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Leadership skills for early career researchers

A workshop at the BES Annual Meeting 2016

Tuesday 13th December, 13.15 – 14.45, Room 11C.

The beamer presentation (39MB).

The sheet of questions about you.

Do you wonder what it takes to be a great leader? Or question whether you’re capable of being one? Does attending leadership and management courses make your blood run cold? If you answer yes to any of these, this workshop is for you (though it won’t make you into a great leader!). The overarching aim of the workshop is to pique your interesting in leadership.

We’ll begin with an activity about observation and listening – core leadership skills. Then, in small groups, we’ll explore what leadership currently means to us, and find examples of good leaders, followed with a synthesis of our ideas to clarify what types of leaders are required today, and why. We’ll use this to synthesis to clarify why observation and listening are core leadership skills. (These are often termed soft skills, but there is little soft about them… they can be very hard to master.)

A short interactive presentation about motivation will be followed with an activity in pairs, exploring situations in which you’ve experienced high and low levels of motivation, and the conditions surrounding those experiences. Finally, in small groups, you will discuss what next steps you will take to develop your leadership skills, and what other possibilities there are to develop further.

You need to bring only yourself and a reasonably open mind, and the only preparation required is to answer yes to one of those three questions.

Global net change in local plant biodiversity?

A fascinating and apparently increasingly vociferous debate about evidence for change in local biodiversity is happening. As well as just being really interesting and important in its own right (i.e. what is happening to local biodiversity), one side suggests that evidence for no change “directly contradicts the key assumption linking experimental results to ecosystem function as a motivation for biodiversity conservation in nature.” (Vellend et al 2013). Such research was the focus of bitter debate in the late ’90s and early ’00s — its under attack again.

Item for the prosecution number 1: Global meta-analysis reveals no net change in local-scale plant biodiversity over time (Vellend et al 2013). (Accompanying essay by Chris Thomas, and a related essay by Chris Thomas.)

Item for the prosecution number 2: Assemblage Time Series Reveal Biodiversity Change but Not Systematic Loss (Dornales et al 2014).

Item for the defence number 1: Estimating local biodiversity change: a critique of papers claiming no net loss of local diversity (Gonzalez et al 2016). (Accompanying GitHub repo.)

Item for the prosecution number 3: Estimates of local biodiversity change over time stand up to scrutiny (Vellend et al 2016). (Accompanying GitHub repo.)

(Sorry to other relevant articles I’ve not included, I ran out of time…)

What do I think? I found figure 2 in the Gonzalez critique very illuminating and thought provoking. And lessons learned from studies of effects of biodiversity loss on ecosystem processes and services have considerable practical importance when planning the future.

Group retreat 2016

We had a wonderful time for our group retreat in Oberägeri, Ländli over three days, despite missing people (Owen, Gabriela, Debra, Thomas, Ivan, Maitane, Inge and Pablo)



On the picture from the left: Wilfredo, Annabelle, Julia, Annette, Gian Marco, Maja, Vanessa, Nina, Colette, Yves, Alejandra, Dennis, Aurélie, Frank, Katie, Kevin, Andrea and Mikael.


With balanced work-fun/social activities, we succeeded to know better everyone and built our network.


Thank you all for your participation!



Peer review in performance appraisals

Some reading below. Or just google it.

About fairness in the workplace

Following a discussion with a colleague about fairness in the workplace, I gave myself two hours to research it. This article proved to be a great starting point: Fairness at work: its impacts on employee well-being, by Fujishiro, Kaori, 2005.

What is fairness in the workplace (also known as organisational justice)?

Distributive fairness (justice): individuals assess their contribution:reward ratio, and compare this with their assessment of colleague’s ratio. This seems to be deservedness based fairness, rather than sameness (everyone receives the same reward, regardless of contribution), or need (reward is based on need rather than contribution) based fairness. High distributive fairness might be thought of as a meritocracy based on equality of opportunity.

Procedural fairness: involvement in decision making processes. Enhances perception of fairness because individuals feel they have a chance to influence decision, and or that merely expressing one’s opinion has positive effects.

Interactional justice: fairness of interactional treatment of employees in organisational procedures. E.g., fairness during a hiring or promotion process. Enhanced by truthfulness, respect, propriety of questions, and justification.

About equality versus equity. Seems that in the workplace, equality is the greater influence, though measures to promote equity exist.

Dr Angie Hobbs, on BBC Today: “For me, the most attractive interpretation is that each person is of equal worth and should have the opportunity – ideally, an equal opportunity – to access goods, but most of the goods themselves will be proportionally distributed, according to need in some cases and merit in others.”

Fairness assessment requires perception of ones own situation relative to the perception of others. So accurate perception is required for accurate assessment of fairness. Accurate perception is likely related to effective communication (Owen’s own thoughts.)

My conclusion: workplace fairness is about how fair workers perceive their environment, probably mostly based on meritocratic values.

Is fairness in the workplace important?

Two meta-analyses found that high workplace fairness predicts “high job satisfaction, high performance, low withdrawal, fewer counterproductive behaviors, high organizational commitment, and more organizational citizenship behaviours.” (quote from Fujishiro, 2005, full reference to meta-analyses below).

Quotes from Fujishiro, 2005:

  • “Fairness, or justice, is one of the most fundamental concerns in society.”
  • “A lack of perceived fairness was negatively associated with employee well-being.”
  • “… high workload was associated with high strain only when perceived fairness was low.”
  • “low levels of organizational justice may act as an occupational stressor and have detrimental effects on employee health and well-being”
  • “A large-scale longitudinal study conducted in Finland has found that a lack of organizational justice is associated with subsequent self-rated health status decline (Elovainio, Kivimaki, & Vahtera, 2002), absence due to sickness (Kivimaki et al., 2002), and psychiatric disorders (Kivimaki, Elovainio, Virtanen, & Stansfeld, 2003).”

The ease with which I found very convincing evidence for positive effects of fairness in the workplace made me conclude that fairness in the workplace is an important issue, both from the perspective of individual and organisation success.

Objections to fairness

Might there be studies / theories / ideas about why unfairness might be desirable? Or why concerning oneself with fairness in the workplace may be pointless or unprofitable. Here is what I came up with in the little time I allowed to research and think about this.

The world isn’t fair. I.e., reality isn’t fair. There is no such thing as a fair system. I.e., its broken and always will be.

There may be higher priority issues in the workplace.

Expectations of absolute fairness may be created, or absolute fairness maybe sought, at the cost of performance. I.e., there must be a curve of diminishing returns relating gains in performance to effort spent increasing fairness.

This was a stimulating read, as I disagree with lots of it. “Our idea of fairness isn’t actually obtainable. It’s really just a cloak for wishful thinking.”

My conclusion: one needs to think carefully if investment in increasing fairness perception is worthwhile (i.e., benefits likely to outweigh costs).

How to increase workplace fairness (should you wish to!)

Google “how to increase workplace fairness”.

From Workplace Tribes: “Treating people fairly is important. Ensuring that they feel fairly treated is even more important.

I ran out of time, but will read more about this soon.

Stuff I found but didn’t have time to read or properly think about

You did not mean it: Perceived good intentions alleviate sense of unfairness.

How fairness in the work place is related to giving / taking / matching strategies, sensu Adam Grant’s Give and Take.

The two meta-analyses mentioned above:

Cohen-Charash, Y., & Spector, P. E. (2001). The role of justice in organizations: A meta- analysis. Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes, 86(2), 278-321.

Colquitt, J. A., Conlon, D. E., Wesson, M. J., Porter, C. O. L. H., & Ng, K. Y. (2001). Justice at the millennium: A meta-analytic review of 25 years of organizational justice research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(3), 425-445.


Graduation day!

Last week Lara Maspoli, Suzanne Greene, and Rich Baxter (MSc) and Gian Marco Palamara (PhD) received their  Diplomas. Congratulations to you all from the rest of the Petchey-Hansen group!

Below are some pictures from the ceremony. Notice how the tense faces ease into broad smiles as the ceremony proceeds…

Random resources 1

Stilton disappointment

IMG_1669 IMG_1666 IMG_1667

Testing the Metabolic Theory of Ecology: a simple pipeline using R.

[Download the simulated data and the script used in the following example]

Many biological variables depend on the size of the organisms and on the environmental temperature. For example, large organisms tend to grow more slowly, and live longer, than small ones. On the other hand, organisms tend to grow faster in warm climates compared to cold ones. Moreover, small organisms and organisms from warm climates consume more resources (per mass unit) than large organisms and those living in cold climates.
The effect of body mass and temperature at the individual level reflects at the ecological level, in variables such as the intrinsic growth rate of populations, the strength of competition and predator-prey interactions (e.g. Vucic-Pestic et al. 2011), and so on.
Scientists suggested that these patterns are explained by the role that body mass and temperature play on the metabolism of individuals, namely the ensemble of the chemical reactions that keep them alive. In 2004, Brown et al. summarized and formalized what they called the Metabolic Theory of Ecology (MTE), centered on the following equation:

(Eq.1)            I=i0M3/4e-E/kT


  • I is the metabolic rate, or any metabolism-driven biological variable
  • i0 is the value of I for temperature = 0 K, or for any temperature chosen as reference
  • M is the body mass
  • T is temperature in Kelvin
  • k is the Boltzman constant
  • E is the activation energy.

It is noteworthy that, if we are studying the temperature response of a single species, we can assume i0 * M3/4 to be a constant, A, across temperature; hence, the Eq.1 can be simplified as:

(Eq.2)            I=Ae-E/kT

Which is the Arrhenius equation. The Arrhenius equation is based on the fact that most chemical reactions, including those involved in metabolism, do not happen spontaneously because of an energetic threshold called Activation Energy (E). As the temperature increases there is more energy available to overcome the energetic threshold represented by E, hence reactions develop at an exponentially faster rate.
Brown et al. (2014) suggest that the temperature-driven changes on individuals’ metabolism lead to ecological variables to vary with temperature in a similar, exponential fashion. The exponential relationship should hold up to an optimum temperature Topt, beyond which individual fitness drops precipitously (see the figure below, obtained using the model “Lactin-2” proposed by Lactin et al. in 1995. For a possible theoretical explanation of why we observe such left-skewed relationships between biological variables and temperature, see Amarasekare & Savage 2012).

Lactin2How to test the Metabolic Theory of Ecology (MTE)? One way is to experimentally grow an organism at a range of temperatures, record its intrinsic growth rates, and see if they show an exponential correlation to temperature.

Let’s imagine that we did this experiment with a microorganism, say the imaginary bacterium Bacillus phantasticus. This is what we observe:

segmentedWe notice that the intrinsic growth rate r is positively correlated to temperature up to a point, beyond which it reaches a plateau. In order to test the MTE, we need to fit Eq. 2 on the pre-plateau data points. We could select the threshold by eye, or we can do it using segmented regression (for example, function segmented in the R package segmented). We see that the threshold is 293.3 K, i.e. 19.85°C. We can then fit Eq. 2 on the pre-threshold subset of our data points. I do this using the R function nls(): <- c(pre.exp=1, aer=0.67) 
# starting points for nls() to start searching the parameter values from
nls1 <- nls(y ~ pre.exp * exp(aer*(Kelvin - T.ref)/(boltz*Kelvin*T.ref)), 
            start=list(pre.exp=[1], aer=[2]),
            data=dat[dat$Kelvin < 293.3,]

This is the outcome:

Formula: y ~ pre.exp * exp(aer * (Kelvin - T.ref)/(boltz * Kelvin * T.ref))

        Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)    
pre.exp  0.84711    0.09701   8.732 2.81e-06 ***
aer      1.25442    0.21525   5.828 0.000115 ***
Signif. codes:  0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1

Residual standard error: 0.274 on 11 degrees of freedom

Number of iterations to convergence: 6 
Achieved convergence tolerance: 9.568e-07
  (1 observation deleted due to missingness)

The parameter “aer” gives a measure of the steepness of the exponential curve. Its value is 1.25 and, if the MTE holds, it should be an estimate of the activation energy of the main metabolic reaction of B. phantasticus (likely to be the oxydation of carbohydrates, i.e. respiration).

MTEIs the MTE model describing the observed data better than a linear regression? We can compare the two model using tha Akaike Information Criterion, AIC:

AIC(nls1, linear_model)

The MTE model gets the lowest AIC, indicating that it is the best model of the two.

Here you can download the simulated data and the script used in the example.

What else could we do? To begin, Lactin et al., Amarasekare and Savage all described the situation of a strongly left-skewed thermal dependence with a narrow Topt. Our experiment shows that Topt and Tmax of B. phantasticus are quite far from each other. In fact, Tmax is beyond the range of temperatures used in the experiment. To really assess the skewedness of the thermal response of the species’ r we should run a new experiment on a broader temperature range.


  • Amarasekare, P. & Savage, V. (2012) A framework for elucidating the temperature dependence of fitness. The American naturalist, 179, 178–191.
  • Brown, J.H., Gillooly, J.F., Allen, A.P., Savage, V.M. & West, G.B. (2004) Toward a metabolic theory of ecology. Ecology, 85, 1771–1789.
  • Vucic-Pestic, O., Ehnes, R.B., Rall, B.C. & Brose, U. (2011) Warming up the system: higher predator feeding rates but lower energetic efficiencies. Global Change Biology, 17, 1301–1310.

[reposted from]

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IEU Photo-Exhibition



The original email invitation:

Dear Colleagues
Share your research experiences, subjects, highlights (even lowlights).
When: Either at the Apero immediately before the Christmas Party (18th Dec.) or Happy Hour on 12th Dec.
Where: Hopefully the Irchel Lichthof, with photos hung on boards.
How: You choose one or two of your best photos, have them printed / mounted / framed as you like. You (or your group) pay for these printing / mounting / framing costs. If you wish, you may sell your photos via the exhibition. Maximum two photos per person.
Please use this doodle to say that you will exhibit a photo or two:
There is a flyer about the event here:
Best wishes


Printing advice:

Very high quality:
They have a sister-company, LUMAS, with a shop here in Zurich – always worth going to for inspiration on how to print your photos:

Good quality:

Printer centre of the ETH it is relatively cheap to print pictures. The A4 is 8 francs and the A3 is 12.

-and there are plenty other, slightly cheaper options (Migros, Photobox, etc).

Dennis Hansen owns this printer, and with the correct motivation may be able to help you:
(prints up to A2).