Ask the alumni – Max Tercel!

Ask the alumni is a new series for the Mastering Entomology blog, inviting Harper Adams’ MSc Entomology and IPM alumni to share their journey, successes and advice with us since graduating from their studies.

Our first alumni braving the blog is the wonderful Max Tercel!

Max Tercel

Q: Please introduce yourself!

A: Hello! I’m Max and I’m now, officially, an entomologist! I grew up in Exeter and have been interested in insects and other invertebrates for as long as I can remember. I never excelled hugely at school/college but was nevertheless able to get a spot to study Zoology at Bangor University where I was awarded a First Class degree. In my final year of Bangor, I discovered that Harper Adams University were running an entomology MSc, so I decided to apply hoping that I would be awarded the RES scholarship to study. Thankfully, I did win the scholarship and without it I wouldn’t have been able to financially support myself during the MSc. I therefore owe huge thanks to the Royal Entomological Society (and am now trying to repay this in-kind by being the post-graduate student representative).

Q: What post-graduate course did you study at Harper Adams and what year did you study?

A: I studied Entomology in 2016/17.

Q: Can you remember why you chose to study the course/what your future career goals were at the time?

A: Harper Adams was, at the time, the only UK institution offering a course in entomology. I couldn’t imagine (or justify) studying anything else at masters-level, so there was really no choice to be made! I’m incredibly glad it worked out this way because I knew I had to put everything into my application to win the scholarship.

Q: Was the MSc in Entomology at Harper Adams your first foray into entomology?

A: Not really. Entomology had been one of my main passions since very early on, so I’d been immersing myself in “all things insect” for a while. At Bangor University, we also had two modules that had large entomology components, “Invertebrates” and “Animal Design”, the latter of which was a biomechanics module that frequently used insects as case studies. 

Scloropendra abnormis

Q: Has your career path since graduating followed that of the one you imagined?

A: Yes and no. I never expected to actually be offered a PhD studentship on the first attempt. However, I did realise that the entomology MSc already put me far ahead of many competitors I may have had when applying for entomology PhDs. Not only does the excellent taught aspects come across in applications you send off as someone that’s studied there, but the course is quite well known and prestigious more generally. I’m not entirely sure what I would have done if I didn’t proceed on the academic path – it just seems a natural fit for me. That and unskilled labouring work… which isn’t quite as uplifting.

Q: What is your job now?

A: I’m currently studying for a PhD at Cardiff University looking into the diet, wider ecology, and invasion biology of introduced ants on Round Island, Mauritius. It has a really nice mix of field, lab, and office work, which is great for me! I’m currently in my 3rd year of study.

Sunset at Round Island, Mauritius

Q: What has been your experience of doing a PhD?

A: It’s been a dream. It can be stressful and tough at times, but I have near total freedom to research how I want within the boundaries of my research question. It’s a great environment to be in and it’s fantastic to be learning new techniques and methodologies aside from the classical ecological dimensions. For example, I’m using advanced molecular tools to identify what a community of ants are consuming. It’s great fun and cutting-edge.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your travels to Round Island?

 A: My word. Where do I start? Without going into too much detail, Round Island is a small uninhabited island 21-km North-East of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. There is a huge level of endemicity there and the entomofauna is poorly known. This is simultaneously exciting and frustrating because it’s very difficult to identify anything to species level. You may well be looking at undescribed species on a daily basis. My project revolves around analysing invertebrate communities in parallel to introduced ants within quadrats spaced all over the island in every habitat type. This is physically gruelling in the 40o+ African sun carrying a suction sampler and large backpack around up a mountain every day. You get to the island either by boat, in which you need to precariously jump from the boat onto a slippery rock, or (far more glamorously) by helicopter. There is a field station for the wardens but I opted for a tent, and did so very comfortably for 4 months. Life on the island is necessarily co-operative because it is so environmentally harsh. Cooking and cleaning duties are shared and you live quite closely with whoever else happens to be on the island. It is a glorious existence and one of my favourite places on Earth.

Max’s tent on Round Island, Mauritius

Q: What is your biggest success/proudest moment since graduating?

A: Designing and implementing my field surveys in Mauritius was certainly one. It was physically demanding to do in the scorching tropical heat, but it really hammered home that the quality and potential of an ecological project often depends on the quality of the sampling design. Almost all of what I know about entomological sampling came from my time at Harper Adams! Another high point is having an opinion article recently published in Molecular Ecology.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

A: I’d really love to continue entomological research. My main specialism is in ants, so really anything to do with them would keep me happy, but I’d love to continue my work on introduced ant ecology and using molecular tools to answer fundamental ecological questions.

Slab at Round Island, Mauritius

Q: How did the Harper Adams post-graduate course help you to get to where you are today?

A: The entomology MSc is the single greatest academic experience of my life so far (which is impressive, considering I’m now in the 3rd year of my PhD!). Though I have been reading, catching, observing and generally learning about insects from a very early age, it supercharged my understanding of the entomological realm. A big part of me getting the PhD position was that I was able to publish my MSc project with the help of the lovely and far too humble Tom Pope. Without the entomology MSc, I certainly wouldn’t be doing this PhD. Moreover, the MSc, even in a vacuum, has just taught me how to be a better scientist and more well-rounded entomologist, so even if I didn’t get the PhD it still would have been the best step for me to take personally.

Q: Do you have any advice for the current and prospective Entomology and IPM students?

A: Study hard and try to come at the assignments from first principles, but really don’t get too worked up if you don’t know everything completely. Entomology is such a vast field and there are so many unknowns. For me, that meant having a good grounding of everything, but really focussing on the things that got me incredibly excited. Perhaps most importantly, have fun and do what makes you happy.

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