Showing posts with label diversity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label diversity. Show all posts

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Gender-Biased Scientist: Women in Science

Guest post by Maika Seki, MEnvSci Candidate in the Professional Masters of Environmental Science program at the University of Toronto-Scarborough

In November of 2017, Nature Ecology & Evolution published “100 articles every ecologist should read” by Courchamp and Bradshaw, sparking a social media outrage. Rightfully so, because the list of first authors only included two women. There remains a pervasive perception that women lack the skills to practice science, and that there simply are not enough women in the field for them to have made a significant contribution, referring to the male-dominated history of the sciences. Many of us have come across studies highlighting gender bias in science education - which people have attempted to use to explain gender gaps in STEM fields. However in 2011, neuroscientist Melissa Hines found no significant difference between the mathematical, spatial, and verbal skills of boys and girls. But of course that finding did not receive much attention. In light of the emerging discourse of vital inclusivity in science, now is the time to confront our own social biases with the goal of achieving gender equity in the scientific community.

Instead of rehashing these outdated arguments, why don’t we talk about the barriers that women face in science? Why don’t we talk about the sexism in the publishing and peer-review process? In 2015, evolutionary geneticist Fiona Ingleby submitted a research paper to PLOS ONE, where the peer-reviewer suggested that she work with male biologists in order to strengthen the study, stating, “It would probably … be beneficial to find one or two male biologists to work with (or at least obtain internal peer review from, but better yet as active co-authors).” The under-recognition of women scientists has been so rampant in the fabric of science that it has been coined the Matilda effect; named after the first women scientist to comment on the phenomenon, Matilda Jocelyn Gage.
Why don’t we talk about the barriers women face in accessing employment in science, even while possessing the same qualifications as their male counterparts? At Yale University, a study was conducted wherein over 100 scientists assessed a resume for a job posting. The only difference between the resumes were the names; half of them were given recognizably male names, and the other half recognizably female names. The resumes submitted under the female names were deemed significantly less competent and employable, and were offered lower salaries. Clearly there is work to be done.

And then there was Tim Hunt, a Nobel laureate who made outright sexist comments at the World Conference of Science Journalists stating, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.Twitter responded with the hashtag #DistractinglySexy, where women scientists shared unglamorous photos of them doing their research work. Hunt subsequently resigned from his honorary post at the University College-London. We may think that this is an exceptional and isolated event, but studies show that we are not immune to these kinds of social forces of gender discrimination, even if we like to think so — especially as scientists. These seemingly minor micro-aggressions translate to devastating and tangible effects, such as the gender pay gap. 

Photo by @STEPHEVZ43 on Twitter, as a response to Tim Hunt’s sexist comments.

Within scientific fields, we like to pride ourselves in being as close to bias-free as possible with our empirical, quantitative, and reproducible data. But scientists are people, and as such, we must confront the cultural and social influences that may permeate our objectivity. As scientists, we do not like to admit to this. But if we are going to arrive as close to the truth as possible, we need to capitalize on the emerging discourse of gender issues in science.
As of 2015, Canadian women represented only 22% of the STEM workforce. Not only are women under-represented in the workforce despite 62% of undergraduate students being women, but they are under-compensated. According to Statistics Canada, the wage gap persists across all fields, with the women median income of a bachelor’s degree being $68,342, and $82,083 for men. This is not a “third world” problem. This is a global issue. It is indisputable that there are systemic barriers that women face when pursuing careers in science. So why can’t scientists consider the confounding social factors at play that create these patterns? In science when somebody denies a phenomenon after many analyses point to the same mechanism, we would likely consider that as being irrational. With this in mind, is the denial of gender bias in science not irrational? By acknowledging these biases and promoting change, we take aim at the lack of objectivity in the discipline of science. It should also be encouraged to confront the sexism, racism, and all other intersectionalities of power imbalance within the science community. Some may argue that there is no place for politics in science, but we must face the reality that the two can not be separated. Addressing the sexism would bring us better, more balanced science. 

Statistics Canada graph on the Canadian men and women in STEM fields.

How can we aspire towards a world of innovation and ground-breaking research when roughly half of the population is held back? And how can we address it? To start, we need to hold institutions more accountable. It is disheartening to know that had people not reacted to the all-male panels, it would not be seen as a problem. Furthermore, it is not enough to tweet about it. It’s a start, but not nearly enough — because how many of these types of stories repeat themselves in the media? We need it to be written in the mandates of institutions, and this is not enough. We need it to be enforced. We also need women to be more involved and hold power in these decision-making panels; it is not enough to throw in a token white woman and call it a day. It is not enough for women to be given a seat on the board as a corporate marketing tool under the guise of inclusivity. They must also be afforded the same power that men have. We need to hold each other more accountable. We need to confront our own prejudices, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. If not for women, then do it for practical and selfish reasons; do it because there are studies that show that women have to be more productive than men to be deemed equally scientifically competent (feeling the pressure to prove themselves). And do it because it is better for the economy, and because diversity in the workplace increases productivity

Graph by The Star on the income of full-time men and women in Canada, who have a bachelor’s degree.

There is no good reason to continue to exclude women from the same influential roles that men have, and it is time that we each consider our own sexist views (whether sub-conscious or not). It is time to challenge the systemic biases in powerful institutions in order to let women claim their full potential as true peers to men; as colleagues, partners, scientists, and in all other walks of life. In order to increase scientific literacy, we can not afford to continue to exclude women from science, because science needs women. In the spirit of the United Nations’ International Day of Women and Girls in Science day, which passed on February 11th, and International Women’s day today, let us commit to empowering women to reach political, social, and economic equality to men. And let us make changes in our own lives, begin conversations with those around us, and become more active in our communities to progress towards gender equity.

Monday, August 29, 2016

#EcoSummit2016 Day 1 - Reconciling the warp and weft of ecology

For the first time since 2008 I didn’t make it to ESA, and instead I get to attend my first EcoSummit, here in Montpellier. Participants represent a more European contingent than the typical ESA, which is a great opportunity to see a slightly different group of people and topics.

Two plenary talks were particularly memorable for me. First, Sandra Diaz gave a really elegant talk that spanned from patterns of functional diversity to the philosophy of ecology. A woven carpet provided the central analogy. A carpet includes the warp – the underlying structure of the carpet – and the weft – the supplementary threads that produce the designs. Much like species, a great diversity of colors and patterns arise from the weft, but the warp provides the underlying structure. The search for a small number of general functional relationships one way ecologists can look for the structural fabric of life. Much like Phil Grimes, an earlier speaker, Diaz has attempted to identify generalities in ecology. It’s worth reading the paper she discussed for much of her talk, which attempts to describe a global spectrum of plant function (Diaz et al. 2016). Diaz noted, however, that your focus should be determined by your questions. And you need both details and generalities if you want to provide predictions at a global scale but with a local resolution.

The other plenary of note was from Stephen Hubbell (it actually preceded Diaz’s talk), and it provided a contrasting approach. Hubbell discussed a number of detailed analyses to derive a general conclusion about processes maintaining tropical tree diversity.  Data from the Barro Colorado island provides information about changes in growth rate, abundances, presence/absence, distances between species. It shows seemingly large shifts in abundance and composition through time. And Hubbell (in a fairly provocative mood) suggests that it shows that ‘community ecology is a failure’. I would argue against that statement, and what Hubbell really seemed to be saying is that expectations of equilibrium and equilibrium models (L-V, etc) are not useful. Instead, factors such as weak stabilizing mechanisms and demographic stochasticity may be enough to understand high diversity regions.

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. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Community ecology is complicated: revisiting Robert May’s weak interactions

When it comes to explaining species diversity, Stefano Allesina differs from the traditional approach. Community ecology has long focused on the role of two species interactions in determining coexistence (Lotka-Volterra models, etc), particularly in theory. The question then is whether two species interactions are representative of the interactions that are maintaining the millions of species in the world, and Allesina strongly feels that they are not.

In the paper “Stability criteria for complex ecosystems”, Stephano Allesina and Si Tang revisit and expand on an idea proposed by Robert May in 1972. In his paper “Will a large complex system be stable?” Robert May showed analytically that the probability a large system of interacting species is stable – i.e. will return to equilibrium following perturbation – is a function of the number of species and their average interactions strength. Systems with many species are more likely to be stable when the interactions among species are weak.

May’s paper was necessarily limited by the available mathematics of the time. His approach examined a large community matrix, with a large number of interacting species. The sign and strength of the interactions among species were chosen at random. Stability then could be assessed based on the sign of the eigenvalues of the matrix – if the eigenvalues of the matrix are all negative the system is likely to be stable. Solving for the distribution of the eigenvalues of such a large system relied on the semi-circle law for random matrices, and looking at more realistic matrices, such as those representing predator-prey, mutualistic, or competitive interactions, was not possible in 1972. However, more modern theorems for the distribution of eigenvalues from large matrices allowed Allesina and Tang to reevaluate May’s conclusions and expand them to examine how specific types of interactions affect the stability of complex systems.

Allesina and Tang examined matrices where the interactions among species (sign and strength) were randomly selected, similar to those May analyzed. They also looked at more realistic community matrices, for example matrices in which pairs of species have opposite-signed interactions (+ & -) representing predator prey systems (since the effect of a prey species is positive on its predator, but that predator has a negative effect on its prey). A matrix could also contain pairs of species with interactions of the same sign, creating a system with both competition (- & -) and mutualism (+ & +). When these different types of matrices were analyzed for stability, Allesina and Tang found that there was a hierarchy in which mixed competition/mutualism matrices were the least likely to be stable, random matrices (similar to those May used) are intermediate, and predator–prey matrices were the most likely to be stable (figure below).

When the authors looked at more realistic situations where the mean interaction strength for the matrix wasn’t zero (e.g. so a system could have all competitive or all mutualistic interactions), they found such systems were much less likely to be stable. Similarly, realistic structures based on accepted food web models (cascade or niche type) also resulted in less stable systems.

The authors reexamined May’s results that showed that weak interactions made large systems more likely to be stable. In particular they examined how the distribution of interactions strengths, rather than the mean value alone, affected system stability. In contrast to accepted ideas, they found that when there were many weak interactions, predator-prey systems tended to become less stable, suggesting that weak interactions destabilize predator-prey systems. In contrast, weak interactions tended to stabilize competitive and mutualistic systems. The authors concluded, “Our analysis shows that, all other things being equal, weak interactions can be either stabilizing or destabilizing depending on the type of interactions between species.” 

Approaching diversity and coexistence from the idea of large systems and many weak interactions  flies in the face of how much community ecology is practiced today. For that reason, it wouldn't be surprising if this paper has little influence. Allesina suggests that focusing on two species interactions is ultimately misleading, since if species experience a wide range of interactions that vary in strength and direction, sampling only a single interaction will likely misrepresent the overall distribution of interactions. Even when researchers do carry out experiments with multiple species, finding a result of very weak interactions between species is often interpreted as a failure to elucidate the processes maintaining diversity in the system. That said, Allesina’s work (which is worth reading, few people explain complex ideas so clearly) doesn’t necessarily make itself amenable to being tested or applied to concrete questions. Still, there’s unexplored space between traditional, two-species interactions and systems of weak interactions among many species, and exploring this space could be very fruitful. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The evolutionary story of ecosystem function

ResearchBlogging.orgTwenty years of research has repeatedly shown that communities with greater diversity result higher functioning -namely greater production of biomass. One of the major mechanisms producing this relationship is that different species use differing resources, such that their complementary use of resources uses the total resource pool more thoroughly, thus converting more resources into biomass. Resource preference is the product of evolution and how organisms have adapted to using various resources can influence the strength of the diversity-function.

In a recent paper in Nature, Dominique Gravel and colleagues test how the evolution of specialization versus general resource use affect the strength of the diversity-function relationship. They use bacteria strains that have undergone evolution on diverse resources (generalist) versus on a singular resource (specialist). The resources in their case are different carbon substrates.

Assemblages of generalists were able to use many available resources and generally had greater productivity than specialist assemblages. Generalists also show an increasing relationship between diversity and productivity, because no generalist used all resources and they still showed some preferences. Combining multiple such generalists meant that more of the total resource pool was consumed. Specialists also resulted in the positive relationship, but a much steeper one. Because specialist use many fewer carbon substrates, additional specialists meant that new resources were tapped into. Thus increasing specialist diversity resulted in more new resources being consumed than with the generalist species.

While these results are logical, they are important for two reasons. First is that the strength of the relationship between diversity and function is mechanistically determined by the resource use efficiency of individual strains, and how many of the total substrates they can use. The mechanisms producing different relationships in previous experiments were hypothesized after the results analyzed, as opposed to being predicted. Second, recent work has shown that evolutionary history seems to be a better explanation of community function than the number of species. These results show how the history of evolution can have important consequences for function.

Gravel, D., Bell, T., Barbera, C., Bouvier, T., Pommier, T., Venail, P., & Mouquet, N. (2010). Experimental niche evolution alters the strength of the diversity–productivity relationship Nature, 469 (7328), 89-92 DOI: 10.1038/nature09592

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Grassland diversity increases stability across multiple functions

ResearchBlogging.orgAs ecological systems are altered with cascading changes in diversity, the oft-asked question is: does diversity matter for ecosystem function? This question has been tested a multitude of times, with the results often supporting the idea that more diverse assemblages provide greater functioning (such as productivity, nutrient cycling, supporting greater pollinator abundance, etc.). Besides greater functioning, scientists have hypothesized that more diverse systems are inherently more stable. That is, the functions communities provide remain more constant over time compared with less diverse systems, which may be less reliable.

While the relationship between diversity and stability has been tested for some functions, Proulx and colleagues examined the stability of 42 variables over 7 years across 82 experimental plots planted with either 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 or 60 plant species in Jena, Germany. They examined patterns of variation (and covariation) in the functions and found that many show lower variation over time in plots with more plant species. Greater stability was found at many different trophic levels including plant biomass production, the abundance and diversity of invertebrates and the abundance of parasitic wasps -which indicate more complex food webs. They also found greater stability in gas flux, such as carbon dioxide. Despite the greater stability in these measures of above-ground functions, below ground processes, such as earthworm abundance and soil nutrients, were not less variable in high diversity plots.

How ecosystems function is of great concern; these results show that more diverse plant communities function more stably and reliably than less diverse ones. The next step for this type of research should be to address what kind of diversity matters. A greater number of species means more different kinds of species, with differing traits and functions. What aspect of such functional differences determine stability of ecosystem function?

This is an exciting paper that continues to highlight the need to understand how community diversity drives ecosystem function.

Proulx, R., Wirth, C., Voigt, W., Weigelt, A., Roscher, C., Attinger, S., Baade, J., Barnard, R., Buchmann, N., Buscot, F., Eisenhauer, N., Fischer, M., Gleixner, G., Halle, S., Hildebrandt, A., Kowalski, E., Kuu, A., Lange, M., Milcu, A., Niklaus, P., Oelmann, Y., Rosenkranz, S., Sabais, A., Scherber, C., Scherer-Lorenzen, M., Scheu, S., Schulze, E., Schumacher, J., Schwichtenberg, G., Soussana, J., Temperton, V., Weisser, W., Wilcke, W., & Schmid, B. (2010). Diversity Promotes Temporal Stability across Levels of Ecosystem Organization in Experimental Grasslands PLoS ONE, 5 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013382

Friday, March 5, 2010

Competitive coexistence, it's all about individuals.

ResearchBlogging.orgUnderstanding how species coexist has been the raison d'etre for many ecologists over the past 100 years. The quest to understand and explain why so many species coexist together has really been a journey of shifting narratives. The major road stops on this journey have included searching for niche differences among species -from single resources to multidimensional niches, elevating the role for non-equilibrial dynamics -namely disturbances, and assessing the possibility that species actually differ little and diversity patterns follow neutral process. Along this entire journey, researchers (especially theoreticians) have reminded the larger community that that coexistence is a product of the balance between interactions among species (interspecific) and interactions among individuals within species (intraspecific). Despite this occasional reminder, ecologists have largely searched for mechanisms dictating the strength of interspecific interactions.

Image used under Flickr creative commons license, taken by Tinken

In order for two species to coexist, intraspecific competition must be stronger than interspecific -so sayeth classic models of competition. While people have consistently looked for niche differences that reduce interspecific competition, no one has really assessed the strength of intraspecific competition. Until now that is. In a recent paper in Science, Jim Clark examines intra- vs interspecific interactions from data following individual tree performances, across multiple species, for up to 18 years. This data set included annual growth and reproduction, resulting in 226,000 observations across 22,000 trees in 33 species!

His question was actually quite simple -what is the strength of intraspecific interactions relative to interspecific ones? There are two alternatives. First, that intraspecific competition is higher, meaning that among species differences only need to be small for coexistence to occur; or secondly, that intraspecific competition is lower, requiring greater species niche differences for coexistence. To answer this he looked at correlations in growth and fecundity between individuals either belonging to the same or different species, living in proximity to one another. He took a strong positive correlation as evidence for strong competition and a negative or weak correlation as evidence for resource or temporal niche partitioning. What he found was that individuals within species were much more likely to show correlated responses to fluctuating environments, than individuals among species.

This paper represents persuasive evidence that within-species competition is generally extremely high, meaning that to satisfy the inequality leading to coexistence: intra > inter, subtle niche differences can be sufficient. These findings should spur a new era of theoretical predictions and empirical tests as our collective journey to understanding coexistence continues.

Clark, J. (2010). Individuals and the Variation Needed for High Species Diversity in Forest Trees Science, 327 (5969), 1129-1132 DOI: 10.1126/science.1183506

Saturday, February 27, 2010

New Tool Reveals Where Ticks Eat Breakfast

You have a much greater chance of getting sick from a tick bite today than you did 30 years ago. But a new tool might allow researchers to better understand why more ticks are making people sick.

“If you’re a health inspector and a bunch of people get food poisoning, the first thing you’d want to know is where they ate last. If you’re a disease ecologist and a bunch of ticks have a pathogen, the first thing you’d want to know is where the ticks ate last,” said Brian Allan, a post-doctoral researcher at the Tyson Research Station in St. Louis.

Allan led a team of researchers in developing a novel technology that probes the genetic contents of ticks’ gut. The tool can determine which wildlife species provided the tick’s last meal and which pathogens came along with that meal.

In the first study to use the new technology, Allan and his colleagues focused on several rapidly emerging diseases transmitted by the lone star tick. These include two pathogens responsible for a potentially fatal bacterial infection known as ehrlichiosis [ur-lick-ee-oh-sis]. In Missouri, over 200 cases of ehrlichiosis were documented last year.

Allan et al.'s study showed that about 80 percent of pathogen-positive ticks had fed on white-tailed deer. They also found that squirrels and rabbits were capable of infecting ticks at a higher rate than deer. However, since the lone star tick feeds on squirrels and rabbits less frequently, they account for a smaller percentage of infection.

Allan and his colleagues hope that the technique will shed light on theoretical questions in the field of ecology. They are especially interested in testing whether biodiversity is good for your health, a hypothesis known as “the dilution effect.”

Allan, B. F., L. S. Goessling, G. A. Storch, and R. E. Thach. 2010. Blood meal analysis to identify reservoir hosts for Amblyomma americanum ticks. Emerging Infectious Diseases 16: 433-440. DOI: 10.3201/eid1603.090911

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Whence diversity?

ResearchBlogging.orgIt is a truism to say that ecological communities are diverse. They often contain dozens or hundreds or thousands of species that represent many of the deep origins in the tree of life. A recent paper by Prinzing and colleagues published in Ecology Letters tested the hypothesis that communities of plants that include more of the ancient divergences from the evolutionary tree of plants should also contain a greater diversity of physical traits. They examined over 9000 plant communities and found that those that contain fewer evolutionary lineages actually had greater trait diversity than those randomly assembled from more lineages. This result reveals that when communities are assembled from a few lineages (likely due to strong environmental selection -e.g., drought tolerance) those members tended to have evolved large differences. That is, while species may be constrained to certain habitat types due to their evolutionary heritage, successful coexistence depends on maximizing differences.
Andreas Prinzing, Reineke Reiffers, Wim G. Braakhekke, Stephan M. Hennekens, Oliver Tackenberg, Wim A. Ozinga, Joop H. J. Schamine, Jan M. van Groenendael (2008). Less lineages more trait variation: phylogenetically clustered plant communities are functionally more diverse Ecology Letters, 11 (8), 809-819 DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2008.01189.x