatives. One option is a vertical mouse, which allows you to keep your wrist in a more natural position while using it. Another option is something like a tablet and stylus. A couple of my friends swear by this one for its ease of use and the ability to swap between right- and left-hand use. I’m going to give both a try before deciding what’s best for me.

Typing is also a problem. I don’t tend to use my laptop keyboard for typing, but instead have a larger external keyboard. One friend suggested having two keyboards with slightly different shapes so you use slightly different muscles. Another suggested that simple gel wrist supports are a good alternative to fancy (read: expensive) ergonomic keyboards. However, if you want to minimise your typing, then you need to consider software options.

Support software
One of the most obvious options for reducing problems associated with typing and using the mouse is to minimise these activities by using voice recognition software. The option that most people mentioned is called Dragon, but there are also programmes built into both Windows and Apple operating systems. The upside of these is reduced need to type, but the downside is that they can require quite a lot of training. For example, I just started using the Windows voice recognition software today, and the following is what this sentence comes out as before editting.

For example, I just I mean using the windows voice recognition software today, in the following is what this sentence comes out as the four editting.

It still leaves something to be desired, but you should have seen what it came out with before I started training it! There are also limitations on how well it integrates with some programmes, but I am hoping to at least be able to use it for emails and some writing after I do a bit more training.

Another programme I’ve been using is a free app called WorkRave  which you can set to remind you to take short breaks and move around. I have it set to remind me to take a 30 second microbreak every 15 minutes, and a 5 minute rest break every hour. It also suggests some quick exercises during the rest breaks, which brings us to the behaviour bit.

Behaviour change
The best thing you can do is try to avoid working at the computer for extended periods of time. If you can, work in blocks, then switch to something else like lab work. If you’re at the point, like me, where you are fairly tied to the computer, then try to break it up with blocks of reading and take frequent breaks. It’s good idea to get up and move around every hour. Go and get a glass of water, but get it from another floor or another building just to make yourself move around a bit more.
Finally, keep a positive attitude. It might not be easy, especially if you ‘feel like a nerd for being injured by a computer’ as one friend put it, but lots of people have been through it and it will get better!* The amount of support that I’ve received has certainly helped, and I’d like to thank everyone for all the suggestions and encouragement. If anyone has anymore top tips, please put them in the comments!

*That said, another friend suggested that in the latter stages of a PhD, smashing your head repeatedly into the keyboard might be the best bet. Maybe not the best advice, but certainly tempting at times…

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From lab to laptop

Good news – I just finished the final bit of lab work for my PhD!  It’s about two months later than planned due to a series of delays, but it’s finished!  Of course there is now the long process of analysing and writing, and there’s always more I could do in the lab, but it’s a very nice milestone nonetheless.

As I move from the lab to the laptop for writing up, I’m aware that I’ll be spending a lot more time on my own in front of a screen than I am used to.  I’m a little worried about the isolation, so I am relying on friends to help keep me sane through evening and weekend engagements.

This year has been very busy with a heavy workload, lots of travel and various personal things to deal with.  I doubt that is going to change much just because the lab element of my work has been completed, but at least it means I can focus on one thing and I won’t have to commute between Silwood and Nottingham every week.

In the last year, I’ve had to put most of my hobbies on the back burner.  I’m hoping to change that now, if only help separate work time from personal time while working from home.  For a start, I’ve begun reading actual books (not just ecology papers) and baking regularly again.  Now I’m hoping to start blogging again regularly on this site.  I know it has been a while, but I’m just not ready to give it up entirely yet.

I’m hoping to revamp the blog a bit over the next few months and make it a better fit as I come to the end of my PhD and move on to whatever comes next.  I still intend to focus on nature, science, and ecology research generally, but it may look a bit different.  To begin with, I might re-blog some of my posts from the Plants-Soils-Ecosystems blog, and I’ve got some book reviews in the pipeline from my recent reading.  Don’t worry though – I’ll spare you photos of my baking.  No need to mix all of my hobbies.

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Have science, will travel… my Australian work/holiday mash-up

Much of ecology requires field work, and this often means travelling to exciting places.  My husband, who studies forests, spends a lot of time trying to convince undergraduate students that ecology is not all about travel and adventure in exotic locations.  It means a lot of time doing boring things in labs or working out complex statistics in front of a computer.  And then he swans off to Portugal, Malaysia, Australia, Russia, Mexico, Tanzania… just to name a few of his destinations in recent years.

For my PhD, my field work was at Silwood Park in Berkshire, so not exactly the sort of glamorous setting many budding ecologists dream of.  It was a good option for me though – Silwood is a great place, the study system was well established, I could easily pop to the site for maintenance or to collect data whenever I needed to, and I could still go home most weekends.  I spent a lot of time in the field, but usually just doing routine tasks like watering or taking soil moisture measurements.  It is also true that I have spent a lot of time doing fairly boring things in the lab (sorting biomass, sieving soil, washing roots…) or hunched at the computer trying to make sense of the data I collected.

That’s not to imply that my PhD has been all mundane tasks; I’ve had a lot of fun and learned a lot of cool methods too.  However, for the past two months, I’ve finally had the chance to do what my husband usually does and disappear off to a foreign country for work.  I have been working with collaborators at the Hawkesbury Institute for Environment at the University of Western Sydney.

I’ll write more about the HIE and what I’m doing here later, but suffice it to say, despite the new location, the work pattern remains much the same.  I’m still working full time, though more like 45 hour weeks than 50-60 hour weeks.  I’m still spending most of my time in the lab or in front of a computer rather than outside in the sun, and when I have been in the field, it’s been at an experiment very similar to the one I worked on at Silwood rather than out in some remote forest or something.

The myth of the ecologist disappearing to unexplored wilds for research that looks more like a holiday will be maintained though, as I am much more inclined to photograph my weekend adventures than my long days of pipetting.  So below are a few inadequate photos of some stunning, wild landscapes around New South Wales (plus a rather charismatic water dragon for good measure).  Just remember that ecology is hard, often tedious work…  We’re just luckier than most with where we get to do the hard, tedious stuff.

IMG01010-20140420-1045      IMG-20140413-00681

IMG-20140308-00661      IMG00937-20140405-1330

IMG-20140308-00590   IMG-20140308-00601   IMG-20140308-00626

IMG-20140308-00625   IMG-20140308-00637   IMG00814-20140316-1435

IMG00810-20140316-1433      IMG00770-20140315-1353

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‘Digging Deeper’ – the first meeting of the Plants-Soils-Ecosystems group

I just spent the last two days at a really great research meeting in London!  Of course I would say that, because I helped to organise it…

I am the student representative for the Plants-Soils-Ecosystems special interest group of the British Ecological Society.  Group secretary Franciska de Vries, committee member Emma Sayer, and I just organised the group’s first meeting and were really happy with how well it went.  I agreed to write summary of the meeting for the BES bulletin, so thought I would share it here for anyone else who might be interested.

Registration desk, complete with beautiful programmes created by Emma

Fran and I  at the registration desk, with  fantastic meeting booklets designed by Emma

Digging Deeper: Research Challenges in Plant-Soil Interactions

On 2-3 October, 40 delegates from 11 countries descended on Charles Darwin House for the first meeting of the BES Plants-Soils-Ecosystems special interest group.  The meeting consisted of three sessions plus posters addressing current research and future challenges to understanding plant-soil interactions and their influence on ecosystem functioning.  The meeting was kicked-off with a welcome by Plants-Soils-Ecosystems Secretary, Franciska de Vries, who reminded us that the group was only conceived one year ago at the BES/SEB/BS joint symposium, also at Charles Darwin House.  How far we’ve come in a year, with 155 members already!

The first session focused on carbon cycling and was headed by a keynote from BES Vice President, Richard Bardgett (University of Manchester). He highlighted the importance of plant traits in explaining variation in soil microbial communities and carbon stocks, and as drivers of ecosystem function and responses to climate change.  He suggested one big challenge now is to determine the relative role of the different routes by which plant composition can influence soil properties under climate change, and particularly the need for better understanding of root traits and root exudates.

The rest of the session included interesting talks showing that nitrogen addition increases soil carbon stocks, tillage systems can alter soil microbial communities, home-field advantage for litter decomposition may not be as straightforward as we thought, ‘priming’ effects could be included in global carbon models, and litter inputs affect soil and microbial carbon stocks in consistent ways across ecosystems. The discussion session that followed emphasized the need for large-scale observational studies as well small-scale mechanistic studies, and the necessity to find ways to integrate these.  By creating a strong community and discussing research plans frequently we’re more likely to find ways forward with this, and meetings like this one can only help!

Talks for the day were rounded-off with the Speed Poster Presentations, where poster presenters had 1 minute to entice other delegates to visit their poster and find out more.  The subsequent poster session and wine reception provided ample opportunity for exploring the posters, discussing the talks and networking.  This was followed by a conference dinner and visit to a local pub where discussions continued into the evening.

Day 2 started with the nutrient cycling session.  The keynote address by David Johnson (University of Aberdeen) highlighted the importance of diversity to nutrient cycling.  He discussed not just species richness, but intraspecific diversity, and how this can regulate nutrient cycling.  He also drew attention to the diversity of chemical compounds in the soil and that neglecting this diversity hampers our understanding of nutrient cycling.  He concluded that we still need multiple reductionist approaches to identify the most important drivers of nutrient cycles.

The nutrient session continued with talks addressing how C and N labelling in food web studies can give us insight into the relationships and functions of different components, how plant functional traits can help us to understand ecosystem process rates, especially if we tailor plant trait groups for our specific questions, and how root exudates can inhibit nitrification and this correlates with changes in microbial community structure.  In the resulting discussion, chair Dario Fornara noted how frequently the word ‘complicated’ kept coming up and that highlighted how much more work there is to do.  There is a need to scale up from mesocosms, and it was suggested that working in simplified field systems, such as some agricultural systems, might provide a way forward.  Ideas for new studies, collaborations and much more continued to flow during the networking lunch that followed.

Session 3 focussed on communities and biodiversity.  Jennifer Rowntree (Unversity of Manchester) provided a stimulating keynote address that highlighted the importance of plant genotypic diversity for host-parasite interactions and for feedbacks between plants and soils.  She proposed that the challenge is now to relate biodiversity both within and among species to large-scale ecosystem processes.  Further talks in the session revealed that increased plant diversity can enhance beneficial bacteria, and that soil CO2 concentration at natural CO2 springs alters fungi, bacteria and archaea community structure.  There were also a number of talks focusing on arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF).  We learned that plant sex-specific interactions with AMF are due to differences in resource use patterns between sexes, that tillage affects AMF communities but effects depend on soil depth, and that AMF range may be limited by soil and climatic properties rather than host plant.

The session was concluded with an enlightening talk by Dote Stone about methods for obtaining large-scale datasets when budgets are tight.  Her top three tips were (1) talk to people and collaborate, (2) create detailed methods and stick to them – if you can send out sampling packs to ensure the same samples are collected in the same way while making it easy for collaborators to do so, that’s even better, and (3) think about your dataset and how you will handle it before you start collecting data.

The meeting was wrapped-up as it began, by Franciska de Vries.  The student talk prize was awarded to Ellen Latz (Georg-August University Gottingen) and I was honoured to receive the student poster prize.  Franciska encouraged members of the group to get involved, let us know what they would like from the group and any ideas for future meetings.  Thanks were given to meeting sponsors: Wiley, Oxford University Press, the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative, the Society for Experimental Biology, the British Society of Soil Science and, of course, the British Ecological Society.  It was a great meeting and we look forward to many more in the future!

Networking at the pub after day one

Networking at the pub after the first day of the meeting (photo by Fran)

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INTECOL 2013 – Better late than never!

I had hoped to post during the INTECOL 2013 conference in London at the end of August, but there was simply too much going on.  It was the best conference I have ever attended and I was so busy attending talks, reading posters, and talking with amazing, interesting researchers that I just didn’t get around to it. 

Luckily for anyone who couldn’t be there and wanted to know what was going on, twitter was full of it!  The hashtag #INT13 trended a couple of times during the week, with lots of lively discussions, comments and questions about what was happening at the conference – I definitely recommend you check it out if you haven’t already.  There were well over 10,000 tweets, which have been archived here.

The organisers went beyond general encouragement for people to tweet and actually made twitter the only way for people to ask questions after the plenaries.  In my view this led to three main benefits.  First, it was easy to see if there were questions that a lot of people were asking and perhaps prioritise these.  Second, it gave people a chance to ask questions who otherwise may have felt too shy to stand up and ask in a room full of 2000 delegates.  Third it prevented one of my biggest conference annoyances: the question- by-lecture, where someone uses their ‘question’ as a platform to expound upon their view of the issue before tossing in a token “don’t you agree?” at the end.  However, it would have been good to let people know that this was a plan in advance and offer some sort of workshop, perhaps during the Sunday session, for anyone new to twitter to have a chance to pick up the basics.

While I saw dozens of talks at Intecol, the highlights for me mostly came from interactions over lunch and during the social events.  This is when the really interesting discussions about research took place, and it gave me a chance to get to know some of the other people working in my field in a relaxed setting.  For instance, I somehow found myself at the same dinner table as Profs. David Tilman, Brian Moss and Stephen Hubbell at the Mixer on Tuesday.  Reasonable or not, at the conference proper I wouldn’t have felt I had anything important enough to say to approach them, but at dinner it was much less formal.  I had a great discussion with Prof. Tilman about various grassland study systems, analysis methods, and even my own research and results, which was really useful and also really encouraging for an early career researcher.

As the student representative, I have to put a plug in for the Plants Soils Ecosystems (PSE) special interest group.  We sponsored the Soil Biodiversity Symposium (though I did not help to organise it).  The symposium was standing room only for large parts of the day, and included some of my favourite talks of the conference.  In particular, Christine Hawkes’ wonderfully enthusiastic talk looking at how soil microbes respond to rainfall across a natural rainfall gradient and what happens when the soil moisture is changed, and Franciska de Vries talk about the effects of drought on fungi and bacteria food webs were near the top of my list for the conference.  More about Christine’s work can be found on her lab website.  Franciska’s work was recently published in PNAS and she also blogs at

The PSE symposium was followed by a drinks reception.  Fran, Emma and I have been putting a lot of work into getting the new group going and organising events, so it was great to see so many researchers come along for a drink and to chat about their work.  I really enjoyed meeting new people who were working on similar things, and catching up with people I met at our first social event when the new group was formed last December.  It also gave us a chance for a shameless plug for the workshop we’re organising on 2-3 October this year, which I don’t hesitate to repeat here… Digging Deeper: Research challenges in plant-soil interactions.

Among the plenaries, there was some really interesting food for thought.  Favourites for me were Georgina Mace considering what or who is conservation for, Bill Sutherland looking at how we can improve decision-making, and David Tilman debunking the biodiversity vs. food debate.  In case you were wondering, the short answers are (1) people and nature, (2) checklists, and (3) sharing vegetarian recipes.  For the longer answers, check out the twitter feed as most of the slides were posted as well as questions and discussions, or I can write a summary if there is interest.

As for my own contributions, I gave a five minute talk in the Speed Science session, which was my first talk at a major international meeting and went down well, with a couple of people seeking me out afterwards for further discussions.  I also presented a poster in the Climate Change Ecology session.  Before the conference, I was regretting signing up to do a poster.  They take a long time to create and I’ve been to conferences where no one even looks at them.  Now I can say that I’m happy I did it.  I had handouts beside the poster which all disappeared before the session even started, and my back up supply was gone by the time the session finished.  I had a queue of people wanting to chat about my work throughout the session, and even got collared after the session by people who didn’t have a chance to chat with me during it.  If only all poster sessions could attract so much interest!

The one downside of the poster session is that it conflicted with the busking by the BES Roadies.  We took the tent and a few of the activities along to promote the engagement we’ve been doing at festivals all summer.  I was sorry I couldn’t join them for a bit more festival-inspired fun, but I heard it was really well received and at least I got to join them for a drink afterwards.  I particularly love the photo they took of BES past president Georgina Mace and current president Bill Sutherland playing ‘Whose Poo?’!

Past and Present BES presidents play Whose Poo?

So much more happened than I can fit into this one post, but rest assured that it was a brilliant meeting.  Below are a couple of links to blog posts about the conference, or elements of it.  If you know of any others, please put them in the comments so others can find them too.

Kathryn Luckett: INTECOL 2012 and that tweet

Simon Leather: Sometimes big can be good

Journal of Ecology blog: Reflections on #INT13 Meet Me in the City

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Back on the blog

It’s been an incredibly hectic summer for me, which has left me with little time for blogging.  I’ve been busy with field work, lab work, reports, festivals with the BES roadies, workshop planning with the BES Plants Soils Ecosystems group, and preparing a talk and a poster for INTECOL 13.

The INTECOL conference is the main reason I’m resurrecting the blog now instead of waiting until things are a bit quieter.  It is a big, exciting ecology conference, which combines the 13th International Congress of Ecology with the British Ecological Society‘s annual meeting and centenary celebrations.  It all kicks off on Sunday and I’m hoping to share my INTECOL experiences here on the blog, much like I did with last year’s BES meeting.  If you’re at INTECOL, I hope to see you there.  If not, hopefully I’ll be able to give you at least a taste of what you’re missing!

Title Slide

Title slide for my talk at INTECOL – 3.30 pm on Tuesday


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The impact of our N-prints

I’m currently working on the final bits of analysis for the nitrogen addition experiment at DIRECT.  This is looking at the combined effects of climate change and nitrogen pollution in our grassland system.  Despite the fact that nitrogen gas (N2) is the most abundant compound in the atmosphere, nitrogen pollution, in the form of compounds such as ammonia (NH3), nitrate (NO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O), is a big problem.

These compounds are all produced naturally, but excessive agricultural fertilisation, poor waste management and the burning of fossil fuels have increased their release in the environment.   Ammonia and nitrates can cause eutrophication and acidification of waterways and terrestrial ecosystems with negative effects for biodiversity and ecosystem health, while nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas which is contributing to climate change.  Nitrogen pollutants also contribute to smog and the associated negative consequences for human health.

European Nitrogen Assessment webpage

Nitrogen cascade diagram, European Nitrogen Assessment

There is a lot of evidence of the damage nitrogen pollutants cause globally, with the European Nitrogen Assessment estimating  the cost to us as up to €320 billion per year in the EU, however we still have a lot of learn about how the effects of this pollution might be altered (exacerbated?) by changes in the environment and climate.

Regardless, the easiest way to reduce the effects of such pollution under any climate conditions is to reduce the pollution.  By now most people have heard of Carbon Footprint calculators (there are many others available), but you can now calculate your Nitrogen Footprint too.  If you want to find out more about nitrogen pollution, its effects on the environment and human health, and how you can reduce your N-footprint, check out the N-print project website.

N-print website

In case anyone was wondering, my N-print is about 21 kg per year, which is lower than the UK average of 28 kg.  It is helped by the fact that I’m a vegetarian, so avoid N-intensive foods like beef, but it is hugely hindered by my weekly commuting between Nottingham and Silwood.  Since I can’t easily change that during the next year, I guess I’ll have to be extra careful of my energy usage and waste levels to try to make up for some small part of it.

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