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Posts Tagged ‘research’

Mediocrity

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!

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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.

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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.

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Southern Louisiana. For the next three-plus months. I’m a field tech for a project that’s studying the long term effects of oil spills on seaside sparrows and marsh rice rats.

So far (I’ve been here a week), I’m more or less high on all the zany wildlife that are commonplace here: pelicans, egrets, herons, ibises, armadillos, dolphins, anoles, tree frogs, anhingas…Expect lots of gushing and many exclamation points in upcoming posts.

Here, have a bird picture (it’s a savannah sparrow):sparrow

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Seafloor Explorer

Ever wanted to be a marine biologist? Now, from the comfort of your own home, you can!

Seafloor Explorer is a citizen science project that asks participants to identify substrates and creatures in pictures of the ocean’s floor. The pictures—millions of them in the database—are all taken along the northeastern coast of the U. S. by HabCam, an underwater vehicle created by a collaborative team that includes the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and local fishers and engineers. It’s quite simple to do: a tutorial teaches you how to classify the substrate as sand, shell, gravel, cobble, or boulder. Then you mark any fish, crustaceans, seastars, and scallops in the image and note whether there are any other creatures present. There are many unexpected delights to be found, like this – a pair of eels over a gravel bed (with some scallops and a crab; click to enlarge):

All images in this post courtesy the HabCam group, a collaboration between the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, commercial fishers, and independent scientists.

Or this image, showing a squid in the lower right and anemones in the upper right:

The data from Seafloor Explorer will allow scientists to study habitat and species distribution and abundance. Even more exciting, though, is the chance that we’ll see something we’ve never seen before. Already (the site was launched Sept. 13th), members may have identified a new species! Tentatively called the “convict worm“, it appears to live in sandy tubes and has a white body with narrow black bands.

If you’re more keen on actual stars than seastars, there’s also the Galaxy Zoo project, which asks for help classifying images of distant galaxies.

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Two news stories that have warmed my heart in the past couple of weeks both involve non-scientists making important scientific discoveries. If you follow any biology blogs, you’ve probably heard about the new species of lacewing that was discovered on Flickr (here’s the paper describing it). Semachrysa jade was photographed by Gueg Hock Ping in Malaysia, and when entomologist Shaun Winterton saw the photo on Flickr, realized it was an undescribed species. Guek captured a specimen—necessary to confirm that the species was new—the following year. Along with Steve Brooks, another entomologist, they published the description in the open-access journal Zookeys. Interestingly, they found a second specimen of S. jade, already in a museum collection—one of perhaps millions of specimens that no one has yet realized represent new taxa.

The second story is a bit more old fashioned but exciting for a Mary Anning fan like me. The Keating family, while walking their dog, stumbled across a spectacular fossil on a rocky Nova Scotia beach. The beast is a juvenile sail-backed mammal-like reptile (maybe something like Dimetrodon) from the Carboniferous period (i.e. pre-dinosaurs). While this discovery is more low-tech than the lacewing from Flickr, what they both have in common is (1) someone with a keen eye getting out in nature and (2) the layperson connecting with scientists who can properly identify and document their find. In one case, a scientist reached out to the photographer, while in the other the family sought out experts when they found the fossil. Anyone could make the next cool biology headline.

So, in the words of Ms. Frizzle, get out there and explore!

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Manu* Libre

  • some amount of Ron Cartavio
  • some other amount of room-temperature (haha, “room”, I mean ambient jungle temperature) Coke
  • slice of lime
  • candles

Mix the rum and Coke to taste. Light the candles and/or turn on your headlamp. Wait for moths and other nocturnal insects to swarm around the lights. If you’re lucky you’ll spot a Peruvian giant cockroach! Eventually a moth will land in your drink. Make sure you rescue it ; it’ll probably dry off and fly into a candle later (the moth, not the drink). The moth’s wing scales will leave a nice powdery residue on the surface of your drink. Enjoy.

Really Dirty Martini

  • gin (or vodka if you’re one of those types)
  • olives
  • empty plastic bottles (pop bottles will do)

Transfer gin and olives to plastic bottles so you don’t have to worry about broken glass while you hike them to your field site. After a few days in the field, during which you don’t bother to wash out your coffee/tea/hot cocoa mug, pour yourself some gin and add a few olives and maybe some olive juice. Enjoy the taste of grime and coffee residue combined with the ultimate in classy cocktails.

The Best Way to Eat Peanut Butter

  • jar(s) of peanut butter—whatever kind you like
  • spoon

Eat the peanut butter right out of the jar with the spoon. Duh.

Oatmeal: Breakfast of Field Techs

  • bowlful of rolled oats. Remember, real men don’t eat “quick oats”.
  • boiled water
  • cinnamon
  • brown sugar or honey
  • raisins
  • any other flavour-containing edible thing you can possibly find, such as peanut butter, hot sauce, haupia (coconut pudding) powder, walnuts, fish sauce, cheese, soy sauce…

Dump any rat turds or dead bugs out of your bowl. Add oatmeal. Pour boiled water over oatmeal until everything looks soggy enough. Add other ingredients. Repeat every single morning for the entire field season. See how long it takes before you put hot sauce on it, and how long before you would rather just not eat at all.

*Weird coincidence: Manu was the name of the park in Peru where I took my first bird job…and it’s also the Hawaiian word for bird!

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