Jabberwocky Ecology

Blogrolling graduate student ecology blogs

We’ve recently been following a couple of blogs by graduate students studying ecology and have been enjoying them enough that we thought we’d point folks in their direction.

Transient Theorist is a first year PhD student interested in quantitative and interdisciplinary approaches to ecology. How could we not love his blog. Particularly good recent posts include Ups and Downs and Intimidating questions.

Karina at Ruminations of an Aspiring Ecologist is a third year PhD student who travels to remote foreign lands for field work (we love her use of – Ukenzagapia – to pseudonymize the location). Good recent posts include Timescales in graduate school and Even more of my life in comics: writing to professors.

We are glad to see graduate students blogging for a variety of reasons. First, graduate school can sometimes be an incredibly isolating experience in that it can feel like some of the difficult situations are unique to you, when in fact hundreds of students are going through exactly the same thing. Having a cadre of students writing about these experiences helps their readers feel less alone in their struggles. As faculty we also appreciate the opportunity to be reminded of the graduate student perspective on academia. We’re not too far out of graduate school, but it is already difficult to recall what a committee meeting was like from a student perspective. Reading students thoughts, especially the sort of honest presentation of internal thoughts made possible by pseudonymous blogging, helps remind us that things often look very different to students than they do to us, which (we hope) helps make us better advisers, committee members, and teachers. Third, it provides opportunities for mentoring and interaction beyond the traditionally defined boundaries of one’s own department or university. Finally, and most importantly, it helps to build the nascent community of ecological bloggers. If you know of other good blogs by students studying ecology let us know in the comments.

Getting things done in academia

In a couple of days I’m participating in a panel to help young faculty be ready for their 3rd year review (the halfway step to tenure, which is kind of a big deal at my institution). This is the sort of thing that I normally say no to, but I’ve been to a couple of these things and I just couldn’t bear the thought of another group of young faculty being told that what they really needed to do to get tenure is to have a really spiffy tenure binder… so I’m going to talk about what they actually need to do to get tenure – get stuff done – and I thought it would be worth posting my thoughts on this here for broader consumption. This advice is targeted at assistant professors at research universities, but folks in other situations may be able to adapt it to their individual circumstances (e.g., if you’re at a small liberal arts college or other teaching centered school try swapping research and teaching below). Since the goal of the workshop is getting through the first phase of tenure, this is about what you need to do to accomplish that goal, not what you should be doing in any sort of broader philosophical sense. This advice is built on the lessons that Morgan (my wife and co-blogger for those of you new to JE; in fact she was so instrumental in developing these ideas that even though I’m using the first person singular this will be listed as a co-authored post) and I have learned during our time as assistant professors.

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Faculty position in experimental conservation ecology

The Community and Conservation Ecology group at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, has a job opening for a tenure track assistant professor in Experimental Conservation Ecology (details below). This is a very impressive group that is headed by Han Olff and includes Rampal Etienne and David Alonso. I’ve worked with all three of these folks and I have no doubts that working in this group would make for a very intellectually stimulating environment. So, if you’re interested in moving to the Netherlands, check out the ad below and put in an application.

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MacArthur on generality in ecology

I just came across this great Robert MacArthur quote on Allen Hurlbert’s website:

Ecological patterns, about which we construct theories, are only interesting if they are repeated. They may be repeated in space or in time, and they may be repeated from species to species. A pattern which has all of these kinds of repetition is of special interest because of its generality, and yet these very general events are only seen by ecologists with rather blurred vision. The very sharp-sighted always find discrepancies and are able to say that there is no generality, only a spectrum of special cases. This diversity of outlook has proved useful in every science, but it is nowhere more marked than in ecology.

–Robert MacArthur, 1968

It seems to me that one of the real challenges for us as scientists is to make sure that even if we don’t understand what others see when they look at the ecological world, we need to consider the possibility that they simply have an alternative, and equally valid, perspective. As MacArthur notes, ecology will move forward most rapidly with a diverse set of approaches and perspectives, not by having a single viewpoint dominate how we address ecological research.

Ideas in Ecology and Evolution

I just read the excellently forward thinking year end editorial of the new journal Ideas in Ecology and Evolution. The editorial was written by Lonnie Aarssen and Christopher Lortie and is filled with Aarssen’s trademark,creative, outside the proverbial box, thinking. In this case it applies to the field of scientific publishing, the things they’ve tried to change with their new journal and those attempts that have failed and required rethinking. There are a lot of great ideas embodied in this editorial and that from the launch of the journal the previous year.

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Upcoming meetings on metabolic scaling and ecology

There are a couple of upcoming meetings (or sessions of meetings) related to metabolic scaling and it’s relationship with/to ecology that I thought might be of some interest.

The first is  a symposium at the 2010 Society for Experimental Biology conference in Prague on the relationship between the scaling of metabolic rate with body size in organisms and the ecology of those organisms. According to the flyer that one of the organizers (Shaun Killen) sent me

The scaling of metabolic rate with body size has been a central research theme in biology for over a century. Recently there has been a particular interest in how patterns of metabolic scaling at the individual level may affect ecological phenomena and, in turn, how environmental factors may influence changes in metabolic rate with body size. The purpose of this symposium is to review recent evidence of these relationships, and to exchange ideas regarding the underlying factors that cause the observed patterns of metabolic scaling both between and within taxa. The scaling of metabolic rate with body size has been a central research theme in biology for over a century. Recently there has been a particular interest in how patterns of metabolic scaling at the individual level may affect ecological phenomena and, in turn, how environmental factors may influence changes in metabolic rate with body size. The purpose of this symposium is to review recent evidence of these relationships, and to exchange ideas regarding the underlying factors that cause the observed patterns of metabolic scaling both between and within taxa.

The meeting is June 30th – July 3rd in Prague and registration is now open.

The other is the biennial Gordon Research Conference on the Metabolic Basis of Ecology and Evolution, schedule for July 18th-23rd in Biddeford, Maine. If you haven’t been to a Gordon Conference before, these are really amazing conferences. The number of participants is limited (I think it’s about 100-150 people) and the format is specifically designed to engender discussion and interaction among the participants (every one eats meals together, stays in dorms together, etc). This year our own Morgan Ernest will be giving a talk in the section on Regulation of Metabolic Systems Across Scales. You’ll have to apply and be accepted in order to participate and the talks are invite only so posters are the only general option for presentation (both of which are a little strange in ecology circles), but it’s definitely the best conference I go to so it’s well worth the effort.

Some things just shouldn’t be hidden behind pay walls

I have nothing against journals charging for content. While I like the open access model I think that there are upsides to both systems. But seriously, there really are some things that should not be hidden behind a pay wall.

  1. Corrections of any kind: Errata, Corrigenda, etc. Assuming that I don’t have access to The Journal of X through my institution and I choose to purchase a paper from said journal that ends up containing an error, should I really have to pay again to find out what that error is. It’s like buying a new car that breaks down 6 months later and having to pay for a whole new car to get it fixed.
  2. Society business: Announcements, calls for nominations, etc. Presumably the goal of this sort of thing is to reach as wide an audience as possible… right?
  3. Acknowledgement of Reviewers: And now we come to the thing that triggered this post. PNAS’s Table of Contents showed up in my feed reader last night, and there, right at the top, was their annual Acknowledgement of Reviewers. I review for PNAS on occasion and thought I take a brief moment and go look at my name for a little boost during the grind of grant writing season. But no, sorry, I was working at home and so ran firmly into a pay wall. Seriously. So if I review for your journal, but don’t have a subscription then I can’t even look at an acknowledgement of my own, volunteer, activities. Sigh.

Now I know that in many cases the journals don’t intentionally put these sorts of things behind their pay walls. They just don’t think about it, but if you are going to have pay walls in place, isn’t it really your job/responsibility to think (ever so briefly) about what content you hide behind them?

UPDATE: Theoretical Population Biology’s Reviewer Acknowledgment just showed up in my reader. If you don’t have a subscription to TPB you can check out this document for the low, low, bargain price of $31.50.

Biological Diversity in a Changing World – Royal Society Discussion Meeting

I’m going to be participating in a Royal Society Discussion Meeting and they’ve asked us to advertise this to interested parties so I figured I’d just post about it here. The meeting is on Biological Diversity in a Changing World and (other than your humble narrator) has a pretty impressive list of speakers. Here are the key bits of information (straight from the meeting’s web page).


We live in a world in which biological diversity is under threat as never before. This meeting will draw insights from organisms ranging from microbes to mammals to show why a deeper understanding of temporal processes in ecological communities is essential in coping with the changes that the natural world – and the humans that inhabit it – will experience over the next 50 years.

Speakers and chairs

Speakers and chairs include Professor John Beddington CMG FRS, Professor Mike Benton, Professor Anne Chao, Professor Andrew Clarke, Professor Rita Colwell, Professor Robert Colwell, Dr Maria Dornelas, Professor Anne Glover, Professor Nicholas Gotelli, Dr Jessica Green, Professor Jeremy Jackson, Dr Kathleen Lyons, Dame Georgina Mace FRS, Professor Anne Magurran, Lord Robert May FRS, Dr Rebecca Morris, Professor Marian Scott OBE, Professor William Sutherland and Dr Ethan White.


This meeting is free to attend, but pre-registration (online) is essential. Click here to register.
The online registration form and programme information can be found at royalsociety.org/events-diary.

Laying the Groundwork for Change [Quote]

How then is it possible to modify and improve upon an academic culture populated by smart, creative individuals who are motivated by ideals more than by money, who have deep, intense interests, value substance over form, have little patience for conformity, think for themselves, do not defer to authority, and see their work not as a job but as a calling? Clearly the challenge is to find the incentives and rewards that will motivate this unique workforce to buy into desired changes and work willingly toward implementing them. But the first step is to explain clearly why change is nececessary and, even more important, why change does not mean abandoning core academic values. To win the hearts of academics, one first has to educate them.

– James C. Garland, Saving Alma Mater

This is just one of many brilliantly reasoned (and worded) arguments from Saving Alma Mater. If you are an academic, or an administrator at an academic institution, you really should read this book.

Another opportunity to change the way we collaborate – G o o g l e W a v e I n v i t e s for ecologists

The current model of writing up collaborative research in science is that a single individual “takes the lead” and writes a complete draft of the manuscript, which is then sent on to coauthors for comments, corrections, etc. This means that even when the development of the ideas and the work of research and analysis has been conducted in a truly collaborative manner (which, I suspect is actually not all that common, at least for the research and analysis parts) that the writing is really more of a one writer – multiple critics system.

This is in part due to the legacy of technology. Up until a few years ago most people simply couldn’t easily work on the same document together. In sophisticated environments the official copy of the manuscript could have been stored on a central server and individuals could “check it out” to work on it for a while, upload it when they had finished, someone else could check it out, lather, rinse, repeat. This required enough coordination that I’m not sure it was much better than just emailing the manuscript from one person to another. There was of course better tech, but scientists didn’t typically know about it, let alone use it.

These technological limitations have now been largely overcome (though there are certainly still some kinks to work out). Wikis represent the first, easiest, step to move beyond these constraints. Most wikis still only allow one person to work on a document (in this case a page) at any given time (but see this recent announcement by weecology’s prefered wiki host, PBworks), but by having the document stored on the web and editable via the browser there is no dead time for the document. You are either working on it actively or you’ve saved it and it’s available to others to work on. This reduces the size of the steps that need to be made on a paper because it wasn’t “you’re turn” to make progress and you didn’t commit to making a real contribution by checking out the paper. Even better than wikis are online collaborative editors like Google Docs or Zoho. These allow multiple individuals to work on a single document at one time. This might seem extravagant, but if two people happen to have a spare 30 minutes at the same time of day, not getting in each others way can make a big difference. Better yet, it allows you to intentionally work simultaneously. At weecology we will actually schedule writing meetings, where two or three of us will sit down in the same room with separate laptops (or an equivalent remote setup) and go to work on a paper. It’s amazing how much easier it can be to sit down and write when your whole team is doing it at the same time and it facilitates active interaction on the paper – “Hey, what do you think we should do about this part of the section I’m working on right now?”

And now, there is a new exciting set of technologies that provide yet another opportunity to move beyond the old system of collaboration – Google Wave. You can think of Wave as combining email, instant messaging, and collaborative document editing. This combination is cool enough on it’s own, but the seamlessness of the collaborative editing goes beyond anything currently available, thus removing some of the hiccups and frustrations of the current options (NB: don’t expect wave to run this smoothly yet as they are still scaling up the system).

This post was motivated by the fact that I just received my long awaited invite to try out Google Wave, which is still in private Beta. I logged in last night and did a quick search for public waves with the word ecology in them. There weren’t any. So, I am happy to announce that I have five invites to give away to practicing ecologists (that’s scientists who study ecology, not environmentalists) who want to give Google Wave a try. Leave a comment with an email and (ideally) something (like a link to a website) that demonstrates that you are an ecologist in case the swarm of folks looking for invites finds JE.

UPDATE: Two things. First, I started a public wave – Any ecologists on wave yet? – which you can find with a quick search of either ‘ecologists with:public’ or ‘ecology with:public’. Second, I forgot to warn the folks who get invited that according to Google “Invitations will not be sent immediately. We have a lot of stamps to lick.”. So it might take a while for your invitations to show up. When they do, stop by and leave a comment so that others know about how long they can expect it to take.

UPDATE 2: I’ve been reloaded with invites, so there are plenty to go around. Just leave a comment if you want one.

[Quote] You can recognize a pioneer by…

You can recognize a pioneer by the arrows in his back.

– Beverly Rubik

You can recognize a pioneer by the arrows in his back

[Quote] Nilsson on credit for scientific work

Some years ago, someone wrote a book called “The Seven Laws of Money.” One of the “laws” went something like this: “Do good work and don’t worry about money; it will come along as a side effect.” Whether or not that’s true of money, I don’t know, but in my experience, it’s true of credit for scientific work. Just make sure you keep working at important problems, enjoying a life of science, and don’t worry so much about credit. You will probably get what you deserve — as a side effect.

Nils Nilsson (via Vladimir Lifschitz)