Live, work, be passionate

While eating my morning toast (with saskatoon jam!) and tea I ran into what seems to be a perennial conversation on science Twitter. Specifically: how much time should a student put into their research and related studies and how much into the rest of their lives? This is a good question, and there are at least as many answers are there are practitioners, so the best I can do is present my own answer as it relates to my life and, thus to some large extent, what I hope for my own students.

My situation as a graduate student was quite simple compared to some students, although I also expect fairly typical of many. I was single and also childless. I was living a substantial distance from my known support group of family and friends with whom I grew up. I had a great supervisor who cared about my life and my progress. I was generally living close to the poverty line (particularly living in the Vancouver area, which even then was not cheap). And I wanted to finish well and in a reasonably timely manner.

I certainly realize that the “single and also childless” part made, and makes, a huge difference. Speaking from that perspective, I fully know that it meant that I had way more time to devote to my studies as there was no one waiting for me back home or relying on me for a portion of income or for emotional or other support. That said, neither was there anyone built into my life who could act as a support – emotional, financial, etc. – when I needed it. And that latter fact amplified the situation of being quite suddenly thrust into a new context where my main contact with family and long-term friends was via the phone, email, or occasional visits back home when I could scrape up the money for a plane ticket.

There were a number of times in my graduate studies where I felt discouraged and alone. Science is like that; those times never really end for any of us. But even though I have somewhat introverted tendencies, I also knew that I would need support in my new home. Building a network of friends both at my university and beyond was vital. I cannot overemphasize how important those people were to me at the time, and remain to me today a decade-and-a-half later. I can’t imagine having made it through graduate school, with my passion and general sanity intact, without my network. I am forever grateful to them.

I’m also extremely grateful to my Ph.D. supervisor. He knew how to push me when I needed a push, but he also was cognizant of when I needed a break or a pep talk. He set a good example by being at school at a reasonable time in the morning and going home to his family around dinner hour most days. He took holidays with his wife during the summer. When field season came along he often worked longer hours when needed and expected the same from us, but those long days were not the year-round norm. He understood life and let me live it.

The cycle that he presented to me (and I assume other students in his lab from my observations of my “sisters and brothers”) was one that I attempt to emulate to this day in my work-life-passion balance. He loved what he did and worked hard at it when it was time to do so, but he also put a boundary around that work for other aspects of his life. In the same way I loved my studies then, as I do now, and put my nose to the proverbial grindstone with focus and care when it was time to work on my research, coursework, TA-ing, or thesis writing. And, with each of those, after I had accomplished what felt like a good solid chunk in a given day, I knew that I could step away for time alone or with friends.

Science is, I believe, best done in that slow and somewhat plodding way. Last-minute bursts often are disastrous because they do not give the burst-worker the time to contemplate and consolidate during and after each step.

My Ph.D. studies had a circannual rhythm that influenced a varied circadian rhythm. My year began just before Douglas-fir beetles began flying near to Lytton, BC, sometime around mid-April. This was followed up by moving those traps to capture spruce beetles and then western balsam bark beetles elsewhere in the province in May and June. Then the traps went to Princeton, BC, to capture mountain pine beetles from mid-July to about mid-August. And I ended the field season trapping pine engravers, usually in or near those mountain pine beetle stands, until about mid- to late-September. During that April-to-September period my life was consumed with my field work. I know that I missed out on a lot of the summer fun activities around Vancouver that many of my friends took part in. But I also saw some beautiful parts of the province and had many memorable days in the field enjoying the warmth and smell of a sunny summer forest. I still can close my eyes and put myself back into some of my field sites in mid-August form.

Once the traps were all back safely stored for the year, I began to sort trap catches. That, as anyone who does it knows, is no small task. I worked with five species of bark beetles and conducted two to five replicated (12 to 15 replicates of usually five or more treatments) experiments with each of them each year. This meant sorting through hundreds of trap catches under a microscope each “off season” with the goal of collecting and analyzing all of those data before field season began again the next spring. Sorting trap catches, as anyone who has done it knows, is not something done in a flurry of a last-minute overnighter. It is a contemplative process that requires a consistent effort over weeks and months. It is perhaps this practice in my sub-field of science that has helped to influence my overall life work patterns of slow-but-steady. Or perhaps my personality influenced my choice of sub-field. Or perhaps there’s a useful feedback between the two. I’m not sure how that works, but it does.

During the contemplative work of sorting, my mind would also wander to my upcoming plans. And my network of graduate student friends and my supervisor were there to talk about my ideas so that by about January of the following year I was able to start the process of planning field sites, ordering pheromone baits, fixing traps, and generally planning out the next year of field work. In April the process started again. During this entire yearly cycle my circadian rhythms would shift from necessarily rather long days in the field in the spring and summer to what one might consider an approximately normal eight-hour day in the autumn and winter. There is, after all, only so much time that a pair of eyes can stare into a microscope on a daily basis, both physiologically and mentally. I tried to do my best (with varying success) to listen what my body and mind were telling me.

Overall there was an ebb and flow to to my graduate studies, because of the field work, that I know from later experience can get lost if the research is all lab all the time. But is it possible to recognize, and perhaps amplify, the more subtle ebb and flow of purely lab-based research? Perhaps some of the circannual rhythmic aspects disappear, but certainly the circadian aspects can remain. Moving into the role of a PI over the past decade I certainly know that there are circannual rhythms and that those influence my daily rhythms across the year.

Ultimately this whole discussion really points to one undeniable fact:

Graduate school really doesn’t start with graduate school. And a career in science doesn’t begin they day that you walk into your first job post-graduation.

Unlike professional school (medicine, law, dentistry, etc.) or a number of undergraduate degrees (education, nursing, engineering, etc.), there is no likely predefined path awaiting a student at the end of graduate school. When (or if) you do land a job related to your field of study it will likely be reasonably well-compensated, but certainly not at the level of some of the professions mentioned in the previous sentence. In other words, the pay will be fine, but a large part of your “pay” also relates to the fact that you are doing something that you love. So you need to love it. You need to be passionate about it.

But you can’t start graduate school expecting to fall in love with science. You need to love it before you do it, and that means figuring out if you love it before you enroll. As an undergraduate I worked in a lab for a few years in a rather unrelated field to what I do today. I ended my degree by taking a field-based course to see what that was like. I attended as many departmental seminars at my undergraduate institution that I could fit into my study and exam schedule. By the time that I got to the stage of looking for a graduate school I had a reasonable idea of topics that I might like to study, and I knew that this was something that I was passionate about.

This gets me to my final point about how to balance time as a student (and, I would argue, as a PI). In the discussion on Twitter I tweeted that:

I stand by that statement. If you are not heading into STEM graduate school with a passion for science – instead merely merely “doing” graduate school as the next seemingly required step in life – your studies (or job) will be a disappointment even if you finish the task and cross the stage. But if during the course of your studies (or job) the passion is lost due to the pressure of a poor work-life balance, then the outcome is sure to be similarly disappointing.

My hope for students in my lab, and for myself, is that we enter our work with passion and we leave it to the next step with enhanced passion. I know that along the way there are dark periods. I have experienced them both during graduate school (ask me about the second year of my Ph.D. sometime) and during my subsequent career (the UNBC faculty strike last year was one such moment, and there have been others). I am thankful that during those times I have had a network of family, friends, and other social helps that have seen me through. As a PI I work to do my level best to help students to maintain their passion, to celebrate their success, and to be understanding and to provide help as possible during their dark times. (As a professor I hope for the similar treatment from my administration for my students and for me, although I suppose that’s a topic for another blog post some day.)

I am certainly thankful for the excitement of discovery that this career has given me, despite the more difficult times. Those moments of discovery, made by ourselves or others, should be why we ultimately headed down this path to research, teaching, and service to society in the first place. It is what continues to drive my passion and, I hope, yours.

Skiffs and shifts

Over the past few summers, I have been spending about a day a week (give or take) on the Crooked River just north of Prince George. This little river, just a few dozen kilometres in length, flows north from Summit Lake into McLeod Lake. Its source is just on the north side of the Arctic watershed, which in itself makes the river somewhat unique compared to the rivers just to the south. Its low-gradient, meandering nature, plus ample and fertile forest all around it make it a very rich habitat for birds, mammals, fish, and aquatic invertebrates. A quick kick sample of the river will bring up a screen writhing with all sorts of little creatures waiting to be discovered.

Part of the river is protected by a provincial park, but much of it is not. Even though there is copious logging activity (and the logging roads and bridges that go along with that), a major highway, and a rail line right alongside the river for part of its course, it is in great shape. But there is always a worry that cumulative impacts, or a substantial environmental accident along its banks could cause damage. The river is a real jewel, seemingly resilient, often overlooked by residents in the area, and potentially vulnerable to catastrophe. And it’s a place that has become important to me.

In previous summers one of my colleagues (Dr. Daniel Erasmus) and I, along with an undergraduate student (Claire), have sampled nymphs on the river, with a general focus on mayflies, but also collecting stoneflies and caddisflies. This year, in an effort to create a fairly complete checklist of the mayflies of the Crooked River, we sampled only adults. The nice thing about nymphs is that they are always there. The difficult thing is that they may be present in early (and hard-to-key) instars, or they may reside in hard-to-reach places in the channel. After substantial nymph collecting we decided that a focus this year on adults would potentially reveal a few species that we had missed, along with some further aspects of their natural history.

Our approach this summer was a combination of Malaise traps hung at the bank just over the water, and hand collecting. Malaise traps are not necessarily the best for mayflies as they don’t scuttle around too much after landing and so don’t always end up in the traps, but we had some success. Our best success though, it seems, was simple hand collecting. To do this we would enter the stream at several locations and would spend a cumulative hour of effort catching any emerging or egg-laying or otherwise flying and water-alighting mayflies that crossed our path. Often there were only two of us on the river, which meant about a half-hour of silence at each of our several sites. Silence, but for the sound of the water, or a kingfisher’s call, or a trout rising a few feet away (“darn, it took that mayfly on the water that I was about to collect”), or the grackle of the ravens that often greeted us at site CR2B. And the shush of a light summer breeze through the bank willows. So not-so-silent silence. But mind silence. And soul solace. The harmony of stillness.

That was a few months ago now, both temporally and metaphorically. Two nights ago we had our first skiff of snow here in Prince George. It is all melting now, but it is a reminder that we are soon to move from days of warm color to days of cool monochrome. On one hand that shift can be difficult for me and for others, not only because of the sudden change to sparseness on the landscape, but also, it seems, the concomitant increase in desk work and similar activities.

On the other hand, there are things to embrace about the shift as well, and embracing these can be helpful:

  • all of those mayflies need to be sorted, curated, and turned into tables and graphs. Each one, represents a singular moment in the past summer. A memory of the river. Claire is currently working on this as part of her thesis project and it’s exciting to think about what we are going to learn.
  • lots of other data from other projects; winter is the time where we get to learn to tell the stories of our summer data collection.
  • the ravens that visit me at my bus stop almost every morning during the winter.
  • my exercise regimen shifts from mainly outside to mainly inside. As a bit of a natural introvert (i.e., I don’t get charged up by crowds), this also means moving from a few passers-by to a zillion other people on the track at the gym. But that also means social interaction from time-to-time, or at least the presence of other humans. And that is as vital sometimes as the exercise.
  • the annual Entomological Society of Canada meeting, this year in lovely Montreal (and where I’ll have a poster up with some of our Crooked River caddisfly work), with plenty to learn about and colleagues and students to catch up with. And poutine.
  • in the winter semester I’ll be teaching three courses (yikes!) including my perennial favorite Animal Behaviour, and a new course for me that I’ve always wanted to teach, Invertebrate Zoology.
  • more community moments with family, friends, and colleagues while we spend more time indoors and in closer contact with each other.

Chris Buddle wrote (and videoed) a great discussion about not always being “fine”. For him and many others November can be a tough month. Personally, sometime around February is often my yearly nadir. I have found, though, that thinking ahead to that time in a mindful way can reduce the depth and, in some years, even make February a real time of hope as I see the transition to spring and the return of the light.

This year one of my plans is to think back to those moments of stillness on the Crooked River this past summer, to seek out quiet moments in the monochrome of the Prince George winter, to seek out family and friends as the winter deepens, to grab onto the good things that come with the season, and to look forward to a new spring and the rivers and forests that will still be there after they awaken from their blanket of snow.

 

 

Danie and Claire head off to collect from one of our Malaise traps on the Crooked River (upstream/downstream panorama at site CR2B).

Finding something new

It seems that, with this post, I have inadvertently blogged a three-part series on why field work matters. In part 1 I wrote about the value of getting out, rather than being stuck behind a desk. In part 2 I wrote about the idea of place and how regular field work in one discrete location is important in terms of both understanding a system and for developing a conservation mindset. In this final (I think) part, I would like to write about the importance of novel experiences in the field.

In July I accompanied Dr. Aynsley Thielman, a postdoctoral associate in my lab, on her first visit to some high elevation, coastal field sites. Our particular task was to spend a couple of days intensively surveying the arthropod fauna in various habitats, and we were set to access the sites by helicopter. I’ve flown in helicopters on a number of occasions prior to this, but only for general reconnaissance purposes. This was the first time that I was going to be dropped off in a remote location. While the pilot was planning to stay with us, the reality in these mountainous situations is rapid shifts in weather and visibility. That meant that the pilot would give us very little notice before starting up the machine and leaving if he thought there was a safety risk. That, in turn, meant that besides efficient packing of field gear, we had to be prepared to potentially survive a night or two on the mountain before we could be flown down again. This was an interesting challenge, and one that I had never encountered before as most of the work that I have ever done is in locations accessible by well-traversed logging roads. I was, to be honest, a bit nervous leading up to the trip.

Those nerves dissipated rapidly, however, as soon as we were in the chopper and flying over the phenomenal landscapes of British Columbia’s central coastal mountains. And if just getting there was great, being there was doubly great. It’s hard to fully express in words how beautiful this place is. On the first day, we were beset by banks of clouds that meant that our pilot had to keep us moving quite quickly from site to site. But even so, the sight of clouds all around, the wind-stunted trees, the heather meadows, and the strange soil crusts kept us continually fascinated. The second day was as warm and sunny-beautiful a day as you can imagine – a complete reversal from the first day – and we were able to spend many hours in two discrete sites, looking under rocks for spiders, poking in the heather, sweeping trees, and waiting near flowers for pollinators.

By the end of two days of glorious collecting, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go back to my desk. I was certainly jealous of Aynsley and the summer students who were going to be going up there several more times over the course of the summer.

This was a unique experience in my career as a biologist. Most of my field work experience has been in the, relatively speaking, lower elevation forests of the interior of British Columbia. On the mountain, on the other hand, I was taller than most of the trees at one of the sites; and the “canopy” at the other site was the heather and wildflowers. And we were dealing with a whole host of arthropods, and none of them were bark beetles (although I do need to get in closer to inspect the boles of some of those trees next time I’m up there). I found that being in a unique field site – one that is beyond my normal travels – helped to prod my brain towards fresh thinking. It is easy, I think, to lose some degree of that freshness when doing the same thing repeatedly in the same type of situation. An entirely new ecosystem, a different mode of transportation, and the challenges that go with this kind of field work stimulate the mind or, perhaps, rouse it from potential lethargy.

It might also be worth noting that some of the noted naturalists of bygone eras – think Darwin on the Beagle or Wallace in the Malay Archipelago, for instance – spent some part of their careers in fairly continuous motion to new and vastly different areas. I could never hope to accomplish what either of these preeminent scientists did in terms of turning the study of biology upside down. But I think it would be fair to say that getting out of what they were used to on the British Isles to new contexts allowed them to see patterns that they may have never noticed if they had stayed put. In Darwin’s case, the experience took some time to set in, but was instrumental in the development of the idea. In Wallace’s case, the idea came to him in the context of his experience. In either case one might argue that experiencing a unique field situation can help to make a scientist alert to new ideas. And this may be an outcome of the mind being stimulated toward fresh thinking.

Finally, new experiences like this can serve to remind us about the bigger picture. It is easy to get complacent about the “known” when we travel to our regular sites that we think that we understand so well. But how much do we really know, even of those sites? Spending time in a place that is unique to you – and where almost everything that you see is new – is a good reminder of how little we actually know. It should stimulate a researcher to return to their regular field locations with fresh eyes and a new realization about how much we still have to learn.

I know that it has done that for me. And I can’t wait to get back.

Getting out

For various reasons, over this past summer I have had the opportunity to get out into the field much more than usual – rivaling the amount of time that I was in the field during my Ph.D. studies. While I generally do ensure that I go out several times in any given summer, the frequency and intensity of the field work this summer was beyond what I’ve been used to since I have become a faculty member.

One of the oddest things about being a faculty member, in fact, is the general trend that I’ve noticed (and keep in mind that for personal experience N=1) toward more desk work and less boots-on-the-ground work over the years of my employment. Some of the trend is necessary – when managing a number of graduate and undergraduate students and postdoctoral associates, the general red tape of research takes time and effort to cut through. Some of it is probably a time-management factor of letting some lower-priority items fill summer field work time. And there have been periods where research activities were more overtly lab-based than field-based. But, whatever the reasons, it’s hard to argue that for a biologist, less time in the field is a good thing.

Regular field work is a tonic against DOTS – Distilled Organism in a Tube Syndrome. With the shift of genomics, metabolomics, and other “-omics” methodologies toward easier and cheaper access by many research labs, field work can often mean a quick collecting trip or two – potentially done by someone else under contract – followed by rapid reduction of the study organism to some sort of solute in a water-filled tube. While this has been great for speeding along scientific discovery, it has had the side effect of reducing the amount of contact that investigators have with their organism(s) in nature. In fact, it is possible for many research projects to run off of the samples or data collected in years prior. For instance, in my lab I could simply have graduate students determine the function any number of mountain pine beetle enzymes in a long series of projects using material stored in our freezers. The students would never have to even see a forest or a live (or dead) insect. Those results would be useful and informative, but they would lack the connection to the larger system and would, potentially, be less than relevant in terms of the insect’s full ecological function

Of course, not every research lab “distills” creatures down to a tube of DNA, but it is still possible in other methodological contexts (e.g. DOPS – Dry Organism on a Pin Syndrome) to begin to lose sight of the natural history of the organism. And when that happens, the likelihood of pursuing irrelevance increases.

Regular field work takes you to the periphery of your study system. It is normal to focus on one or a few organisms, hypotheses, and/or systems. Scientists need a substantial level of focus to be successful. But what are the things that are happening around the edges of the system? What other organisms or environmental factors affect my study system? What is my organism doing during times of the season when I may not be normally collecting? These sorts of questions can only be answered by scouting around the edges of your system. And scouting the edges can only be done by taking the time to observe the natural context of your organism in the field.

Regular field work centers your thoughts and allows you to really observe your study system. My Ph.D. work was on the effect that volatile compounds from nonhost trees have on foraging bark beetles. The initial idea for the work came when my supervisor (prior to me working with him) was taking a break from field work and eating lunch in a stand of aspens surrounded by a mountain pine beetle infestation. All of the lodgepole pines surrounding the aspen stand had been mass attacked by beetles. The few lucky pines growing within the aspen stands were untouched. That initial observation was only possible because he was taking the time to contemplate what was going on around him. While such eureka moments cannot be planned per se, they occur best when the opportunity for them has been planned by intentionally spending time in the field. In other words, insight arrives seemingly unscheduled in centered moments. But some planning and scheduling is required to allow for those moments in the first place.

Summer is almost over now, and I am very glad to have been out as much as I have this year. I’m looking forward to a winter of preparing for another field season in 2015. I hope all of you have also had great seasons, wherever your research has taken you, and are already starting to plan for a new year ahead.

Email paralysis?

Science can not operate in a vacuum for very long, and substantial scientific progress is only possible when communication between scientists is efficient and effective. This has always been the case – scientists have always communicated in person at conferences and across distances through letters. Recently, of course, the rate of information exchange has increased exponentially compared to our Victorian-era forebears. Years from now when our chapter of scientific history is written, I am positive that historians will attribute the current rate of scientific advance to exceptional communication technologies.

Email, of course, will play no small part in that explanation. Email has changed a great deal since the days of ELM and PINE when fewer people were using it and getting a message in our inbox was sometimes even a novelty. Today inboxes overflow and explode with messages ranging from annoying spam, to trivial updates and newsletters, to urgent messages that need rapid attention. Email is a great technology, but like any technology it’s a double-edged sword. You need to control it, or it will control you.

Over the years I have fought to avoid being controlled by email and I think that I have generally won that battle. I am by no means successful all the time, and what follows is no email panacea. But I thought that I’d share a few of my methods that ensure that lines of communication flow well through my office while keeping me from pulling my hair out and declaring email bankruptcy.

Consolidate – Remember when you had one email address and that was enough? These days many of us have several email addresses ranging from professional to personal to addresses associated with some of our professional or other tasks (e.g. if you’re a journal editor, you may have a journal-specific email address). I have found that by sending all of my email to one location – I use Gmail for this – I reduce time flipping between accounts and I catch important emails sent to my secondary accounts more rapidly.

Control the pace of the game – Email is like tennis or – for Canadians – like hockey. You need to take control of the game and keep it moving at a pace that suits you. If you find that you are being overwhelmed with a torrent of emails, you need to slow the game down. Three tricks that I use (and should use more often) when I start to feel buried are: (1) only looking at my email at set times in the day; (2) using a tool like Inbox Pause that keep you from seeing email until you want to see it; and (3) not necessarily replying immediately to a message if I think that by doing so it will just result in a volley of back-and-forths.

Don’t use your inbox as a to-do list – This is always a major temptation. But in the end it just makes for a huge list of messages and tasks lost in the shuffle. Instead, have an actual to-do list in a notebook on your desk (and then archive the email), or use a system like Baydin’s Boomerang that sends messages away and then returns them when you need to act on them.

Filter – If you get update emails from your organization, or newsletters from various entities, they can quickly clog of your inbox. They are generally not the sort of thing that you need to read immediately. So use your email program to apply a filter to them and get them out of your inbox, and then take a look at that folder every now and then as you see fit.

Destroy spam – Most universities and other organizations catch some spam on the way in. However, their nets are not always stringent enough for me. Gmail is great for ditching spam, catching all sorts of excess stuff. If you find you are getting too much spam in your inbox, talk to the IT folks at your organization and/or look for efficient spam filters that can be added on to your current system.

Unsubscribe – Speaking of filtering and spam, are all of those newsletters and other subscriptions coming into your inbox really necessary? How many of them to you actually read? How many of them did you really consent to in the first place? I have personally gone on major unsubscribe binges in the past, but ultimately things just begin to pile up again. Recently I have found a service called Unroll.Me that will capture mass emails and give you the options of keeping them coming to your inbox, unsubscribing, or putting them into a daily digest. This tool has, over the past few months, helped me to unsubscribe or “roll up” over 450 newsletters (etc.). Who knew that I had that much coming into my inbox? And I suspect that I’m pretty typical.

As scientists and educators we need to communicate with each other, with our students, and with many people and organizations. But the irony is that our tools can lead to a communicative paralysis that brings everything to a grinding halt. As I alluded to above, my suggestions are  no means a road map to utopia. But doing this has helped me to reduce my general email anxiety and has let me get tasks done when they need to be done. My hope is that some of these ideas might help you to continue to develop your own system and to allow for efficient and effective communication.

Spider Monday

To help to celebrate Spider Monday, here are a few spider-related papers from the archives of the Journal of Entomological Society of British Columbia.

Bennett, R.G. 2001. Spiders (Araneae) and araneology in British Columbia. J. Entomol. Soc. Brit. Columbia 98:83-90.

A fantastic survey of everything spider in British Columbia. My favorite paragraph:

Large areas and many specific habitats of BC remain uncollected and no doubt many list additions are still to come, especially from northern areas and the deep south of Be. No effort has been made to produce a comprehensive, habitat-specific spider inventory for any area in BC. That new records can be made with relative ease is suggested by the following examples: hundreds of specimens of a gnaphosid previously only known from a couple of  Washington specimens turned up in a simple pitfall study in Burnaby (see cover of Journal of the Entomological Society of BC, Vol. 96, 1999), the first specimen of a new family record for Canada came from the carpet of a provincial government office (Bennett and Brumwell 1996), and a new species record for BC came from the bathtub of an Osoyoos motel (Bennett unpublished data) in 2001.

Bennett also quotes himself, writing in another excellent article that can be found here at the Biological Survey of Canada:

…spiders are ruthless storm troops in the matriarchal anarchy that is the arthropod  world: theirs is the most diverse, female-dominated, entirely predatory order on the face of  the earth. As such, spiders are key components of all ecosystems in which they live.

 

And, since I already linked to the 1999 spider cover, above, I should also link to a couple of others from the covers of the 2004 and 1993 issues.

 

Speaking of new records, there is this paper on a new spider family record in Canada:

Bennett, R.G. and Brumwell, L.J. 1996. Zora hespera in British Columbia: a new spider family record for Canada (Araneae: Zoridae). J. Entomol. Soc. Brit. Columbia 93:105-109.

That article also contains some helpful drawings of spider genitalia. In case you didn’t know, arachnologists and entomologists are into that kind of thing.

 

Of course, the only way that we’re ever going to know what lives in remote locales is to go and visit those places ourselves. Nothing beats boots on the ground. This paper covers just that type of work, surveying spiders in a part of the world that very few of us will ever see:

Slowik, J. 2006. A survey of the spiders (Arachnida, Araneae) of Chichagof Island, Alaska, USA. J. Entomol. Soc. Brit. Columbia 103:61-70.

 

Here is an addition to a checklist of the spiders of British Columbia. The addition points back to a previous revised checklist from 1984 that we have yet to get online in the JESBC archives. Here is the addition:

West, R.C., Dondale, C.D., Ring. R.A. 1988. Additions to the revised checklist of the spiders (Araneae) of British Columbia. J. Entomol. Soc. Brit. Columbia 85:77-86.

 

Species checklists (and regular updates) are vital for understanding biodiversity and monitoring shifts in diversity over time. Along with that, it is important to get down to the natural history of the individual species on those checklists. Each species is, in itself, several careers-worth of work… at least. This type of work is arguably even more important when human influences (e.g. agriculture) are present. Here is a paper that outlines the emergence times of a variety of arthropods, including a mixture of spider species, in pear orchards:

Horton, D.R. 2004. Phenology of emergence from artificial overwintering shelters by some predatory arthropods common in pear orchards of the Pacific Northwest. J. Entomol. Soc. Brit. Columbia 101:101-108.

 

Humans (and other factors) do indeed have massive effects on biodiversity. Unfortunately we often only notice those effects when we start to see the decline in the numbers of one species or another. This, of course, assumes that we are even taking notice of some of these small creatures that are so prevalent, but often so hidden from our literal or metaphoric view. This occasional paper published by the Entomological Society of British Columbia offers an extensive coverage of likely-or-actually-at-risk spineless animals in this province that often escape notice, but which provide many of the so-called “ecosystem services” that we all rely upon. There is a long list of spiders, starting on page 10:

Scudder, G.G.E.  1994. An annotated systematic list of the potentially rare and endangered freshwater and terrestrial invertebrates in British Columbia. Occasional Paper 2.

Have a happy Spider Monday, and be sure to say hi to one of our eight-legged friends if you happen to come across one.

Reprints back then… but what now?

“Back in my day…”

I sort of feel like I’m saying that more and more these days. It must be a symptom of advancing age. Today that geezer sentiment was stimulated by this tweet:

For those of you who haven’t been “in the business” long enough to remember the ritual, it went something like this. I would read a paper of interest and write out various references from it that I needed to get my hands on for deeper understanding of the topic. Then I’d head to the library and do the cart-photocopier shuffle. I’d generally find all of the articles that I was after, but often one or two key papers would be missing. So I’d head back to the department mailroom and would pick up a card that looked something like this. After filling out the card and mailing it, I’d wait a few weeks and would (usually) happily find a copy of the paper in my mailbox sent to me personally from the corresponding author. Sometimes the author would have even taken the time to write a short greeting on the reprint.

Most labs maintained a stock of reprints. When you published a paper, you’d have the option of buying paper reprints in various quantities from the publisher. There was often much discussion to decide about how many you thought you’d need to purchase. If you ran out, you’d photocopy the last one to replenish your pile. Some piles would dwindle quickly. Others would just collect sad no-citation dust.

However I haven’t even thought about reprints for years now, other than occasionally stumbling across my remaining stocks of reprints occupying space in my file cabinet (which I also hardly ever venture into anymore). I haven’t been asked for a reprint in ages. I haven’t asked for a reprint in ages. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time either of those events occurred.

To some extent, this is a good thing. It means:

  • many people these days have good access to most journals, and open access is having a good effect.
  • most journals now maintain good archives of even their oldest material.
  • information is often available immediately and at our fingertips.
  • I no longer need to rely on hoping that my request gets to a corresponding author (who could have left that institution years ago), or that the author takes the time to send me the paper.
  • less paper use and happier forests.

On the other hand, there are still many places in the world, and many institutions, without adequate access to scientific literature. Even today not all journals maintain deep archives. And no library, even those that are otherwise well-stocked, subscribe to all archives of all journals. This latter point is becoming more and more the case as subscription costs rise and budgets dwindle. But we have email, and #IcanhazPDF, and open access venues – all of which should help with these issues.

I was reminded of these “on the other hand” points this week when I set out to get my hands on this paper. Surprisingly to me at least, our library only listed the paper version of this article in their stacks. So…

Once at the library, I located the journal and found that the volume was missing from the shelf. Egads! Back down the circulation desk, where I filled out a form that would send a student assistant scurrying around the library looking for the missing volume. At that point, I’d had about enough fun reliving the 90s, and even though there is a valid debate about the effects of #icanhazPDF, I made my Twitter request. Thanks to Chris MacQuarrie and the magic of the internet, the article was on its way to me in a jiffy. Later on in the day the library notified me that they’d found the truant volume…

So obviously the demise of the old paper reprint/mail system is a good thing, right? Perhaps. For the most part I agree.

However, despite what may be thought of as its shortcomings (shortcomings now due merely to technological advances), a reprint request was much more than a request for a single article. More than simply that, a request used to serve as one more thread in a network between real people. A request represented one more potential conduit to collaborative discussion. It wasn’t the paper in the mail that was important so much as it was the tangible connection to someone else with similar research interests. Thankfully things like Twitter, Google Scholar, and various other up-and-coming services help to reveal linkages and keep the conversation going for those who participate. Participation in the emerging system and getting others to do the same is what is vital. And participation is what we need to be encouraging.

The biggest tragedy of non-participation for all of us is a lack of key influences on the ongoing discussion of our craft. It’s easy to relegate nay-sayers to the dinosaur bin. But their diverse and experienced voices are vital to understand where we’ve been and where we’re going. The sunset of network building via rituals like reprint requests does not represent the end of an era as much as it reveals new and exciting possibilities for even more meaningful connections. The more ideas, data, opinions, and interpretations that we have on board, the better for all of us and the better for the progress of science.

I am fully aware that blog posts like this are the proverbial preaching to the choir. So, how do we convince our colleagues who are still not part of the emerging conversation to join with us? Reprint requests, and many of our previous network building methods, are fading away. We don’t want voices with important knowledge, wisdom, and experience to fade with them.

Let’s go back to 1914

I am the editor of a small, regional journal called the Journal of the Entomological Society of British Columbia. Although it is a small journal – publishing a few papers and other items in a single issue each year – both the journal and the society that manages it have a deep history. The ESBC was founded in 1902, and the JESBC  has been around in one form or another since 1906 when it was called the Bulletin of the British Columbia Entomological Society.

That deep history combined with the fact that we currently publish excellent peer-reviewed reports that are of particular interest to entomologists working in the Pacific Northwest are what induce me to expend considerable time and effort on its yearly production. Our journal has been, and currently is, run mainly on volunteer efforts. It has always truly been a labor of love.

The JESBC has recently shifted to being completely open access. We are indexed on a number of major abstracting services. And our web editor has been spearheading an incredible effort to get all of our archives online and all of our citations over the years cross-referenced. In other words, our journal has always continued to evolve with the times, and we are working to ensure that trend continues.

As old issues have come online, I have enjoyed dipping into them to read some of the reports from the past. So, in what I intend to be a regular occurrence on this blog, I’d like to highlight a few of the items that I’ve read and that I hope may interest some of you as well.

Recently I was sampling volume 7 (1915), back when the journal was called the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of British Columbia (yes, we’ve had a number of name changes over the years). In it there are a number of articles that discuss a major “locust” infestation in the southern interior of British Columbia. From the reports, the insects involved were seemingly the migratory grasshopper, Melanoplus sanguinipes (called Melanoplus affinis in these reports) and the red-legged grasshopper, Melanoplus femurrubrum. Some very cursory research on my part found no other mentions of the infestation on the internet, so these reports may be the only easily accessible documentation of that event.

Here are some of my thoughts on several relevant articles from that issue:

Ruhman, M. 1915. Insect-notes from the Okanagan 1914. Proc. Entomol. Soc. British Columbia 7:7-11. LINK

This article is a survey of all of the recorded insect pest outbreaks in the Okanagan (southern interior) of BC. Besides being a comprehensive list with some very interesting and sometimes rather extensive notes on a variety of insects, the author mentions the grasshopper infestation briefly as follows:

…(the grasshoppers) are certainly plentiful enough to be taken notice of. Mr. Ben Hoy reports on the 14th that he visited a small orchard surrounded with range land practically defoliated by grasshoppers (species not identified) in Kelowna.

 

Wilson, T. 1915. The outbreak of locusts of 1914. Proc. Entomol. Soc. British Columbia 7:41-42. LINK

This paper outlines the geographical extent of the infestation and begins by particularly condemning the practice of “clean cultivation” – that is, removal of all weeds and alternate crop plants from near orchards and between the rows of trees – as a major driver of damage to orchards. In other words, maintenance of an orchard monoculture and the removal of alternate host plants for the grasshoppers meant that the grasshoppers turned to the fruit trees for food. This is, of course, an agricultural lesson that needs to be taken to heart even today.

Wilson also spent some time explaining the natural history of these insects and then lists what he feels are major reasons for the infestation:

The first reason I advance was the abnormally hot and dry season we have experienced, even for the Dry Belt. This condition was most conducive to the spread of these sun-loving dry-country insects. Second, the influx of settlers and the consequent diminution of the natural food of the locusts. Thirdly too heavy grazing on the range, or perhaps, more correctly stated, injudicious grazing on the range, has done away with the food-plants and forced the locusts to places where they would obtain the requisite amount of nutrition.

This is an interesting analysis, and one that provides a great picture of what was going on in the region at the time in terms of climate, culture, and biology.

 

Taylor, L.E. 1915. Notes on birds likely to be of service in the destruction of grasshoppers in the Nicola Valley. Proc. Entomol. Soc. British Columbia 7:43-45. LINK

Taylor provides an extensive list of birds that were likely to be present in the region at the time and gives estimates for how important they might have been as predators on grasshoppers. Besides being a potentially useful checklist of birds in the Nicola Valley in 1914, Taylor also vaguely mentions resources that he used to develop his estimates. It would be interesting to be able to dig up these reports and compare them to what, if anything, is known today about diets of various bird species.

 

Gibson, A. 1915. The Kansas remedy for the control of locusts. Proc. Entomol. Soc. British Columbia 7:45. LINK

This report is, frankly, frightening. But it is also a good glimpse into pest management back in the early-1900s. In this article, Gibson proposes experimenting with the “Kansas remedy” for control of grasshoppers. The Kansas remedy was comprised of:

Bran, 20 lb.; Paris green, 1 lb.; molasses, 2 quarts; lemons, 3 fruits; water, 3.5 gallons.

Most of the ingredients are identifiable. But what is that Paris green stuff? Well, it’s copper(II) acetoarsenite. As you might imagine, copper and arsenic make for a very toxic brew. And, being heavy metals, a persistent, toxic brew to be precise. I’m personally not a big fan of pesticides unless absolutely necessary, but I can say that I’m glad that what we do use today is safer than this.

I’m also curious to know if this concoction was ever tried in parts of British Columbia. According to the short article it was used in parts of eastern Canada. A bit of digging shows that it was also at least tested, if not used, elsewhere. If the areas that in which was used could be identified today, it would be interesting to survey longterm effects on biodiversity of heavy metals used in agricultural settings.

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Besides being an interesting glimpse into the past, these articles demonstrate the value of a longstanding, regional journal to the practice of science. I think that it is fair to say that without this journal (and others like it) reports like these would either never have been recorded in the first place or would have been buried in files somewhere and lost to contemporary analysis.

From these articles we learn that there was a substantial and damaging grasshopper infestation in the BC’s southern interior around 1914. We read some statements on the climatic conditions and the agricultural practices at the time that were thought to be partially responsible for driving this infestation. We are given a number of interesting natural history observations. We receive what amounts to a checklist of some birds in the region at that time (attention ornithologists!). And we are told about cultural and (sort of scary) chemical methods that were being proposed as pest management methods.

The JESBC, and other journals like it, are full of this type of information. Contemporary archiving, indexing, optical character recognition, cross referencing, and other means of resurrecting this literature are adding value to these fantastic resources. I imagine the value will continue to increase as imaginative people find new ways to sort through this kind of data.

In the meantime, we all now have the opportunity to use our own grey matter-based “technology” to learn from the past. I hope that as I pull out a few of these reports to highlight on this blog over the coming months you’ll also take some time to find some items that interest you.

If bump into anything interesting, feel free to share your finds here in the comments or on Twitter.

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Update (12 November 2013): Chris MacQuarrie pointed this out on Twitter:

Indeed, that is the case. Here is some more information on Norman Criddle and his mixture. Also of interest in that link is the mention of the Rocky Mountain locust, a once prominent species that ended up on the same tragic trajectory followed by the passenger pigeon and (very nearly) the plains bison.

It’s cold out there!

Most of us would find it pretty hard to live outside all winter anywhere in Canada, let alone in places where temperatures routinely dip below -30ºC. But this is exactly what the mountain pine beetle (and many other insects) does. The question is, of course, how does it pull this off? What is it about mountain pine beetle larval physiology that allows the insects to make it through long months of deep cold?

A paper by Tiffany Bonnett and others, that recently came out of our lab, probes this process in pine beetles in a way that has not been done before. The publication is entitled “Global and comparative proteomic profiling of overwintering and developing mountain pine beetle, Dendroctonus ponderosae (Coleoptera: Curculionidae), larvae” and is available as an open access publication. We have also published the raw genomics data online at figshare. You can find those data here, here, and here.

 

What did we do?

Larval mountain pine beetles were collected from trees near to Valemount, BC during the early autumn and late autumn, and then again during the early spring and late spring. The larval beetles were prepared in the lab so that we could use a process called iTRAQ to assess all of the proteins present in the larvae at each of the different collection time points. Essentially we took four snapshots – two in the autumn and two in the spring – an then compared them to each other see what was changing. This gave us a huge amount of data to work with and we used statistics to tell us which proteins increased or decreased in prevalence across either the autumn or the spring.

 

What did we find?

Among other things:

  • Larvae expend a fair amount of energy on detoxification of host resin compounds, both in preparation for the winter, and then during feeding after winter is over.
  • Stress physiology plays a large role in this entire process, particularly in the autumn as the larvae are dealing with host tree resin toxins and readying themselves for the upcoming onset of winter.
  • We saw evidence for the involvement of several compounds that may play an antifreeze role.
  • There is an evident shift between emphasizing overwintering preparations (in the autumn) and emphasizing completing development (in the spring), consistent with expected shifting priorities at different points in the life cycle.

 

Why is this novel?

The overwintering larvae of the mountain pine beetle remain nestled under the protective bark of their host tree. This makes them quite difficult to work with, and until now not very much information had been generated on this life stage, particularly in the context of winter survival. This work, which has harnessed the power of some very useful genomics databases, has cracked the door (or the bark?) open to allow us to see in broad sweeping terms what is going on in this insect during this vital time in its life cycle. We have seen aspects of larval mountain pine beetle physiology that have never been seen before, and that provides the power to ask new questions and to investigate key genes and pathways in a much more directed manner.

 

Why is this important?

Up until now, the main known winter survival mechanism for larval mountain pine beetles was the accumulation of glycerol in the autumn. Glycerol acts as a natural antifreeze and is part of the overwintering survival tool kit of many insects. But in most known cases, glycerol is not the only part of the equation, and we didn’t think that it was the sole story in mountain pine beetle either. And it turns out that we were correct with that guess – there are a lot of other things going on as well.

In a larger sense, this means that we now have targets to focus on as we work to understand how deep winter cold can impact populations. Overwintering mortality is one of the major factors contributing to control of bark beetle populations. Now that the mountain pine beetle is moving from the cold interior of British Columbia into even-colder central Alberta, a major research question relates to the climate in its expanding geographical range and how that is going to affect the insect’s potential spread to other regions. Overlay that question with the impacts of climate change, and it should be apparent that understanding mountain pine beetle overwintering physiology is becoming more and more vital.

 

Where do we go from here?

We now have numerous potential gene targets to look at, any of which is a project unto itself. Because we have shown in other work that larval mountain pine beetles in the late summer are feeding on potentially very toxic food, we are interested in finding out how larval ability to detoxify and digest their food in the autumn can make or break their chances for winter survival. We suspect that certain larvae are better adapted than others at dealing with the nutritional challenges that they face, and thus better able to produce antifreeze compounds and the other components that allow overwintering success.

In other words, we suspect that there is variation in the mountain pine beetle population that results in some larvae surviving the winter while others don’t. We, along with collaborators, hope to determine which genes are important in this process and how selection pressure in their historical and expanding ranges are changing mountain pine beetle populations.

Some of our key questions are:

  • How do specific proteins function in protecting larvae from the cold?
  • What happens if we “knock out” some of those proteins?
  • What characteristics of tree defense and nutrition make some host trees more or less likely to allow the resident larvae to survive a winter?
  • Do adult beetle parents choose trees based in any way on how their young may fare?
  • Where in the genome should we expect to see natural selection as the insects move into colder and more inhospitable regions? How will these evolutionary shifts be observed in changes in behavior and physiology?
  • What are the larger implications of climate change on these processes?

As you can see – and as is the case with science in general – this paper not only provides some answers, but also provides fertile ground for more questions. This work, and other related work in our larger mountain pine beetle system genomics project, has given us the means to chase down some of the answers. We are looking forward to the interesting work ahead. Since this publication and its associated data are all open access, we also look forward to seeing what other people might find to do with our data.

ResearchBlogging.org
Tiffany R. Bonnett, Jeanne A. Robert, Caitlin Pitt, Jordie D. Fraser, Christopher I. Keeling, Jörg Bohlmann, Dezene P.W. Huber (2012). Global and comparative proteomic profiling of overwintering and developing mountain pine beetle, Dendroctonus ponderosae (Coleoptera: Curculionidae), larvae Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.ibmb.2012.08.003

Why conferences matter

After a drive from Guelph and then a long flight from Toronto into very foggy Vancouver and then not-quite-as-foggy Prince George, I arrived home last night from the Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of Canada and Ontario (#ESCJAM2013). I have been away from my family and from UNBC for close to a week now, and though somewhat fatigued (and slightly jet lagged), meetings like these are valuable.

I have come to particularly enjoy ESC meetings over the past few years as I think that they really hit the sweet spot in terms of having just the right number of attendees and topics. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with huge meetings or small niche meetings. I enjoy those too. But if I were Goldilocks, this one would be “just right.”

So, why should a scientist bother to use up part of a research grant to pick up and travel to some far-flung location and spend several days eating and sleeping relatively poorly in a generic conference facility? Here are the reasons that I came up with, and perhaps you can think of more:

Learning and connecting – Nothing beats being fully immersed in a topic that you love, with a ton of likeminded people all around. Conferences provide this type of environment, ranging from excellent student talks (and wow! there were so many of these at the ESC JAM this year!!), to detailed symposium talks, to workshops, to simply chatting with colleagues at coffee breaks. After a conference I generally return reinvigorated and excited about what is going on in my own personal research and the research of the folks in my program. I’ve had a chance to hear cool things and to ask in-person questions and receive in-person answers. I’ve been reminded that there are a lot of other people out there working on interesting problems too – I’m not toiling alone. I’ve been able to troubleshoot some of my scientific and red tape issues with people who have had more experience than I in certain areas. I’ve found out about new theories, new technologies, and new frontiers of study. I’ve re-met old friends and colleagues, and I’ve made contacts with new people as well.

You can read all of the literature all of the time in complete solitude, and you will be very well educated on a topic. But nothing beats the human element in terms of deeply understanding the state-of-the-art in a particular field. In fact I’d go so far as to say that the best learning is done in community with other humans. And the best way to encounter other humans is… to actually spend time with them.

Being challenged – Not everyone does this –and I’m not suggesting that it is the only way of doing things – but I try to go to sessions that do not necessarily major on my own research topic. The reality is that I hear a lot about the type of things that I do on a regular basis from my closest colleagues who also do that type work. I read their papers, talk to them on the phone, collaborate on projects, etc. So I already have a pretty good idea of what is going on in their programs and what they are thinking about. What I don’t necessarily know is what is going on in other entomological fields because my interactions are not as frequent nor is my network so solid. Conferences allow me to sit in on sessions as a fly-on-the-wall (pun intended!) to see what others are up to. Sometimes this gives me new ideas for research or for potential collaborations. If nothing else, it reminds me of how cool entomology is. Like others during this conference, I tried to send out a tweet from each talk that I attended, so if you’re interested, you can get a quick idea of the diversity of topics that I was able to enjoy, here.

Tours – Most conferences that I’ve been to feature one or two of these. Admittedly I don’t always get to go due to conflicts with other events. But when I do, I generally really learn. This year a few of us were treated to a tour of the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario facility at the University of Guelph. Besides the fact that what is going on there is highly impressive, it was great to be able to talk to some of the facility experts and to ask specific questions. At other conferences I’ve been able to head out on field trips to see some of the local insect pest problems. Nothing beats seeing, hearing, feeling, and smelling a topic first hand for later understanding. I find that after such field trips, reading the literature is a much more living experience than it can be when I just approach a paper “cold” with no actual life connection with the subject.

History – This year was the 150th anniversary of the Entomological Society of Ontario and (in conjunction with the ESO… I won’t explain it here) the Entomological Society of Canada. As Dr. Laura Timms pointed out in her excellent Heritage Lecture, we’re the oldest entomological society on the continent. With 150 years of history comes a lot of deep tradition as well. Laura’s talk was excellent and reminded all of us of the fact that the ups and downs that we see in our profession today are nothing particularly new. We have a solid foundation built by others before us on which to grow. It is up to us to carry on that legacy. This hit home during the banquet when Dr. Thelma Finlayson was honored for her contributions over her 98 years (!!!) to students, to entomology, and to our Society. The reality is that, barring incredible medical advances, most of us will not be very active in the profession – if we are around at all – at the 200th anniversary. Our history should remind us of our ongoing responsibility to those coming after us over the next 50 years and beyond.

Cookies at coffee breaks – need I say more?

For a great summary of the meeting, please head over to Sean McCann‘s photograph-filled post (featuring my Ph.D. supervisor in the first photograph).

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Aside: During the conference there was a bit of a Twitter squall that is summarized/linked with this tweet:

 

I won’t add much more to the conversation here, others have already responded nicely. Suffice it to say that, for me, Twitter is the next best thing to an ongoing conference. It allows realtime and authentic interaction with others on various topics that interest me.

Twitter is, by no means, as substitute for a good conference or a good blog post. But neither is a blog post or a conference a substitute for Twitter or any other medium. It is what you make of it.

And much was made of Twitter at this conference. For instance, a bit of intense web wizardry by David Shorthouse gave those in attendance using Twitter this fantastic tool that added value to the already useful stream of #ESCJAM2013 tweets.

During this discussion there have been quotes of Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” mantra.

To this I’ll add a quote from Neil Postman:

One way of looking at the history of the human group is that it has been a continuing struggle against the veneration of “crap.”

Any medium will end in a fecal morass if the only contributions to it are scat.

I have experienced just the opposite of that with Twitter on a variety of subjects because the people who I follow contribute useful content and ideas. Twitter at the 2013 ESC JAM was a prime example of that.