Recent events have found me struggling to find some way to be useful. I decided that one thing I could do was to write–on a regular basis– a letter to the editor of the The Norman Transcript, our local paper. The bad news from Crowther et al in Nature served as the grist for this week’s letter. Writing it scratched a number of itches: it gave me a shot at explaining negative and positive feedback, it provided readers with actual phone numbers (not just the link in this version) to phone the local offices of our Senator’s and Representative, and it pressed the notion that there is always hope when people engage, even when times are dark. Below is a slightly modified version of the letter.
To the Editor:
Last week was a bad one for Planet Earth. While her workings are pretty complex, it has long been evident that when we pump millennia-old carbon into the atmosphere we warm the planet. Many of us scientists had hoped that this warming would be slowed by a variety of feedbacks. Trees, after all, scrub CO2 from the atmosphere; more gets sucked up by our oceans. That, we hoped, may buy us more time to move away from fossil fuels and build the solar panels and windmills that are springing up over the state. These natural feedbacks protect us in the same way that, when you notice a bridge is out, you step on the brakes long before catastrophe strikes.
Well, there is another kind of feedback, and for that we can thank the microbes. Boatloads of carbon rest in the cold earth. And, just as we keep our bacon in the fridge to keep it from rotting, that cold earth has kept its microbes from chewing through the countless tons of dead carbon just below our feet. Now, 49 scientists have together revealed in the journal Nature that the warming Earth is waking the microbes from their cold torpor. And they are hungry. As the microbes break down the soil CO2 pours into our atmosphere. This warms the Earth and makes the microbes even hungrier…
You are, by now, beginning to see how this other feedback works. It is as if, back in the car, you stomp on the brake pedal. Or…what you *thought* was the brake pedal. The car lurches forward, racing toward the chasm. So you stomp harder! (Why aren’t these brakes working??) In the same way that the car accelerates toward the chasm, every fraction of a degree that we further warm the planet drives Earth’s microbes to empty one of its last storehouses of carbon, making the problem even worse.
Bad timing, right? Just as we should be redoubling our efforts to find a solution, prez-elect Trump calls climate change “bunk” and his advisor on NASA wants to delete such “politicized science” from its budget. This is code for the hundreds of satellites that watch our Earth, informing our farmers about soil moisture, our sailors about sea ice, our friends and neighbors about approaching storms. All because some of that data is used by scientists to diagnose our warming planet. It is bad enough our car is hurtling toward a cliff. Trump’s NASA policy would disable the speed gauge and paint over the windows.
Now more than ever we need to phone our Senators and Representative. We need to urge them to preserve NASA’s world class Earth Observatory program. Why do I think you and I can convince climate change deniers that we need to do more, not less? Because over the past 23 years at OU I have had the privilege of teaching science to thousands of Oklahomans. These young citizens see the evidence, and in our conversations (and in anonymized polling) overwhelmingly agree humans are warming the Earth and that there is still time to save it. Full stop. These same people are our future governors and legislators, will be paying taxes when some of us are retirees, and are thinking about raising families of their own. I suspect these are some of the same people who will be answering the phone when you make those calls. They are our future. They are our hope.
We are incredibly excited to announce that our work on fire ants and isotopes has just been accepted in Ecology! The work primarily revolves around understanding trophic variation across a population of one of the model organisms of myrmecology: the red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta. Essentially, we are looking at where you rank in a food web and what did you eat to get there. To expand upon this, we had been thinking about ways to understand the how, what, why, and where of stable isotope variation that regularly occurs in the published literature. Stable isotope analyses have increased in their use in ecological studies as a tool where nitrogen (d15N) can be used to understand trophic position/structure and carbon (d13C) can be used to map out where the dietary source came from, in this case C3 or C4 plants.
Despite a lot of myrmecologists loving morphological measurements, it seems few had tested how size, both body and colony, may affect trophic variation within a species. A question that we were intrigued with. Perhaps even more surprising was a real lack of good information at the colony level, as most stable isotope studies with ants focus on differences across species in an assemblage or community. We set out to answer these question by measuring a variety of different sized workers and colonies across multiple time periods throughout a year in a small 0.5-hectare old field in Oklahoma. To our surprise, we found an unprecedented range of values occurring within a population. A range that was comparable to whole ant assemblages from prairies to tropical rainforests. The red imported fire ant, while acting as a generalist at the species level, may in fact be specializing on particular dietary items at the colony level.
While there are still mechanisms to work out, we believe this is a wonderful step towards disentangling the trophic ecology of the red imported fire ant and potentially other invasive species. Given the wide diet breadth we observed in such a small area, we hope this will encourage researches to think more about the natural history of their study species, and combine this information with physiological measurements to really attack questions surrounding their biology.
This work was generously funded both by the National Science Foundation and a University of Oklahoma Biological Station summer fellowship.
For the past year or so I’ve been ruminating about a problem common to academics: Once you have completed a MS, where do you send it? And how do you follow that process through to completion (i.e., publication)? The literature explosion, as well as the increase in venues and ways to publish, has made this topic an acute one.
What follows is my provisional conclusions from these ruminations: Best Practices V1.0. These practices arise, hopefully somewhat logically, from some axioms. Both have been particularly shaped by discussions with Nate Sanders, by a terrific essay by Brian McGill and by multiple tweets, blogposts, and discussions with Ethan White.
That said, I strongly suspect they will disagree with some of what follows. But then, the more I work on this problem, the more I see that its solution lies somewhere within the remarkable g’mish of practicality, laziness, efficacy, ambition, fear of mortality, and ethics that characterizes doing science nowadays. I, like you gentle reader, am just trying to figure out what works. And caveat emptor: all that follows arises from the consideration that I am a mid-career professor. I suspect much of this will ring true to most. But I hope to see how other folks–grad students, post docs, junior professors, folks at undergrad institutions–formulate their own best practices.
“Ecologist’s die with 99% of what they have learned between their ears.” Dan Janzen.
I was a sophomore at a faculty reception for Janzen at the University of Nebraska when he made this offhand remark. It has never been that far from my thoughts since. It came to a head in the past couple of years, when I found myself spending too much time revising papers rather than working up data. As a consequence I was falling increasingly behind. This is bad news for any number of reasons: 1) somebody paid for those studies; 2) when they paid for it they implicitly contracted me to analyze it (not just dump it into the grey literature); and, 3) I really want/need to know the answers–out of sheer curiosity and my desire to move our science a wee bit forward. Which led me to spend some time, in quiet moments, over emails, and over beers, coming up with
That improvement is maximized when Draft 1 marinates for a month or more. The process of cranking out Draft 1 wears a lot of ruts in the way I think about my question, the presentation, the results, and their interpretation. A one month hiatus allows my subconscious to work on the problem; at the odd hour, I find myself scribbling notes on various and sundry ways to fix things in the MS. That hiatus (sometimes, but not always a deliberate one in the past) has always allowed me to return with a fresh view and significant improvements.
Peer reviews are gold. Peer reviewers have the useful feature of existing outside my head. They recognize flaws to which I am blind, point out weak logic that I try to force through by dint of will, and highlight when I communicate poorly (default mode: if a peer reviewer misunderstood something, I didn’t communicate it well). The availability of good peer reviews–like sufficient time, good collaborators, field station happy hours, and grant money—improves the quality of our work. Access to peer reviews should be celebrated but conserved.
Yes, of course some of them are jerks.
As you work to incorporate the advice of reviewers, a fairly predictable thing happens. Subsequent rounds of reviews become less useful (even if the average length of those reviews is remarkably conserved). In short, there is a rapid saturation in quality of your manuscript with repeated exposure to peer review. In the worst-case scenario, tangible improvement gives way to the stochastic chasing of reviewer whim.
Time spent revising a manuscript means time taken away from other creative endeavors.
If a potential reader does see your intriguing title and abstract on a journal website, they should not have roadblocks placed between them and the rest of the paper.
The flagship journal of your scientific society is a go-to place for those interested in your kind of work.
Money invested in your society, including publication fees, is likely to go to the people and activities you believe in.
OK, we have our axioms. What do we conclude? Here is my provisional rules of the publishing road for the next few years.
Then open it with fresh eyes and revise as needed. Then send it for friendly review. Then, and only then, send it out to a journal, and exploit the peer review system.
Here is my current list:
PNAS for the very best stuff of widest interest (Bert Hoelldobler told me “PNAS is where you go when you’ve got a great story and want the space to tell it properly.”.
Next is Ecology and American Naturalist.
Next is Ecography, Functional Ecology, Biotropica, Ecological Entomology, and Soil Biology and Biochemistry.
Get it out. Ecosphere and Ecology and Evolution are two open access online journals from societies I believe in.
Not all society journals are open access. We are not where we want to be, but the times they are a changing. Be an agent of change. That said…
Get the word out. Email PDFs to colleagues who should be interested. Given the publication glut–and my general sense of the universe’s spiraling, magnifying disarray–I am delighted when someone thinks of me enough to send a PDF they think I should know about. And it happens remarkably rarely.
Moreover, if you’ve spent all that time discovering something new and interesting, then
Blog about it
Post links to the paper on your website (when you can inkway, inkway)
Send your University Public Relations your pithy public summaries from social media.
Every tweet and blogpost is vital practice at communicating our science to a broad audience.
How will I know in five years if Best Practices V1.0 has been a success?
All graduate students face a periodic, essential chore: scheduling a committee meeting for from 30 minutes to 3 hours. For some, this may only happen three times. For others, it may happen once a year. Trying to arrange for five faculty members to be in one place can be an amazingly onerous. The longer the scheduling process drags on, the more onerous it becomes for you, for them, for everybody. So here are some tips.
Get with your advisor at the beginning of the school year/semester and, while reviewing your goals, specifically address the need for a meeting. If you agree that a meeting is called for, do the following.
OK, so far, you’ve met early in the year/semester with your advisor to discuss plans, including the need for a meeting. You have the agenda, and have decided on the minimal amount of time to get everything done. You have a draft of the email. Now aim for 4-week period in the middle of the semester to meet. Be aware of potential trouble spots (a spate of faculty interviews) and of regular departmental time sinks (faculty meetings) that will suck up scheduling opportunities.
By extension, here are a few sentences to avoid when you are scheduling.
“I need a committee meeting, howabout late Thursday next week?” (i.e., forget to mention why are we meeting, how long are we meeting, and scheduling early enough that the committee’s schedule hasn’t filled up).
“I know I tried to schedule our meeting a month ago, but I couldn’t get find a suitable time. I’m trying again now, and I really need to meet this semester if I want to graduate.” (i.e., don’t procrastinate, once you start the scheduling process, finish it. Until you’ve nailed down a date and time, that slot is fair game to all the other things that tend to fill up a professor’s schedule).
“Sorry folks, but my advisor, Professor Tardy, was the last to log in to whenisgood, and he can’t make any of your times.” (Hoo boy, faux pas city. Get yer advisor on board first, particularly if that advisor is “very busy”).
In short, be early; be concise; be considerate; be professional. Bonus: you will earn the reputation for being just that.
Certainly one of the greatest things about devoting our lives to the study of insects is the ability to take our work on the road and share what we have learned. The AntLab’s master communicator in this regard, is taxonomist, artist, and mite expert Brittany Benson. Brittany regularly goes on the road with her Acari Safari (Acari is the scientific name for the mites she studies).Her roadshow combines costumes, her own art, an extensive private insect collection, and lots of live critters. Brittany’s charisma and charm help her convey her passion for bugs through a rolling show and tell, a lecture and question and answer period.
Brittany, helped this year by Rebecca Prather, AntLab first year grad student, visited the Myriad Botanical Garden’s annual “BugOut!”, an event in which children are invited to help release ladybird beetles in the garden for natural pest control. Brittany’s roadshow reached 1,500 on a single day this July. She is a terrific ambassador for our lab, the University of Oklahoma, and the natural world of which she is so knowledgable.
Image from the phenomenal Alex Wild.
In a new review Juergen Heinze discusses the adaptive nature of male lifespans in ants. Far from being mere short-lived “sperm missiles”, in EO Wilson’s words, many ants, particularly in the tropics, live an independent existence, sipping nectar and looking for mating opportunities.
Juergen highlights the contributions of AntLab alum Jon Shik, particularly his Life History Continuum Hypothesis. When most folks think of mating ants–and you are likely thinking about them right now–they picture swarms of males and females in some weird, lascivious mating scrum. Kind of a cross between “Dirty Dancing” and “Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome”. Such scrums leave the wreckage of spent males littering the landscape, typically to be picked up by other ants and carried off for food. Ahh, the cycle of life.
Jon builds the case that “female calling”, the ancestral mating system in ants, favors males that can endure life longer outside the nest. In female calling, new queens emerge from their natal colony and release a pheromone to lure in male suiters. If no male comes along, they may return to the nest and try again the next night. In this slowed down breeding system,Jon argues, it is in the male’s best interest to be persistent in the search for his elusive one-on-one rendezvous with a female. Species with colonies that subscribe to female calling, he shows, provision their males for the potentially long series of nights ahead.
Considering how important the relatively short-lived sexual window is in the long-term existence of a typical colony, we know surprisingly little about male biology, or even the phenology–the timing–of ant flights. Early in my career, I gained access to hundreds of vials from Light Traps and Malaise Traps on Barro Colorado Island, and spent many delightful hours sorting the winged queens and male to species. My ultimate goal was to test the hypothesis that the some 400 species of ants on the island may partition the calendar, each flying in their own designated window.
I was shocked, shocked (!) to find my hypothesis pretty much destroyed by something even cooler–that a large fraction of tropical ant species fly year-round. Jon’s work nailed the connection to their mating system.
This still leaves a lot of potential for good work. To me, one of the big questions, relevant to any group with lotsa species in one place, is how do they divy up all that reproductive bandwidth? Assume, for example, that queens of 200 or so species in the forest of BCI may be releasing their pheromones on a given night, and all those different molecules swirl through the still humid night air. That’s a lot of perfume to sort out. No wonder males are long-lived. They have to be patient.