Before the snow melted

Friday morning, before the weather warmed up and the rain started, there was fog in the air and a foot of snow on the ground. On the lakefront, you could turn your back on the freeway and see only the ice-covered beach to one side, dark bare branches to the other, and, just barely, the silhouette of a jetty across the frozen bay. The nearer shore, built up with limestone blocks, was encased in eerie bluegrey icicles like a row of ghostly fangs. These dripped onto jagged, jumbled slabs of ice that bordered a dark and uninviting ring of slushy water—inhospitable except for the sewage pipe outlet, where a couple of mallards huddled.

The lake beyond this was a flat expanse of white all the way to the distant point where the ice blurred into the fog. But right in front of me, right in the middle of the little bay, was a black spot on the ice. A falcon—was it a falcon, or a hawk? Does it matter?—was tearing at a carcass, alone on the frozen lake. The gulls flying above seemed to give it a wide berth. A swath of feathers, and maybe blood too, but all colour had drained from this winter landscape, dusted the ice in an arc around the solitary bird; a few of them began to dance away from shore on the wind. The falcon, unruffled, focused on its prey.


A very eldritch holiday

It’s that time of year when nameless horrors prowl the ancient cobblestone streets in the city of my forefathers…I mean, when I re-read some H. P. Lovecraft to escape the saccharine horrors of holiday shopping malls. “The Festival” is one of my favourite Lovecraft stories; it captures the picturesque loneliness of a bleak winter night in a dilapidated town before it plunges into the usual putrescent monstrosities. The opening paragraph is beautiful; the way the story then transitions into your typical Lovecraftian tale seems almost like self-parody:

I was far from home, and the spell of the eastern sea was upon me. In the twilight I heard it pounding on the rocks, and I knew it lay just over the hill where the twisting willows writhed against the clearing sky and the first stars of evening. And because my fathers had called me to the old town beyond, I pushed on through the shallow, new-fallen snow along the road that soared lonely up to where Aldebaran twinkled among the trees; on toward the very ancient town I had never seen but often dreamed of.
It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten.

Read the rest, and be glad that whatever holiday family gatherings you’ll enjoy/endure this season won’t be nearly so horrifying. Season’s greetings, earthlings!

At the United Nations two weeks ago, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird spoke out against child marriage. Great. But Canada officially doesn’t fund any international aid agency that provides access to abortion (even by simply providing referals). When asked to clarify about this, International Development Minister Christian Paradis confirmed that this ban extends to agencies helping victims of child marriage and war rape.

In case you are not disgusted by this policy, girls who become pregnant are not actually physically mature (their pelvises and birth canals aren’t physically developed enough for having a baby), resulting in higher mortality and greater risk of other health complications. This is all exacerbated by the socioeconomic conditions in which child marriage tends to be practiced, which tend to limit access to proper health care. And the right of a rape survivor to end a pregnancy seems like a no-brainer. (To say nothing of the right to bodily autonomy. That’s something the Harper Government doesn’t like to be reminded of.)

Below are the texts of three emails I wrote—to Baird, Paradis, and my local MP (who is not a Conservative). Feel free to adapt these letters if you’d like to send one of your own. I’ll be posting any responses I receive in a later post.

Letter 1:

Dear Minister Baird,

You recently spoke to the United Nations about the need for more action on child and forced marriages. Yet last week, International Development Minister Christian Paradis said that Canada will not fund projects that give such child brides, or survivors of rape in war zones, access to abortions.

I understand that this policy is consistent with the government’s decision not to fund abortion services under its global maternal health plan. However, the need for an exception to this policy in cases of child marriage and war rape is obvious and pressing. According to Human Rights Watch, girls under the age of 20, and especially those under the age of 15, who become pregnant are more likely to die of complications from pregnancy and face other serious health consequences, largely due to their physical immaturity. Further, the right of women who become pregnant as a result of rape to terminate their pregnancy should be beyond question.

While I applaud your efforts to curb the practice of child marriage worldwide and to promote maternal health, survivors of sexual violence need protection as well, and sometimes abortion is a necessary part of that process. I urge you to reconsider this policy and stop leaving rape survivors behind.



Letter 2:

Dear Minister Paradis,

You recently said that Canada’s government will not fund international aid projects that allow access to abortions for child brides and survivors of war rape.

I understand that this policy is consistent with the government’s decision not to fund abortion services under its global maternal health plan. However, the need for an exception to this policy in case of child marriage and war rape is obvious and pressing. According to Human Rights Watch, girls under the age of 20, and especially those under the age of 15, who become pregnant are more likely to die of complications from pregnancy and face other serious health consequences, largely due to their physical immaturity. Further, the right of women who become pregnant as a result of rape to terminate their pregnancy should be beyond question.

Abortion is sometimes a necessary part of health care for women and girls in these horrifying situations. It is hypocritical of the government to speak against sexual violence and child marriage yet deny survivors the care they need. I urge you to reconsider this policy and stop leaving rape survivors behind.



Letter 3:

Dear [MP],

Last week, shortly after Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird spoke at the United Nations denouncing sexual violence and child marriage, International Development Minister Christian Paradis confirmed that Canada would not fund any aid agency that provided these survivors of rape with access to abortions.

This policy prevents girls from accessing necessary health care. Girls who become pregnant are still not physically mature, and face higher mortality and other health consequences as a result. Furthermore, the right of rape survivors to be able to choose to end a pregnancy should go without saying.

As a resident of [riding], I urge you, when Parliament resumes, to work towards changing this policy. Preventing violence against women worldwide should be a bipartisan goal, and treating survivors of such violence is just as important.




Let me warn you, readers, that the following is a rant brought on by a meeting with my advisor, and that I’m well aware that I’m probably repeating what other scientists have been saying for years. Still, let me say it.

The scramble for limited resources (both funding and places in prestigious journals, not to mention tenure-track jobs), while encouraging innovation, also discourages thorough comparative studies, cataloguing of natural history, and replication.

In Heliconius butterflies, for example, there’s a glut of work on finding the genes involved in speciation, especially those that control wing colour pattern and mating preferences for said patterns. It’s increasingly hard (according to my advisor) to convince reviewers—whether for grants or for publications—that simply looking at the same genes in yet another Heliconius species is novel enough to warrant money/a place in a prestigious journal.

And yet, these studies are exactly what we need. It would be fantastic to have a suite of speciation genes identified in every Heliconius species; the comparisons we could make would be useful and perhaps more generalizable than just a handful of studies on a small fraction of the genus’ members. Think of how we could test hypotheses about speciation with such a dataset! We could look for a snowball effect with a sample size of more than three! We could figure out how often the same genes are involved in different speciation events, and how often hybridization promotes or prevents speciation! Yet amassing that much data would take up several PhDs’ worth of effort, and once a minimum threshold of species is reached, the research program ceases to be novel, and therefore becomes non-competitive. It’s also work that requires too much effort for a side project (assuming you ever want to graduate) or to hand off to an undergraduate minion. So it doesn’t get done.

Oh, and if you want to try replicating some else’s study, the way the scientific method allegedly works? Definitely not novel. This is also a problem. (Seriously, read this paper if you have access to it. Every scientist should read it.) Or if you want to pursue as a side project some outstanding question on your study organism’s behaviour in the wild? That’s extremely labour-intensive, and not likely to get you a “good” publication. But these sorts of studies can lead to important innovations.* Not always, maybe not even often, but eventually.

If I had my way, I’d try churning out as many of these uninteresting/redundant studies as possible. I don’t particularly want to be a brilliant scientist, just a competent though mediocre** one. But given the current PhD to academic job opening ratio, mediocrity doesn’t cut it.

*In fact, we argue in a similar vein when governments try to divert resources from basic research to applied (I’m looking at you, Harper Government): we can’t predict what basic research program will eventually lead to important innovations.

**Sometimes this word does not have a negative connotation!

One thing you certainly don’t expect to see in a North American city known for its cold winters is a thriving population of parrots. Nonetheless, noisy flocks of them can be seen all over my neighbourhood. Monk parakeets, also called quaker parrots, have been breeding in parts of Chicago for at least 40 years.

How did they get here? Urban legends abound (one persistent story has them escaping from a crate at the airport, though their nests were first reported far from there), but all that’s known for sure is that they arrived via the pet trade. The long-tailed, greenish, pigeon-sized birds are native to southern South America, where they are agricultural pests, especially in fruit orchards.

Shockingly, these birds manage to stay through the Chicago winter. Though they’re native to the subtropics, and thus more tolerant of cold than the average parrot, they never encounter freezing temperatures in their original range. However, monk parakeets use their nests* year-round, and the massive structures (they breed communally, with several pairs building many-chambered nests that are often used for years) are well-insulated against the Windy City’s worst weather. But they rely on help from humans, too: they’re almost entirely dependent on backyard bird feeders in the winter.

Locals seem to have mixed feelings about the birds. Initially, the US Department of Agriculture was concerned that the parakeets would damage crops, as they do in their native range, and tried to remove them. They met with opposition from residents who liked the splash of tropical colour the birds provided. Though some birds were destroyed, the population rebounded, and so far the threat to crops hasn’t materialized.

However, other problems have: the parakeets began nesting on utility poles, posing a fire risk and causing occasional blackouts. The nests are removed, but the birds rebuild them in the same place. They also crowd out other birds at feeders, potentially threatening native birds**. On the other hand, some admire the parakeets’ adaptability and all-around pluck: they’re immigrants who help each other through tough times and start over in the face of setbacks. They’re not (yet?) a serious bioinvader, not like house sparrows or starlings. Perhaps we should learn to coexist.

But are they so benign? For now, maybe, but there are feral monk parakeet populations in New York City***, Spain, southern England, Japan, and many other places. A similar conflict between the perceived agricultural threats these birds pose and the feelings of local residents who welcome the birds simmers in many of these places. Like starlings, parrots are gregarious and extremely noisy—potentially another nuisance. And, dare I say it, perhaps climate change will allow further expansion of these populations. Just as we favour cute and fuzzy endangered species for our fundraising, are we also favouring the more ornamental invasives?

*In fact they’re the only species of parrot to build nests rather than use tree cavities.

**Granted, they’re mostly crowding out house sparrows, another, less-pretty, exotic species. In fact, in Brooklyn, New York, home to another feral population,  the parakeets are encouraged at Greenwood Cemetery because they drive out pigeons, whose guano damages historic buildings (apparently the parakeets’ guano is less caustic!).

***Fascinatingly, there’s also a probably-spurious escape-from-the-airport tale about the origin of the New York population.

It has come to pass

Your intrepid blogger is going to be studying Heliconius butterflies for her PhD.  And she promises to actually write blog posts once in a while.

She’ll also usually use the first person. Usually.

My colleague at the blog Curious Interactions has a great post up about how to supervise field assistants.

I’ve been a field tech for several conservation biology/ecology-focused projects in remote and muddy places over the past two years, and I’ll be conducting research of my own in the tropics in the years to come. So here are some thoughts on the other end of the equation – how to be a responsible and successful field assistant.

Field work, especially when it takes place in remote and rugged areas, is challenging: it’s physically rigourous, it’s a test of emotional endurance, it demands compromise and flexibility, it forces you into close proximity with people you’ve never met, the hours are overlong and unpredictable, communication with family and friends is often sporadic, the monetary compensation always sucks, there are risks of illness and injury, and often the local culture and language is completely different from that of one’s home country.

There are also, obviously, rewards: spectacular landscapes, unique wildlife, living in places few people ever get to see, meeting likeminded people, and participating in interesting and possibly useful research. If that list seems sparse to you, you’re probably not a biologist.

Here are what I think are the most important things to keep in mind as a field assistant. If anyone has advice to add, feel free to chime in in the comments.

1. Sometimes you will be miserable, even during a “good” field season. Here are some coping strategies for day-to-day morale lapses.

Remind yourself that the field season will come to an end – count down if it helps. Basically, contact your inner child: Tell yourself you’re an adventurer/explorer. If you study birds, remember that they’re really dinosaurs! Make a game of collecting data, or do something goofy to take your mind off of things (for example, I once decided to pick a bouquet of flowers for our dinner table in the field, and it cheered me up disproportionately!). Take a short sanity break if you need to.

Just don’t get sucked into the game of fantasizing about what sort of foods you’ll eat as soon as you get home. This never helps morale.

If there are more serious problems, do what you need to to take care of yourself, and report them to a supervisor if at all possible.

2. You don’t have to be the toughest one there.

Everyone at your field site, including yourself, is there because they like challenging themselves physically and perhaps psychologically. You don’t have to prove this to anyone, and don’t let anyone make you feel like you have to. So if you can get access to some luxury like a hot shower, or if you feel like pampering yourself somehow, do it. Likewise, don’t look down on other people who take these opportunities. Does someone feel like putting on makeup once in a while? Has someone complained to you that they’re sick of being covered in mud? That’s fine; it doesn’t make them a wimp.

3. Be meticulous.

You’re probably working for a graduate student or postdoc who feels, rightly or wrongly, like his or her entire future career is riding on the data you collect. Do the absolute best you can to collect data accurately. Don’t be afraid to suggest improvements to the protocol to your supervisor. Most importantly, if you can’t remember or don’t understand how to do something, ASK. Don’t make stuff up. And if you realize you’ve done something wrong, admit it.

4. Before you go, ask lots of questions.

Contact your supervisor and/or previous years’ field assistants to find out things like what you should bring, what sort of internet/phone access you’ll have, how often you’ll have time off, how secure your field site is, etc. Also, I’ve never had a really bad experience in the field, but keep in mind that bad experiences do happen, and previous field assistants might be able to warn you off. For example, a recent survey of people who worked at anthropological field sites shows that incidents of sexual harassment are far from unheard of.