Post provided by Jolle Jolles
Each year Methods in Ecology and Evolution awards the Robert May Prize to the best paper published in the journal by an author at the start of their career. 10 Early Career Researchers made the shortlist for this year’s prize, including Jolle Jolles, a postdoctoral researcher at CREAF, Barcelona. In this interview, Jolle shares insights on his paper Broad-scale applications of the Raspberry Pi: A review and guide for biologists.
Tell us your career stage, what you work on, your hobbies and interests.
I am a postdoctoral fellow at CREAF, in Barcelona, Spain. My research is focused on understanding the role of individual heterogeneity in animal behaviour and its consequences across social and ecological scales, for which I combine both laboratory experiments with computer simulations and field observations. I really like to find the boundaries and push new ideas and methods in science. When not busy doing research I love being active outdoors, such as hiking, climbing, swimming and bird-watching, and especially with my two young kids.
How would you pitch your article to someone if you had just 30 seconds in an elevator with them?
Over the last years, low-cost single-board computers like the Raspberry Pi have taken the world by storm and are being used by a global community of enthusiasts, hobbyists, and educators in almost any situation imaginable. Although the field of biology has also seen tremendous technological progress in recent years, it is not clear to what extent these devices are already being used in biology and what scope of applications is possible. By reviewing the literature, I discuss in detail how the Raspberry Pi can be used by biologists, in the lab, the field, and in the classroom, and furthermore provide detailed considerations and guidelines for scientists to build their own novel and creative solutions. With this paper I hope to help generate more awareness about the low-cost open electronics like the Raspberry Pi and thereby both fuel the democratization of science as well as help advance our understanding of biology from the micro to the macro scale.
Where did the idea to develop this method come from?
For my PhD work I had access to an old system of camcorders to study the behaviour of fish. I wanted to understand how individual fish differed from one another and how that in turn affected their collective behaviour, something that simply wasn’t feasible with camcorders without getting crazy. I therefore decided to try and build something myself. Within a couple months I was able to build my own Raspberry Pi recording system for the controlled and automated observation of animal behaviour, which enabled me to film hundreds of fish per day in a standardized fashion. Since then I have used Raspberry Pis in many other ways, from monitoring aquarium temperature, to controlling bird nestbox doors, and building a portable long-term underwater recording system. I noticed many fellow scientists were excited when hearing about the potential of the Raspberry Pi but they had otherwise never heard about it and when they did felt it to be too technical to try themselves. I therefore decided last year to help them overcome these hurdles and bring more awareness about the great application potential and benefits of the Raspberry, which led me to organize a dedicated workshop and write the paper.
What were the major challenges in developing this method and how did you overcome them?
A challenge for the paper was to try and show the broad application potential of the Raspberry Pi across the biological domain, something that required me to explore a literature in domains that I am less acquainted with, including plant sciences and neurobiology. I also wanted to make sure I would provide an objective account as possible on the Raspberry Pi and not just show it benefits but also its disadvantages and alternatives to help researchers make the right decisions themselves. Finally, to really help fellow scientists to get started themselves, I ultimately decided that besides the detailed pointers, guidelines, and considerations, I would also write a dedicated website with easy-to-use tutorials for anyone to use (http://raspberrypi-guide.github.io), which has proven very helpful to many users indeed.
What have you been working on since your article’s publication?
I have been working on a number of exciting projects that involve the Raspberry Pi. This includes a complete automated nestbox recording system that films the breeding behaviour of 20 jackdaw pairs across the whole breeding season, day and night, sends updates to the cloud, and is completely solar powered. I am also building a system of stand-alone recording units to film the behaviour of wild lizards and their predation by invasive snakes in the field in Ibiza. And I am designing a portable system of recording boxes to film the drying of intermittent streams in north-eastern Spain, as part of a larger project to understand how fish populations deal with droughts. Now covid has been easing, I am also keen to start organizing workshops again like the one at the 2020 ASAB meeting in Konstanz.
Who will benefit from your method?
The Raspberry Pi has a huge number of benefits that should be of interest to both students, researchers, and educators across the biological domain, and I believe it is one of the key technological advancements that will help further revolutionize biology, and thereby benefit the community as a whole. Furthermore, low-cost single-board computers like the Raspberry Pi help the democratization of science and empower scientists in countries or research institutes with limited research funding to develop their own research tools. Ultimately this will help accelerate the development of new methodologies and stimulate interdisciplinarity of our research.
If you could travel back in time, would you add to or change anything about your method?
I think that if my paper would have been written earlier it could have benefited many research projects that still used less optimal or conservative methods, so if I could travel back in time I would maybe have started writing my paper one or two years earlier. Still, a couple years back there weren’t as many hardware options, the Raspberry Pi was slower, and setting up and working with it was not as user friendly as it is now, so now is actually the best time to get started!
Read the full article here: Broad-scale applications of the Raspberry Pi: A review and guide for biologists
See the other articles shortlisted for this year’s prize here.