Arxiu d'etiquetes: research

Are you thinking about a PhD? The experience of primatologist Mireia Olivé

If you are studying biology maybe you are thinking to continue working in a doctor’s degree. Is it worth it? How much time and effort will you have to dedicate? Know firsthand the experience of writing a thesis and getting a doctor’s degree with this interview with primatologist Mireia Olivé.


  • Mireia, thanks to dedicate your time to All You Need Is Biology to share your experience. Let’s start from the beginning: when did you know you wanted to study biology? Why did you choose this degree and not another?

The thing is that the choice was not easy because I have always liked a lot of things and it was difficult to decide. To choose the degree, one of the criteria I took into account was that the field should open doors for a future projects (in a professional way), enabling me to be more interdisciplinary. What finally did tip the scales was the emotional part: it was really motivating to know that, someday, I might know things that I always wondered (in the field of primates, especially).

  • Why did you do a PhD? Did you have a professional future in mind, the opportunity arose without thinking about it..?

It’s funny that I really undertook a doctoral thesis because I had never thought about it. While some friends of mine had no doubts about conducting research, I was involved in other projects that weren’t related to research and I didn’t have in mind taking a PhD. Actually, it was a proposal of my academic mentor from the  Master’s degree in Cognition and Evolution of Primates I had already done. After considering it (and knowing that I could continue working in my other projects), I accepted.

  • On what topic was your thesis? What research did you carry out?

My thesis studied the relationship between hierarchy and grooming in a group of Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus). To integrate these two concepts and see how interrelated, the research was focused on several aspects:

  • First; bibliographic, regarding the hierarchy and grooming.
  • Second; on computer models and simulation (I belong to GCAI –Group of Adaptive Behaviour and Interaction-, which studies adaptive behaviour and computational psychology).
  • Third; empirical, observing individuals in a group of macaques.
groomig, macacos de Berbería, macaco de barbería, macaco de Gibraltar, mona rabona
Barbary macaques during grooming. Photo: Mireia Olivé Obradors


  • Let’s talk about the empirical aspects: in what area did you take out your observations?

The empirical part was a bit difficult to start because we struggled to find a group that was representative enough, since it had to have a minimum of individuals of each gender and age class, and from a particular family of primates. Finally, after several failed attempts (we had already begun observing a group but we had to stop because there were problems with the animals), we chose a group of a French park near Poitiers called La Vallée des Singes, where the Barbary macaques group met all the requirements we had set. In addition, it was a semi-captivity group, which provided many advantages over other options we had already considered.

Barbary macaques on trees at La Vallée des Singes in spring. Photo: Mireia Olivé Obradors
  • So you had to do some research abroad. How do you evaluate the experience?

It was a very interesting experience that allowed me to meet students, technicians and professionals of the “animalier” sector and in the primatology field, to expand the circle of friends and to improve my level of foreign languages

  • Working in the field was very hard?

The fieldwork was very intense, because I wanted to take advantage of my time collecting as much data as I could (even considering further research to develop at the end of the PhD). Going out to observe animals is a task that requires a lot of perseverance and dedication: once the dynamics is established, observations must be maintained in all conditions. This means it had to be done even if it rains; the temperature is below 4° C; on weekdays and on weekends, and at any time of day. The empirical part, however, was the best of the PhD.

El paisaje y las condiciones de observación durante el invierno eran totalmente diferentes. Foto: Mireia Olivé Obradors
The scenery and observing conditions during the winter were totally different. Photo: Mireia Olivé Obradors


  • Did you experienced fear at some time?

Usually the sessions were quiet, but twice went pretty scary. The place where the observations were made was directly on the territory of macaques, an extension of 3.3 hectares of forest where the animals were circulating freely. At peak times park staff checked that everything was in order, but I could be on the other side of the territory and I often did not see anyone all day. In the group there were several juvenile females, eager to play and challenging me.

Algunos integrantes del grupo de macacos objeto del estudio. Foto: Mireia Olivé Obradors
Some members of the group of macaques under study. Photo: Mireia Olivé Obradors

Once, I was surrounded by the group of the four youngest females. They approached me and stretched my clothes. I was a bit scared (it was an aggressive way to play). The situation was complex, because at that time I had already been more or less accepted by the group as an observer and I could be quite close to animal. I frightened them to let me go, not only I risked to lose that confidence, and consequently the ability to observe their behavior closely, but at the same time, the group would have attacked me to help the youngest without hesitating (adults are very strong and have very long fangs).

La observación en el hábitat de los animales tiene sus riesgos: hay que conocer perfectamente las pautas de actuación en caso de peligro. Foto: Mireia Olivé Obradors
The observation in the habitat of the animals has its risks: you have to be familiar with the guidelines for action in case of danger. Photo: Mireia Olivé Obradors


  • Dedication is very big, is it possible to combine the PhD with a job? Can you give an idea to future students how much is the workload?

The workload is heavy, either combining the PhD with a job (which was my case) or doing the thesis exclusively, and perseverance to move forward is necessary. For me it was important not to stop working and continue participating in other projects that were not related to research, so I assumed it would take longer to finish my PhD. Being focused was important to continue working on all fronts

Ejemplo de una sola página de la libreta de campo de Mireia. Después, todos estos datos hay que analizarlas en el momento de redacción de la tesis. Foto: Mireia Olivé Obradors
Example of one page of Mireia’s field notebook. After, all these data must be analyzed at the time of writing of the thesis. Photo: Mireia Olivé Obradors

In that time I got home from work between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., and then I began to work (either reading articles, studying, writing or doing calculations) until 9-10 p.m. and at weekends I spent between 4 and 6 hours a day. Friends, who worked doing exclusively the thesis at the University, spent about 8 hours every day, Monday through Friday, but this schedules also depended on the stage where they were (the final stage of drafting is far more intense).

  • But it also has its positive side, right?

Of course you have good times! First, you research a topic you are passionate about and you do some discoveries. In addition, you learn, firsthand, what it means to do research, what involves (organization, hypotheses, results).
You also know a lot of people who share the same interests and motivation, and you’re aware of everything happening in your field. You are so up to date and discovering so much about the subject that it ends up being you the one who knows the most: it’s your topic!

Mireia durante la observación del grupo de macacos. Foto: Mireia Olivé Obradors
Mireia during the observation of the macaques group. The empirical part of the study is the best. Photo: Mireia Olivé Obradors
  • Did you ever think about quitting? Why?

Yes. As I said before, it is a long and intense process. In addition, research often do not turn out the results you expect, and you have to go redirecting the situation, raising new hypotheses or approaching it from different points of view. At that moment you have to be able to look a little further: either to the beginning and see where you were and where you are at the time, or trying to see where you go, what you want to end up discovering.

So this is why it is important that you like what you investigate, because it is easy not to get involved and giving up.

  • What encouraged you to go on?

I want to add that beyond this personal motivation, support from family and friends is very important: they are who cheer you up, who encourage you again and again and will continue to encourage you, and when you have hard times, they convince you that your work worths it, and that you  must continue working to go on.

  • Would you repeat the experience?

Yes, I think I would do a PhD again. However, thanks to the experience, I would look at the issue differently, both the thesis content and the personal approach.

  • Finally, can you give some tips to people who want to do a PhD?

I would suggest them to change to another University (different from the one where they have studied the Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree) because it is very interesting to know other ways to work and focus research.

In addition, it is important to choose a topic that really motivates you. During the thesis there are moments of discouragement, when you want to throw it all away (it is inevitable, because it is a task of continuous effort and quite long) but if the subject excites you, it is easier to find energy to continue.

  • Your thesis seems very interesting,  can you give us a link to the publication?

One of the conclusions of my thesis has been the development of indicators that provide insight into the status of a group of Barbary macaques, which may facilitate possible interventions (reintroduction in the natural habitat, migration of individuals).

In this link you can read the summary of the thesis and download it.

Macacos de Berbería. Foto: Mireia Olivé Obradors
Barbary macaques. Photo: Mireia Olivé Obradors


Mireia, thank you very much for your time and experience, which will be for sure a good guidance for future researchers.

Thanks to you for giving me the opportunity to publicize the importance of scientific research.


The submarine observer

Just as explained in the article “Technology to the rescue of data” the OBSEA platform is an underwater observatory placed on the Catalan coast. The aim of this article is to provide a general description of the observatory, the sensors and a brief comment of the studies and uses that are being done currently.

The platform

The OBSEA (Western Mediterranean Expandable SEAfloor OBservatory) is an underwater observatory designed, deployed and managed by the technologic group SARTI from the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC). It is placed 4km off Vilanova i la Geltrú coast at 20m depth, in a fishing protected area, and has an optical fibre cable connecting it to the terrestrial laboratory that provides the required energy for the correct performance of the different sensors and allows a transmission of data from the platform to the lab. Thus the information is received in real time and the problematic related with instrumentation powered by batteries is avoided. Furthermore,  it also allows to the engineers of the SARTI to make software modifications and checkings of the electronic devices with no need of taking out of the water the observatory.

Plataforma OBSEA
OBSEA platform (Image: SARTI-UPC)

Instrumentation and studies

The whole electronic system is installed in a watertight cylinder for protecting it, and the instrumentation connections, from short-circuiting. At the same time, this cylinder is placed inside a metallic structure that protects it from external factors and fixes it to the seabed.

External structure of the OBSEA (3D Image: Renderparty)
External structure of the OBSEA (3D Image: Renderparty)

One of the most important sensors when studding the ocean is the CTD (Conductivity Temperature Depth), it is used in multitude of studies, from biologic to physic. With this device one can get direct information about temperature, conductivity and pressure, and other parameters can be calculated: salinity from conductivity, depth from pressure,…

Video camera with a 360º axis rotation(Image: SARTI-UPC)
Video camera with a 360º axis rotation(Image: SARTI-UPC)

Two video cameras provides images in real time of the observatory surroundings. Meanwhile one has an axis rotation of 360º the other one is fixed in one position. These cameras allow the realization of very different projects, from biologic and behavioural studies of the fauna linked to the observatory and its environment, to projects focused on the citizen participation on the scientific world, through the identification of the species that appear on the images, and are the key factor of a group in Facebook where the users post peculiar images pictured by these cameras and the scientist answer the questions presented.

A hydrophone gets and characterizes acoustically ambient noise and, thanks to a specific software, is a capable of discriminate between biologic and anthropogenic noise. This sensor is currently used by studying the cetaceous of the area and the possible relation between the fish assemblages living around the observatory, the cetaceous (predators) and the maritime transit.

AWAC instal·lat a l'OBSEA (Imatge: SARTI-UPC)
AWAC connected to the OBSEA (Image: SARTI-UPC)
Sismògraf instal·lat a l'OBSEA (Imatge: SARTI-UPC)
Seismograph connected to the OBSEA (Image: SARTI-UPC)

The AWAC is a current profiler and a wave measurement system, it allows the measurement the speed and direction of the water at different depth, from the seabed to the surface. It is also capable of differentiate between different types of waves: long storm waves, short windy waves or waves generated by ship.

The pH sensor gives information of water acidity.

The observatory also has installed a seismograph prepared for detecting any tectonic movement produced anywhere in the planet. The obtained data is checked with a universal database in order of being referenced and verified. This seismograph was capable of detecting, among others, the seismic movements produced during the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami or produced for the platform of Castor Project (Catalan coast).

Finally, it is of relevance the extension of the OBSEA, a buoy. This buoy is permanently connected to the observatory and has a complete meteorological station for measuring, among others, air temperature, wind speed and direction, atmospheric pressure,…

Boia oceanogràfica connectada a l'OBSEA
Oceanographic buoy connected to the OBSEA (Image 3D: Renderparty)

The OBSEA platform allows the obtaining of data from many different types (biological, oceanographic, atmospheric,…) and, more important, continuously and in real time. This functionality made the OBSEA a key tool in the development of the actual and future oceanographic studies.


Aguzzi J, Mànuel A, Condal F, Guillén J, Nogueras M, Del Río J, Costa C, Menesatti P, Puig P, Sardà F, Toma D and Palanques A (2011). The New Seafloor Observatory (OBSEA) for Remote and Long-Term Coastal Ecosystem Monitoring. Sensors vol. 11, pp: 5850−5872.




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Technology to the rescue of data

The purpose of this article is to show a general vision of the main problems of the traditional sampling techniques and the actual situation and advantages that the modern methods offer. More specific examples will be given in future articles in order to explain the running and some studies that have been using these new techniques.


In science is very important to have a good quality data in order to develop any study and not being criticized by editors and REVISORS of the SCIENTIFIC MAGAZINES. Frequency, number, type and sampling sensors are just the first ones of a long list of important factors that you need to have in mind when planning the sampling of your study. There is no magic trick, each study is different and requires number and sampling frequency… different, specific and optimum.

When you are trying to discover the marine mysteries the problems just get bigger, the accessibility is much more limited than in the terrestrial habitats and you cannot go sampling every time you desire, some days maritime weather conditions difficult sampling and, often, you are forced to cancel it, leaving an important data gap. Traditional sampling methods, even their evolution among the years, requires the presence in situ of the scientist, nowadays we are not using a simple thermometer anymore but a complex CTD that provide a much more precision in multitude of different parameters (depending on the sensors attached at the CTD), at the same time and at the desired depth, but we always need a ship, for going at the selected coordinates, and some operators for raising and lowering the sensor. Moreover, biological sampling traditional techniques (trawling and longlines, among many other fishing arts, as well as direct observations via scuba diving) present another huge problem: they are very invasive methods, not just for the species itself but, many times like with bottom trawling method, for the environment, furthermore, the animals captured usually die during the manipulation process. Notice that, for being invasive methods (nets, ships, scuba divers,…), the correct study of the animals normal behaviour is affected, due to the response of the fish towards these invasive presence.


Recently, new different revolutionary sampling methods (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle and Cabled Underwater Observatory) have been implanted in order to reduce the above-mentioned problems. In the two given examples we find a set of sensors, adaptable to the desired study, installed in a small space. While AUV allow an automatic, or remote control, movement towards exact coordinates and, in some cases, are able to send the collected data via satellite, submarine observatories are fixed at the seabed becoming just one more element of the environment and producing no perturbation in the normal behaviour of the animals. Due to the connection via cable they can receive permanently energetic supplying without relying on the batteries duration, and send the collected data at real time. Therefore, the new technologies allow us to increase sampling frequency since the dependency on the climate conditions become much less important unlike the above-mentioned case of the scuba divers. However, the disturbance does not decrease when working with AUV, as well as the complications in studying animal behaviour.

Guanay2, the AUV designed by the technological group SARTI-UPC. Image: SARTI-UPC.
Guanay2, the AUV designed by the technological group SARTI-UPC. Image: SARTI-UPC.


Cabled underwater observatories are slowly colonizing the coast around the world either forming big networks or individual observatories.

Nowadays, the more powerful observatories are the Canadian VENUS and NEPTUNE, both of them managed by the Ocean Networks Canada.  The first one was deployed on the 2006 and consists of 3 nodes placed between 100 and 300 meters deep in the Salish Sea, British Columbia, Canada. In addition to its function of studying the oceanographic phenomena it was also used as a test site of what would be its bigger brother, the NEPTUNE. This second network is working since 2009 and consist of 6 nodes and multitude of different sensors distributed on the oceanic profile of the Vancouver Isle west coast, from 23 to 2660 meters deep. For being placed over the fault produced due the interaction between the Juan de Fuca the Nord-American tectonic plate, it is an important observatory for the study of the plate tectonic forces.

NEPTUNE nodes distribution.
NEPTUNE nodes distribution. Autor: NEPTUNE (Creative Commons)

In Europe, we are not lagging behind, the EMSO (European Multidisciplinary Seafloor and Water Column Observatory) has grouped the isolated observatories, either underwater platforms or pelagic buoys, with the objective of forming a multidisciplinary network at European level.


One of the members of this European network is placed in the Catalan Coast, the OBSEA. The OBSEA platform (Western Mediterranean Expandable SEAfloor OBservatory) is a cabled video platform located at 20m depth, 5 km off Vilanova i la Geltrú. It was designed, deployed and managed by the technologic group SARTI from the UPC (Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya), conceived as a platform capable of supporting many different sensors in order to monitor different oceanographic parameters (such as temperature, salinity, seismic waves, tides heigh,…), and is also an instrumentation test site within the EMSO. The observatory is equipped with two video cameras, one fixed and the other with a 360º rotation angle, which can acquire digital images of the environment surrounding the OBSEA and everyone can check those live images from the OBSEA website.

OBSEA platform. Image: SARTI-UPC.
OBSEA platform. Image: SARTI-UPC.

New sampling methods help the researches to get a lot of good quality data for achieving a better understanding of the oceans. Sometimes however, the sampling frequency is so high that the amount of data produced is bigger than can be processed and we have to develop new software capable of working with big volume of data and help us in their manipulation and interpretation.


  • Aguzzi J, Mànuel A, Condal F, Guillén J, Nogueras M, Del Río J, Costa C, Menesatti P, Puig P, Sardà F, Toma D and Palanques A (2011). The New Seafloor Observatory (OBSEA) for Remote and Long-Term Coastal Ecosystem Monitoring. Sensors vol. 11, pp: 5850−5872.
  • Ona E and Godø OR (1990). Fish reaction to trawling noise: the significance for trawl sampling. Rapports et Procès-Verbaux des Réunions. vol. 189, pp: 159-166.
  • Stoner AW, Ryer CH, Parker SJ, Auster PJ and Wakefield WW (2008). Evaluating the role of fish behavior in surveys conducted with underwater vehicles. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science. vol. 65, pp: 1230-1243.
  • Thrush SF and Dayton PK (2002). Disturbance to Marine Benthic Habitats by Trawling and Dredging: Implications for Marine Biology.Annual Reviews of Ecology and Systematics. vol. 33, pp: 449-473.
  • Wikipedia NEPTUNE

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This publication is licensed under a Creative Commons:

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