Recommended reads #25

Note: this weekly feature is transitioning to a biweekly feature (meaning in this case: every two weeks). This is a great crop over the last week, but I think I can have a better list by doing it less frequently.

For a link, thanks to Mark Martin.

 

 

Public higher education is not a reward for hard work

Here in California, there was a measure to officially restore affirmative action to the public university admissions process.

(The movement navigated through our state senate, but then the popular narrative is that the Asian-American community tanked it before public had a chance to vote on it. More here.)

Whenever white folks (or non-Hispanic European, or whatever ‘white’ means nowadays) are opposed to affirmative action, they’re called out on privilege and are told to share fairly with everybody.  This is justifiable in my view. Now, in California, the politicians associated with the Asian community are allied with the white folks that are against affirmative action. Considering that there is no shortage of Asian-Americans getting into our public universities, concerns about privilege should be extended to this demographic category as well.

The status quo remains: we continue to have an underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos in our public universities in California.

Some people get upset because affirmative action decreases their own opportunity. (I know how this feels. In my high school class, the only white person who got into UC Berkeley was the valedictorian. But everybody who was a member of one of the protected categories got in. (This was a small number, because I was at a mostly white private school. I wasn’t poor by any measure, but I was one of the poorest kids at this school.) I didn’t like it, because I didn’t think it was fair. And, well, life isn’t fair. That’s especially true for people who have don’t have avenues for opportunity despite hard work. Like the students who are systematically excluded from our public universities.

Taxpayers should fund K-12 public education because in a civil society, education should be a right and not a privilege. Moreover, we want an educated populace for the betterment of our entire community. And education for everybody in an equitable fashion is an engine of prosperity.

The same principle applies to our public universities.

As a taxpayer in California, I am not (partially) funding the undergraduate education of students because they worked hard. I don’t want to use my money to reward people who deserve it. I’m not giving out prizes for performance. I don’t want my state legislators to do that either.

I want to spend our public dollars in a way that improves the welfare of the state and its populace. I want a state that provides the best education to all of its people. I want my kid to go to school with students that all have a real chance to attend our state’s top universities. And frankly, without affirmative action, most of the children in our school district will have a hard time getting into UC Berkeley because of the systematic disadvantages that they’ve been facing since fetushood.

So, if you’re mad that someone with extraordinarily high grades can’t get into the publicly funded university of their choice, you can stuff it. I want everybody in the state of California to get admitted to our best universities (whichever ones those might be). If you don’t want to share our state universities with fellow Californians that have experienced a long history of disenfranchisement, then you aren’t deserving of a publicly-funded education.

This issue has nothing to do with immigration. It has nothing to do with “hard work.” It has to do with making sure that those the potential to succeed are given the capacity to do so, and that this happens as equitably as possible. That’s the point of affirmative action, because if you base admissions based on grades and test scores, you are perpetuating an inequity. If you don’t see the inequities among our public schools based on socioeconomic and ethnic dividing lines, you’re blind. Without affirmative action, we codify these inequities into the access to universities.

Even the opponents of affirmative action understand this point, unless they’re stupid or ignorant. But they might not like it because it hurts their own demographic group. Yeah, my kid (of Irish-Italian-German-British heritage) has a lower chance of getting into his favorite UC campus because of his background. And I’m okay with that. Because I want him to inherit a state in which people of all backgrounds have access to opportunity, even when they come from underfunded school districts whose students lack a way to get ahead. As people have explained for many decades, you can’t pull yourself by your bootstraps if you don’t have any boots. This is self-evident to all but those with boots.

Since we’ve been failing at providing equal access to quality public education at the K-12 level, the least we can do is to try to make things more fair when it comes to access to higher education.

It’s not about how hard your kid has worked. It’s about the priorities for our state. I don’t want a state that systematically disenfranchises major segment of its populace. I guess if you do want that systematic disenfranchisement, then feel free to fight affirmative action. But don’t try to fool yourself by arguing that it’s about fairness and equity. That’s a transparent sham. If you buy into the fairness and equity argument, then you need to spend some time volunteering in a high-need public school district to remove your blinders of privilege.

 

Our expert advice remains unheeded

Once in a while, tropical biologists get bot flies. We sometimes find this out while were are in the field. But on five occasions, my students have returned to the US, and then discovered that they are hosting a bot. They all contacted me for advice. I told them a few things, but the most important one was:

Whatever you do, don’t go see a doctor. That could be disastrous.

Nonetheless, three of these students went to the doctor.

The bot fly Dermatobia hominis, that came out of my student's arm while he was sleeping. Photo: T. McGlynn

A mature bot fly larva, Dermatobia hominis, that emerged from my student’s arm while he was sleeping. He intentionally reared this one out and allowed it to pupate. Pencil is for scale. Photo: T. McGlynn

This has always troubled me. Without any additional context, it looks like the students just didn’t trust me, and thought that I’m stupid. At the very least, it shows that they trusted their own intuition over my recommendation based on a long history of experience. It shows that they followed the misinformed advice of family and friends over the judgment of the person who was responsible for the trip to the rainforest.

It shows that when it really really really counts, my guidance ain’t worth much at all to my own students.

I don’t give students this instruction without an explanation. I tell them that nearly every doctor in the US will want to cut the creature out. History shows that bot fly larvae are smarter than doctors. If you present yourself to a US doctor with a bot inside you, the predictable result is that you leave the doctor with your bot inside you. You will also leave without a large chunk of flesh that the doctor removed in a futile attempt to get the bot. Sometimes the bot is killed in the surgery, but not excised, which leads to a rotting carcass and infection, and the need for serious antibiotics. I tell them that, if they can’t get it out using the variety of techniques we’ve discussed, and they feel compelled to go to a medical professional, they must go to a vet and not to a doctor. (The students who did the opposite of my recommendation came to regret their choice, if you’re wondering.)

These bot fly incidents are convergent with a recurring incident in a non-majors laboratory that I have taught. The week before an exam, I hand out a review sheet that specifies the scope of the exam. I then tell the class:

Check out item number three on the review sheet. This is a straightforward question about osmosis. The answer is that the volume of water in the tubing will “increase.” The correct answer to this question is “increase.” Just circle the word “increase” and do not circle the word “decrease.” I’m letting you know the answer to this question now and I guarantee — the odds of this question being on the exam next week are 100%. I promise to you, with all of my heart, that this question will be on the exam word for word, and this one question will be worth 20% of your grade on this exam. You don’t want to get this question wrong, and I’m telling you about it right now. So, be sure to write down in your notes that this question will be on the exam and be sure to remember the correct answer when you see it.

The reason that I’m being really obvious about telling you about this question its that in the past, half of the class has gotten the answer to this question wrong. It’s a simple question, and it addresses the main point of the lab we conducted for more than two hours last week, but still, lot of people got it wrong last semester.

You should know that those students also were told in advance what would be on the exam. Just like I’m telling you right now. They knew that 20% of their exam hinged on remembering one word, “increase,” and still the majority of them got it wrong. I’m telling you this now because I don’t want you to suffer the same fate of those other students. DON’T BE LIKE THE STUDENTS FROM LAST SEMESTER WHO WERE FED THE ANSWER AND THEN GOT IT WRONG THE FOLLOWING WEEK. Just remember that “increase” is correct and the other word is not correct. I’d like you to remember the physical mechanism that explains this osmosis, but more than anything else I’d like you to demonstrate that you can be prepared for the exam and remember this small fact which I am hand-feeding to you right now. I promise to you this exact question will be on the exam Learn from your predecessors, don’t make their mistake. I’m giving you 20% of the exam for free right now, so write this down.

As I give this slightly overwrought speech, the students are paying attention. There is eye contact. They might be note-taking activity. Nobody’s on their phone, and nobody’s chitchatting.

When I administer the exam, more than half of the class circles “decrease” instead of “increase.” This has happened four times, and each time it happens a little piece of my heart dies.

As you can imagine, many of the students in our non-majors class are as disengaged as humanly possible. By no means is this a difficult course, even with low standards, but the fail rate for the corresponding lecture course is about 50%. The students who fail are clearly doing so because they aren’t even making the slightest effort. The reason that I keep giving students that same question over and over, and give them the correct answer over and over, is to give me some reassurance that the wretched performance by so many of the students is not my fault. I do this to grant myself absolution.

In these labs, each week is designed to give students the opportunity to develop their own experiments, find new information on their own, and work together to solve problems. This happens to some degree. But half of the students do not exert the tiniest amount of thought about doing what it takes to pass the exam. Why don’t they even try even the slightest, despite my best efforts to both inspire and feed them the right answers?

The students who fail these exams trust their own intuition, or some other model of behavior, instead of my own advice. If anybody is the person to tell you how to pass the exam, it should be the professor who is telling you the answers to the exam. But in this case, the students weren’t even bothering to look at their notes for five seconds before stepping into the exam. They’ve presumably heard from other people that work is not required for this class whatsoever, or perhaps they don’t care for some other reason. All I know is that no matter what I do, I can’t get these students to care about their grade on the exam. Some are excited about the labs, but not necessarily in passing.

So, what do the bot fly story and the osmosis story have in common? No matter how hard we try, sometimes our students won’t follow our recommendations. At least, not mine.

We are fancy-pants PhD professors, with highly specialized training. We’re paid to be the experts and to know better. That doesn’t mean that our words are prioritized over other words. Anything we might say just ends up in a stream of ideas, most of these ideas just flow out as easily as they flow in. It’s no accident that my teaching philosophy is “you don’t truly learn something unless you discover it on your own.” This is why I focus on creating opportunities for self-discovery in teaching. This is the only way in which people truly learn.

No matter what we professors might say or do about bot flies, or studying for exams, or anything else, other people will rely on their own judgment over our own. Even when the experts are overtly correct on the facts, even smart people often use misguided intuition when making important decisions, even when they are obviously wrong on the facts and the experts are overtly correct.

It’s easier to listen to other people than it is to heed their words. As a professor and research mentor, I’ve given up on the expectation of being heeded. I just work to speed up the process of self-discovery of important ideas. But, for the most part, I still don’t know how to do that. I think it’s an acquired skill, and a craft, and I think I still have a ways to go.

Backyard science

Spring is springing in Sweden and I’m finally out from under my grant writing load. It is pretty easy to complain about writing grants and I am not innocent in this respect. But it is also an opportunity to explore new ideas and topics. This year I decided to try at the more applied government funding agency which I haven’t attempted before.

I generally do basic science. Sure some of my research might one day shed light on a practical problem but I’m in it trying to understand the world around me. So in previous years I haven’t felt my research fit with the more applied funding sources and didn’t want to jam a square peg into a round hole as it were. If I don’t see a real way that my research fits into a funding agencies goals then I didn’t see the point of sending something there. But this year was different because I started thinking about research questions that interested and excited me and were directly relevant to a more applied grant.

So here’s the steps that have lead me to thinking about a new field and exploring the possibility for grant funding. To begin, last year we bought our first house. I have always wanted to have my own garden and it is a true delight. We moved in mid-summer so we didn’t change so much last year but I was actively adding bee-friendly plants and pondering how to get rid of more grass. The former owners left us with a number of lovely flowerbeds that are starting their spring routine now but there is still an abundance of lawn. At the same time as I was contemplating increasing diversity in our backyard, I was also looking for a system to study here in Sweden. I want to work with nectar-rewarding flowers and was looking around for possibilities.

I started noticing fireweed popping up here and there in my travels. I knew the plant from living and working in North America (it is the study system of my master’s committee member, Brian Husband) and a fair amount is known about its nectar production. Perfect. But when I was looking and asking around for potential locations for populations, I wasn’t finding any local large populations. Instead I was seeing patches in and around the towns I live and work. This got me to thinking about the ecology of these urban dwellers. How does natural selection on floral traits work in an urban context? There are a number of flowering plants that thrive and reproduce in urban environments and this got me thinking about all the same kinds of questions I usually apply to ‘wild’ populations.

I causally started looking into the literature to see what was known about flowers and plant-pollinator interactions in urban landscapes. As I read, I discovered that there is a fair amount known about the ecology of these interactions (hence ‘urban ecology’ as a field of study) but much less is understood about how urbanization affects evolution. So I had fun exploring a new body of literature and saw a niche where my skill set could provide some answers.

I’m not sure that I’ll convince the funding agency to give me the money to do so but I have convinced myself that urban evolutionary ecology is a topic I’d like to explore further. I have some pilot projects planned for this year and I’ll see where they lead. I also have another grant application exploring the more basic questions of evolution of signals and reward in fireweed, so in some ways the funding gods will decide which way my research focus goes for the next few years. One of the outcomes for me is that I am more seriously thinking that applying for grants can be the motivation for thinking in new ways or on new topics. Maybe a little desperation (for funding, the next position, etc) can be a good thing and maybe for me I can find some of the answers in my own backyard. For now I’m happy that major grant writing can be set aside for a bit and I can enjoy the spring.

The first days of a new tenure-track faculty job

This is the season when some lucky ones preparing for new jobs in the fall. A few people have asked me what to expect, so I imagine even more are wondering. I’m writing from my own experience (starting 2.5 new faculty jobs), and yours have been different, so please do comment. What can you expect from the start, and what might you want to keep in mind? Here are some observations and some suggestions.

  • It’s more quiet and lonely than you might expect. There is a lot to do, but many tasks are solitary. September is a crazy time for everyone who is recombobulating from summertime adventures. Everybody will be glad to introduce themselves to you, but it won’t take very long before you’re sitting at the desk in your office, alone.

  • It’s busy. If you’re teaching more than you have in the past, be prepared to be overwhelmed. This is normal. It takes a while to figure out how to teach efficiently. At the outset, you can’t afford to not be an effective teacher, so learning how to be efficient is a work in progress, as you learn the acceptable standards in your new environment.

  • Define your boundaries for students at the outset, because your rep will spread quickly. If you want to get to know your students really well outside class, then be sure to leave your office door wide open and chat frequently with students. On the other hand, it’s easy to establish a reputation as a caring, fair and hard-working professor who doesn’t spend much time with students outside of class and office hours, if you set this at the outset. Time spent well with students can be the purpose of the job and the highest pleasure, but some other time spent with students could be a fruitless time sink. Find that line. The range of acceptable positions for that line varies hugely among institutions. So, listen and watch carefully.

  • From day one, decide how you will manage your classroom. The proliferation of communication devices has changed how students spend time in the classroom. Once the digital monster escapes from the box, you can’t put it back in without causing some degree of petulance. However, you can establish a clear pattern of expectations on the first day of class, which will be the structure that you need to help others deal with their addictions. This requires being proactive and isn’t something that you can effectively deal with mid-semester.

  • There is a huge amount of freedom. You have your ID, your email set up, your class schedule, supplies on the way to the lab. And then, you have absolutely nobody telling you what to do. This is, I argue, the most critical moment in your career – how do you spend the limited amount of time that you have? Are you focusing on writing grants, getting projects started, training new students, developing some curriculum, getting new experimental setups running, figuring out which grocery story to shop in, and how to make new friends in a new city? You can’t do all of these things at once, even if they all have to happen at some point. Your priorities will be based on your own circumstances, but don’t fall into a routine or a rut without planning. If you fall into a hole in which 100% of your work time is focused on the classroom, you might never be able to dig your way out. Manage your time at the outset. Of course you’re teaching more your first semesters as you are figuring things out. But it should not be all of the time, even at the start.

  • The most important person in the world can be your departmental admin person. Missing some office furniture? Direct deposit messed up? No book ordered for your course? Copier eating paper? Lab techs are often just as critical, too. Fortunately, I’m blessed with the most spectacular crew ever in my own department. I usually see these people because I need something, and I’m ever so thankful for the help I receive. Be sure to start off on a good foot because at crunch time, having these people in your corner is definitely priceless.

  • It takes years to understand university politics. This stuff affects you, but discussing the prospect for change might not be helpful. Most issues have long histories connected to big personalities, and until you know the stories and the individual players, don’t get involved.

  • If you’re a parent, and particularly if you’re a mom, then you’ve got to make sure that your spouse does his fair share of parenting. Even if you’re not a parent, but if you’re coupled, then you want to make sure that you aren’t doing more than your fair share of the duties at home. Oftentimes, domestic arrangements re-equilibrate with moving. If your career is as important as your spouse’s career, then less pleasant stuff done at home is an equal responsibility, too.

  • Identify senior faculty that you like and can trust, and not necessarily just in your own department. The working conditions and expectations of new faculty are different than those that have been on campus for a while. However, experience sometimes results in wisdom. When you need to learn context, it’s worthwhile to talk with someone who has already been there. Let’s say a couple students in your class are causing problems for you, or you don’t know how to ask the chair about leaving for a week to attend a conference. Or you need to find fresh undergrads to train in your lab, or you want to tap into campus funding for students but don’t know criteria the university-level committee uses when ranking applications. These are topics for your senior faculty mentors.

  • Maintain the time to keep yourself healthy. Make sure you still make the effort to prepare and eat real food, and be physically active however you have in the past. The time you put into exercising doesn’t cut your productivity, but increases it. When you feel good, you’ll work more efficiently and your mind will be more focused.

  • It’s okay to ask for help. You might be anxious about driving people crazy with a variety of minor inquiries, but you’re a newbie and it’s normal to try to figure things out. You were hired because the department already was confident that you’d do a good job, so it’s okay to ask questions that will help you out. Actually, as you make the rounds asking minor questions of people who could be of help, this can be a way to figure out who might evolve to become a trusted mentor.

This was not intended to be a comprehensive list, so additional input would be great, especially from those who have started a new job more recently than I have.

I also like all of the advice of Karen Kelsky about starting out your first year. I wrote this before I saw her piece, and the similarities are more than conincidental.

Friday recommended reads #24

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Little Free Library Charter #12221, photo by T. McGlynn

 

For a link, thanks to Bug Gwen.

The field ecology of a gut microbe inside bullet ants

The bullet ant Paraponera clavata. Image by Alex Wild.

The bullet ant Paraponera clavata. Image by Alex Wild.

This is the latest paper from my lab, which I’m really excited about. When we designed the project, several people told us that it would be useless. “It’s pointless to study the ecology of a symbiotic microbe in the wild when we have yet to specify its function inside the host.” It was only two days ago that Meg Duffy said that the microbiome is the most important recent conceptual advance in ecology, and I agree with her. That’s one of the reasons we did this project, to look at the ecology of gut microbe in the wild, which appears to be a true frontier.

There are plenty of advances that are yet to be made in the field biology of microbes, and these discoveries do not have an a priori requirement understanding of the comprehensive biology of an organism before understanding its ecology.

The microbial contents the guts of bullet ants are remarkably heterogeneous. In some colonies of bullet ants, we found oodles of a particular Bartonella microbe, closely related to those that facilitate N cycling in other animals. And most closely related (as far as we know) to other Bartonella inside ants on other distant continents. But, many bullet ant colonies lack this microbe. Perhaps not by accident, bullet ants have a remarkably varied diet, and some colonies eat more insects than anything else, and other colonies are functional herbivores. Perhaps the presence of this N-cycling microbe might be associated with – or even respond to – the trophic position of the ants?

Aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves by studying how diet affects microbes in the wild, when we don’t know what the microbes do? I say, phooey. Most of the ants that we study in tropical rainforest are just as mysterious as microbes. We don’t even know what most species of ants even eat! Nobody tells me I can’t study the ecology of ants without doing a comprehensive study of their diets and relationships to other organisms in the ecosystem. So, why do we need to know exactly what the role of microbe is in the gut of an animal before working to understand its distribution and ecology?

Working out the function of these microbes is mighty damn hard, if not impossible at the moment. But we can understand the distribution of these critters among colonies of ants an understand the environmental factors that shape its occurrence, as well as doing experiments to see how we can make incidence increase or decrease.

So, we ran an experiment that gave the ant colonies supplemental carbohydrates, or supplemental protein. (This was not easy at all, though you might think it would be. A post on this is forthcoming.) And we checked to see if how the microbes responded. It turns out that when you feed colonies sugar, this microbe becomes more prevalent. Moreover, the results from the manipulation recapitulate the ambient relationship between diet and microbial prevalence. Some colonies consistently collect more sugary nectar from the canopy than other colonies. (Learning this involved going out into the forest in the middle of the night, for an entire summer, to measure bullet ant colony diets.) The colonies that collect more nectar are more likely to have this microbe. So, we can clearly conclude that a sugary diet is predictive of the incidence of this particular Bartonella inside bullet ants.

And the stable isotopes tell an interesting story, too.

So what does this mean? While most ant species that forage in rainforest canopies are functionally herbivorous, bullet ants are true omnivores. They also don’t have the specialized obligate N-cycling microbes that the more herbivores canopy ants have. We found that the close bullet ant diets get to their competitors in the canopy, the more likely they have this facultative N-cycling microbe. If we’re trying to understand how the evolution of obligate sugar-feeding evolved among the dominant ants of rainforest canopies, then I suggest that understanding the ecology of the facultative bullet ant/Bartonella association is to get a window into the evolution this form of dietary specialization.

How this project happened inside a teaching institution

This was the Master’s thesis project of Hannah Larson. Hannah came to my lab with a specific interest in doing field ecology. Based on preliminary finds predating her arrival, Hannah and I developed this project in collaboration with Shana Goffredi, our microbial ecology collaborator. After taking courses for a semester, Hannah headed to the rainforest for eight months to conduct this project at La Selva Biological Station. Hannah found, marked and measured over a hundred bullet ant colonies (which became the start of a long-term monitoring project), and overcame a series of challenges in getting the molecular work done in a rainforest field station (with substantial help from our collaborating lab at the University of Costa Rica). Undergraduate Erica Parra is the one who (by her own choice I should point out) spent long nights in the pitch black of the rainforest at the base of actively foraging bullet ant colonies. The work was funded by an NSF-IRES grant OISE-1130156, though we scrambled for additional funds for reagents that were not in the project budget.

Reference:

Larson, H.K., S.K. Goffredi, E.L. Parra, O. Vargas, A. Pinto, T.P. McGlynn. 2014. Distribution and dietary regulation of an associated facultative Rhizobiales-related bacterium in the omnivorous Giant Tropical Ant, Paraponera clavata. Naturwissenschaften. DOI: 10.1007/s00114-014-1168-0

You can find a copy of this paper on my lab’s website.