Introducing IMECO


Off I go!

I’m going to be using this blog in the coming months (and years?) to post about my experiences as an early- career ecologist. This means lots of my own science wins and losses (I want to showcase the fact that science isn’t just breakthroughs and publications – there’s a lot of failure and disappointment before you reach an exciting moment!) and eventually I’ll be using this as a space to talk about other exciting papers and science going on around the world that I’m not involved in. Oh, and there will likely be some of my personal life thrown in for good measure since I don’t want to paint the picture that I don’t have a life (see the handy work:life balance index I’ll be using each time). So, here goes…

Graduate School entrance ft. OIST logo, a Shisa

Moving to Japan
I’ve been in Okinawa for nearly three weeks now, and am beginning to learn the ins-and-outs of life on a subtropical island. Did I not mention that already? A SUBTROPICAL ISLAND! This place is paradise if a little remote (I would definitely recommend learning to drive and hiring a car before you get to Okinawa if ever you choose to visit). There are plenty of bugs, butterflies, and birds across the island, and I’ve seen flying foxes most nights so far. My apartment is on the main campus of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) where I’m working, and it’s such an incredible place to live and work. When I was younger, I always used wanted to work at the Experian building in Nottingham because it had coloured glass walls and cool architecture. Move over Experian, because OIST is all of that and more. The whole institute is funded externally by government and research bodies as well as public donations,meaning that researchers here rarely rely on getting grants and can focus on doing high-quality science with their budget. Plus, OIST itself spends money on the highest quality equipment and facilities and is constantly expanding. It is rapidly becoming an internationally-influential institute and is turning just five years old next week!

The Food and price
The most common questions I’ve been getting so far are about food. Mostly I’ve been making my own stir-fries based on the mystery ingredients I bought from the supermarket (very few things have any writing that isn’t in Japanese Hiragana, Katakana or Kanji so there’s a lot of guesswork), but I’ve eaten out a couple of times and tried some cool stuff so far from andagi (traditional Okinawan donuts) to purple-potato flavoured ice cream, grilled eel sushi, and plenty in-between. Thanks to Brexit (sarcasm: hooray!), Everything is effectively double the price it was in 2012 – the last time I was in Japan – but since I’m being paid in Japanese yen, I shouldn’t feel it too badly thankfully. Be warned if you’re visiting and not being paid, though, Japan largely is a cash-based society, so bring a lot of hard cash and don’t rely on your card. Again, eating and shopping here mostly involves guesswork, but I’ve gotten the hang of taking ‘educated’ guesses. For example: If it looks like soy sauce, it’s probably soy sauce; if it looks like tofu, it’s probably tofu; if it looks green, it’s probably green tea; if it looks like strawberry, it’s probably adzuki bean…

The Language
Everyone speaks Japanese. I speak very little Japanese. Luckily you can get by in Japan using only a few key words and phrases, so I’m doing okay so far.

The social life
I’m settling in nicely, and have already left OIST on two of the three weekends I’ve been here – I spent this past weekend recovering from fresher’s flu, hence why illness has skewed my work:life balance somewhat. On my first weekend, I went down to Naha (the largest city on the island) with a couple of friends to take part in the annual world record breaking tug-of-war. The rope was the longest and heaviest in the world, and I’m willing to bet the pre-amble and amount of unexplained waiting around broke some kind of record too. We then went to see a famous Okinawan cat and stopped by some of the tourist shops along the way where they were selling Habu Sake (Sake with a dead habu snake inside). I now understand why they warn us about the venomous habu snakes, I wouldn’t like to meet one in a dark alley.

I’m already planning various trips out of Okinawa: to mainland Japan, to Seoul, and to Taiwan. Since I’m here, I may as well use Okinawa as a base from which to explore bits of Asia at a reduced price compared to flying from the UK. I’m also planning to go into the forest next week for fieldwork, which leads us nicely into what this whole experience is really about; the science.

The Work
Broadly speaking, my work at OIST aims to contribute to the ongoing OKinawa Environmental Observation Network (OKEON) project set up by the Biodiversity and Biocomplexity unit and the Ecology and Evolution Unit at OIST along with help from various researchers, institutes and schools across Okinawa and Japan. I’m currently delving into the world of reality mining, looking at temporal patterns of weather data for 24 sites across Okinawa recorded at successive 15-minute intervals for ~1 year. This means a lot of data handling and playing around in R. I’m then trying to correlate this information with geographic data, so we can get a good understanding of what these sites look like across space and time.

Evidence that our lab works with ants!

I’m preparing a poster to present at the OIST Open day which lets ~5,000 members of the public into OIST to see what research is going on. My poster will complement a range of other information on the OKEON project and I’m excited to share my research with the public – although I may need a translator!

On top of my 9:00-17:30 job, I am trying to finish up some older work. I’ve been corresponding with my various co-authors about my functional ecology project (an extension of my Master’s thesis at the University of Leeds), trying to put the finishing touches on the manuscript before submission. I’m also looking at converting an internal report on an audit of blended learning into a manuscript, so will be turning my attention to this as soon as my functional ecology manuscript is submitted. I’m also starting to look into research opportunities for when my internship here at OIST finishes, and I’m trying to wrap up my PhD funding application in time for a November 2nd deadline: things are a bit tight, but I’m sure I’ll get there.

If any of you actually made it this far, thanks! Feel free to get in touch in the comments and let me know your thoughts or ask questions etc. As the title suggests, these blog posts are likely to be pretty infrequent, but I’ll try and keep them brief from now on!

Until next time,


View from one of the skywalks that connect the OIST labs and central building. My apartment just about sneaking in too in the bottom left corner!

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