The mentorship problem in primarily undergraduate institutions

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I’m back down at the field station in Costa Rica (missing my family quite a bit) and I had a very minor realization while having dinner among my students. It’s definitely a cliché of sorts, but I realized that the t-shirt I was wearing was older than some of my students.

I know this because the t-shirt had a specific date on it Continue reading

Saying “see you later, sometime” to the rainforest

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I just got back home from a few weeks of fieldwork in the rainforest. Most of the science I’ve done over the years has been based out of a smallish patch of land in Costa Rica: La Selva Biological Station. It’s a special place.

There’s a lot to be said for becoming intimate with just one place, to develop ideas and make discoveries that wouldn’t be made by those just passing through. Continue reading

Shooting down a widely held scientific myth

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Bullet ant image by Benoit Guenard

Bullet ant image by Benoit Guenard

Science is full of ideas that people somehow accept to be true, just because people say it’s true. We’ve all heard wonderful just-so stories that are waiting to be dispelled by data.

Let me tell you about three myths.

The first myth was that gastric ulcers are caused by stress. All kinds of medical treatments were predicated on this notion. When a researcher figured out that gastric ulcers were caused by bacterial infection, it was considered so outlandish that he had to infect himself to convince the medical research community. (In 2005, the Nobel Prize was awarded for this finding.)

For the second myth, consider the three-toed sloth. For about a century, it’s been said they specialize on Cecropia leaves. One twist on the story is that that the trees are tastier to sloths because they have weaker chemical defenses, because the plants are defended by ants. Then, in the 1970s, two biologists radio-tracked sloths for a couple years in Panama and found that yes, they eat Cecropia, along with many other plant species. If you track them with radio collars, then you get to see that they are not Cecropia specialists.

The people who radio-tracked the sloths did not receive a Nobel Prize. Continue reading

A collective blind spot in measuring natural systems?

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A few months ago I got a Fitbit, which for those of you who haven’t heard of it is basically a step counter. I’d been thinking about getting one for a while to help me motivate my exercise and keep my work-life balance somewhat on track. Perhaps symptomatic of not managing the balance, it took me awhile to get around to deciding what to get and actually buying it. Luckily for me, in the mean time, my husband bought one as a present and now I get to obsess about how many steps I take in a day. Continue reading

Universities that want research but don’t want researchers

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I’ve done most of my fieldwork at a biological field station. Many people come and go, but there are a lot of common interests and some longstanding friendships.

I’ve had the chance to befriend people over the course of several cohorts of doctoral students working on station. A subset of these folks — myself included — have found positions in academia and continued to do research down here. And of course there are lots of active scientists who I see at conferences. The ebb and flow of academic and personal interactions over the decades has its grandeur. Continue reading

A conversation that can help protect your students

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A student recently dropped by to tell me about an exciting opportunity. She was going to spend a few weeks doing research in a gorgeous location, camping with a field crew led by the professor who taught her Intro course last semester.

I asked her how much the job paid, and she said it was a volunteer gig, but the opportunity of this short trip would would be worth it on its own. And she would be getting academic credit.

I had more questions. Continue reading

Is it harder, or easier, to publish in your field?

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It takes time and effort to publish a paper. After all, if it were really easy, then publications wouldn’t be a workable (albeit flawed) currency in for success in the sciences.

I often have heard about how some labs experience a bigger or smaller MPU (minimum publishable unit) than others, as I’ve worked in biology departments with a lot of academic diversity.

For example, I once knew an immunologist in an undergraduate institution who spent five years of consistently applied effort, to generate a single paper on a smallish-scale project. This wasn’t a problem in the department, as everyone accepted the notion that the amount of work that it took to generate a paper on this topic was greater than what it would take for (say) physiology, vertebrate paleontology, or ecology. Continue reading

Academic self care

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The semester has begun and everyone is returning back to campus. It means my commuter bus is full and I rarely get a preferred seat. Bike parking in Uppsala is a lot harder too. For me this means that I’m returning to my office and there are people walking around in the corridors. I spent my summer doing a mix of work travel, fieldwork, housework, vacation and lots of mad writing at home. It was a nice break from the routine and a hopefully productive summer. Mostly it has meant that I’ve only dropped by the lab every once in a while to run samples but otherwise I haven’t spent much time there.

So when I started coming back into the office, I’ve been catching up on all those things I’d ignored during the summer. There is juggling the samples I’ve accumulated, meeting with students, catching up with my PhD student about her work this summer, chatting with colleagues, digging out my desk, and trying to finish up writing on a deadline.*

When I get into a rhythm of working at home/in the field, I often find that I don’t transition well to being back in my office. I’m not sure why really but I tend to get distracted by all the things that need doing. I don’t drink enough water. I eat my lunch late and I generally push myself in ways that are unhealthy. It only takes heading home with a headache to reset my mindset and remind myself that I don’t need to do all the things. And if I ignore my body it comes with a cost.

In the ‘back to school’ season it is good to remind myself to take care of myself and remember to listen to my body. I think that academia can be quite bad at creating healthy work environments. Although there is the issue of taking care of your mental health, and I know they are connected, but in this post I’m going to focus on physical constraints of a job in academia. I think the job can lend itself to all kinds of bad for you behaviours. I’m definitely guilty of a few.

In my experience, one of the problems of research can be that you never do any particular task (accept maybe computer work) for long enough periods of time to ensure they are ergonomic and not damaging. Now before you start thinking about those long days in the field or lab doing some horribly repetitive task for hours on end and disagree, I’m not talking about hours, days or even weeks here. I’ve done some tasks in physically awkward ways (or witnessed them) simply because it isn’t such a long term thing. You just need to get through these 100, 1000, etc samples/computer files/whatever. If it were your job to do that thing and only that, you’d never be able to sustain it if you didn’t have a good work station. But we often only work on short-term assembly line tasks so they are often not set up in the most ergonomic way. Of course some situations are beyond your control. It is difficult to measure flowers on a plant at an awkward height but you can’t change how the plant grows. You can however, varying your position, use a camping stool, sit on the ground and otherwise make accommodations so you don’t strain your body. The same is true in the lab or at the computer. I know many examples of grad students who developed some kind of repetitive stress injury while doing their research. It a real and can be debilitating thing.

Most of us spend a lot of time at our computers so it is a good idea to create a good desk situation. Separate keyboards from your laptop, raised screens, a good chair… all these things can help long hours at the computer. Meg Duffy has also talked about her treadmill desk and its benefits and limitations. I have an adjustable desk for standing, which I try to do much of the day, but haven’t ventured to a treadmill. But it isn’t just posture at your desk that can cause problems, typing and mouse work can lead to repetitive stress injury so setting up your work station can be crucial to successful computing (some ideas for avoiding bad computer setups and injury here).

Similar principles apply to your lab and fieldwork. The more conscious you are about the way you have to do the activity and think about it before hand, the more healthy you can be. I also find that those few moments of thinking about how to do a job in a healthy way also improves efficiency. It is hard to be efficient at a task if it is physically awkward in someway. So whether you are processing 10, 100, 1000 or 10000 samples, making it easy on your body is worth a few moments of contemplation.

I try to be mindful of the tasks I do and set things up in a way that are ergonomic, even if I’m not going to be doing that activity for extended periods. But it is easy to forget about your body, get caught up in a task. For me it is always the rush to the finish line that gets me; it is precisely because I see the end of the task that I tend to push myself too hard.

I’m definitely not writing from some moral high ground. I am currently battling frozen shoulder, which was probably made a lot worse by spending too many hours painting windows this summer. I’m sure the inactivity of desk work doesn’t help me either. But the experience has got me more conscious of what I’m doing with my body and I hope after some physiotherapy I might be able to lift my arm above shoulder level again some day soon. Now I just need to also remember to take breaks, drink water, don’t over-caffeinate and generally take care of myself at the office.**

 

 

*Who in their right mind accepts to co-author a review due at the end of the summer? So glad I said yes, and more so now that it is submitted, but it definitely made for a crazy summer.

**Thanks to @CMBuddle and @Julie_B92 who got me thinking more about the topic.

What happens in the canopy stays in the canopy.

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For a few years, I’ve harbored a very cool (at least to me) natural history idea. But it’s a big technical challenge. The required fieldwork is never going to happen by me. So, I should write a blog post about it, right?

Bullet ants (Paraponera clavata) are one of the most charismatic creatures in Neotropical rainforests. My lab has done some work with them recently. These often-seen and well-known animals are still very mysterious. Continue reading

Field courses: a blessing and a curse

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Since I began my position at Uppsala, my summers begin frantically. Although my teaching load is relatively light, the majority of it comes in the spring just when I am getting ready for my own and my PhD’s fieldwork.

I teach in a course on Ecological Methods. Students learn mainly about sampling and survey techniques for a broad range of organisms but the focus is on birds, insects and plants (for which I’m responsible). The course starts in March and runs until the first week of June (therein lies some of my problems but more on that later). Continue reading

Huge problems during research are totally normal

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At the moment, I have the great pleasure of working with a bunch of students at my field site in Costa Rica. Which means that I’m really busy — especially during the World Cup too! — but I’m squirreling away a bit of time before lunch to write about this perennial fact that permeates each field season.

We are used to stuff working. When you try to start your car, it turns on. When we set alarms to wake us up, they typically wake us up. You take a class, work hard and study, and earn a decent grade. Usually these things things happen. And when they don’t happen, it’s a malfunction and a sign of something wrong. Continue reading

More backyard reflections: connections between farming and fieldwork

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The weekend was beautiful and I spent a good portion of it in the backyard digging up grass. The plan is to have a small raised garden for vegetables, nothing too extensive but enough to plant a few things and enjoy them straight from the earth. You can’t get more local than that. As happens when doing something physical, my mind wandered. I had some “help” from my 4 year old but she would quickly bore of the repetitive nature of the task at hand so I was often left to my own devises.

Beginning of the vegetable plot. Looks easy but my body can attest to the amount of digging it took!

Beginning of the vegetable plot. Looks easy but my body can attest to the amount of digging it took!

Not surprisingly, digging in the dirt got me thinking about the summer I turned 20 and spent 5 months on an organic farm. It was an interesting summer, where I learned a lot but I had no idea I was preparing for a future as a field ecologist. That summer I was a bit lost. I had gone to university for a single semester before dropping out (finances being a major factor) and spent the next year or so working at various service jobs in Vancouver. I knew those weren’t things I wanted to do forever but I wasn’t sure what it was that I wanted. So I headed back across the country to Nova Scotia to live and work on a farm very near where I had spent some of my childhood. The memories of exactly how this plan came to be are foggy for me now (think my mother subtlety encouraged the Nova Scotia angle) but however it came about I ended up living on an organic farm, working for $50/week with three other exploring (or lost depending on how you want to look at it) young women.

Before working on a farm I had a romantic notion that maybe farming was one of things I’d want to do with my life. Farming cured that even though I absolutely loved the summer doing it1. What I saw though was the stress of worrying about the weather, the pests and all the other things that can go wrong. The funny thing is that I face lots of the same problems these days, just in a different context. I’ve lost experiments to deer browsing, mowing and bad weather. One major lesson I took from those farming days is to diversify and protect the truly important “crops” (experiments). I usually have a few field experiments/a few more replicates/etc running ‘just in case’2. A lot of the ‘just in case’ also makes good ecological sense. It is important to know, for example, if the patterns you see are consistent in different populations. It also helps when the deer eat all your plants in one of the populations; at least you still have some data to work with. Protection like fencing is also sometimes a critical part of ecological experiments. If you want to examine plant-insect interactions for example then it doesn’t help if the deer eat everything. If you want to eat the tasty vegetables you plant and know there is at least one hare that prowls your yard, fencing it is.

In plant ecology, often experiments require planting out particular populations or communities. There is the raising of the seeds, planting of the individuals, harvesting of the data and the stress of choosing the right time to do all these things. Sometimes you get it wrong. I always loved this story of a large planting that got hit by a frost; smart and experienced researchers don’t throw up their hands when the frost kills half your plants. If they’re lucky there is variation in survival and they write a paper about that instead.3 However, these decisions aren’t without consequence. While I was a grad student, I witnessed another’s unfortunate loss of an entire experiment to frost shortly after planting one summer.4 So the stress that I thought I was turning away from when I finished at the farm is actually a regular part of my summers. Maybe my income isn’t so directly tied to the harvest as on a farm but if experiments and papers are the currency that allows me to keep going as a scientist, then I’ve definitely paid the price of random events throughout the years.

I learned a lot that summer but probably most things were really about me. I learned I had stamina and that I could push my body and mind to keep going. I learned that I could tolerate bad weather and good to get the job done.5 I learned to laugh at rain and hailstorms and freezing weather and heat that makes you feel like passing out every time you get up.6 I learned that no matter how well you prepare, sometimes you just need to drop everything and change directions. Perhaps most importantly I learned that I liked being out there each day and being proud of what we accomplished. And I learned that some of the best friendships come from sharing the good and the bad of fieldwork (/farm work).

These days I don’t spend 5 months outside maintaining plants and collecting data but when I get to get outside, it is often reminiscent of those farm days. But perhaps that is only since I’ve found myself doing a lot of work in old fields…

And perhaps since I’m not outside toiling in the fields all summer, I have the opportunity/energy to grow my own garden. I know my little garden isn’t enough to even provide for our family. It is really a luxury hobby. But I am growing it because I also want my daughter to have a sense of what it takes to grow food. I want her to be able to recognise what the plants many vegetables come from look like, not just what vegetables look like presented in the store. She’ll probably not grow up to be an ecologist but I want her to appreciate the living world around her, both the wild bits and the tamed.

 

Ecological Life Lessons:

1Try something before you decide! Seriously, think you want to be an ecologist? Then go work in a lab, if you can’t do that, volunteer. Or if volunteering/work aren’t options, take as many courses as you can that expose you to research experience and get on board for a research project/honours/whatever they call it at your institution. The important thing is to get exposure to what ecologists are really doing on a day-to-day basis. Of course, this advice applies to anyone looking to invest a lot of time in training for a job, not just ecologists. But familiarity of the process of research is a really good thing before you start a masters/PhD program.

2The opposite lesson is to avoid spreading yourself too thin. My PhD student has been collecting data like mad and has a lot of really good hints at what is going on in her system but this year we’ve decided that she needs to do less of the different kinds of things and concentrate on a few key studies that will wrap up her experiments nicely. Right now there is a lot of data but often not sufficient to truly say what is going on. Sometimes this is hard to avoid (e.g. we didn’t know that the variation in the things we’re looking at is so great that it is making it hard to detect whether there is a signal in the data) and she’s also had her fair share of run-ins with the deer and mowers.

3I haven’t yet had the opportunity to turn a disaster into an opportunity at this scale but I certainly look at my failed experiments to see if anything is there.

4Learn from other’s misfortune, as well as your own. As a grad student, you’re actively learning how to run your own research but you’re also surrounded by a bunch of people doing the same thing. Talk to them! Hearing about their successes and failures can be just as important as doing the things yourself. This can apply to teaching, writing, analyses, fieldwork, labwork and the list goes on. These days if I know someone who’s done something that is new to me I ask them for advice. There is always so many tricks that make life simpler, once you’ve figured them out.

5Fieldwork is often not for the faint of heart. Know your limitations. I know I need sleep and I don’t function very well without it. More than that, I work pretty poorly at night. So I won’t ever take up a project looking at night pollination. Cool stuff but I know that it would drain me in ways that super strenuous work during the day never would.

6When things get tough you basically have two options: laugh or cry (or get really sour and unpleasant and take it out on those around you). I prefer to laugh (or at least try to), makes for a better field season.

Our expert advice remains unheeded

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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

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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 field ecology of a gut microbe inside bullet ants

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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.

Natural history is important, but not perceived as an academic job skill

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This post is a reflection on a thoughtful post by Jeremy Fox, over on Dynamic Ecology. It encouraged me (and a lot of others, as you see in the comments) to think critically about the laments about the supposed decline of natural history.

I aim to contextualize the core notion of that post. This isn’t a quote, but here in my own words is the gestalt lesson that I took away:

We don’t need to fuss about the decline of natural history, because maybe it’s not even on the decline. Maybe it’s not actually undervalued. Maybe it really is a big part of contemporary ecology after all.

Boy howdy, do I agree with that. And also disagree with that. It depends on what we mean by “value” and “big part.” I think the conversation gets a lot simpler once we agree about the fundamental relationship between natural history and ecology. As the operational definition of the relationship used in the Dynamic Ecology post isn’t workable, I’ll posit a different one.

As a disclaimer, let me explain that I’m not an expert natural historian. Anybody who has been in the field with me is woefully aware of this fact. I know my own critters, but I’m merely okay when it comes to flora and fauna overall. I have been called an entomologist, but if you show me a beetle, there’s a nonzero probability that I won’t be able to tell you its family. There are plenty of birds in my own backyard that I can’t name. Now, with that out of the way:

Let’s make no mistake: natural history is, truly, on the decline. The general public knows less, and cares less, about nature than a few decades ago. Kids are spending more time indoors and are less prone to watch, collect, handle, and learn about plants and creatures. Literacy about nature and biodiversity has declined in concert with a broader decline in scientific literacy in the United States. This is a complex phenomenon, but it’s clear that the youth of today’s America are less engaged in natural history than yesterday’s America.

On the other hand, people love and appreciate natural history as much as they always have. Kids go nuts for any kind of live insect put in front of them, especially when it was just found in their own play area. Adults devour crappy nature documentaries, too. There’s no doubt that people are interested in natural history. They’re just not engaged in it. Just because people like it doesn’t mean that they are doing it or are well informed. That’s enough about natural history and public engagement, now let’s focus on ecologists.

I honestly don’t know if interest in natural history has waned among ecologists. I don’t have enough information to speculate. But this point is moot, because the personal interests of ecologists don’t necessarily have a great bearing on what they publish, and how students are trained.

Natural history is the foundation of ecology. Natural history is the set of facts upon which ecology builds. Ecology is the search to find mechanisms driving the patterns that we observe with natural history. Without natural history, there is no such thing as ecology, just as there is no such thing as a spoken language without words. In the same vein, I once made the following analogy: natural history : ecology :: taxonomy : evolution. The study of evolution depends on a reliable understanding of what our species are on the planet, and how they are related to one another. You really can’t study the evolution of any real-world organism in earnest without having reliable alpha taxonomy. Natural history is important to ecologists in the same way that alpha taxonomy is for evolutionary biologists.

Just as research on evolution in real organisms requires a real understanding of their taxonomy and phylogeny, research in real-world ecology requires a real-world understanding of natural history. (Some taxonomists are often as dejected as advocates for natural history: Taxonomy is on the decline. There is so much unclassified and misclassified biodiversity, but there’s no little funding and even fewer jobs to do the required work. If we are going to make progress in the field of evolutionary biology, then we need to have detailed reconstructions of evolutionary history as a foundation.)

Of course natural history isn’t dead, because if it were, then ecology would not exist. We’d have no facts upon which to base any theories. Natural history isn’t in conflict with ecology, because natural history is the fundamental operational unit of ecology. Natural history comprises the individual bricks of LEGO pieces that ecologists use to build LEGO models.

The germane question is not to ask if natural history is alive or dead. The question is: Is natural history being used to its full potential? Is it valued not just as a product, but as an inherent part of the process of doing ecological research?

LEGO Master Builders know every single individual building element that the company makes. When they are charged with designing a new model, they understand the natural history of LEGO so well that their model is the best model it can be. Likewise, ecologists that know the most about nature are the ones that can build models that best describe how nature works. An ecologist that doesn’t know the pieces that make up nature will have a model that doesn’t look like what it is supposed to represent.

Yes, the best ecological model is the one that is the most parsimonious: an overly complex model is not generalizable. You don’t need to know the natural history of every organism to identify underlying patterns and mechanisms in nature. However, a familiarity with nature to know what can be generalized, and what cannot be generalized, is central to doing good ecology. And that ability is directly tied to knowing nature itself. You can’t think about how generalizable a model is without having an understanding of the organisms and system to which the model could potentially apply.

I made an observation a few months back, that graduate school is no longer designed to train excellent scientists, but instead is built to train students how to publish papers. That was a little simplistic, of course. Let me refine that a bit with this Venn diagram: 

nathistvenndiagram

What’s driving the push to train grad students how to publish? It doesn’t take rocket science to look at the evolutionary arms race for the limited number of academic positions. A record of multiple fancy publications is typically required to get what most graduate advisors regard to be a “good” academic job. If you don’t have those pubs, and you want an academic job, it’s for naught. So graduate programs succeed when students emerge with as their own miniature publication factory.

In terms of career success, it doesn’t really matter what’s in the papers. What matters is the selectivity of the journal that publishes those papers, and how many of them exist. It’s telling that many job search committees ask for a CV, but not for reprints. What matters isn’t what you’ve published, but how much you have and where you’ve published.

So it only makes sense that natural history gets pushed to the side in graduate school. Developing natural history talent is time-intensive, involving long hours in the field, lots of reading in a broad variety of subjects. Foremost, becoming a talented natural historian requires a deliberate focus on information outside your study system. A natural historian knows a lot of stuff about a lot of things. I can tell you a lot about the natural history of litter-nesting ants in the rainforest, but that doesn’t qualify me as a natural historian. Becoming a natural historian requires a deliberate focus on learning about things that are, at first appearance, merely incidental to the topic of one’s dissertation.

Ecology graduate students have many skills to learn, and lots to get done very quickly, if they feel that they’ll be prepared to fend for themselves upon graduation. Who has time for natural history? It’s obvious that ecology grad students love natural history. It’s often the main motivator for going to grad school in the first place. And it’s also just as obvious that many grad students feel a deep need to finish their dissertations with ripe and juicy CVs, and feel that they can’t pause to learn natural history. This is only natural given the structure of the job environment.

Last month I had a bunch of interactions that helped me consider the role of natural history in the profession of ecology. These happened while I was fortunate enough to serve as guest faculty on a graduate field course in tropical biology. This “Fundamentals Course,” run by the Organization for Tropical Studies throughout many sites in in Costa Rica, has been considered to be a historic breeding ground for pioneering ecologists. Graduate students apply for slots in the course, which is a traveling road show throughout many biomes.

I was a grad student on the course, um, almost 20 years ago. I spent a lot of my time playing around with ants, but I also learned about all kinds of plant families, birds, herps, bats, non-ant insects, and a full mess of field methods. And soils, too. I was introduced to many classic coevolved systems, I learned how orchid bees respond to baits, how to mistnet, and I saw firsthand just how idiosyncratic leafcutter ants are in food selection. I came upon a sloth in the middle of its regular, but infrequent, pooping session at the base of a tree. I saw massive flocks of scarlet macaws, and how frog distress calls can bring in the predators of their predators. I also learned a ton about experimental design by running so many experiments with a bunch of brilliant colleagues and mentors, and a lot about communicating by presenting and writing. And I was introduced to new approaches to statistics. And that’s just the start of it the stuff I learned.

I essentially spent a whole summer of grad school on this course. Clearly, it was a transformative experience for me, because now I’m a tropical biologist and nearly all of my work happens at one of the sites that we visited on the course. Not everybody on the course became a tropical biologist, but it’s impossible to avoid learning a ton about nature if you take the course.

The course isn’t that different nowadays. One of the more noticeable things, however, is that fewer grad students are interested, or available, to take the course. I talked to a number of PhD students who wanted to take the course but their advisors steered them away from it because it would take valuable time away from the dissertation. I also talked to an equivalent number of PhD students who really wanted a broad introduction to tropical ecology but were too self-motivated to work on their thesis to make sure that they had a at least few papers out before graduating.

In the past, students would be encouraged to take the course as a part of their training to become an excellent ecologist. Now, students are being dissuaded because it would get in the way of their training to become a successful ecologist.

There was one clear change in the curriculum this year: natural history is no longer included. This wasn’t a surprise, because even though students love natural history, this is no longer an effective draw for the course. When I asked the coordinator why natural history was dropped from the Fundamentals Course, the answer I got had even less varnish than I expected: “Because natural history doesn’t help students get jobs.” And if it doesn’t help them get a job, then they can’t spend too much time doing it in grad school.

Of course we need to prepare grad students for the broad variety of paths they may choose. However, does this mean that something should be pulled from the curriculum because it doesn’t provide a specific transferable job skill? Is the entire purpose of earning a Ph.D. to arm our students for the job market. Is there any room for doing things that make better scientists that are not necessarily valued on the job market?

Are we creating doctors of philosophy, or are we creating highly specialized publication machines?

There are some of grad students (and graduate advisors) who are bucking the trend, and are not shying away from the kind of long-term field experiences that used to be the staple of ecological dissertations. One such person is Kelsey Reider, who among other things is working on frogs that develop in melting Andean glaciers. By no means is she tanking her career by spending years in the field doing research and learning about the natural history of her system. She will emerge from the experience as an even more talented natural historian who, I believe, will have better context and understanding for applying ecological theory to the natural world. Ecology is about patterns, processes and mechanisms in the natural world, right?

Considering that “natural history” is only used as an epithet during the manuscript review process, is natural history valued by the scientific community at all?  Most definitely it is! But keep in mind that this value doesn’t matter when it comes to academic employment, funding, high impact journals, career advancement, or graduate training.

People really like and appreciate experts in natural history. Unfortunately, that value isn’t in the currency that is important to the career of an ecologist. And it’d be silly to focus away from your career while you’re in grad school.

But, as Jeremy pointed out in his piece, many of the brilliant ecologists who he knows are also superb natural historians. I suggest that this is not mere coincidence. Perhaps graduate advisors can best serve their students by making sure that their graduate careers include the opportunity for serious training in natural history. It is unwise to focus exclusively on the production of a mountain of pubs that can be sold to high-impact journals.

We should focus on producing the most brilliant, innovative, and broad-minded ecologists, who also publish well. I humbly suggest that this entails a high degree of competency in natural history.

Flexibility is wonderful, and horrible.

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Academics have a wonderfully flexible job.

If my kid is sick, or has a performance at school in the afternoon, I can change my schedule. I can work from home if I’m not teaching. I can focus on a crisis, or a grant, or revisions and drop everything else if necessary. I can get new tires for my car on a weekday morning instead of the weekend.

This flexibility shouldn’t worry those who think that we somehow have it easy. It turns out that we university scientists work far, far more than the 40 hours that is contractually required of us.

The downside to our flexibility in scheduling is that we grow to depend on that flexibility. And we have the capability to schedule ourselves into traps.

Because we are accustomed to flexibility, we have the latitude to schedule things that other, more reasonable, people might not schedule. We have the capability to create untenable and inflexible schedules.

Take, for example, my schedule at the moment. I’m now somewhere remarkably far away from home for two weeks. Before this trip, I was away from home for a week and a half. So, I’m gone for almost the entire month of January.

I’m traveling for two good reasons. I’m now setting up some students with exceptional research opportunities And I also found it too tempting to turn down an opportunity to join a field course, which was fun but also an important obligation in my view.

I also have two, more important, reasons to be home. My spouse and my kid.

This is a very long time away from home, especially considering that I spend weeks away in the summer on fieldwork. At the moment, I am a delinquent parent and a delinquent spouse. While I’m away, I’m missing important events (both good ones and bad ones). I’ve put an undue and undeserved burden on my spouse, who I clearly owe big time when I get back home. I don’t want to be the oafish not-adequately-involved dad who prioritizes science and career over family. This trip, I’ve pushed that margin too far.

We agreed to all of these scheduled things in advance, but that doesn’t make the situation any better. It looks different on the calendar than when you’re actually away.

What’s the fix to the inflexibility of our own flexible schedules? How do we make sure that we don’t overcommit ourselves, just because we can? The answer is simply to say “no” once in a while. But of course it’s not that easy. If it were, I wouldn’t be in this mess, having a remarkably fun time, but far away from my family with whom I want to, and should, be with.

Ant science: Ants try to eat protein beverages like solid food

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Collectively, ants are efficient, and you might even call them smart. But individual ants are so dumb that they don’t even know how to feed themselves, as we show in the latest paper to come out of my lab. You could say that these ants have a drinking problem.

A bullet ant with a bubble of sugar solution in its mandibles. Image by Alex Wild

A bullet ant with a bubble of sugar solution in its mandibles. No scale bar is needed; this ant is about the size of your pinky finger, unless you have a small hand. Image by Alex Wild.

If you’re given a protein smoothie, you drink it. But if you give bullet ants a protein drink, they chomp and pull at it. If they knew how to use a fork, they’d probably try that, too.

The bullet ant Paraponera clavata has a boring diet: workers mostly collect sugar water from the rainforest canopy, supplemented with chunky prey items, like other ants and pieces of caterpillars. When they eat carbs, it’s in the form of a liquid which they gather in a droplet held by their mandibles. When they get protein, it’s in the form of a solid which they chomp and bite.

While attempting to do an experiment, we discovered that these ants are absolutely hopeless at drinking a liquid, if it’s a protein solution.

What does it look like when ants try to drink something and when they try to chomp at solid food? Here are two very short videos taken by Jenny Jandt:

We asked: what sensory cues do the ants use to decide whether to drink a fluid or to grasp at it as if it were a solid? We ran a field experiment with factorial combinations of various sugar (sucrose) concentrations and various protein (casein) concentrations, and used ethograms to measure behavioral responses. We replicated this across a bunch of colonies, randomized the order of presentation, and did other good stuff to make sure the experimental design wasn’t messed up. (We’re pros, you know.)

We mostly didn’t get stung while running the experiment. This matters because they are called “bullet ants” for good reason.

We found that the higher the concentration of sugar, the more likely the ants were to drink. If there was a little protein and no sugar at all, the ants would most likely grasp.  Once protein concentrations got near 1 micromolar concentration, however, the concentration of sugar did not affect the grasping response to protein.

So, if these ants are thinking, then this is what they’re thinking to themselves: “If I taste protein, it must be food. So I’ll chomp at it, even though it’s a liquid.” But, it doesn’t look like they’re thinking much at all.

We found that the ants demonstrate a fixed action pattern of feeding behavior in response to assessing the nutritional content of food. This operationally works for them in nature, because texture and nutritional content are coupled. When we experimentally decoupled texture and nutritional content, then we were able to identify the cues that the ants used to make their food handling decision. They decide to drink when they detect carbohydrates and they decide to chomp when they detect protein, and texture has little to do with the decision.

How this project happened in a teaching-centered institution

In the first half of 2011, Hannah Larson (a Master’s student in my lab) was spending several months at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, working with a microbial symbiont of bullet ants. She discovered the phenomenon of bullet ants chomping at protein solutions when she tried to experimentally feed colonies a protein solution, and the colonies opted to dismember the plastic pipets instead of drinking from them. She worked out other ways of delivering protein for her experiments, but we wanted to document and further understand this discovery.

That summer, I paired up my colleague Dr. Jenny Jandt up to mentor a student from my university on a totally different project. We all found this protein-chomping behavior so cool, and Jenny made the time for a second trip to Costa Rica after I helped her flesh the project out. My undergrad Peter Tellez was her wingman, and they did the experiment using the template of the many colonies that Hannah established for her thesis work. In late 2011, I drove out to visit Jenny in Tucson for a couple days, to work on this and another manuscript, in which the bulk of the paper was put together. Jenny put the finishing touches on this paper with just a bit of help from myself, Hannah and Peter. As it was a side project for all of us, it lingered a bit but Jenny persisted and she’s pretty much everything I could ask for in a collaborator and mentor to our students.

Where are they now? Jenny took a postdoc in the rockin’ lab of Amy Toth at Iowa State. Hannah is now in her second year of the DPT program at the Univ. of Washington and Peter is now a PhD student in the lab of Sunshine Van Bael at Tulane.)

In short, this cool paper came together because I was able to talk my postdoc buddy Jenny into coming down to the rainforest to work with my students for about a month. She is otherwise a wasp and bee behavior person, and I was glad to give her an avenue to work with ants and tropical rainforests, and my students greatly benefited from her careful mentorship and expertise in individual and collective behaviors of social insect colonies.

Reference: Jandt, J., H.K. Larson, P. Tellez, and T.P. McGlynn 2013. To drink or grasp? How bullet ants (Paraponera clavata) differentiate between sugars and proteins in liquids. Naturwissenschaften. DOI: 10.1007/s00114-013-1109-3

A copy of this paper is available on my lab website here.

This work was conducted under support of the National Science Foundation (OISE-0854259 and OISE-1130156).

Collected observations from travels among universities

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Invited seminars and job interviews offer a unique opportunity to learn (and remember) what grad school is like and how universities work. You get to have a lot of intentional sit-down conversations on a wide variety of topics. Spending time meeting new people and learning new stuff rocks. And when you chat with other people about themselves, and their work, labs and universities, you have a chance to put your own way of doing things in perspective.

I’ve had a few such opportunities in the past month. There were a number of recurring conversational themes and undercurrents. During these visits, you get to have conversations to learn not just about all kinds of research, but about how people chose the directions that led to their current trajectories. And, you often learn about how personal lives shape our research directions and priorities, both by design and by hap.

Here are some of the highlights. None of these observations are shocking news by any measure. But I was struck by the obviousness of these ideas and the frequency with which they emerged, even when I wasn’t looking for them:

  • Research universities are no longer primarily oriented towards training excellent scientists. They are now primarily oriented towards teaching students how to publish and to get grants. If a grad student develops the desire to become an excellent practitioner of science, this is probably going to emerge from the undergraduate experience.
  • Anybody currently building a future in the quantitative sciences needs to learn how to write code to promote their own research success. Being able to manage and analyze super-duper huge datasets (bioinformatics) is really useful.
  • High quantity data will never be a substitute for high quality data.
  • People need to get off their goddamn phones.
  • Genomics is now at the point when all flavors of biologists are in a practical position to figure out heritable mechanisms accounting for phenomena involving organisms in nature. For many kinds of questions, any species can now be a model system.
  • Most ecological theories are ephemeral, and are either myopic or wrong. The parenting of popular, ephemeral and myopic theories is the prevailing route to success.
  • It’s difficult to maintain the presence of mind to recognize the power of one’s own authority.
  • In ecology and evolutionary biology, women fall out of academic careers most heavily in the transition phase between from Ph.D. to faculty. Lots of parties are at fault, but the ones that seem to be the most significant are some senior faculty (of both genders) and some spouses. Deans have many opportunities to proactively make positive changes, but that rarely happens.
  • The number of students who want to do serious, long-term, field biology in the service of contemporary research questions has sharply declined. This limits our potential to answer some major wide open questions in biology.
  • Universities that maintain a strong faculty actively keep their professors from going on the market in search of greener pastures. Universities would not lose valued faculty members as often as they do, if they actually supported faculty commensurate with the degree to which they are valued. Once someone is driven to look for a new faculty job on the market, then it’s impossible to not take a great offer seriously, even when there are many good reasons to not move.
  • The beauty of life – both in biodiversity and our relations with fellow humans – is immense beyond words. Humanity might be ugly, but people are gorgeous.

Changing families are behind the decline of field station culture

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The title of this post is more of a working hypothesis than an assertion. I put together a few observations I’ve made over the last month and this idea fell together.

Overall, there has been a steady decline in the pursuit of biological research involving long-term field research that relies upon a deep understanding of natural history. This is a well-recognized phenomenon among ecologists and evolutionary biologists. There are many potential causes, but here is one associated phenomenon:

A great variety of biological field stations throughout North and Central America have experienced a decline in research activity. At least, it seems to me, that many field stations have stagnated or shrunk, while the number of scientists has grown.

I’ve spent time in a variety of field stations, some with long histories that boast tremendous records of scientific productivity and discovery. The scientific progress at these sites was enabled by a culture of long-term scientists who have spent their careers working at particular locations in detail, and by bringing generations of students to work at these sites.

This doesn’t happen so much anymore. This was explained well by Chris Buddle of Arthropod Ecology.

What nearly all of these stations – with some notable exceptions – are missing is a set of senior researchers who are resident on site for long-term doing their field research. Nowadays, senior researchers don’t typically live at field stations for extended periods. Field stations are places where grad students, and maybe postdocs, work long-term. Undergraduates spend summers at field stations doing research and taking field courses, but at most field stations the faculty aren’t there for too long.

Without the consistent presence of senior researchers field stations do not serve as social and academic hubs like they have in the past. The emergent benefits from the field station as a thriving academic community, located in an active working site for field biologists, have diminished, if not fizzled.

Why has this happened? I think the answer is simple. Field biologists are no longer men whose spouses can stay at home with the kids all summer, or join them in the field to take care of the kids all summer. Decades ago, field stations that housed long-term senior researchers had trailing spouses who cared for all non-scientific matters, or had spouses who stayed at home and didn’t need to work for income.

All of us, regardless of gender, are now expected to support our families with a full combination of income, time, and direct parental care. I cannot be – nor do I want to be – the spouse that goes off to a field station while my spouse is required to tag along, or while my spouse stays at home. Either scenario requires me abdicating my responsibility as a parent. This summer, I’ve been away from my kid for almost a total of a month, over three trips, and that’s too much in my opinion. My situation isn’t different from many other biologists who are also parents, who have spouses who can’t drop everything during the field season.

I think my idea is reinforced, when considering the field stations that have maintained an active culture of long-term senior researchers. I haven’t worked there myself, but I’ve heard a lot about Rocky Mountain Biological Lab (RMBL), in southwestern Colorado. There is a large group of senior researchers who live on station full-time during the summer. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I have the impression that nearly all of the senior researchers that work at RMBL have two parents that are both conducting research on site. So, there may be kids living on station, and these kids have two parents to juggle childcare together. Perhaps there are also senior researchers that have particularly flexible spouses or who are single. This seems to be a relatively unique scenario at RMBL, a special community that serves as home to two-career academic families over the summertime.

Another field station that has long-term senior researchers is Barro Colorado Island (BCI), part of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. What makes BCI unique is that the Smithsonian employs many full-time research scientists whose job is to conduct research, often in BCI and the local environs. Other research stations don’t fully pay a big scientific staff to conduct research on site. However, it’s my understanding that the academic environment on BCI has atrophied a bit, with much of the community shifting to the little town of Gamboa, which hosts the launch site for the regular boat to BCI. Because working on BCI is pricier for long-term researchers, and Gamboa offers are more community for families, many researchers set up shop in town and may only occasionally visit BCI. Most of the senior researchers that live in Gamboa for longer periods are employed to work on site full-time. I suspect that senior researchers from universities abroad typically don’t work in Panama for longer periods, because of the same concerns about parenting.

If we want to promote long-term research in the field by senior scientists, then perhaps we could make sure that field biologists marry one another. Perhaps we could sterilize all field biologists.

I don’t have any practical recommendation about how to make sure that senior scientists spend more time in the field, which I do think would be good for science.

The field station where I work, La Selva Biological Station, constructed family housing more than 20 years ago, to accommodate scientists bringing their children. (I made use of this feature this summer for a couple weeks.) However, that can’t get me to live on station for the whole summer. While my kid could come along, my spouse isn’t going to drop her life to watch me at a field station all summer. I’m not going to take my kid away from my spouse for the whole summer and hire someone to care for him while I do science. The family housing can make me stay a little longer, but it can’t work for long periods.

The emergence of field stations in the United States happened during a time when most senior researchers were men who had spouses who handled the non-scientific aspects of their lives. Those times are gone. I don’t lament the change, but it does mean that field stations are less like to become long-term homes to senior scientists.

While I’d love to be at my field station all summer, I love my family infinitely more.

Am I less of a biologist by spending less than the whole summer in the field? Yes, I think that might be the case. However, my short visits to the field station make me more of a parent and more of a spouse. If there has to be a scientist/parent tradeoff, the parent side will always win out.

Note: I am writing this post while teaching a field course on Ants of the Southwest. Two of the course faculty are mothers, with their <2 year-old kids and non-ant spouses joining us on station. This bodes well.

Also, as an aside, here’s another prescription for helping improve the academic culture at field stations: shut off the damn internet between 8pm and 10pm. Lots of smart and interesting people hide with electronic devices when they could be interacting with one another.

On specialization: don’t research your way into obscurity

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A current conversation about model systems and the benefits of being a scientific specialist or generalist has been interesting, and I thought I’d join in. (This post was written for a while, but now’s a good moment to actually share it.)

Here’s my main point : Becoming a specialist on a narrow topic or taxon is a bad idea, because it narrows your opportunities and decreases both your visibility and your impact. If you’re in a position to choose your research trajectory and degree of specialization, I have two specific prescriptions near the end of the post.

When building a research program within teaching institutions, I’ve seen junior faculty advised by senior colleagues to avoid competing with big research labs. They are advised to find a specialized topic, not subject to competition, and develop expertise. For example, I’ve seen people whose entire research career, at a teaching institution, is built on the phylogenetic reconstruction of a single genus.

The notion behind this strategy is that you can be the world expert in something if nobody else is studying it. This route can allow you to retain a niche in academia, even if you are busy enough teaching that you can’t penetrate a more broader or more mainstream research agenda.

This sounds like a horrible idea.

If you specialize on an obscure topic that nobody is interested in studying, that means that you’ve become an expert in a mostly useless topic. What good is that?

If you are convinced that your particular obscure field should is truly important, and that the whole world is wrong, then that’s a different matter. If you think that understanding the detailed phylogeny of a single genus is important because of the unrealized significance of this group and the broad and general lessons to be learned from this model taxon, then fine, go ahead and spend your career working on it. However, if you choose a specialization for the purpose of defending a narrow niche, then you’re not allowing yourself the academic freedom that produces the best scholarship. And, you’ve intentionally chosen a route to obscurity.

Let’s just say that your obscure specialty suddenly matters to everyone? Let’s say that your model genus simultaneously emerges as an invasive species, produces a cancer-curing chemical and is the secret to carbon-free energy production. Are you going to have a great impact? No.

You’ll get more attention at first, but then you’ll then be shuffled back into obscurity when the big names in the field move into your pet taxon. Then, you won’t even own your little niche anymore, and your work will be seen as even more obscure.

Here’s a true anecdote: I once worked with someone who worked in a tiny niche, without collaborating. Coming up for tenure at a teaching institution, this person focused work on a single niche project over a few years. Shortly after the project was finished, less than a year before turning in the tenure dossier, this person was scooped by a bigger lab. This bigger lab just knocked out this work as a side project with some spare time. This unfortunate choice to overspecialize, without collaboration, meant that this person came up for tenure short of research expectations.

You won’t be a famous scientist working at a teaching institution. So, if you’re going to be a successful scientist, you need to be productive and successful one without the fame. Success in research is often based in collaboration, and people won’t be seeking you out for your narrow expertise in an obscure topic – they’ll be seeking you out because you are good and have something useful to offer for research on an existing question of interest.

Why would someone work in an obscure niche? Maybe it could be a personal passion, which would be a great reason, just like any other hobby. Other than that, the only reason I can think of is that a noncompetitive niche enables someone to continue to consistently publish a large number of papers that few people read. Some have made the argument that working on an obscure topic is the only reliable road to a position in the academic community, for those who are working in teaching institutions. It’s the road to being recognized as a scholar on your campus, but that’s not our real academic community.

Doing this work on an obscure topic buys you a place at the table. That might be true, with a caveat: Working on minutia buys you a place at the kiddie table.

What is a good attitude towards developing a research program at a teaching institution? It should take advantage of the fact that the productivity or prestige of your research program isn’t so important to your institution. I agree with Chris Richardson of Young Harris College, who uses his job at a teaching institution to give him the freedom to do research on anything that interests him:

There is… much less pressure on me to be the expert in one particular niche, leaving the research questions I can pursue much more open.

What is the best approach towards the generalization/specialization continuum as a researcher at a teaching institution? I have two specific prescriptions:

  1. Do whatever you want! Be free! Use the freedom that have.
  2. You’re best off if you general work on a diversity of questions, but within a framework that allows you expertise that will be of collaborative utility.

I’m not an ideal example, but at least I’m familiar with myself. Nearly everything I do involves ants. Moreover, it’s on one particular location that’s only 15 km2 in area. It’s easy to argue that this is obscure. However, the questions that I have asked include behavior, community ecology, some ecosystem ecology and a little chemical ecology sprinkled in. I have a set of experimental techniques and data that allow me to have specific, and long-term, information that is very difficult to acquire in any system. So you could say that I only study ants, in this one tiny place. Or you could say that I’m a generalist who works on all kinds of questions, with this one particular system.

What has this approach done for me? I’ve chosen the place where I work carefully, and it is a place where a lot of other people work. The kinds of information that I have generated can be useful to others, and my experience allows me to be of substantial use as a collaborator. Actually, I’m not even close to being the main expert of my taxon of choice at my field site. I am, however, a guy who works there consistently and broadly on a variety of questions, and is prepared to engage with collaborators on new questions.

I’m not required to follow a path that necessitates continuous external funds, marketing my doctoral students and publishing well every year. This is the ideal academic job – I am not required to satisfy anybody with my research program, other than myself. Hopefully the research will be broadly useful to all, but I can design and run it as I wish, based on the funding, timescale and focus that suits my needs.

I’m not wedded to my study system, nor to the single place where I’ve conducted most of my field-based research for my career. But, it works for me, and I really enjoy it, and this depth of experience in this one system and location gives me an avenue to ask lots of questions in all kinds of fields that I wouldn’t be able to do if I switched to a different taxon or location with which I was less familiar.

So, I’m a geographical and taxonomic specialist, but a conceptual generalist. To me, this is the most fun way to do science, and it lets me give great opportunities to students as well as to collaborators. I think this approach merges the benefits of generalization and specialization but minimizes the drawbacks.

The safety talk with students in your lab

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Safety is a top priority in my lab, though in the lab I’m not particularly over-concerned about safety. The only chemical typically involved with our labwork is ethanol, there are other potential hazards, but not different than those that students experience in teaching labs.

Other researchers have bigger safety issues in the lab. Not far from me across town, another professor’s lab oversaw a major lapse of safety resulting in a tragic death. The PI of the lab is now standing trial for felony counts of violating workplace safety. Is the PI responsible for the technician’s safety lapse that ended up in her death? All I know is that I’m glad I don’t have to be on that jury, being familiar with what is in the newspaper.

While those kinds of dangers are absent from my lab, I am very, very concerned about safety in the field. It’s very important to make sure that safety guidelines are followed, that no student ever violates major safety standards even once, and that everyone remains safe and healthy at all times.

My main “lab” is a Costa Rican tropical rainforest. We work at a well-equipped and well-staffed field station. This contributes to the level of safety, but also can lull students into an overinflated sense of security. With one poor decision, students could get permanently lost, bit by a highly venomous animal, or get crushed by a treefall or branchfall.

The analogy that I have used, for the last few years, is that the rainforest is perfectly safe if you follow the rules of the road. We aren’t afraid of driving on the freeway even though it could very easily be a deadly place, if you changed lanes at the wrong time or went up an offramp and drove the wrong way, against traffic. That’s deadly. If you don’t follow basic safety rules in the rainforest, it can be very dangerous.

Just like students in chemistry labs aren’t accustomed to working with chemicals that ignite in contact with air, students in my lab aren’t accustomed to spending their working hours kilometers into a rainforest. So, it’s very important that my students do everything that is necessary to keep themselves safe. This matters just not for their own safety, but also for my own protection as well as protecting the interests of other students who are or wish to be involved in this research program.

How do I make sure that my students behave safely? I short, it involves a combination of scaring the bejezzus out of them, and reassuring them. I play both good cop and bad cop. And I bring in grad students with concrete experiences with hazards (snakes, treefalls, orientation) to explain that these concerns are not just mine, but are universal for all researchers on site. They might think I’m exaggerating but when everyone else on station agrees with me, it provides additional credence.

The safety process starts back at home. First of all, I am committed to not taking a student who even shows one hint of having bad judgment or lack of sincere appreciation for authority on safety issues. If there’s even a small chance that I think a student would make a bad call about safety in the field, then I won’t take a chance.

Before we leave the US, we have orientation meetings in which I prepare them for the rainforest, which is rather vague until you get here. I lay out my three cardinal safety rules:

  • Do not ever go into the forest without the required footwear (rubber boots)
  • Do not ever leave the trail without a map and compass in hand
  • Do not ever go into the forest or away from the station without telling others your destination

I also tell my students that if they break these rules, just once, that I’ll immediately send them home.

And I mean it.

In the past, I’ve had two students knowingly break the rules once. That was when I had an unstated two-strikes policy (in which a first time violator might be given a second chance at my discretion.) These rule-breakers never broke the rules again, as far as I know.

However, both of these rule-breakers turned out to be royal pains-in-the-ass in other ways. If they were willing to flout the cardinal safety rules even once, I learned, then they were just not good students to have around in general. I really wish, in hindsight, that I sent them home right away. They created more trouble than any possible benefit they could have added. (If this were a pseudonymous blog, I could tell some great stories, but those’ll have to wait until you buy me a beer.)

I tell my students what I just wrote — that I used to give a little slack, but that I don’t do that any more. For example, if I ever catch a student without boots in the forest, or if I hear of it, then we go straight to the computer and rebook their flight and order a 2-hour taxi ride to the airport.

I’ve had that policy for a few years and am glad that I haven’t had to implement it. I only once have sent a student home prematurely in recent years, but that wasn’t for a safety violation. It was because the student was overbearing, overconfident, and under-focused. That student might have eventually broken a safety rule from being overconfident. But nobody’s life or limb was at directly at risk in this situation, as far as I am aware.

I don’t want to terrify students unnecessarily, as I need them to function effectively and independently. I want them to have both a fear and respect for snakes, but I also want them to have the confidence that they know how to behave appropriately when they do encounter a fer-de-lance or a hog-nose viper. (And this when, not if, as they are mighty common, though cryptic.)

This is a difficult balancing act, to make sure that my students always behave in a safe manner but also are not irrationally afraid of their work environment. It’s something that you always have to have in your mind, every step you take, but also something that cannot overcome you. I imagine it’s not that different from working with a carcinogenic chemical in the lab. You follow safety guidelines, and stay calm, and everything is fine.

Now that my continued existence is more important to a couple other people than it even is to myself, I’m not going to take any personal safety risks for any reason. That means that I am consistently thinking about the safety of branches overhead and the likelihood that the patch of ground in front of me harbors a coiled-up reptile. I’m not afraid, but it’s always on my mind. How do I develop that attitude in my students? It’s taken long enough for me to come to that level of confidence and conscientiousness. So far, I just consistently talk about it calmly but sincerely, on a regular basis, and I walk the walk. My students consistently impress me in their professionalism in so many other ways, that I think they’re just fine with respect to safety.

This field season, things are going just fine with my students, as far as I can tell, just 2.5 days into their 2.5 months of research in the rainforest. I’ve got a great bunch. It also helps that 2 of the undergraduates are fathers like myself, and most of them have concerned mates back at home that are just as concerned as I am that they stay safe.

I think maintaining a safe environment starts with having mutual respect. If you communicate safety as a priority, and students truly respect you, then they should be behaving safely. If that statement isn’t true, then mutual respect at least helps grease the wheels for adherence to safety guidelines.

It’s horrible to be able to do research in your own lab

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I can get a little jealous of people who have research systems in their labs, or do fieldwork nearby. You can just run experiments year-round if you want. A manuscript needs a more data for the revision? Go ahead and knock that experiment out. If you want flexibility when you get to do research, then having research right at home works quite well.

Then, why is it that some of the most successful researchers that I know have research systems that are geographically far away from the university? And the people — at teaching institutions — with the most tractable, easy-to-use systems can have trouble getting stuff done? (I think there’s a whole other set of problems with model systems on small campuses, but that’s a whole other diatribe post.)

Being far away from your research system can be a recipe for success. Among people I’ve known, a marine ecologist might have to drive eight hours to the rocky coast. Some physicists have collaborative projects at big national or international labs on the far coast of the US, Europe, and Japan. Anthropologists have sites in Southeast Asia and Central and South America. Humanities researchers rely on archives that are in libraries in distant cities. Others might study ephemeral events that occur locally, with no control over the timing of the events.

There are also successful people who work locally, too. Regardless, it is very clear that having your research system on the other side of the world doesn’t preclude success, even if you’re based in a small pond. That strikes me as counterintuitive.

In my own circumstance, I think having all of my fieldwork based out of Costa Rica has been a great boon for my productivity. If I was able to do research in the local mountains or desert, I don’t think I’d really get anything done. I’d never compartmentalize the time that it takes to fully focus on the work.

I’ll consider this with a social insect analogy.

Some of the most “advanced” social insect societies (as some call them) have workers that demonstrate temporal polyethism. That is: workers are born as nurses, then are promoted to guard duty or nest maintenance, and then they spend the last phase of their lives doing the most risky task, foraging. It’s well described in a variety of species.

This temporal division of labor makes for higher productivity, as a result of higher efficiency and organization of labor. (This is at least true in large colonies with a lot going on. The jury is still out on species with small colonies.) A big ant colony would be in disarray if all individuals tried to do everything at the same time. And so would I.

If I tried to run a field research program while doing every other part of my job, I doubt I’d be able to get high quality fieldwork done. I’ve figured out, in a clearly suboptimal fashion, how to juggle writing, teaching, analysis, mentoring during the year, service, and all that stuff. I can’t imagine adding “data collection” to that list of things to juggle during the academic year.

(And, of course, my greatest responsibility and source of joy is being a parent. But this isn’t a Daddy blog, even though I wish such a genre existed. Even though I spend my time writing here about research, don’t be mistaken. I’ve already established that parenting and spousal duties are more important than everything else.)

When I finish a field experiment, it’s over. One project might build upon the other, but I work with discrete ending points, and that’s when I pull the flags from our field sites and pack things to go home. I’ve hired people to do things in my absence for bigger projects, but for most work, I don’t have the option of just returning to do more. If an editor or reviewer asks for another sample, you know what? They’re out of luck, and I’m out of luck. They can buy their own plane ticket to Costa Rica to get that additional data point, if they don’t want to publish the paper without it.

from skinnylawyer@wikimedia

My field site.

This finality of data collection helps me to get stuff done. I have no doubt when I need to start analyzing and writing the manuscript. It’s as soon as I leave the country.

I never think to myself, “Here is a little something which is missing from this project to make it complete.” Instead, I tell myself, “I have to package this as a complete project, and accept the fact that there are some missing holes.”

There’s another reason that working far away lets me get more work done. When I go to my field station, I’m in 100% data-collection mode. We’re running experiments full time, and I’m usually working my butt off. And I’m working my students’ butts off.  There’s no way I could give so much focus to work like that while I’m at home, because I’d have to get home and cook dinner, and I’d choose to hang out with my kid at times. When I’m in the field, my responsibility to home is an evening video chat date, which is sometimes missed on one side or the other.

There’s also no way that I would be able to get so much dedication and effort from the students in my lab, without taking them to a kind-of-remote rainforest. When you plop people down in a place where there is nothing to do but fieldwork and labwork, and that’s mostly what you get. (If you bring the right people. I’m getting better at that over the years, but there are always flukes. Flukes, you know, are a kind of parasite.)

I’d guess that work happens by students on site about 12 hours per day, in one form or another. You don’t get that kind of consistent work at that level for an extended period at home. (I lament that the internet has gotten faster on station, because those with an internet addiction have a hard time fully dedicating themselves to their work.) So, at the end of a field season, we have a relative ton of data, much more than I’d have than if I tried to work locally or in the lab.

Some lab work does happen during the academic year, mostly dealing with samples that we collected during the summertime. However, we reserve the academic year for writing manuscripts and preparing for the next field season. Data only gets collected in intermittent bursts, and that has been more than enough for my lab. The fact that I can’t collect data except when I fly to Costa Rica forces me to spend my time writing up the results. That gives me a lot of time to write without any other research-related distraction.

If I block away time during the academic year, it’s usually not to do lab work, it’s only to analyze and to write. When I do research while abroad, it’s only to collect data, and not to write. This temporal polyethism is what allows me to get stuff done.

I got me the travelin’ blues

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I imagine that when other scientists need to travel for research-related business, they file some paperwork, and then hop on a plane.

I only dream that I could do the same.

The official rule at my university is that faculty need permission one month before any work-related international travel. Period. Even if the funding is external. And even if it’s okay with your chair and doesn’t interfere with teaching.

This rule, in itself, is a massive handicap that puts my research program at a disadvantage.

During moments like these, it can feel like my own administration is the enemy of my research program. I know that they everyone is, in fact, quite supportive, at least in spirit. Nonetheless, I’ve had to grow accustomed to an administrative obstacle course.

Each year, I schedule round-trip travel for about ten people to go to Costa Rica. I’ve been doing this since I arrived at this university, and every year, weird stumbling blocks are put in front of me.  Because of this rule, I’ve kept home people home who would otherwise could have joined our research trip, and I’ve spent several extra thousands of (taxpayer) dollars on airfare because of administrative dillydallying. (I’m sure my administrators see it differently, of course.)

To get travel authorization, I need signatures from a long series of administrators. Before signing, they have a series of questions about budget, insurance, and logistics that require detailed answers before a signature arrives. Sometimes this process has taken a few weeks, and that’s with our departmental admin person chasing the process diligently the whole time (for which I am eternally grateful).

ugh.

ugh.

There are a few reasons why these questions posed to me are unnecessary, overly silly, and frustrating. First, all of the questions they ask could be easily answered by looking at the text of the grant itself, which was already approved by administration. Second, these administrators are aware that I essentially am doing the same thing every year with the funds, and so nothing changes. If I was approved the year before, what’s wrong with this year? Third, all of these funds are administered by the fiscally independent university Foundation, which operates outside contracts and grants, and technically my administration has no control over these funds and only need to approve my time away from campus. Also, this travel happens off the clock of the academic year, so really the only branch concerned with my time and the funds should be the Foundation.

This year, I should note, the process has gone smoother than ever before. It might be because I have the same Provost for two years in a row, which is a new record for me in the past six years. (So far, he’s been a keeper.) Moreover, the Provost’s lead administrative person is the most awesome ever, who used to work in my Dean’s office. Having her there is soothing.  (Apparently, she spent an hour on the phone with my equally excellent departmental admin person sorting out technicalities that she was required to attend to.) I just got the signatures last night, and bought the tickets. This time it only took a couple weeks to get permission!

I can only take so much solace in the fact that an unnecessary process is less painful than it has been in the past.

How hard is it to travel with your university? Are the international travel rules overly onerous? How much of your time have you spent dealing with paperwork that you could have spent on teaching or research?