Toby Jackson

I recently got back from Belize, where I was on a two-week field course learning about tropical tree families. I’d like to share some of my stories and photos from this trip. Also, as I sat down to write this, I thought about some of the other amazing courses I have been on during my PhD, so will give a little taster of the best of them too.

What all these courses have in common is that they are short, intensive, informal courses for graduate students, in a specialist subject. For me, they are all a long way from my previous studies and my current research, so I’m really there to build background knowledge. This, and the fact that the courses are totally free, give them the air of a holiday. Sure, it is a holiday with a lot of information to capture, but no one is going to be testing us, and it is very interesting stuff. More importantly, it is a holiday with a new group of intellectual and fun people in a similar situation to myself, who have made these courses some of the best trips I have ever had!

Now – back to Belize. The trip started really well: there was an old US-style school bus waiting to pick us up at the airport, and the drivers had brought us a huge home-cooked lunch, which we ate sitting on the pavement outside the airport. Great food and a great welcome to this laid-back country.

Picture of the forest around BFREE in central Belize. This was quite a low forest without a dense undergrowth, so a really nice place to work. Source: author

The best part of the trip was our week in Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education (BFREE) a remote set of roundhouses built in the middle of the jungle and occupied by some pretty vociferous howler monkeys. Day-to-day we were basically trying to identify which family certain trees belonged to. This may seem like quite a simple aim but actually it turned out to require quite a lot of memorisation and detailed examination of the leaves and stems of the tree. I think I learnt how to reliably recognise eight or nine plant families in Belize, out of around 100, and of course things will all change in other parts of the tropics.


A group of students with a genius researcher, trying to identify trees using their leaves and then pressing the samples to preserve them. Also, a bit of cliff jumping on the side.

Below is the full group of students and teachers who came on the trip – a pretty great team! This trip happens every year as part of the master’s course run by the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh. They have a few Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded places for PhD students– I would highly recommend tagging along.

Training course -> holiday score: 8 (there were some beautiful river spots)

Scotland – Networks

Here I spent a week living like a Scottish laird in a beautiful manor house on the banks of Loch Lomond. There were twelve students and a Professor called Ernesto Estrada, who is a mathematician specialising in network theory. I learnt that:

  • The properties of any system that can be described as a network depend only slightly on the actual properties (mechanics or behaviour) of the components, but overwhelmingly on the structure of the system!
  • Trees are the worst kind of network: linear, poorly connected with no redundancy.

Ross Priory is owned by the University of Strathclyde and here a link to courses held at the site:

Training course -> holiday score: 5 (great food but hard work)

Harvard – Plant Anatomy


This was a two-week course in Boston which is the only course I have been on which hasn’t been run by NERC. I learnt a lot about stuff I never knew existed, got to know some great fun professors (who are basically walking encyclopaedias) and hung out in Boston with 10 super interesting PhD students (including myself of course).

The aim was to get to know the cellular structure of plants and it was quite novel for me to spend the days staring down the microscopes. It seemed that I had to learn a whole new vocabulary as well as the specifics about plant anatomy. They also wanted to teach us the functions of all the different tissues, which was very interesting but did entail long lectures regularly lasting until 8pm!

Training course -> score: 3 (early mornings and evening lectures, pretty intense)

Media training – Open University, 9-13th February 2015

NERC invited us to take part in media training to help us better communicate our research. Again, there was a great group of students and a nice setting, and it was all totally free! The outcome of the course was that each of us shot a three-minute piece to camera and a longer combined piece.

I learnt:

– Not to hold your hands in front of your face while talking to a camera.

– That I get surprisingly nervous in front of a camera – I start coughing instead of speaking and my hands go all sweaty. It gets better when you are expecting it.

Training course -> holiday score: 7 (it was fun all the way through, but not quite Belize).

Overall, Belize was the course that felt most like a holiday, and Harvard was the most hard-work – so no surprises there. I think I probably learnt more useful things on the media training course than any of the others. I would strongly recommend applying for the above courses and more importantly, always keeping an eye on the list of NERC training courses. Here is the list:

 “I’m a third year DPhil student studying the effects of wind on forests in the School of Geography in Oxford. I come from a pure physics background, via atmospheric science to where I am now, which is forest ecology.