Postgrad Lives: ‘We try to work out how all our species evolved’

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The Independent Online

David Redding, 33, from Derbyshire, has recently finished a PhD in phylogenetics and conservation, at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. This followed a degree in biology at Imperial College, London, and an MSc in applied ecology and conservation at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

First things first: what is phylogenetics?

It’s an attempt to work out how all the species that we see today evolved. We do this by deciding which species are the most closely related, and then using this information we can group them together to build an evolutionary tree. My work looked at how we can use information from these to make decisions about which species to conserve, the ultimate aim being to save biodiversity.

And what was your chief finding?

The main conclusion was that species with few close relatives from an evolutionary perspective, should be the key targets for conservation, even though they may be unfamiliar and not currently receiving much attention, rather than species chosen just because they are well known. You can see much more about the work I was involved in by looking at a website called Edge which is all about saving the world’s most extraordinary species.

Why Canada for a PhD?

While I was working on my MSc thesis at UEA in Norwich, I was in contact with researchers around the world. From this, my eventual PhD supervisor offered me a position in Vancouver. It all seemed far more casual than getting a PhD place in the UK. He just said “do you want to come over?” Eventually it did have to be formalised, but I didn’t have to apply for anything.

Any differences between PhD life in Canada and the UK?

PhDs in Canada take much longer than in the UK, because there aren’t any deadlines. Mine lasted five years, which was actually viewed as quick by some of my colleagues! What also surprised me is that researchers were treated like members of staff and our opinions were sought all the time. And another difference is that in Canada the expectation for all masters students is that they will get their work published, which is a real contrast to the UK.

What were you doing day to day?

Most of my work is computer-based. So I would cycle in and start work before meeting up with lab mates for a coffee, which is a big deal in Vancouver. I worked in an interdisciplinary research centre, so was mixing with mathematicians, computer scientists and so on, which broadened my experience. Most days there was also at least one meeting, lecture or symposium that I could attend. In the evening I’d cycle home and often meet up with friends.

Who were you working alongside?

I was with four to five lab mates, but part of a larger group of laboratories, so there would be about 30 people at lab meetings. I’d say about 80 per cent were Canadians.

Were there any social differences?

The main difference is that there wasn’t much of a party atmosphere evident. I was amazed at how hard students worked, and did jobs to pay their fees. Obviously people did socialise and go for drinks, but very much in moderation compared to university campuses in the UK.

How did you fund it?

The university paid me a salary of the equivalent of £9,000 a year, but the cost of living in Canada is much cheaper, so I reckon that was equivalent to more like £16,000. I also got paid employment as a teaching assistant at the university, teaching undergraduates.

What do you plan to do next?

I’m now looking for a lectureship inthe UK for next year, but I’ve also just won a small award from the Linnean Society of London to undertake a research project back in Canada during the summer, and I’m still involved in many research projects around the world.