Some thoughts about Friday (and beyond)

I have lived in the USA twice in my life and, like many Canadians, I have many friends and relatives there. Like many Canadians, I appreciate Americans and, despite obvious setbacks and flaws, I have a great respect for the values of freedom and justice that America and its allies have represented in our world.

And so I am, along with many American friends and many others in many countries around the world, worried about what the next four years will bring – specifically for that great country but also for so many of us elsewhere.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

As an academic and a scientist I believe that ideas propagated in truth and then spoken with conviction make a difference in the world. It may become tempting to use the strategies of untruth against those who propagate untruth. But that would be extremely unwise because:

“…science and reason matter…” (Barak Obama, presidential farewell address)

 

“The good thing about science: it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

 

“Men argue. Nature acts.” (Voltaire)

 

“I am not presumptuous enough to tell reality what it should be.” (Alexander Vilenkin)

 

A great American poet, W.S. Merwin, said:

…one can’t live only in despair and anger without eventually destroying the thing one is angry in defense of. The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us. And you know, in a way, if you don’t pay that attention, the anger is just bitterness.

 

How to avoid despair and anger? Walt Whitman – quintessential American Poet, provides an answer:

Long, too long America,
Traveling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and prosperity only,
But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish, advancing, grappling with direst fate and recoiling not,
And now to conceive and show to the world what your children en-masse really are,
(For who except myself has yet conceiv’d what your children en-masse really are?)

 

America, do not recoil

Those of us in the scientific community, do not recoil.

Those in any walk of life who love truth, do not recoil.

The peaceful roads are splendid in all of their warm sun and scenery. But the harder roads of crisis provide opportunities to show the world that truth matters. It’s always more difficult to climb a long set of gravel switchbacks to an unparalleled summit vista than it is to drive a straight road through rolling meadows to nowhere in particular.

Working toward truth is difficult, essential, and well worth the effort. And the effort will crowd out anger and despair.

Read Whitman’s poem again on Friday – and again and again and again. Let’s continue to work for truth. The vista is there, even if we can’t see the peak from where we are now.

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.

A tiger in your back yard?

When we think of endangered animals, among the first things to come to mind may be creatures like rhinoceroses, tigers, or condors. Large animals, lots of press, and pressing concerns. There are an estimated 799 eastern black rhinos~400 Siberian tigers, and 237 California condors left in the wild. In some cases, as with these animals, their numbers have been reduced by human assaults of various sorts. In most cases there are plenty of ongoing issues, often related to habitat loss, that either keep populations in decline or which make recovery difficult.

But these animals and their attendant situations all seem pretty far away. Their distant geography lends itself to experiential distance as well. We hear about them, we see photographs and documentaries about them, but we will likely never have a chance to encounter them in the wild. Of course, even with geographical and experiential distance, concern is still warranted, and we might donate some money to one or another of these causes, or at least keep up with the issues via the news media. But beyond that, what can we do? The situations for these animals, and many others like them, may be dire, but we realistically can’t be present with them.

What if I told you that there is an animal in our own back yard (if you live in the Vancouver area) with population numbers and threats akin to – or perhaps worse than – those facing a Siberian tiger? What if I told you that, like a tiger, it is a ferocious predator?

What if I told you that it’s a spider?

Gnaphosa snohomish. Drawing by Robb Bennett, used with permission.

The animal that I’m talking about is the Georgia Basin bog spider (Gnaphosa snohomish). It is quite likely that you’ve never heard of it until now, and very likely that you have never seen it, even unintentionally. That is because although it lives in heavily populated southwestern British Columbia and the surrounding area, it is restricted to a few small patches of habitat where, even in such a major population centre, few people ever go. And because few people ever go to where it lives, those spots are often under pressure for development – “if no one uses that area presently, why shouldn’t we turn it into something ‘useful’?” goes the thinking.

Because of where it lives – as the name implies, in boggy wetlands – the Georgia Basin bog spider’s population numbers are not fully known. Thankfully, though, some people do go and look for this creature, and what we do know is that, indeed, the population levels and threats are likely similar to some of the bigger animals mentioned in the preamble. This is not a situation that many often consider to be a problem for spiders and insects, and perhaps that is because we know so little about so many of them.

One of the main problems for this spider is that humans don’t live in bogs, at least not while they remain in their boggy condition. We tend to either drain bogs for development, harvest their moss for other uses, or use their natural conditions to grow crops like cranberries. In some cases other development, such as roadways, can have draining and polluting impacts on nearby bogs. All of these factors, and others, mean that when humans and bogs meet, the bog loses, as do many of its denizens. The Georgia Basin bog spider in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland is one of those creatures currently on the losing side of that ledger.

In recent years some detailed work has been done on the Georgia Basin bog spider. You can find some of the most recent assessments of its status and coverage of its known natural history here and here. Both of those links are PDFs.

In a nutshell (you can find all of this information, and more, in those two PDFs):

  • The Georgia Basin bog spider has been found only at fifteen sites – seven in southwestern British Columbia, and eight in northwestern Washington state. Recent work has also detected the spider at Island View Beach in Canada.
  • Take a look at this aerial view of the Burnaby Marshlands. You can see at that link the level of pressure on the habitat there. That location was the Canadian site at which the greatest number of spiders were detected in a previous (1998) survey. There is good reason to believe that this population has been extirpated between that survey and now.
  • All of this means that the overall area of occupancy for the spider in Canada is roughly only about 16 km2.
  • This also means that the spider populations are extremely isolated from one another, limiting gene flow. It is thought that these spiders “balloon”, which is when young spiders cast a silk thread and catch breezes to disperse to new locations. Spiders have little control over where the wind takes them. So one can imagine that a ballooning Georgia Basin bog spider is pretty unlikely to land, by happenstance, in a suitable sphagnum bog within its current range, let alone survive to maturity to find and successfully mate with another Georgia Basin bog spider.
  • From collection records, it seems that the spider requires wet, and seemingly preferably, peat bog conditions.
  • Of the five sites in Canada with presumably established populations, four are at 3 meters or less above sea level. So besides impacts of human activity, there is a distinct risk of seawater inundation following a seismic event (i.e., a tsunami).
Gnaphosa snohomish male, photo courtesy Darren Copley, RBCM.

The Georgia Basin bog spider – just like tigers, rhinos, or condors – has a limited range, a limited number of appropriate habitats in that range, and is increasingly impacted by ongoing development and other pressures.

And it may live in your metaphorical (or literal!) back yard.

In other words, keep an eye out for the little things that live where you live. Just like the big things that live elsewhere, they have some important stories to tell.

_____

Thanks to Robb Bennett, Jennifer Heron, Darren Copley, Patrick Lilley, and Andrew Baylis for assistance with various aspects of this blog post.

This is a cross post from A Rocha Canada.

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).

Goldilocks conferences

Last week I, along with dozens of Canadian entomologists, was in beautiful Saskatoon, Saskatchewan at our annual Entomological Society of Canada/Entomological Society of Saskatchewan Joint Annual Meeting. I had a great time there. There were five talks from my research program (including one of my own). I was very proud of all of my students and postdocs, as they all gave great talks. One of them, Sharleen Balogh, won the President’s Prize for her talk. And UNBC’s very own Staffan Lindgren became President of the Society for the next year.

Besides all of that, I was able to visit with many colleagues and students. We were able to “talk shop” and discuss our ideas easily, almost like an ongoing, really large lab meeting. We had time to get to know each other a bit better as actual humans, not just another name on a co-author list. And we were treated to all sorts of inspiring and informative regular talks, symposium addresses, and poster presentations. By the end of the four days in Saskatoon, I was tired but also elated at the state of entomological research and teaching in Canada. Our discipline is in very good hands for the foreseeable future, and that makes me happy.

All of this got me thinking a bit more about conferences on my plane flight back (while trying to avoid a conversation about “chem trails” with an insistent fellow sitting next to me). I’ve been to some very large conferences with attendees numbering in the thousands. And I’ve been to some very small conferences with maybe 20 or 30 attendees. The ESC JAM is an order of magnitude smaller than the former and an order of magnitude larger than the latter – nestling right into a bit of a sweet spot, in my opinion.

I do truly appreciate the smaller conferences for a number of reasons. There are no concurrent sessions, so you never are forced to miss a talk. They are really great venues for early-stage students to present their work in a thoroughly non-threatening atmosphere. They are a great place to reconnect with your closest – geographically and often in terms of discipline – colleagues. On that latter point, in a discipline like entomology where many of the issues that we deal with are regional in nature, this aspect cannot be stated too strongly. Having some time to compare notes on regional conservation or pest issues in a semi-formal setting with regional colleagues is vital.

I also like the larger conferences, but not quite as much. And the fact that I haven’t been to a large conference in several years now is perhaps a bit of a testimony to my deeper current mindset. Large conferences have the advantage of having something for everyone. With thousands of attendees giving talks or posters over a three- or four-day period, there are also many – sometimes dozens – of concurrent sessions. Organizers have a ton of resources, and they can bring in big speakers and a great trade show. This means that no matter what, I can find talks and items of interest to me at large meetings. But it also means that I feel required to preschedule myself to such an extent that it is unlikely that I’ll just stumble into a talk (or remain in a session after the talks that I was interested in) that truly but accidentally blows my mind. Pure organization is key at a large conference, and that reduces spontaneity.

I also find that I’m often more prone to being “lonesome in a crowd” at large meetings because you have to be pretty lucky to meet someone you might know just in time for lunch or dinner with so many concurrent sessions going on. Again, this can be overcome with planning (“hey, let’s meet at the registration desk for lunch at noon on Tuesday”), but does not really allow for surprise meetings with known and yet-unknown colleagues.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to large conferences. They are amazing events, and I have always benefited from being at them. But perhaps it’s my somewhat introverted tendencies that make me more comfortable at the small-to-medium-sized meetings. It’s at those venues that I find that I can see presentations that are both exactly relevant to my work and also tangentially interesting. I can easily meet with people who I know. I can meet a few who I didn’t know before. And I can make a gracious retreat when I’m feeling a bit tired of interacting.

Ultimately I suppose that each of us has a Goldilocks Zone for preferred meeting size. Mine generally matches what I experienced last week. Preferences, of course, will vary. And the benefits of all meeting sizes mean that we should all also step away from our personal Goldilocks Zone from time-to-time to experience meetings of all sorts.

(And a quick addendum: Thanks so much to the organizers of the ESC-ESS JAM 2014. Having been part of an organizing team in the past, I realize how much work that was. I hope that you all are feeling proud of the great work that you did, because that was an excellent meeting all around.)

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.

Harrington’s 1881 field notes and thoughts for today

The earth covered by its first mantle of snow reminds one that the collecting season is virtually ended, and the lengthening evenings allure one to the study fireside to go carefully over note books and collections and to read the recorded labors of fellow Entomologists.

So begins William Hague Harrington as he recapped his personal entomological observations from the summer of 1881 near to Ottawa, Ontario.

It was this sentence that first caught my eye while I was browsing around the deep back issues of The Canadian Entomologist. Perhaps it was the reference to snow just as the warmest days of the year are beginning. Perhaps is was simply the language that Harrington used. But either way it prompted me to find out more about the entomologist behind these words.

According to his obituary in the June 1918 issue of The Canadian Entomologist, Harrington was born in 1852 in Nova Scotia. After his formal education he worked in the Canadian civil service in various roles until he retired in 1916. He passed away shortly after that, in 1918.

Prior to that, in 1879, he was one of the founders and charter members of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club, an organization that is still active today and which publishes The Canadian Field-Naturalist. He was secretary-treasurer, secretary, and president of that club at various times. He was also an active member of the Entomological Society of Ontario, and was president of that organization for a couple of years. His obituary lists close to 50 articles published in The Canadian Entomologist and more than 50 published elsewhere. The article topics range widely with, as his obituary notes, a substantial focus on Coleoptera and Hymenoptera.

Besides – and I’d argue more important than – his scientific accomplishments, he was described as:

(q)uiet in nature and unassuming, even retiring at times, Harrington was held in high regard by all who knew him.

Reading his summary of his 1881 field notes I think that we can see hints of both his “quiet nature” and his expertise as a natural historian. The notes are both contemplative and full of useful information.

His discussion begins with collections of “mud-wasps” – I am guessing that he was referring to the black and yellow mud-dauber Sceliphron caementarium, although he calls them Polestes annulatus – on 15 March 1881. These he describes as collecting nest material from the “pulverized macadam” of the streets of Ottawa and building nests on the side of the Parliament buildings.

He goes on to discuss various butterflies, the full onslaught of mosquitoes around 24 April, and an early emergence of some buptrestid beetles. Other spring-emerging, conifer-feeding species that year included Pissodes spp. weevils and sawflies.

Harrington’s attention to detail is present throughout this short essay. Take, for instance, his discussion of fireflies:

During May the curious larvae of certain Lampyridae were often seen in damp woods, crawling on the trunks of trees, such as cedar, or affixed by the tail to the bark, undergoing their metamorphoses in a similar manner to the larvae of the Coccinellidae. Some reared at home emerged as Photinus angulatus [Note: although this species name appears commonly in the literature of the time, I am not sure of the current taxonomy]. The larvae, and to a less degree, the pupae, emitted a strong greenish glow from two of the posterior segments; the imago being, of course, one of our common “fire flies.” Some of the larvae were thickly covered beneath with small ticks, of a bright vermilion color, which had their pointed heads plunged between the armored segments of the larvae. They were not dislodged, but walked rapidly when free. By these little parasites the larva were so weakened as to perish before completing their transformation.

During the spring he also took two trips – one to Wakefield Cave (here, I assume) with some friends, and one with the Ottawa Field-Naturalist’s Club to Montebello. On both trips he successfully collected a large number of insects, including a number of tiger beetles.

After that he states that “my opportunities for collecting were few, and my notes correspondingly scanty.” As for all of us, life’s necessities and other urgent (and less-urgent) issues often take precedence. Harrington finishes off his compilation mentioning early-October collections a few specimens of a cotton moth that seemed to be a seasonal and accidental invader of Canada.

A couple of things struck me about this compilation of notes. First, the fact that Harrington obviously took the time to take good field notes and then to publish them in this summarized form is wonderful. Not only is it a record of what he did and saw in 1881, but it provides some interesting information that others may be able to follow up on over 125 years later. His attention to detail and drive to get the information out to the public in curated and archived form is a great example to follow. These days a scientific paper is the usual, highly distilled, production of field and lab notes. Should we be thinking more about how to regularly compile our field and lab notes in this way as well? Would such information be useful to future generations of biologists? Are there curated and archived venues that would take such compilations today? I can’t think of any, but I’d love to be informed if there are.

And second, for all of the current discussion of “citizen science,” it is obvious that citizen science has been alive and well for decades, if not centuries. Harrington was not what most would consider to be a “scientist” today. But he most definitely was just exactly that. The current push towards large- and small-scale, often online, citizen science initiatives simply picks up a baton that has been passed along through multiple generations. Much of the science done in previous generations was done by people exactly like Harrington – lay citizens with a deep interest in the natural world around them. In other words, new times require new methods, but not a new spirit of fascination. Fascination is always present.

So, a big thanks to William Hague Harrington for his contributions and his foresight and care to ensure that his observations are still here for us to read about and learn from.

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.

What I do when I review

I currently wear a number of hats in terms of academic publishing. I’m an author (and co-author). I am often asked to be a peer reviewer. I am the editor-in-chief of a small, but historical, regional journal. And I am an academic editor – some journals would call a similar position an associate or subject area editor – for PeerJ.

(As an aside, it should be noted that I do not get paid for any of these roles in any way. I, and other scientists, do this type of work because we feel that it is our responsibility to contribute to the process of scientific communication. Without proper and reputable avenues of communication, science would rapidly grind to a lurching halt as we each worked in isolation in our own little realm. The scientific endeavor has always relied on communication, and communication is only accomplished if it is also facilitated.)

Over the next while, in my sporadic blogging fashion, I plan to write down some of my thoughts about each of the roles that I mentioned above. Specially, I would like to write briefly about the mechanics, the philosophy, and perhaps some of the side issues that arise in each role. Today I’m beginning with the role of peer reviewer.

Peer review is the cornerstone of scientific communication. Not all of our communication as scientists is peer reviewed (e.g. most conference presentations or posters are not peer reviewed). But prior to results and analyses being entered into the permanent scientific record in the form of a journal paper, the work is reviewed by two or more independent referees.

The process of peer review has been fairly standard over the years. The reviewers receive the paper (or just the title and abstract) from a journal editor or associate editor. The potential reviewer has a preliminary look at it to see if they are able to review it. If they can and are willing to do the work, they read the manuscript carefully and provide a report back to the editor. Often the report comes with recommendations to accept as is (rare), accept with minor or major revisions, reject with an invitation to resubmit, or to outright reject. The journal editor compares the various reviews from the referees and arbitrates a final decision.

So, what do I do when I receive a request to review a paper? And how do I go about reviewing? Here are some of my thoughts in the form of do’s and don’t’s:

  • Do consider reviewing a paper when a request is sent to you. We are all busy, and sometimes we are so busy that we need to set reviewing tasks aside for awhile. But that cannot and should not be a permanent reality for a practicing scientist. As long as I am submitting papers to journals and am relying on the good graces of volunteer referees, I should be willing to do the work on the other end of the equation as well.
  • Do not review a paper if you are not qualified to do so. If the paper is out of your realm of expertise, don’t pretend that it is. Your review will not be helpful. On the other hand, there might be a reason that the editor asked you to do the review. Perhaps one portion of the paper is highly specialized and in your area. While you might not be qualified to comment on all aspects of the paper, you should be able to comment on that part. The editor should have outlined this to you in their request. But feel free to ask them if you find yourself puzzled by a request.
  • Do not review a paper if you perceive a conflict of interest. Not every editor knows every possible collaborative or collegial arrangement. If you know or suspect that there is a conflict of interest, let the editor know the details and then let them decide on your eligibility to review.
  • Do help the editor, even if you are not going to do the review. If you cannot review a paper for the reasons listed in #2 or #3, provide the editor with some alternate names of colleagues who are qualified to do the work.
  • If you accept the assignment, do be cognizant of the deadline and do your level best to meet it. Nothing is worse from an author’s point-of-view than waiting for months to get the reviews back on their paper. Nothing, that is, except for being an editor having to poke recalcitrant reviewers while also fending off increasingly irate emails from authors.
  • Do follow the journal’s specific reviewing guidelines. Not all journals are the same. All reputable journals expect scientific rigor and appropriate analysis. But there is variation beyond that (e.g., some journals look for “impact” while some do not).
  • Do review as you would wish to be reviewed. In other words, follow the golden rule of reviewing. No author wants to hear the bad news that there are flaws in their analysis or reasoning. But neither does any author want to publish a flawed manuscript. So tell it like it is. Use your expertise. But – and this is an important “but” – be respectful. Whether you are recommending accepting or rejecting the paper, give constructive and useful feedback. Note the positive aspects of the work. Explain what you think could be improved in clear terms. Be as extensive in your comments as you need to be; but never be blunt and brief to the point of being insulting. If you have taken the job on, then do a good job. A good job always entails more than six lines of halfhearted text. Be helpful, be kind, and be honest. In short, be professional.
  • Do be willing to re-review the paper if necessary. If you do end up rejecting the paper or recommending major revisions, let the editor know that you would be willing to have another look at the paper if or when the authors resubmit it. Since you now have some of the best knowledge of the state of the paper, you are among the best placed to assess the recommended changes.
  • Do record your work in your CV. You are not being paid for the work, but it is part of your contribution to the scientific community. Immediately after finishing a reviewing task, record the task (not revealing the authors’ names or other identifying information, of course) in your CV so that you don’t forget about it.
  • Do maintain confidentiality as expected. Most journals still use an anonymous (and sometimes double-blind) review system. That means that you are obliged not to reveal details of your review unless the authors and you both agree at some point. There are a few caveats to this. First, if you wish to sign your review, you can reveal yourself to the authors, but even then, you cannot discuss the details of the review with others. Some journals, such as PeerJ or F1000Research, encourage open peer review. If that’s the case and you choose to abide by that system, then the entire review process will be made public. But, even then, you must maintain confidentiality until the paper and the accompanying reviews are published. Again, be professional.
  • Do look forward to reading the paper in the literature. If you have done a good job of reviewing it, you should take some degree of pride in the outcome because you have had a (hopefully) positive influence on the direction of science.

Peer reviewing takes time and effort, but it is also a rewarding experience. Besides allowing scientists another avenue for participation in the scientific process, it also exposes us to new ideas and cutting-edge thinking. And, above all, it ensures rigor in the scientific record. So enjoy the work, learn from it, and take pride in doing a good job.

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.