Archive for: May, 2014

The ever changing dynamics of biodiversity

May 29 2014 Published by under [Biology&Environment]

Biodiversity is a hot topic these days. By any measure (species counts, genetic diversity, etc.) we appear to be losing it at rates that are uncharacteristic for our current climatic conditions. That is to say, there have been other major extinction events in Earth's history, but our current predicament is not the result of asteroid impact, and ice age or massive volcanic eruptions. Rather, evolution has produced an animal capable of exploiting planetary resources on an unprecedented scale.

But I'm not interested in getting into a climate change discussion today. I don't suffer the deniers of anthropogenic change on a global scale. What I would like to address stems from a conversation this morning that has long been an issue for me. It started simply:

I remarked that lion fish are hardly unusual for classic invasive species that enters a new ecosystem and takes off as food items are plentiful and parasites and predators are not. There's hundreds of examples of this exact pattern playing out, even if most people will only be familiar with ones involving larger animals. But the discussion got a bit more complex and it is here that I have been thinking a lot recently:

Our planet is a complex and very dynamic place. It's a question of scale and most people focus on a scale that they can relate to. When we talk about the disappearance of species, 99% of time we're talking about things that were present within our lifetimes and are either highly restricted in their distribution now, or gone. It's a time frame we can wrap our heads around.

But the planet is more dynamic than that and sea level change, land mass movement and global temperature have fluctuated dramatically over time. We are so hyper-focused on preserving the current status quo or re-establishing the very recent past that it is easy to ignore the fact that biological invasions are the norm at a geological scale, not the exception. I'm not advocating for ignoring human-induced biologic invasions or the short-term havoc they cause on an ecosystem but it's important to keep them in context. We've made the situation worse, but "invasives" are not new. Not even close.

As an example that concerns me, we are rapidly approaching a time when there will be unobstructed ocean flow through the Arctic for much or all of the year. The lack of ice cover for longer periods significantly alters what can live in Arctic waters and current patterns are likely to move Pacific species east*. This is not a situation where we have a single species showing up and bullying a naive ecosystem, but the collision of two ecosystems that have been physically separated for a long time. It'll be the rough equivalent of submerging the isthmus of Panama (no, not the panama canal, which flows through fresh water).

Again, both of these dramatic events have happened before over geologic time. But in stark contrast to worrying about the fate of a single species or the preservation of a particular forest or reef, which is where much of our current conservation effort is focused, we will stand witness to forces far more dramatic. Unlike the lion fish eradication effort in the topical Atlantic, there will be no hope to put this genie back in the bottle**. But as noted here, we still think of conservation as stopping the changing of the tide:

Now I realize this is a fairly rambly post written in multiple interrupted sittings, so I want to make clear I'm not against studying invasive species or using invasions as a model for projecting ecological impacts and niche shuffling. But I do think we need to view species mobility and biodiversity as a dynamic processes, albeit one that is being driven mightily both directly and indirectly by human activities. In fact, I think such research is going to be key to figure out how we mitigate some of the damage. But what we view as an "ideal state" for biodiversity may not be the stable state for the environment in the future, no matter how much we try and force it to be.

*Anecdotally, there are already some disturbing reports here.

**Okay, there's no hope to eradicate the lion fish from the Caribbean either, but this is a different level of crushed hope.

7 responses so far

10 weeks

May 28 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Once again we find ourselves at the dawn of the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) season. I have taken on at least two more students than I had hoped to, as one does. It's a surprisingly challenging task to take multiple students of varying degrees of ability in the lab and put them all in a position to do enough science to not be embarrassed by their poster at the end of the summer. Some work out well. Some.... less well.

But the influx of new people and wide-eyed n00bism every summer is always a net win. First, it gives the grad students practice at both mentoring and clearly explaining their rationale for what they are doing. Also, it puts them in a position to supervise the construction of a poster. Second, it's an opportunity to have students work on a small project that we haven't had time to get to, but is potentially interesting. And finally, it is excellent training and recruiting to retain some of these students either during the academic year or after they graduate from other universities. Some of my most successful undergraduate researchers have started as summer students and just kept the ball rolling.

Almost every STEM academic I have ever spoken to points to undergraduate research as the catalyst for their career. Hell, a lot of people in scientific fields also point to undergraduate research as the time they knew being in the lab was not for them and they chose something else. That's great too. The earlier you figure that out, the better. But if you're an undergraduate and think you might be interested in research, get in the lab! Summer, academic year, whatever. Do it for pay or for credit (I don't support volunteer lab work), but see what it's all about.

2 responses so far

Rip tide (update)

May 25 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Digging this band.

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Stop taking advice only from senior people

May 16 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

We all have mentors, many of which are incredibly valuable to us. Their advice can be critical in navigating this job and its vagaries. There's a hell of a lot one can learn from those that have been successful as academic researchers.


One has to be aware that things change and perspectives change. What worked 10, 20, 30 years ago might not be a good fit for the current climate. That struck me as I read the following:

This type of advice is familiar to me. I've gotten all sorts of anecdata-based strange advice like this from senior colleagues who haven't walked in junior faculty shoes in decades. It is entirely possible that NSF used to be more "relationship-based" or that there are big names out there who's conversation with their POs is something like this:

But for the other 99% in our current funding climate, I don't see how your relationship with the PO handling your proposals has a lot to do with getting funded. At this point you have to run a two panel gauntlet and come out relatively unscathed just to be considered. Yes, the POs have a bit of wiggle room at that point, but I would bet that the vast majority of funded PIs have little to no relationship with their POs prior to being funded. Whereas I think it is a good idea to meet with or talk to your PO, I highly doubt it's a make or break move.

One of the most valuable things I've done over the last few years is to use this blog and twitter to gather advice from a much wider audience than I can do through IRL conversations and try to see patterns. What works for lots of people? What are the successful people at my career stage doing that is working for them? Everyday there are conversations on these topics happening. If you listen it's clear no one has a magic bullet. But separating out the odd-ball PI-specific advice from the general helps keep you on track.

gifs from here

3 responses so far

Happy IOS invite day

May 15 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Breathe, do something to distract yourself and buy some booze for either outcome. Good luck.

One response so far

Question of the day

May 09 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

If you take a look at the invite rates for DEB preproposals you'll notice that almost every panel has invites that fell into the DNI category. I realize that these regularly happen for a variety of reasons, such as portfolio balance and the vaunted "transformative" tag, but I'm curious about their outcome.

Has anyone ever had a DNI preproposal "picked-up"? If so, how did it do at the full stage? I wonder whether NSF tracks these particular beasts and has some idea of how they perform. Would be really interested to find out.

5 responses so far

A summary of parenting

May 09 2014 Published by under [Et Al]

This week has not been a good one on the sleep front. Last night I finally had an opportunity to get some decent sleep and went to bed early. At 12:30am my youngest was screaming and I got out of bed and trudged up the stairs, trying to keep my swearing quiet enough not to wake my older daughter. I was not pleased.

I got into her room and groggily asked her what was wrong. "I missed you and needed a hug." was the response. My sleep patterns had thus been tossed into a blender for want of a midnight hug. So I picked her up and she clung to me and whispered "I love you daddy" and I stopped caring about my mental state the next morning and just held her. I put her back into bed, covered her and we said goodnight.

And then I lay awake for two hours, battling for some semblance of a decent night's sleep.

Evolution is a funny thing.

2 responses so far

New blogs, here and there

May 07 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Et Al]

If you're not aware, there's been some new activity here on Scientopia and elsewhere as we're starting to make some changes geared at refreshing our network a bit. We're expanding in some ways and looking for opportunities to get the community at large a bit more involved. For now I just want to make you aware of the new blogs we've started up, which are mostly relocations of blogs you may already be familiar with.

Dr. 24hours has started a blog here called Complex Roots, where he plans to expand his blogging abut science and technology. His Infactorium blog will also remain active.

Former NIGMS director at NIH, Jeremy Berg, has started a blog digging into the grant data from NIH. You can find him at Datahound.

InBabyAttachMode has migrated her blog to our network and we're looking forward to getting a feel for science culture in Europe, where she has recently returned to after a US postdoc.

Likewise, Mistress of Animals has moved on to our network to add another more senior perspective to the grant game and academic culture.

Stay tuned for more additions as we move forward in the next couple of months.

Finally, I wanted to draw your attention to the new IOS blog from NSF, that will hopefully be following in the footsteps of its counterpart at DEB. Both blogs are the result of POs who wanted better and more interactive ways to communicate with you. I encourage you to visit them often and comment.

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NSF service and secrecy: where's the line?

May 06 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers], LifeTrajectories

Blogging or tweeting about your primary funding sources can be an interesting challenge. I regularly hear from people on the interwebs that they have been cautioned against doing either* from "concerned senior people". To a certain extent I get where they are coming from - the risk of pissing of a PO who decides you don't fit into their portfolio is possible**. In addition, NSF deploys a Cloak of Secrecy when it comes to panel service.

Once you agree to serve on a panel you quickly learn that the first rule of Panel Service is that you don't talk about Panel Service. Not to you friends, not to your colleagues, not to a fox, not in a box. In stark contrast to NIH making the study section roster available to everyone, NSF wants your visit to be treated like you would an interview for a job at another university. Therefore, using social media to publicly detail your time there flies right in the face of official policy. But the problem with all the secrecy is that it leads to difficulty in first time panelists knowing what to expect and to false rumors about the process.

Enter the Fine Line.

When I started blogging I did it for the express purpose of providing a resource to others about what this job entails. Granted, we've meandered and weaved over the last five years, but when I have been asked to participate at NSF I have faced a dilemma - how does one pull back the curtain enough to educate others while not running afoul of the rules? The result is that I've often blogged about the process of dealing with panel service, but never details about the who, when and where. There's reasons I never discuss which panels I apply to or review for and it represents my compromise.

As far as I can tell, I haven't pissed anyone off yet. In fact, my interactions with POs in both IOS and DEB have suggested that they like to see the community discussing what is going on at NSF and, in particular, dispelling rumors that seem to persist. I've had a PO guest blog about what it is like working at NSF (Parts 1, 2 & 3) and it's fairly common for the DEB blog to link back here, as I hope the soon-to-open IOS blog will.

Does that mean there's no risk at all? Of course not. I can tell you that the first time an NSF PO called me out about the blog during a visit to NSF it was an unexpected and uncomfortable moment that I didn't handle very well (and they may still chuckle to themselves about). However, it also speaks to the power of the medium, that one can speak up and be heard***. There are issues and pressures faced by junior faculty that may not be represented by those who have the ear of NSF insiders. Blogging about them is educational to the blogger, the reader community and sometimes to NSF. All of those people are listening and you have the opportunity to get your perspective in their heads, whether they agree with it or not.

Everyone will make their own choices about whether they want to engage their funding source in a public forum and whether they want to do it under their given name or not. I have chosen to do so using a wafer psued that didn't stand up to minor scrutiny and I've always known that. But when people tell you that using social media isn't the "proper" way to engage, they are doing so from a very different space than the one you likely occupy. Obviously you need to balance what your colleagues are saying with your own experience, but it is also worth considering how and when you want to be heard.

*and generally engaging in social media, because it's obviously a waste of your professional time.

**Though I can't actually imagine that happening in practice.

***Also a great reminder to be smart about what you write. Criticism is often warranted, but recognize the different perspectives bearing on the issue you are concerned with.

One response so far