Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Exploring biodiversity science: The BioDiverse Perspectives blog

A network of graduate students has started a new blog called 'BioDiverse Perspectives'. The purpose of this blog is to explore and compile seminal papers in biodiversity science.  In some ways this mode of knowledge gathering replaces existing 'Foundations of...' compilations of classic papers. Instead, this blog creates an ever-evolving dialogue about our understanding of the different dimensions of biodiversity. Check it out!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A different kind of ecological diversity: on sticking out in academia

This is a guest post from Sarah Hasnain, currently a PhD student in ecology at Queen's University. Sarah did her MSc at the University of Toronto with Brian Shuter on the interplay between environmental and evolutionary processes underlying thermal response in freshwater fish. Sarah was an office mate of mine for a while at the University of Toronto, and we had some interesting conversations about balancing cultural backgrounds and academia.

By the time that I was nine years old, I already knew that I wanted to do something in science. By the time I was eleven, my grandparents had patiently explained that in order to be a research scientist, I need to complete something called a PhD. And by thirteen, after brief flirtations with physics (which seemed cool at the time, and still is), mathematics, and history, I had decided to pursue a career as an ecologist.

My family supported me in my goal of being a scientist, even though they didn't  know what an ecologist was. And as an undergraduate in Canada’s largest, most multicultural city, I didn’t stand out from my fellow classmates, who similarly came from all over the globe. And yet surprisingly, in addition to the usual student woes about finding scholarships, funding and the right academic advisors, the fact that I am a Pakistani female (and until recently a Hijabi) always seemed to play a role in how people responded to my goals. I continue to be asked to explain my career choice and my passion for science on a  regular basis by colleagues, faculty members and visiting scientists  which was and continues to be emotionally exhausting. For example, a senior faculty member followed me to the lab that I worked in as an undergraduate research student, to confirm that I actually worked there. People always came to my posters at conference poster sessions, but a number of them wantied to tell me that they are very glad to have someone “like you” here. One of the determining factors for which PhD labs I wanted to be in was that during the interview, at no point did the potential supervisor asks what made someone from my cultural, ethnic and religious background decide to pursue ecological research. This actually knocked a few labs out of the running.

I understand that my career choice is interesting, considering that ecology is not a field that has historically attracted many Pakistani women. And it’s undeniable that these comments and questions are about people wanting to be open and accepting and welcoming to me. But I can’t help but feel that the constant questions about my background insinuate, probably unintentionally, that my ethnic, religious and cultural affiliations are more interesting than my research. As an ecologist belonging to a minority group, these questions can have the opposite effect – instead of feeling accepted by their interest, I feel like I am constantly justifying my existence in this field. I imagine that for many minority ecologists, the underlying message is that they don't belong here.

Of course I don’t represent all minority, or Pakistani female ecologists. Probably some individuals would appreciate this interest in their background. But others, like myself, may not. Regardless of ethnic, cultural or religious affiliations, ecology is not the expected career choice in North American society. Why is someone like me interested in ecology? Because I like it. Just like everyone else here. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Understanding modern human society through the lens of evolution

We often think about the ways in which evolution has shaped this world, from the amazing diversity of cichlid fishes in the African Great Lakes, to Australian marsupials that seem to replicate strategies that placental mammals have evolved elsewhere (e.g., Tasmanian tiger and the North American wolf). We even look at our own bodies or behaviors to find evolution’s imprint –why do I have a non-functional appendix attached to my intestine? However, we seldom look to important events in human history to examine the effects of evolution, yet, according to Edmund Russell, human history can be better understood through evolution –like my appendix.

Russell is advocating for a new field of inquiry within the study of human history –namely, evolutionary history. When I first read the book jacket, I must admit that I was skeptical. However, this book makes the compelling case that historians gain a much fuller understanding past events by including evolution. Russell’s main claim is that modern civilization is the product of an evolution revolution. Even Russell’s unremarkable dog “Riley, like all dogs, is a testament to the extraordinary power of human beings to shape the evolution of other species”. While citing dogs may seem like a trivial example, it was coevolution that shaped this relationship. Wolves that were less aggressive and less fearful, which tend to be more puppy-like, found benefits by associating with human groups. Human groups that tolerated the presence of these wolves were likely alerted to approaching threats. Even the fact that dogs bark is a product of this relationship. This evolution revolution can similarly explain the domestication of other animals and plants, and ultimately produces the necessary conditions for permanent large settlements.

An important and intriguing underlying theme of this book is that these evolutionary revolutions are not often the product of conscious effort. We are used to the narrative that highlights humans as selecting individuals and driving the evolution towards some goal. But this would require early peoples knowing what they wanted in the end, having a specific goal. In the dog example, do we really think that early humans thought ‘hey, I would like a poodle’? No, the reality is that canines and human changed with one another producing a mutually beneficial outcome. Even the domestication of many of the earliest crop species likely resulted from lazy and sloppy humans. Lazy because humans probably harvested the easiest, most accessible fruits and seeds –selecting for bigger, easily removed fruits that ripened at the same time. Sloppy because seeds were discarded around settlements. Then that laziness again means we looked to those nearby plants for harvesting. Thus evolution has continually informed the development of human civilization and produced the much of the cultural norms today.

While modern cultures may consciously drive evolution through selective breeding and genetic engineering, we are immersed in an evolving world. Diseases that are resistant to drugs, pest that are immune to pesticides, and commercial fish that are now smaller and reproduce earlier are examples of important evolutionary changes that affect human activities and economics. Russell provides evidence that evolution is in part responsible for the industrial revolution, due to some varieties of cotton evolving particular features.

Taken all together, Russell admirably succeeds in his goal of convincing the reader that evolution has influenced much of human civilization. Moreover, his intended audience of historians should be re-assessing previous explanations of important human events by asking the basic question: how has evolutionary change influenced major changes in human history.

Edmund Russell. 2011. Evolutionary History. Cambridge University Press.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Bob Paine's footprint

A great post by Ed Yong on Bob Paine's influence on ecology -both conceptually and numerically, with a large number of academic children and grandchildren.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Who are you writing your paper with?

Choosing who you work with plays an important role in who you become as a scientist. Every grad student knows this is true about choosing a supervisor, and we’ve all heard the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to student-advisor stories. But writing a paper with collaborators is like dealing with the supervisor-supervisee relationship writ small. Working with coauthors can be the most rewarding or the most frustrating process, or both. Ultimately, the combination of personalities involved merge in such a way as to produce a document that is usually more (but sometimes less) than the sum of its parts. The writing process and collaborative interactions are fascinating to consider all on their own.

Field Guide to Coauthors
The Little General
The Little General is willing to battle till the death for the paper to follow his particular pet idea. Regardless of the aim or outcome of an experiment, a Little General will want to connect it to his particular take on things. Two Little Generals on a paper can spell disaster.
Little General
The Silent Partner
These are the middle authors, the suppliers of data and computer code, people who were involved in the foundations of the work, but not actively a part of the writing process.
Silent Partner
The Nay-sayer
These are the coauthors who disagree, seemingly on principle, with any attempt to generalize the paper. Given free rein, such authors can prevent a work from having any generality beyond the particular system and question in the paper. These authors do help a paper become reviewer-proof, since every statement left in the paper is well-supported.

The Grammar Nazi
The Grammar Nazi returns your draft of the paper covered in edits, but he has mostly corrected for grammar and style rather than content. This is not the worst coauthor type, although it can be annoying, especially if these edits are mostly about personal taste.
Grammar Nazi
The Snail
This is the coauthor that you just don’t hear from. You can send them reminder emails, give them a phone call, pray to the gods, but they will take their own sweet time getting anything back to you. (And yes, they are probably really busy).

 The Cheerleader
The Cheerleader can encourage you through a difficult writing process or fuel an easy one. These are the coauthors who believe in the value of the work and will help motivate you through multiple edits, rejections, or revisions, as needed.
The Good Samaritan
The Good Samaritan is a special type of person. They aren’t authors of your manuscript, but they read it for you out of pure generosity  They might provide better feedback and more useful advice than any of your actual coauthors. They always end up in the acknowledgements, but you often feel like you owe them more.
Good Samaritan
The Sage
The Sage is probably your supervisor or some scientific silverback. They read your manuscript and immediately know what’s wrong with it, what it needs, and distill this to you in a short comment that will change everything. The Sage will improve your work infinitely, and make you realize how far you still have to go.

There are probably lots of other types that I haven't thought of, so feel free to describe them in the comments. And, it goes without saying that if you coauthored a paper with me, you were an excellent coauthor with whom I have no complaints. Especially Marc Cadotte, who is often both Cheerleader and Sage :)

Thanks to Lanna Jin for the amazing illustrations!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Replicable methods

This has been making the internet rounds: If you were being truly honest in your methods, what would you say?
Overly honest methods in science

Mine would probably something like: "We had a sample size of 260 individuals. It may sound like we planned to have 260 plants, but actually 40 seedlings died, luckily leaving us with a nice round number."

A friend joked that hers would be: "All this work was done with a totally different experiment in mind, but this is all I could salvage."

I'm sure everyone has a few of these...

Monday, January 7, 2013

Reinventing the ecological wheel – why do we do it?

Are those who do not learn from (ecological) history are doomed to repeat it?

A pervasive view within ecology is that discovery tends to be inefficient and that ideas reappear as vogue pursuits again and again. For example, the ecological implications of niche partitioning re-emerges as an important topic in ecology every decade or so. Niche partitioning was well represented in ecological literature of the 1960s and 1970s, which focused theoretical and experimental attention on how communities were structured through resource partitioning. It would be fair to say that the evolutionary causes and the ecological consequences of communities structured by niche differences were one of the most important concepts in community ecology during that time. Fast-forward 30 years, and biodiversity and ecosystem functioning (BEF) research slowly  has come to the conclusion that niche partitioning to explains the apparent relationship between species diversity and ecosystem functioning. Some of the findings in the BEF literature could be criticized as simply being rediscoveries of classical theory and experimental evidence already in existence. How does one interpret these cycles? Are they a failure of ecological progress or evidence of the constancy of ecological mechanisms?

Ecology is such a young science that this process of rediscovery seems particularly surprising. Most of the fundamental theory in ecology arose during this early period: from the 1920s (Lotka, Volterra), 1930s (Gause) to 1960s (Wilson, MacArthur, May, Lawton, etc). There are several reasons why this was the foundational period for ecological theory – the science was undeveloped, so there was a void that needed filling. Ecologists in those years were often been trained in other disciplines that emphasized mathematical and scientific rigor, so the theory that developed was in the best scientific tradition, with analytically resolved equations meant to describe the behaviour of populations and communities. Most of the paradigms we operate in today owe much to this period, including an inordinate focus on predator-prey, competitive interactions, and plant communities, and the use of Lotka-Volterra and consumer-resource models. So when ecologists reinvent the wheel, is this foundation of knowledge to blame, is it flawed or incomplete? Or does ecology fail in education and practice in maintaining contact with the knowledge base that already exists? (Spoiler alert – the answer is going to be both).

Modern ecologists face the unenviable task of prioritizing and decoding an exponentially growing body of literature. Ecologists in the 1960s could realistically read all the literature pertaining to community ecology during their PhD studies –something that is impossible today with an exponentially growing literature. Classic papers can be harder to access than new ones: old papers are less likely to be accessible online, and when they are, the quality of the documents is often poor. The style and accessibility of some of these papers is also difficult for readers used to the succinct and direct writing more common today. The cumulative effect of all of this is that we read very little older literature and instead find papers that are cited by our peers.

True, some fields may have grown or started apart from a base of theory that would have been useful during their development. But it would also be unfair to ignore the fact that ecology’s foundation is full of cracks. Certain interactions are much better explored than others. Models of two species interactions fill in for complex ecosystems. Lotka-Volterra and related consumer-resource models make a number of potentially unrealistic assumptions, and parameter space has often been incompletely explored. We seem to lack a hierarchical framework or synthesis of what we do know (although a few people have tried (Vellend 2010)). When models are explored in-depth, as Peter Abrams has done in many papers, we discover the complexity and possible futility of ecological research: anything can result from complex dynamics. The cynic then, would argue that models can predict anything (or worse, nothing). This is unfair, since most modelling papers test hypotheses by manipulating a single parameter associated with a likely mechanism, but it hints at the limits that current theory exhibits.

So the bleakest view of would be this: the body of knowledge that makes up ecology is inadequate and poorly structured. There is little in the way of synthesis, and though we know many, many mechanisms that can occur, we have less understanding of those that are likely to occur. Developing areas of ecology often have a tenuous connection to the existing body of knowledge, and if they eventually connect with and contribute to the central body, it is through an inefficient, repetitive process. For example a number of papers have remarked that invasion biology has dissociated itself from mainstream ecology, reinventing basic mechanisms. The most optimistic view, is that when we discover similar mechanisms multiple times, we gain increasing evidence for their importance. Further, each cycle of rediscovery reinforces that there are a finite number of mechanisms that structure ecological communities (maybe just a handful). When we use the same sets of mechanisms to explain new patterns or processes, in some ways it is a relief to realize that new findings fit logically with existing knowledge. For example niche partitioning has long been used to explain co-occurrence, but with a new focus on ecosystem functioning, it has leant itself as an efficacious explanation. But the question remains, how much of what we do is inefficient and repetitive, and how much is advancing our basic understanding of the world?

By Caroline Tucker & Marc Cadotte