31 August 2011

The Zen of Presentations, Part 44: The language barrier

One of the most common pieces of advice for people giving a presentation is to get rid of almost all the text on the slides. There is quite a bit of research backing up this up.

There is one case where I would make an exception.

If you are speaking in your second language, have an accent, or some problem with your speech where people might misunderstand you, you might want to keep some of the text. More than if you and the audience are both fluent native speakers of the language, at any rate.

You don’t need to write out every line as a bullet point and read it, like so many people fall back on. But you probably want to have a few key phrases spelled out in text. In particular, it can be helpful to spell out somewhere on a slide any technical words or phrases that people might not be used to hearing.

For example, I spent much of a semester in an undergraduate genetics class trying to figure out what a doughnut trait was. I finally realized that the instructor was talking about a dominant trait.

While people might be slightly annoyed by the amount of text, annoyance or boredom is always better than confusion.

Just to round this out...

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: North Central

"North Central" is what professional linguists call the Minnesota accent. If you saw "Fargo" you probably didn't think the characters sounded very out of the ordinary. Outsiders probably mistake you for a Canadian a lot.

The West
The Midland
The Inland North
The South
The Northeast
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

External links

American translation: Dr. Doyenne describes how she prepared a presentation when her audience was not fluent with the language she was speaking. Excellent post, and the inspiration for this one.

30 August 2011

Tuesday Crustie: O hai

“Whacha dooooooin’?”

Hermit crabs in Sumatra; species unknown.

Photo by sebr on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

29 August 2011

The Zen of Presentations, Part 43: Not our best work

Today’s post is for students heading to their fall classes, whether for the first time or not.

Over the course of your career as a student, you are going to listen to a lot of lectures. You’ll definitely see that some lecturers are better than others.

In universities, you may be lucky enough to have some professors who are world famous for their scholarship; people at the absolute top of their professional game.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you may well be influenced by the style of lecturers. That might affect how you give presentations, either in class or elsewhere.

Don’t make that mistake.

A university instructor has two or three different classes a semester. For each class, that instructor has three hours of class time per week, for a total of six to nine hours of stuff every week. Let’s say eight hours, for the sake of argument.

The key to great presentations is practice. I consider at least two “out loud” run throughs before the actual presentation to be my bare, scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel minimum for conference presentations. Hundreds of hours of work go into every Apple keynote, for which they are rightly praised.

Rehearsing each lecture twice would require 24 hours of rehearsal and lecture time a week. And remember, we still haven’t added in time needed research what the information to put on those slides, or the time spent organizing the information in a coherent way for students, never mind everything besides lectures that instructors have to do.

Because of the lack of rehearsal, it’s almost necessary to use your slides as notes. Lecturers are routinely guilty of “reading each bullet point aloud as it come up” style of presenting because of this.

When I’m lecturing, it’s not my best work as a presenter. It can’t be. There’s too much stuff and not enough time.

Students, don’t think that lectures are good examples of what to do presentations. Even the best instructors compromise on presentation practices to get the lectures done.

Picture by thekennelclub on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

28 August 2011

Who do we work for? Not these guys

Thought for the day:

We’re bloggers. We do not work for the Department of Prioritising the World’s Problems and Tackling Them in Order.

From Ed Yong on Twitter.

27 August 2011

Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour #110

This week, I had a lovely live chat with Dr. Kirsten Sanford, a.k.a. Dr. Kiki on Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour! She titled Episode 110, “Invasion of the Marmorkrebs!”

You can listen to the audio, as well as subscribe to the show’s audio and video feeds, here. The audio is available now, and the video should be up any second.

Additional: And the video is now up on iTunes, YouTube, and  elsewhere!

26 August 2011

Overdoing it?

This morning, I got a workload report for our college.

Every department in the college exceed the required workload standards. Two departments (out of the four in the college) did twice the amount of work they were required to do.

Some people promote the view that professors work very little. I’m sure there are some professors who only do the bare minimum required of their job. But as I said before, my experience is rather different.

Additional: The University of Texas system has announced it will have a reporting system on professors and institutions up and running soon.

Why grade inflation is good for the GRE

You need variation to make decisions. I talked about this yesterday when I was discussing faculty evaluations. Today, I want to examine the consequences of that principle in graduate school applications.

In our department, we require students take the general Graduate Record Exam (GRE). In many places, the GRE is apparently the most important factor in deciding whether an applicant is accepted.

Now, there are good and valid arguments against standardized tests in general and the GRE in particular.* One argument that people make against using the GRE is that undergraduate GPA should tell you everything you need to know about a prospective grad students academic chops.

The problem is that there is less and less variation in undergraduate grades.

I’m sure that most of academics in the United States have seen this chart, which shows that a few years ago, “A” become the most common grade at universities in the United States.

As grades vary less, they become less informative, and people will stop making decisions based on them. And this can only be good news for the standardized test business, like the GRE. As long as GRE scores vary a lot, people are more likely to use them to make decisions, as flawed and as imperfect as though those scores may be.

* In our department, GRE scores are just one of several pieces of information we look at, and they are not the most important. I might talk more about our reasons for requiring the GRE some other time.

25 August 2011

From evaluating teaching to valuing teaching

Research counts for more than teaching at universities. This is widely known and widely discussed. Many people don’t like this fact, and blame the pursuit of research excellence on universities’ pursuit of money and prestige. These are true, but there may be another less obvious reason why universities pay so much attention to research in tenure and promotion decisions.

I’m getting ready to submit my annual merit folder, and just for this post and giggles, I compiled my merit scores for most of my career here.

Pay no attention to the means (the black dots) being different. Look at the amount of smear. My teaching scores are tightly clumped (wide boxes show where half of the scores lie). My research scores vary significantly. Some years (like this one), I published a lot of papers. Some years, I didn’t.

I didn’t include service in the graph, because few people think service should be the main way we evaluate professors. The variation for service is closer to that for teaching than it is for research, anyway.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume my personal record is not different from other faculty as a group.

You need variation to make decisions. If you want to buy a car, and every car you look at has air conditioning, you are not going to factor, “Does this car have air conditioning?” into your decision.

To me, this indicates that we need much more sophisticated measurements of teaching achievements. We can’t value teaching when we have so few ways of distinguishing between teachers.

24 August 2011

Taxonomy in decline or growth?

ResearchBlogging.orgEarlier this year, Craig McClain from Deep Sea News wrote an editorial at Wired arguing that taxonomy as a scientific discipline was “going extinct.”

A short new paper challenges that view.

Joppa and colleagues looked at taxonomic research on cone snails (pictured), spiders, amphibians, birds, reptiles, and mammals. The number of taxonomists studying each group has gone up in every case, not down.

The number of species being described is also going up, but it is actually not keeping up with the growth of taxnomists: the average number of new species described by each taxonomist is getting smaller. It’s also noteworthy that taxonomists are not working alone, contrary to popular conceptions of expertise for whole groups being locked in the head of single individuals.

Can the perception of taxonomy as a discipline in decline be reconciled with the data? First, the data only goes to 2000. A lot has changed in ten years, though I don’t know if it has changed that much. Second, the authors suggest that taxonomy in North America and Europe might be running counter to a global trend: declining here while growing in the rest of the world.

Another idea I have that might explain the discrepancy is that there is no control group. The number of taxonomists may be increasing, but how does it compare to other disciplines in biology? I suspect that there has been healthy growth of biological sciences as a whole, and that while the number of taxonomists may have increased “exponentially” (as described by Joppa and colleagues), other fields, like cell and molecular biology, have increased even more exponentially. (Mathematicians, don’t bug me if that is a meaningless phrase.)


Joppa L, Roberts D, & Pimm S (2011). The population ecology and social behaviour of taxonomists Trends in Ecology & Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2011.07.010

Photo by richard ling on Flickr; used under Creative Commons license.

23 August 2011

Tuesday Crustie: Don’t mess with the front or the back

Stomatopods, like this one, Chorisquilla hystrix, often feature in this recurring feature because their are pretty photogenic. As do the photographs of Arthropoda blogger Mike Bok, because he takes damn good photos. (Really, he should be doing a Tuesday Crustie series, not me.)

But what is most astonishing about this particular one is an extravagant back end (known in the crustacean biz as the telson):

An astonishing array of protuberances! What might they be for? In his Flickr photostream, Mike notes this is the first one he’s seen in three years, and a Google Scholar search for the species yields a paltry seven hits, almost all taxonomic surveys. None seem to be promising leads for hints on why the back end of this beast is so extravagant.

Photos by Michael Bok on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

22 August 2011

Decisions, decisions

In Moscow on the Hudson, there’s a scene where Vladimir Ivanoff (played by Robin Williams), a new Soviet* immigrant to the U.S., goes into a grocery store to buy coffee. Faced with more kinds of coffee than he has ever seen in Moscow, he struggles to make a decision. In the end, it’s all too much, and passes out on the store floor.

Option paralysis.

I’d heard that term before. I’d also heard some research that showed that willpower was a finite resource, but new to me was a concept that tied the two together: decision fatigue.

This article in The New York Times Magazine is a superb explanation and examination of research in psychology that shows every decision you make makes the next one harder. Decisions take effort, and at some point, we get sick of it, and just stop deciding. That’s the point the “Screw it” factor comes in that lies behind so many bad choices.

Since reading that article, I can’t stop thinking about what that means for teaching.Classes start up again in one week.

Over the last few years, I’ve been using clickers in class. I’ve done this in part because research shows that retrieving information enhances memory, and that many people claim that people can only pay attention for a few minutes (though I remain skeptical of this). I talk for a while, then ask a clicker question.

But how much I contributing to my students’ decision fatigue?

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if students are suffering from chronic decision fatigue. In particular, the current crop of American students have probably been tested and assessed so often that I’d wager that some of them are running decision deficits.

For instance, university students show survey fatigue. Even taking a survey requires making a bunch of decisions. Was I “extremely satisfied” with the service, or merely “satisfied”? Was the instructor “excellent” or simply “good”?

On the one hand, boredom. On the other hand, decision fatigue. Both are bad for learning. Which is least bad? Or is there some optimal balance? I can’t decide. Screw it. Time for a snack.

Additional: That willpower is limited does not mean that it cannot be strengthened, however. A blog post at Time examines research on this topic that suggests that while the effects of decision fatigue are real, how much people are affected by it varies tremendously.

Photo by mattwi1s0n on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

* Yes, Soviet. It was the 1980s.

18 August 2011

Texas governor does not know the law of his own state

This is weird. Texas governor and American presidential candidate is reported on NBC news as saying:

(I)n Texas we teach both creationism and evolution.

Not in the K-12 public schools, you don’t. I don’t doubt that it’s something Perry wants to be true about public schools, but it is not true.

Indeed, Ken Mercer of the Texas State Board of Education recently offered $500 to anyone who can show there is creationism in the Texas science standards.

I’ve looked at those standards, and Mercer is right. There is no creationism in the Texas science standards. It’s the law to teach evolution, and nothing else.

Maybe Perry is talking about home schooling or something else. But that’s me being charitable.

Additional: A reporter chases this down, and gets surprising replies:

I called the Texas Education Agency for confirmation. And I got an even bigger surprise.

First, spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson sent me a wordy statement: “Our science standards require students to analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations, so it is likely that other theories, such as creationism, would be discussed in class. Our schools can also offer an elective course on Biblical history and it is likely that creationism is discussed as part of that class too.”

I called Culbertson to get a direct answer to my question: “Does the state of Texas teach creationism as scientific fact?”

Culbertson wouldn't say yes or no: “It could be part of the discussion,” she said. “If it comes up, then it's in the classroom.”

There you have it, science teachers of Texas. On the subject of teaching creationism in class, the education department won't say it's wrong, and the governor thinks you're already doing it.

There's nothing to stop you now but the law.

Read more: http://www.mysanantonio.com/life/article/Texas-teaching-of-scienceapparently-has-evolved-2122863.php#ixzz1VTepr6R8

More additional: Politifact backs me up.

As science funding dries up...

The funding of scientific research in the United States (and many other countries) is looking ever more like this:

With small ponds, a lot of people are determined to become the big fish.

So lots of researchers learn about “grantsmanship” and spend hours crafting the perfect proposal.

Some hope to find new funding sources in industry, private foundations and crowd funding.

But maybe there’s another strategy...

Rely on it a lot less than everyone else.

Adaptation or extinction. Those are always your choices in the face of extreme selection pressure.

Drying up photo by by Brian Auer on Flickr; big fish wall art by As_One on Flickr; both used under a Creative Commons license.

17 August 2011

Fields of research

As a graduate program coordinator, I field questions from students. Sometimes they ask about marine biology. I’ve gotten shocked looks when I tell people that marine biology doesn’t exist.

Well, I never put it in quite so many words, but the gist of it is that marine biology is not currently a distinct research field in biology the way people think it is.

Biology used to divide itself by the type of organism you worked with. There were zoologists, botanists, entomologists, mycologists, microbiologists, and so on. But that’s not how biologists divide their fields now. Biology is divided up into physiology, ecology, developmental biology, cell biology, molecular biology, evolutionary biology, and so on.

One of the ways to recognize research fields is the societies that scientists form to promote their fields. I belong to a lot of them. The Society for Neuroscience, the Animal Behavior Society, the International Society for Neuroethology, the Ecological Society of America (from which I was just blogging last week), the Society for the Study of Evolution, the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, and a few others.

There’s no Marine Biology Society.

Marine biology may have once been more of a defined discipline. But there used to be departments of microscopy, too, and you don’t find those any more. Scientific fields come and go, and academics reorient themselves to new fields all the time.

I don’t quite know how marine biology has gotten fixed in the minds of students, and more widely, the general public, as something that exists as an active research discipline.

Are there other scientific fields that exist in the mind of non-scientists, but not in practice?

16 August 2011

Tuesday Crustie: Cool

Uca panacea, a fiddler crab, whose specific name refers to a goddess of healing.

When I gave a public talk earlier this year about fiddler crabs, I talked at length about the role of the large claw in signalling. Signals from males to females, signals from males to other males, deceptive signals, and more.

A new paper suggests we might have been overlooking another use of this large claw: control its temperature.

Crabs are ectotherms: they rely on using the environment around them to change their body temperature. Fiddler crabs sometimes come up to the entrance of their burrow first thing in the morning, and hold up their big claw, which hints at the claw acting as a sun gatherer.

Darnell and Munguia tested whether the claw affects the crabs ability to thermoregulate by heating them up with incandescent light bulbs and measuring their body temperature. They had four groups:

  1. Intact males with one large claw and one small claw
  2. Males with the small claw removed, which controls for effects of claw removal
  3. Males with the large claw removed
  4. Females, which have two small claws

If the large claw is acting as an aid to controlling the crabs’ temperature, you’d expect to see groups 1 and 2 faring much better against the heat than 3 and 4.

And that’s what you find. Everyone heats up, but the males with their large claw are doing so more slowly.

You do have to dig for this finding, though. Considering that this is the main point of the paper, it’s a bit odd to find this key graph buried as Figure 5B.

Fiddler crabs can also change their colour to some degree. The crabs tended to get lighter on their backs when placed under the bulbs. This makes sense, as this would reflect more light. This was also affected by the treatment, with the males who had lost their claws becoming the lightest.

And that’s a problem. There’s no control here for carapace colour, which means that the claw removal and colour are intermingled. The authors say:

This difference in shade, however, does not explain the observed differences in heating rate, as males with the major claw removed had the greatest heating rate, and not a lower heating rate as predicted for a light-colored crab.

I would have suggested painting the carapaces to prevent colour changes from altering the crab’s reflectance. Then, there would be no doubt.

It may be that the claw is just a passive radiator, though with all that claw waving fiddlers normally do, you might expect behaviour to be involved. The authors note that the crabs didn’t wave in this experiment, possibly because they were in the room with the crabs. They think that if the crabs could wave, the effect would be even bigger than recorded here.

I also would have been interested to see if the behaviours changed when the crabs got cold. Thermoregulation cuts both ways, after all. But this paper is very much a starting point for new directions in research on crabs that have already taught us much.


Darnell MZ, Munguia P. 2011. Thermoregulation as an alternate function of the sexually dimorphic fiddler crab claw. The American Naturalist: in press. DOI: 10.1086/661239

Photo from here.

Comments for first half of August 2011

Joanne Manaster has a piece of the Scientific American Guest Blog about reforming science education, in which I make a brief cameo.

Kevin Zelnio asks if crayfish are lobsters. You know I got stuff to add there.

There’s a list of recommended scientists for Google Plus. Except that a good chunk of them aren’t scientists.

15 August 2011

ESA 2011, Day 5

I hate the last days of meetings.

They’re usually half days that feel half-hearted with half the people. Long meetings are even worse for this, and the ESA 2011 meeting seemed particularly bad in this regard.

There was a full slate of talks at the ESA meeting on Friday morning, and the late-breaking poster session. Contrary to what you might expect, the late-breaking poster session was one of the largest sessions of the week.

But unlike the rest of the week, the talks and the poster sessions conflicted. There was no time to see the posters when there were not a bunch of talks going on. Plus, all the vendor booths had been torn down on Thursday night, so the room was twice as empty. We could argue as to whether “dead zone” or “ghost town” would be a more apt metaphor, but it was a discouraging sight.

We had a lot of students from my university who made the trip for the day. Alas, nobody warned them how ecologists dress. As reporter Lindsay Patterson wrote:

Most common footwear @ #ESA11? Tevas, Birkenstocks, Chacos & hiking boots. Ah, ecologists.

Some of the female students from my department were not only in killer heels, but I smelled perfume, too. (This may have made Sarcozona happy, as she had put an #ecologyinheels tag on one of her tweets.)

There was some closing plenary talks, but I couldn’t attend it because my hotel wouldn’t give me a late check-out time. Was there anyone there who can tell me about it?

The morning was not a total waste. Far from it.

I had a beautiful breakfast at Le Cafe Crepe. I’ve complained to people about how hard it is to find a good croissant in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, but when I walked into this restaurant first thing, I could smell the fresh croissants. And I melted. I had a crepe and a croissant. They were the real deal, my friends.

While I was there enjoying my breakfast, I struck up a conversation with three other people attending the meeting. The conversation turned to a question that was a recurring theme throughout the week for me.

Whither professional ecology?

Ecology seems to be a field locked in heated argument about whether it is an academic research science, or a mix of science and political action group. The society, and its members, seem to be utterly conflicted, from the point of view of this onlooker.

For instance, the ESA had a whole session on interacting with religious communities. You don’t often see that at scientific conferences.

On the other hand, Sarcozona noted it would be great to see different kinds of talks at conferences, including more public talks. When I mentioned this on Twitter, several people thought it was a good idea.

Some people pointed out that there are academic conferences that give public talks. Some include Archeological Institute of America, the Canadian Society of Zoologists, Canadian Association of Physicists, the Ecological Society of Australia, and American Physicist Society do this, but in the last case, public attendance is poor.

The ESA responded that the opening plenary session was open to the public, and advertised through public service announcements. But if they meant Steve Pacala’s talk, I have to say that while it was excellent for a group of scientists, much of it would have been near impenetrable to someone outside of biology. And it’s not a good sign when the attendees themselves don’t know that talks are public, or recognize that there are members of the general public there.

For an organization that is talking so much about outreach, citizen science, and much more, the nature of the public talks at the ESA meeting seemed to be a missed opportunity.

But there was an even bigger question about how ecologists should be presenting themselves to the public.

As mentioned previously, the ESA conference got some coverage from local media on Thursday. This prompted Jacquelyn Gill to note:

KUT report on #ESA11 conflates ecology and environmentalism. Majority of talks aren’t on meeting's theme. Are there even talks on overpop(ulation)?


I’m glad #ESA11 is getting press attention, and global change is important, but ecology is cool for its own sake.

Several people replied that all the ecologists were environmentalists, and implied that was the way it should be. Steve Pacala’s keynote implied this, too, when he said ecologists should reserve part of their career for dealing with environmental crises.

That same day, an article came out about Paul Ehrlich, who spoke on Thursday. (Very disappointed to have missed this; see here.) Ehrlich takes a hardcore position that ecologists must become political advocates. If not, we’re all gonna die. And I don’t mean ecologists, I mean humanity.

My own take is closer to the other end of the spectrum, which I previously detailed here. Scientists run risk losing credibility by jumping into the political system whole hog.

Ehrlich also characterizes ecologists as doing the most important science in the world. If so, the attendance at this meeting – about 3,500, from gossip I heard – should give one pause, when compared to the 30,000 who go to Neuroscience.

I had discussions about this with other attendees over multiple meals, including my Friday breakfast with three other ecologists. One, Susan, worked for the Environmental Protection Agency. She described a lot of the difficulties in getting things done, particularly when some of the parties involved will outright lie. That said, she did point out a middle ground for ecologists between detached academics and political advocates: the role of advisor, someone who informs policy but does not set it.

We never have these kinds of debates in neuroscience, or animal behaviour, or almost any of the other disciplines that I belong. The evolution field gets a bit in a twist about K-12 teaching, but that is a very small and very narrow piece of policy that is widely supported across the field. There is much more angst about the role of the professional ecologist in society than any other scientific organization I’ve seen so far.

Coverage on other blogs

Ecotone: Psychologist, green building manager, religious leader urge ecologists to move beyond their own scientific community; So What Do You Do? On answering the big conference question

Additional: Coverage at the NEON blog, on the meeting via Twitter, and DCXL blog on using Excel in science.

13 August 2011

ESA 2011, Day 4

“Give me ‘angry mob’!” I instructed.

Do these people look remotely angry? No!

This is a picture of the Ecological Society of America 2011 tweet-up, which I sort of instigated. Everyone was waiting for someone to do something. So I decided to be that someone! We were going to go back to Koriente, which I’d been to earlier in the week, but they had a line out the door. We went around the corner for barbecue at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q. Barbecue in Austin is a very safe bet, and it was very good.

Contained within the picture are (in no particular order) @bgrassbluecrab, @JacquelynGill, @butterflydoc, @cboettig, @msanclem, a couple of freeloaders, and several fine people whose Twitter handles have escaped me this exact instant (sorry).

Great food, great company. Networking win!

I slid around from session to session today. One morning session, “Invasive species with cross border spread,” made me think, “My institution missed out. We should have had a lot more people at this meeting.” My university sits on the border and has several people concerned with invasions. There are almost certainly other universities in Texas, which also might study species crossing the border between Texas and Mexico. But almost all of the talks in this session were about the Canada-U.S. Border...

I also saw an interesting talk by Steve Ellner of Cornell University (Sarcozona’s star interviewee), who was looking at the effects of rapid evolution in an ecological context. Sometimes, evolution is working very, very hard, to counteract the effects of environmental change – but you wouldn’t necessarily know it, because the environmental change and the evolutionary changes are canceling each other out. In some cases, evolution is actually working in the opposite direction to the observed change, but it just can’t keep up.

Ellner was speaking as part of a symposium on variation within a species. After the last speaker, they had a roundtable with the speakers. I liked this, and wish there were more examples of breaking the standard string of talks.

After the lunch tweet-up, I again wandered from session to session, catching some by the tweet-up crowd. One of the more general ones concerned citizen science. It reviewed papers published to date on citizen science, and compiled some of the challenges and opportunities for citizen science projects.

The benefits of citizen science for scientists is to get more data. For the citizen participants, the main benefit is education. It’s a reciprocal rather than mutual relationship – as citizen science is currently practiced. But because citizen science is so new, it’s worth asking what citizen science could be. There’s a lot of innovative directions in tools for science, and it could create a lot of translational science that citizens can use.

After the poster session, I went back to the T.G.I.Friday’s “batio” to watch the bat emergence for the fourth time. Because watching the bats never gets old. I struck up a conversation with Alina, who I saw in the restaurant with an ESA tote bag. It’s true what they say: “You shall know them by their khaki tote bags...” And we were rewarded with probably the densest pulse of bats I’ve seen so far this week. And this was the night I thought, “Oh, I’ve got plenty of pictures, I won’t bring my camera.” Whoops.

I was also rewarded with T.G.I.Friday’s vanilla bean cheesecake. I think that made my top ten all time dessert list. And I love me some desert, so that’s pretty high praise.

I’m behind, but I still have one more report from ESA to come!

Coverage on other blogs

Local radio station KUT has some interviews from the conference floor, and reporter Lindsay Patterson writes about it on her blog. I like her comment that, “Basically, Austin is everything that’s wrong with the Earth.” (I don’t think she meant it like it sounds.)

The EEB and Flow: ESA Austin: Day 1, Day 2 in Austin, ESA Austin: Day 3, Day 4 (why do conference organizers insist on starting at 8:00 am? Discuss), Day 5 in Austin

Oikos: Sunday and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, The ESA meeting should have public lectures, Thursday, The ESA should have science cafes, Friday

(and Monday)

A leaf warbler’s gleanings: A few thousand ecologists meet in the city to discuss Earth stewardship... but does anybody know or care? As Ecosystems, Cities Yield Some Surprises - a report on the ULTRA-Ex symposia at ESA 2011; Austin's urban bats pour out into the warm summer night

Biocreativity: Biocreativity at ESA 2011; Ants in my pants; Natural history at ESA 2011; Images for outreach, research and conservation

Culturing Science: The new ecology

11 August 2011

ESA 2011, Day 3

The average age of the Ecology Society of America attendees seems to be much younger than most other conferences I’ve been to over the last few years. I mentioned this to someone, who said someone else had made the same observation. Though I had no basis for comparison, apparently there were a lot more “greybeards” at this conference six years ago. Also, I think there are more women than men here.

I have theories as to why this might be, but I’d like to hear from others.

I checked out a session on mobile phones and citizen science in the morning. I thought there might be some useful information I can use for Craywatch. Of course, I learned that what I want to do has, to some degree, already been done by others much better than I could hope to do. Project Noah is an excellent example. It’s a great looking, professional site, which now has some backing from National Geographic. Whatsinvasive.org also has some elements that are similar to what I am trying to do.

There were lots of good ideas, though, for how to get non-scientists into projects. My favourite quote was someone who said, “Don’t think about doing science, think about having fun!” A close second was from Lee Marsh, who summed up the failure of many apps: “I don’t need a KFC app to eat chicken.”

I was fortunate to have lunch with the fabulous Sarcozona. She blogs at Gravity’s Rainbow, which a lot more people should read. She introduced me to the Royal Blue Grocery – the sort of funky place that Austin likes, a combo grocery store and sandwhich stand.

For the afternoon, I was the presider of the predation session. There were several good talks in my session, though, if I am allowed to have a favourite, it would be Mike Clinchy’s talk on how predators affect prey even when they don’t eat the prey.

Through a series of epic field manipulations that were able to protect songbirds from all their predators physically, but still broadcasting the sounds of predators, they should the prey species showed a 40% reduction in the reproductive output. They hypothesize that this is due to stress of the prey, who are constantly living with loud reminders of things that can kill them. More information is available at the website of his co-author Liana Zanette.

After my session, I headed to the poster session. The poster sessions are way too short. I was barely able to see a handful of posters before it was dinnertime.

I was again delighted to catch dinner with the awesome Jessica Garron. We’d met the night before on the Congress Street Bridge, when she stopped me to tell me how much she loved my T-shirt. We went to Blue Ribbon Barbecue. Sarcozona and I had planned to go there for lunch, but there was a line out the door. It was only half full for dinner, though, and it was excellent barbecue.

Jessica and I decided to go back to the bridge and watch the bats fly out again (third time out of four nights for me). Watching thousands of bats flying out en masse never gets old. It’s hypnotic.

To my delight, I have no entries for the Comic Sans name and shame campaign... for the presentations. FOr the posters... well, that's a subject for the Better Posters blog.

Trivia I learned today: Noise comes in colour. You might have heard about white noise, but there is also red noise.

My talk from Tuesday was covered on Contemplative Mammoth blog.

And finally, here’s a little song about my experience as an ESA session presider:

Presider (Sung to the tune of “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child)

Got the PowerPoint runnin’
On a laptop
The presenter won’t shut up
No he won’t stop
The session’s falling behind
All of the others
Feelin’ like babies
Cryin’ for their mothers
All of the time has run out
Need to move on
Next speaker lookin’ antsy
Wants to come on
Someone has got to stop
All of this madness
We need a moderator
Who’s a badass

I’m the presider
I’ve got the timer
You need to sit down
Stop on a dime here
I’m a presider
I’m here to make sure
That you stay on time
Don’t care if you’re tenured

10 August 2011

ESA 2011, Day 2

Today, I learned how to tell mink poop from otter poop.

I also learned that there are about 100,000 beavers at Tierra del Fuego at the southern end of South America. They are there because 50 pairs were introduced about 60 years ago to try to create a fur trade (which failed).

This were not something I expected, or indeed wanted, to learn. But this is why we have scientific conferences: for serendipitous learning.

And for me, there is a lot of serendipitous learning going on. Ecologists are nice, but they are not my people. I’ve been very aware that I don’t know the literature and the lingo of contemporary ecology. For instance, I keep seeing the word “phenology,” but I am going to have to look it up.

And I’ve also felt a little out of place for another reason. An impression that had started forming yesterday solidified today. I’ve never been to a meeting that was so heavily into plants. At one point, I thought, “Contemporary ecology is about plants.” I wonder if animal ecologists are drawn away to like conferences like the Animal Behavior Society meeting instead.

In my session, my talk was one of only two talks out of ten to look at animals. My talk wasn’t horrible. But I know I could do better, and I hate knowing I could have done better.

The fun part for me was to have someone come up after the talk and tell me, “You used one of my pictures.” Turned out this was Matthew Bradley, one of the people behind Invasivore.org. There is a nice feature about cross-cultural crayfish research he and colleagues did in Asia a few years ago on the NSF website. I have used pictures and information from that article in several of my talks, so it was great to find the source.

Incidentally, Austin takes its reputation as a live music capital so seriously that they have artists in the Convention Center around lunchtime. In Hollywood, "How's your screenplay going?" In Austin, "How's the band going?"

My favourite talk today was an afternoon talk by Michael Singer on butterfly evolution in real time. Butterflies feed plants, but what plants are available for them can be easily disrupted by human activity. He’s been able to track the adaptive changes in the butterflies over he space of about 30 years. The examples he had to give were very cool. In one case, the butterflies adapted so well to a new host that when it got harder to find, the population went extinct. In another, the butterflies started to take to a new host, then backed off and went back to the original host.

Dinner tonight was Asian food again, in Koriente, a nice little place that was described to me as an “Asian fusion” restaurant.  was the name, I think, and it was fast and quite good. Not sure I ordered the right dish for me, though.

And now, because I warned people on Twitter that I would do this...

The Comic Sans name and shame campaign!

Valenzuela and colleagues from Centro Austral de Investigaciones Cientificas, for their extensive (but not exclusive) use of Comic Sans, the cane toad of type in their presentation, “Native southern river otter (Lontra provocax) versus invasive American mink (Neovision vision) in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego Island.” (And yes, this is the talk where I learned how to tell apart the turds of these two mammals. The mink's, if I remember right, is a small finger like scat, while the otter's is just a big pile. Thanks, audience member who asked the question!)

09 August 2011

ESA 2011, Day 1

I got to the Austin Convention Center bright (?) and early - about 6:45 am. Because the Convention Center has wifi, and the hotel wants $10, and I won’t pay the hotel.

At the Monday morning plenary, the Executive Director of ESA, Catherine Carter, said, “I feel like I should say, ‘Howdy!’” Er. Do we have to play into the Texas stereotype?

I was surprised that when Terry Chapin, the society president, gave a talk stressing about the importance of communicating with the public... in which he had problems starting his PowerPoint. Perhaps thus demonstrating a self-fulfilling prophecy? Not sure.

Many awards were then given, many of which were for things form last year’s meeting. This struck me as a bit unusual, waiting a year for recognition. I was a bit surprised that there’s a poster award, the E. Lucy Braun award, won by Joe Fader (Illinois State University). Wonder if I can get his poster for the Better Posters blog? I was also amused that one of the awards was for a paper that had about 20 authors. And not one was at the meeting to pick up the award. The presenter commented that perhaps the authors were all trying to reduce their carbon footprint by not travelling to the meeting.

Finally, the main event keynote, Steve Pacala, who is a very good speaker. He called this the “Ecological crisis generation”, faced with problems like population and atmospheric carbon dioxide. This stands in distinct contrast to the tone when he started: “It was a blast.”

Pacala made a lot of interesting points about what it means to do science in crisis mode, as it were. He said, "Never have so many been asked to predict so much while knowing so little... To do the work, I have no choice but to loosen the evidentiary standards I use elsewhere." The good news was that talent, funding and progress is available in a crisis. The bad new is that evidence isn’t going to be as tight as we might like. Pacala asked ecologists to “Reserve part of your career for work on an environmental crisis.” But I worry about the possible seige mentality emerging from a scientific field constantly coping with crises.

Then, I went to a session on an outreach program called “Research ambassadors.” The scientists in the program talked about speaking to little kids (4-5 years old) and prisoners. Interesting that scientists speaking to both mentioned that in some cases, they underestimated their audience.

Almost all of the speakers talking about working in prisons. One said, “They’re so craving human contact, and it’s great to be that person.”

But there was irony with so much talk about public outreach to learn that ESA's contact person had quite a day or two before the convention, and reporters were having problems getting in contact with anyone.

I found lunch at Downtown Burgers across from the convention center. The burgers are very good, and the fries are awesome.

I split my afternoon sessions between paleoecology, undergrad teaching, and the posters.
In the poster session, I made it a mission to talk to the people in the furthest reaches of the poster room. And I talked to quite a few people about the design of their posters more than the science.

After that, I was lucky enough to go to dinner at P.F. Chang’s with a bunch of paleoecologists, courtesy of Jacqueline Gill.

And that was yesterday. And today’s already half over! I’m falling behind!

Tuesday Crustie: Sending a message

Spotted by Jacquelyn Gill on the Ecological Society of America message board.

08 August 2011

Carnivals for August 2011

The Carnival of Evolution #38 is hosted at Sandwalk, and features a massive 60 entries!

There are two editions of Circus of the Spineless: an interim edition #63.5, up at Artful Amoeba, and the full edition, #64, is at EvoEcoLog.

ESA 2011, Day 0

Austin is a shorter drive than I remember it. But maybe that’s because it was a Sunday afternoon, and maybe the traffic was ever so slightly less congested than normal.

My blogging at this conference may be less regular than I was hoping because I am staying in is one of those evil hotels that want $10 a day for Internet access. Fuuuuuu...

I have to say, though, that there are compensations.

The hotel has a T.G.I. Friday’s on the main floor. And it has a balcony that faces south, overlooking a bridge. A bridge that is famous for having a massive colony of bats that leave at sunset in a spectacular departure every night.

One they started pouring out, they kept coming for probably a good 45 minutes.

(You have to see this picture full size to see the bats clearly.)

And so my friend Anita (who I used to work with before she left me for another university) and I sat and ate good food, had good conversation, and watching the bats.

T.G.I.Friday’s call their balcony the “batio.”

It was a lovely evening.

Tomorrow: Science!

05 August 2011

I know nobody like this

This article claims an average professor in Texas got a Ph.D. at 29, tenure at 36, and makes over $100,000 a year.

In many disciplines, post doctoral experience is all but required, so most people are just starting on the tenure track around age 36.

As it happens, in Texas, public university salaries are a matter of public record. Like ours is. The average is is under $70,000 a year. And remember, that includes people of all points in their career, including the most senior individuals.

The article claims that tenure means a professor has no accountability. Zip. Zero. Zilch. The article pretends things like post-tenure review and annual evaluations do not exist.

I could go on, but the point is made: Pants on fire.

If you are a fellow academic, be aware.

Proposal precision

At the National Science Foundation workshop I attended earlier this week, there was a lot of discussion about the power of the program director to award grants. As mentioned yesterday, a program director at the NSF doesn’t have go by the rankings of the panel reviewers. (This is rather different than NIH, apparently.)

At least one person was upset with this. During sessions, he asked, “If the program director makes these decisions, then what is the point of the panel?” I thought, “Oooh, green-eyed monster” when I heard that first question. Later, the same person asked, “So the decision is very subjective by the program director?” “It is, but it has to be very well justified,” was the reply.

At the end of the day, waiting for the shuttle, I overheard the same person again expressing his displeasure at the NSF. He said something like, “They are playing with people’s lives, and it’s all so subjective.”

Notwithstanding the undertones of entitlement in this person's comments ("They're giving my money to some researcher whose proposal was worse than mine!"), it seemed to me that this person’s worry was based on a false premise.

He presumed that a panel review can objectively measure the excellence of grant proposals. Indeed, I think he believed not only that the excellence can be measured, but that it can measured to several decimal places, like the roundness of electrons.

There is not that much certainty in evaluating proposals. In fact, there is research evidence that shows that there is a lot of wiggle in proposal evaluation.

I am glad that program directors have the ability to make decisions, rather than slavishly following a formula. While this obviously disappoints people who want to follow an algorithm (“I do X, then Y, revise my P and Q on the resubmission, ergo funding”), they ought to realize that there is no review process without a subjective element.

04 August 2011

What’s new at NSF BIO

Earlier this week, I was at a National Science Foundation workshop at The University of Texas Brownsville. Although I’ve been in the region for a while now, this was the first time I’d visited the campus there. There are many handsome buildings, with very strongly Mexican / colonial Spanish architecture.

A large amount of the workshop was spent describing the review process, which surprised me a bit. I’d have thought the NSF staffers would be more concerned about preparation.

Two things emerged as important to the participants, it seemed to me.

The review panels change. Thus, there were a lot of discussions about when a proposal is rejected, should you specifically address the criticisms raised by the reviewers in a revised proposal? There seems to be no definite answer to that; very much a case by case decision.

The program director decides who gets the money. This means that the program directors can, and do, override the reviewers recommendations to some degree. I will have more to say about this in a separate post.

Steve Howell started off with some very basic information about the NSF and the biological directorate. He characterized the budget situation for next year as facing “tough times ahead.”

Howell said that some of the major initiatives in NSF right now are sustainability and clean energy; the interface between biology, math, and physics; and cyberinfrastructure (Howell characterized this as the “data deluge”).

Another major new initiative is the national ecological observatory network (NEON), which just started a couple of days ago. It’s a nationwide remote monitoring system. Howell described it as the biggest investment that the biological division at NSF has made in a long time: $440 million over 10 years.

Howell talked a bit about a program in collaboration with the Gates Foundation called BREAD that supports agricultural research in developing countries (Gates Foundation picks up part of that, because NSF can’t fund outside of the United States). Expect more partnerships with industry and private foundations.

Howell talked about the perception that NSF is too risk averse, and there are a couple of new programs for new evaluations. The “big pitch” is a 2 page pitch that can goes to a separate panel – the idea that there is a panel that won’t get bogged down in the details. Molecular and Cellular Evolution are trying this.

Another one is called the “ideas lab”, where the key is “real time mentoring.” A group of applicants are selected to work on a project, with a panel that does real time mentoring for the proposal. The hope is that groups of people can push into some new frontiers.

The molecular and cell guys (the MCB division only) are moving to an 8 month review cycle instead of the six month turnaround typical of NSF. The reason given in the initial presentation was that NSF wanted to give people a longer time to work on revising proposals, although elsewhere during the workshop  I got the impression that this is also part of a move to try to relieve panelists and reviewers of some of the burden.

Howell also discussed what are known as “Dear colleague” letters. “Dear colleague” letters are important because they give an idea of what NSF wants to fund. These are popular for those working at NSF because it’s easier to clear publication of a letter than an actual grant solicitation.

Looking around at the coffee break, it seems that there are about 2-3 men for every woman. About a third are not white, I would say.

Science tans

This is my foot.

With the socks and shoes I typically wear in summertime.

But I have this odd tan.

The tan line goes way further down past my ankle than my shoes and socks. It’s a science tan. Because the reason I have this is because about once a month, I do this:

I’m on the beach at South Padre Island, looking for the elusive Lepidopa benedicti. And when I do, I wear these:

Because I can’t shovel in bare feet. Even though I use sunscreen regularly when digging, and even though I’m only there about once a  month, it leaves that reminder.

Any other researcher have unusual tans or other distinctive marks they get in the course of doing their science?

(Incidentally, it is harder to get a good picture of your foot than you might think.)

03 August 2011

Faces of Biology photo contest

The American Institute of Biological Sciences is running a photo contest called Faces of Biology.

They want to showcase the diversity of biological research and biologists. The deadline is 30 September 2011, and the winning photo will be used as a cover to BioScience magazine!

Get out your cameras and search through your archives! Enter the competition here!

02 August 2011

Tuesday Crustie: How green is my shrimp

Green crustaceans are common, but you rarely see crustaceans being so emphatically green as this little shrimp (Hippolyte varians). It’s sometime known as the chameleon shrimp, because it also comes in a red form as well.

Photo by ian boyd on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

01 August 2011

Cheating the hangman: How worms escape a fungal noose

ResearchBlogging.orgClassic rivalries of summer 2011: Harry verus Voldemort. Cap versus the Red Skull. Optimus versus Megatron. And now, worms versus fungus.

Normally, we think of fungi as decomposers that sit around and wait for something to die. Some fungi might infect the living. But there are are few have decided to screw all that and will kill for their sustenance.

Fungi are not mobile, so their technique is to create snares. They form a loop of cells that can inflate when their inner surface is touch, trapping anything within them in a matter of about one tenth of a second. Human reaction time is about two tenths of a second, just for comparison. Fortunately, the opening of these snares are about 10 to 25 millionths of a meter (┬Ám). These are not traps that we need concern ourselves with.

But that is just the right diameter for small nematode worm, like Caenorhabditis elegans.

(The image has been coloured; nematode worms are not generally purple, not are the fungal snares red.)

The worms can avoid this when they are very young or fully grown, because they are too small and big to get stopped by or enter into the loop, respectively. The juveniles, however, are just the right width. The do have a plan, however: they can escape. When a worm is touched on its front half (but not the very frontmost tip), it will stop, stop moving it head side to side, and reverse. If you touch the very tio (the nose, so to speak), the side-to-side head movements don’t stop.

As it happens, the neural basis of this touch response – how it’s triggered, what neurons are active, and so on – was worked out before people were able to show what the function of the behaviour was.

Here, Maguire and colleagues provide a whole mess of evidence showing the relationship between the touch response of the worm and the hunting success of the fungus.

First, they show that because the worms are tapered, the fungus almost always traps the front half of the worm, explaining why touch to the rear does not trigger this response.

Second, they show that mutants that have defects in their sense of touch are trapped at much higher rates than those without the mutations, tying the presence of this behaviour with fitness consequences.

They are also able to show that if the animals have normal touch, but keep performing the side-to-side exploratory behaviour with their head after they get touched, they are still caught more often than animals with the normal touch response.

There are more experiments in this short paper, but those are some of the core findings. This short paper is wonderfully clear and logical in the design and presentation of its experiments. It’s an excellent example of neuroethology.


Maguire SM, Clark CM, Nunnari J, Pirri JK, Alkema MJ (2011). The C. elegans touch response
facilitates escape from predacious fungi. Current Biology: In press. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.06.063

Comments for second half of July 2011

I make a brief cameo appearance in Sheril Kirshenbaum’s blog post “Tweeting science.”

Genomic Repairman talks about how his path to science was started, in part, by comics.

It’s conference season! Which means a lot of travel, which can be stressful. Canadian Girl Postdoc wants tips for how to beat the stress.

Christie Wilcox examines overactive sushi. Her explanation is clever, but is it that complicated?