A field course about ants this summer (some self-promotion)


Last year, a new field course on ants launched at the Southwestern Research Station, in Portal, AZ, USA called Ants of the Southwest. It got rave reviews, and it’s happening again.  Are you interested in going?

Here’s how to sign up!

The course is designed to provide a generalized hands-on approach to the pragmatics about research with ants. How do you observe and manipulate behavior in the field and in the lab? What kinds of ecological experiments are possible, and how do you do them? How do you collect, identify and maintain a collection of ants? How do you keep colonies in the lab?antsofsw2

There is a diverse set of experienced and talented instructors (in addition, I’ll be there for much of the time).

antsofsw1Don’t mistake this course with the long-running and superb Ant Course run by Brian Fisher from the California Academy of Sciences, which focuses on identification, taxonomy, systematics and building a collection. The Ants of the SW course is a complement to the Ant Course as a different introduction to ant biology, emphasizing ecology and behavior. It’s targeted towards graduate students, but is accessible to folks with other levels of experience.

If you are thinking about using ants as a model system but don’t have years of experience with them, this course would be a great place to figure how to do things, what works and what doesn’t, and will give you the chance to spend time in a community of myrmecologists in a hotbed of ant diversity.

If you have any questions about the course, you can contact me or leave a comments, and of course you can follow the link to the course page and contact the station. I hope to see some of y’all in July!

I got me the travelin’ blues


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).



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?