Rainbow Research: Nature

To celebrate UK Pride Month, the British Ecological Society journal blogs are posting a Rainbow Research series, which aims to promote visibility of STEM researchers from the LGBTQ+ community. Each post will be connected to a theme represented by one of the colours shown in the Progress Pride flag.

In this post, Bradley Neal shares the details of his academic journey (including a passion for butterflies!), as part of the Progress Pride flag theme of ‘Nature.’ Bradley also highlights the importance of being an ally to all members of the LGBTQ+ community.

About me

I’m a PhD candidate at The Open University (OU) studying urban butterfly conservation, starting October 2021. My colour theme from the rainbow is green, for Nature. I recently graduated with a BSc in Environmental Science from the OU, and a MSc in Conservation Ecology from Oxford Brookes University. I am hugely passionate about nature and conservation; I am big into butterflies. I studied them extensively for my MSc and aim to become an expert Lepidopterist. Beyond my study I love reading, mostly gothic horror and specifically have a huge passion for the works of H.P. Lovecraft. If I’m not enjoying nature, studying, tutoring or playing video games, I am probably watching a film, as I love cinema. I usually post photos of the nature-type things I see around Milton Keynes (MK) on my twitter: @BradleyNealEnv.

I study in MK and live with my husband of two years, who will be starting the final year of his Professional Doctorate in Policing, Security and Criminal Justice. Our subjects are different but diverse interests make a good relationship, and we do an excellent job pretending to be interested in the others latest fascination. His journey from being shoved through the care system from a young age to doctorate is truly inspirational, and I hope he writes about it one day.

Prior to my MSc, I worked in a school and took great fulfilment from helping students learn science, and I have continued that recently working with the National Tutoring Program (NTP) to support students who have struggled due to the impacts of the national lockdowns. I spearheaded an initiative to have two solar arrays fitted on the Five Dimension Trust schools in 2019 as an education tool and demonstration of the effectiveness and importance of renewable energy. Eventually, my career aspirations are to teach at a university.

My Research

For my BSc in Environmental Science, I studied a wealth of different subjects and this degree allowed me to find a passion within a subject I loved. Eventually I landed on Ecology. For my dissertation, I studied potential mismatch between plants and pollinators in a woodland ecosystem, which asks if climate change is causing plants to flower earlier, resulting in a gap between the emergence of insects to pollinate them. It appears that, unfortunately, this is the case. I used site-collected data as well as data from the Nature’s Calendar to model the change over time in first flower date of several woodland plants and the first appearance of some key pollinators. I found that there is an early flowering occurrence among some species, which may lead to consequences (like a shift in species composition) as the seasons warm further due to climate change. Ultimately evolution needs to catch up, but this process can be much more rapid than you might expect among insects.

I take about 50 photos of Ladybirds every year because I love them so much! Photo: Bradley Neal, 2021.

During my master’s degree, I homed in on the study of moths and butterflies, the order Lepidoptera. My thesis advisor and then course leader Professor Tim Shreeve is a well-known Lepidopterist in the community. I had already enjoyed watching the Brimstones and Peacock butterflies in the spring woodlands during my BSc and enjoyed them as child, but Tim’s passion was infectious, and I ended up tailoring as much of my MSc as possible to butterfly ecology and conservation. I have studied our native British species extensively including how to manage habitats to provide them with breeding grounds and food resources. We worked together in 2019 to produce a project studying the Wood White butterfly, Leptidea sinapis following in the footsteps of the brilliant Lepidopterist Martin Warren. However, COVID killed that plan so I ended up studying woodland butterfly populations using data from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS) and Butterfly Conservation. I modelled the occurrence and abundance of 5 woodland species specialist butterflies along with various woodland parameters of different habitat patches across Buckingham & Oxfordshire, determining that the Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia) and White Admiral (Limenitis camilla) are to boom in the area, while the local extinction of L. sinapis and the Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne) is probably due to a failure of habitat connectivity and effective woodland management. Another major factor includes the intensively hostile agricultural surroundings in which these woodland habitat patches sit.

(Top left) One of my favourite sights of summer – the Marbled White (Melanargia galathea) which has expanded its range here due to the excellent work of The Parks Trust and its volunteers. Photo: Bradley Neal. (Top right) A stunning Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus) seen in our local park. I am so grateful to live near such amazing sanctuaries for wildlife. Photo: Bradley Neal. (Bottom left) I can’t pick a favourite, but I studied and love the gorgeous Silver-washed Fritillary. Photo: Adam Gor, Butterfly Conservation. (Bottom right) Breeding Large Whites (Pieris brassicae) in Howe Park Wood, Milton Keynes in 2019. Photo: Bradley Neal.

My current research, my PhD, will build on this concept of woodland connectivity within a hostile matrix—this time however it will be within the urban landscape of MK rather than farmland. In MK we have lots of semi-natural space and potentially good habitats for butterflies, and our famous grid-road system might be a perfect way to connect these all up. My project will use surveys, previous data, geographic information system mapping (GIS), graph theory and other techniques to model the best intervention, management, and planning methods to connect woodland habitat patches together for butterflies. This, in turn, benefits many other pollinators and therefore vegetation and other animals along with it. I intend to include as much input from The Parks Trust as possible, which is our local environmental charity in MK who own and manage many of our green spaces and I am proud to volunteer for. This charity is my favourite thing about living in MK, and Martin Kincaid has been a great person to chat to about butterflies and conservation over the years.

My research would not have been possible without The Parks Trust, UKBMS, Nature’s Calendar and Butterfly Conservation including all the citizen scientists that collected the data over the years. Do consider supporting any of these fantastic charities.

Not sure why I went for the 90’s boyband album cover vibe but this place at Furzton Lake in MK is a beautiful place to be (Taken 2018).

I mentioned starting my academic life at The Open University, and no piece about myself would be complete without mentioning my love of the institution. I don’t think we have a better university in the UK. I absolutely loved my time at Brookes, but no one else except the OU would have had me back in 2014. This country needs many more institutions such as this which allow for social mobility and step towards resolving social inequality. I love the OU and could not be more proud to be returning there in October and continue my educational journey with them. I would highly recommend the OU for a long list of reasons and, importantly, discrimination was never present. I was even able to discuss gender identity and sexuality during my PhD interview without feeling uncomfortable or judged. I never felt subjected to any homophobia at the OU or Oxford Brookes, which is commendable.

My Identity

My study, my husband and my incredible friends are everything to me. I would not be in the position I am today, or arguably anywhere at all, were it not for my husband and a very special friend and fellow scientist Ellen, who has helped and supported me for the past ten years and faced her own challenges as a woman in science.

When I younger, discussions of LGBTQ+ issues/rights/sexual health at school were outright illegal thanks to Section 28. I felt I could not relate to anyone and that something inside me was broken. I couldn’t discuss my feelings either for fear of being stigmatised due to the culture of the time, so depression and anxiety took all my energy as passion away from me. I left with an impressively bad D, E and U at A-level with a handful of GCSEs. If gay people were represented in media at all, they were usually jokes or stereotypical camp or butch caricatures. I could not relate to anyone.

Taken on our honeymoon in Dubrovnik, Croatia in 2019.

Eventually I met someone else gay and could talk with them without judgement. This is why I now feel so strongly about inclusive representation and generally feel more comfortable around other queer people. If I had been able to connect with someone I could relate to earlier to discuss these feelings with, perhaps I would not have felt like such a broken outcast for so long.

It is no surprise that the people who accepted me immediately were in minority groups themselves and knew what being stigmatised felt like, which is why I so strongly feel that equality and diversity are two of our most important things in society.

After school I was resigned to failure in education and certainly felt incapable of achieving a degree, something I envied of others. My husband, an OU graduate, convinced me to enroll and just try – he even filled out all the forms and sorted out my student finance. Thanks to that, I finished my degree in 2019 and masters in 2020 and start my PhD start this year (2021). Being put on the path by the other Mr. Neal and guided through it with help from him, the OU itself, and my brilliant best friend Ellen (who did lots of proof reading and supported me throughout) was what I needed…simply some guidance, love, and support. The academic stuff I did alone, but the motivation to try and be confident in my abilities and push myself is all thanks to them.

Lockdown life! This is me and my husband testing Teams before my PhD interview. I wouldn’t have been anywhere near this without his support.

I have been told that I have the more “girly” interest, as apparently as liking butterflies and looking at flowers is feminine and camp (where I would attest there are far more gay animals to be studying e.g., Bears or Otters) whereas my husband is a big tough bodyguard, so he’s the “manly” one. This entire concept of gendering things needs challenging in science and in society at large. Even if it was anyway, so what? We should be able to be who we want without judgement despite what someone else’s opinion is. The reality is that almost all my education and specifically all the parts about butterflies have been delivered by white, cis, straight men. Great and impassioned teachers, for sure, but there has been very little diversity among them, and diversity is a crowning principal and end goal of conservation ecology after all. I am sure there are equally brilliant voices from other demographics out there I am not aware of. If this is you, get in touch as I definitely want to read your work!

I am avid supporter of the entire LGBTQ+ spectrum, specifically including trans and non-binary people. It is no secret that much of the UK and its media is a hostile place for the trans community, and I would like to make it clear that anyone expressing themselves in the way which makes them feel like their true selves is absolutely vital for society to embrace. Supporting trans and other queer people saves lives. My own has been saved by support from a handful friends and my husband. Lots of people don’t have that support network, and they deserve it. Call out any queerphobia when you see it, support us if you are an ally and educate yourself and become one if you aren’t.

Bradley Neal PhD student, The Open University

You can read all the posts in our Rainbow Research blog series here (new posts will be added throughout June 2021!)

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