Scientific identity crisis

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Well, all right, maybe identity crisis is a little overly dramatic.

identity crisis

However, I have been mulling over my science identity for a while now even if I’m not confused about what kind of science I want to be doing. It often comes up when you need to apply for grants or have that brief introduction at a conference and the like. But for me building that departmental webpage is a real act of defining who you are and what you do. Continue reading

I’m going to stop ignoring ResearchGate

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LinkedIn, Facebook, ORCID, Twitter, Instagram, Klout, Mendeley, ResearchGate.

I’m signed up for all of these things. Some are useful, some can be annoying, some I just ignore.

Some vague time ago, a friend in my department mentioned that I should sign up for ResearchGate. I said something like, “It’s just another one of those social networks, yadda yadda so what.” But I signed up anyway*.

At the time I signed up, I halfheartedly connected some of my papers, and since then I’ve ignored it. Jump to last week, when one of their emails was creative enough to find its way through my spam filter:

rgateclipI was like, huh? I chose to click over to my profile on ResearchGate.

Continue reading

What kind of faculty job do you want?

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Faculty jobs involve teaching, research, and mentoring. Different kinds of universities expect faculty to conduct these activities in different proportions. What is your ideal balance? Consider the figure to find out where you belong.

ChooseYourInstittion

Figure by T McGlynn

For the uninitiated, SLAC indicates “Small Liberal Arts College.”

This figure implies a lot of mechanisms that differentiate institutions, and there are a bunch of reasons why the distribution for a regional comprehensive (where I work currently) fills in the gaps that other institutions don’t occupy.

Differences between the sciences and the humanities

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One of the great things about being on a small campus is that I have lots of opportunities to interact with colleagues in different departments and colleges. One positive side effect of being sucked into university-level obligations is that you get to know people you otherwise wouldn’t interact with.

  • Over the years, I’ve observed some huge differences differences between the research cultures of the sciences and the humanities. Most of these things are obvious, I realize.  Understanding these differences can help bridge cultural gaps.
  • In the sciences, journal articles are the primary metric of productivity and success. In the humanities, it’s books. Scientists can write books, and humanities people can write journal articles, but they’re not as important.
  • In many humanities fields, giving a paper at a conference involves actually giving a paper. Standing at a podium and reading, page after page after page. Science talks are far more informal.
  • Research in the sciences is highly collaborative. Many humanities scholars work solitarily.
  • Student mentorship happens everywhere. In the sciences, students often adopt a piece of a larger lab project, whereas in the humanities more often students work on entirely separate questions from their mentors. On average, science professors take on a greater number of student researchers than in the humanities.
  • Scientists are often expected to fund their research programs with external grants. Humanities researchers aren’t necessarily expected to bring in outside funds in order to be perceived as successful, as long as they create the research products in the end.
  • What constitutes a huge grant in the humanities is a small grant in the sciences. An award of $50,000 from the NEH or NEA is a massive success and a windfall, whereas in the sciences this is useful money but not even close to a “big.”
  • Scientists can get big pools of money to start up their labs. In the humanities, you get moving expenses, a computer, maybe some reassigned time and maybe a little bit more.
  • In the humanities, receiving a PhD from a “top 10 program” in the field is critical for professional success. Program prestige matters in the sciences, but not as much. (I couldn’t even tell you what the rankings are in ecology/evolution.)
  • The academic job market is way more messed up in the humanities. Here are two contributing factors: First, the degree of adjunctification is higher outside the sciences because tenure-line science faculty are more likely to bring in overhead to cover salary costs. Second, the job market for research scientists is more robust than for academic (say) historians. In the humanities, it’s more challenging to parlay a PhD into a salaried academic position outside a university.
  • All worthwhile doctoral programs in the sciences fund the students, so tuition and living expenses aren’t covered by loans. Graduate students in the sciences are paid to teach and do research, albeit poorly. In the humanities, PhD recipients often emerge with substantial debt.
  • Scientists need good library access to get current articles. However, physical access to great libraries is far more important in the humanities, as original papers and actual books remains important for research. The physical location of an institution, relative to an impressive library, is important for the humanities scholar.
  • Humanities scholars use the phrase “digital humanities,” and it means something to them.
  • Science professors are less likely to use elbow patches on their tweed jackets, but professors in the humanities are more likely to smoke a pipe.

Feel free to make new contributions, or disabuse me of any mistaken notions, in the comments.

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).