Slowly the train rolls out of Euston train station into a mild rain shower. It is as if Manchester is sending a kind reminder not to be too disappointed about the weather back home.
Five weeks have I stayed and worked in London. I finished my project I came here for. Even better, I’m happy about my results. What I found? Well, it appears that bumblebees are very capable in distinguishing between an easy and a difficult task. If the task was easy they wouldn’t rely on information (which helps to solve the task) that is right 50% of the time. But if the task was difficult four times more bees readily followed that information. I find that fascinating.
Yet, I’ve not only worked here, I’ve also been a Londoner, even if it was only for a short amount time. I commuted in busy rush hour tubes, shopped in restless East End, went for a run in the Olympic Park and along the canals, lived in Hackney, visited pubs in Islington, and of course been around Queen Mary in Tower Hamlets.
More than coming around and accomplishing some work I met kind, open, and intellectually stimulating people. It was a delight to stay and work at Lars Chittka’s group where I received support from all sides, had great discussions, and felt welcome as if I would forever have been a part of that group.
Now, it is time to go back home again.
In the train now. Slowly rolling towards London. What a strange day it was. Some confusion sprinkled with stress. Maybe just another usual day as a PhD student. I still hope to get used to this way of working. I’m in my second year now so one would assume I’m used to it by now. But I’m not there yet. It is still a journey, still a balancing act, still a learning experience. How to deal with the people around you, the ones you rely on, and the ones that share your journey? How to manage projects with unclear outcomes and novel techniques? How to manage yourself? How much work can you really deal with, what keeps you motivated, what should you avoid? In that respect, a PhD is not only a scientific endeavor but also a self-finding process. Really. One of my former bosses said: it’s character shaping. And it is true. You’ll change. Inevitably. Even when you might not notice it yourself. Like when your grandparents used to visit, when you were younger, and seemed so surprised how much you have changed since their last visit. You do change. You’ll grow with your challenges. Everyday a little bit. Step by step. Mostly unnoticed, just like a tree grows.
Today I’m off to London. I’m going to meet a researcher and his lab to discuss a project I have in mind. Fast your seatbelt, I’m finally back working with bumblebees again. Somehow I started to miss empirical experiments. After all, they are vital to test the predictions of my computational models. I’m excited about the idea to collaborate. And I’m excited about working with bees again.
Or is it?
As a behavioural and evolutionary biologist I constantly end up with this conclusion … well, in the end it is all about mating. Sexual dimorphism, secondary sexual traits, courtship behaviour, territoriality, but also the more subtle things like cooperation, communication, life history or even predator avoidance strategies.
For a biologists it appears to be quite simple: it boils down to individual fitness. If your genes are not represented in the next generation, well, then there is nothing left of you. If this is not only true for yourself, but also for your group, population, or maybe even species then say hello and line up with all the other extinct species.
Is it true? Certainly. Is it sad? On the contrary. To put it with the words of biology’s all time celebrity Charles Darwin the ‘struggle of life’ produced a copious collection of forms, patterns, behaviours, and strategies that are fascinating, puzzling, captivating, intriguing, or just: beautiful. I couldn’t imagine a better thing than exploring this world with all its facets. Even if in the end it is all about sex.