Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Where the wild things are: the importance of urban nature

Cities represent our ultimate domination over nature. They are landscapes that are completely modified to meet all of our needs and desires. In cities we drastically change the vegetation, reroute rivers, seal the Earth’s surface in impermeable cement, and often change the chemical composition of the air around us. For most people, this unnatural state of affairs seems completely natural. Its how we grow up.

What we don’t notice is all that is missing. The trees, the birds, and the mammals are largely absent from big cities. But not all cities are equal in this missingness. For those of us that live in cities like Toronto, Nashville, or Sydney, seeing birds and mammals is part of our normal life. In my back yard in Toronto, I am likely to see racoons, skunks, possums, red squirrels, eastern grey squirrels, chipmunks, deer mice, and a plethora of birds, and just down the road, foxes, coyotes, and deer are not uncommon. One morning I heard a ‘thud’ come from our sunroom window, and outside was a stunned red-tailed hawk (he was fine in the end). These cities are evidence that nature can persist and coexist with urban development.

However, there are other cities where nature is almost completely absent. While living in Guangzhou, China I saw just cats, dogs and rats, and barely any birds –shockingly no pigeons. Recently in while in Montpellier, France, it became obvious to Caroline and I (the two EEB & Flow contributors) that besides a small lizard species, pigeons and a few sparrows, we were not going to see any wildlife in the city. Guangzhou and Montpellier are very different cities in terms of size (16 million vs. 300 thousand), density, building height, pollution levels, etc.  But one way they are similar is that they are old. People have living and changing the landscapes in these regions for thousands of years. Of course the same could technically be said of North America and Australia, but the magnitude and intensity of human modification has no parallel in North America and Australia. Long-term intensive human activity removes other species in the long run. Is this the natural endpoint for our younger cities?

Cambridge, England. While quite beautiful, it is a typical old european city with a lot of stone.

Why we should celebrate raccoons

Toronto has a war against the raccoon. To most Torontonians, the raccoon is a plague –vermin that get into garbage cans and pull shingles off of roofs. Their density in Toronto is about 10 times higher than in wild habitats and many people in Toronto support removing them all together.

I have a different stance. We should be celebrating the raccoon. Yes raccoons cause problems; yes they carry disease; yes they damage property; yes their density is unnaturally high. But the same can be said of people (I don’t think I ever caught a flu from a raccoon). If raccoons were to recede to distant wilds and disappear from Toronto altogether, we would be no different than all those other cities where nature has completely lost. Raccoons give hope –hope that nature can flourish under the repressive and cruel dominion of urban centres. Raccoons remind us that nature has a place and can thrive in cities, and that we can share this world. They give me hope that Toronto’s destiny is not prescribed and we are not bound to the same fate as so many other cities.

I have a couple of new Chinese scientists visit my lab each year, and the differences between Toronto and say Beijing or Shanghai could not be more stark for them. To see deer, squirrels and raccoons in the city is a marvel. Every time one of these visitors comments on the wildlife in our city, I am reminded that we are really fortunate and have something that should be cherished.

Raccoon family –not an uncommon sight in Toronto (CCBYgaryjwood

Need to rethink urban nature

The problem is that Toronto, and most other cities, is continuing to grow and become more densely packed, making it more difficult for nature to endure. We need to rethink how cities grow and develop, and we need to keep a place for nature. There is no reason why new developments can't accommodate natural elements and green space –this often does not happen in most cities. Singapore is unique in this sense, new public infrastructure projects explicitly incorporate novel green space and infrastructure. I toured green sites there recently and saw a new hospital where it was impossible to tell where the park space ended and the hospital started (see picture below). There I saw patients tending gardens on the roof, nearby residents strolling through the forested courtyards, and turtles, wading birds and a large river monitor in the neighbouring pond. Also, Singapore's new large pump house infrastructure that reduces flooding in the city has a full sloping lawn on the top that is used by picnickers. In most North American cities this type of building would be grey industrial cement with little other function than to house pumps.

Singpore's Khoo Teck Puat hospital -the world's greenest hospital? 

Large old cities devoid of wildlife need not be the natural endpoint for a city.  Smart development and accommodating nature needs to be woven into the tapestry of cities. Toronto’s raccoons are great, and I wouldn’t want to live in a Toronto without them.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Examples of pre-interview questions

Last year, several postdocs at my institute (including me) were applying for faculty positions at North American institutions. Frequently, before on campus interviews, a 'long' list of people are asked to take part in phone/Skype interviews before a short list for campus visits is decided on. Since this step is now so common, postdocs put together an informal list of all the questions people had been asked during this initial interview*.

I found the list helpful. The usual caveats apply - different types of institutes and search committees will have different priorities and focus on different types of questions (e.g. teaching vs. research). Thinking about the answers to these questions ahead of time can be helpful for developing a vision of how you approach teaching and research, and being clear in how you communicate that.

(*Thanks to Iris Levin for originally curating this list)

Big picture questions:
Why X institution?
What do the liberal arts mean to you? Why are you interested in a career at a liberal arts college?
Tell us about contributing to XX college’s emphasis on liberal arts in practice, interdisciplinary and/or international aspects of education
How will our Biology Dept enhance your teaching and research?

Teaching focused questions:
General approach
What courses are you best suited to teach and how would you teach it?
What does a typical day in your class look like?
What do you feel you would add to graduate and undergraduate training in the department?
What is the biggest challenge in teaching?
You will teach X course every semester, how would you keep it exciting?
How would you teach a lab differently for introductory, intermediate or advanced students?

Specifics about courses
How would you teach X class?
What sort of interdisciplinary and/or first-year seminar course would you teach?
What sort of non-majors course would you teach? How would you teach it differently for non-majors vs. majors?
What new course(s) would you develop and how?
Tell us about your approach to teaching an XXX course for students who have had one introductory biology course
Tell us about incorporating quantitative and analytical reasoning into an XXX course
Tell us about using open-ended, inquiry-based group work in an introductory biology course

Research focused questions:
Approach and interests
Briefly summarize your most significant research contribution.
Tell us about your research program
You work on xyz – how would you conduct your research here?
How do you see your research complementing that of others in the department, and what do you view as your unique strengths?
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Who would you collaborate with here? 
How would you collaborate with faculty and bridge different fields?
What sort of projects would you do with graduate students? 
How would undergrads be involved with your research and what would the outcomes be?
Tell us about your approach to mentoring undergraduates in research

What sources of funding would you pursue to support your research program?
What grants would you apply to? 

Integration with teaching?
What contributions would your research make to these courses?
How would you involve students in your research outside or inside classroom

Misc (what type of colleague would you be?):
How would you contribute to the larger campus community?
How do you address diversity in your teaching and research?
What do you feel you can contribute to efforts to cultivate a wide diversity of people and perspectives at XX College?
Describe what you know about X college, how you would fit in, and any concerns.
How do you deal with conflict?
What has been the biggest obstacle in your professional development?

If you have more to add, please comment!

Friday, September 2, 2016

Science in many languages.

The lingua franca of biology is English, although through history it has variously been Latin, German, or French. Communication is fundamental to the modern scientific landscape, and English dominates the international ecological community. To be indexed by SCOPUS, a journal must be written at least in part in English. All major ecological journals are published in English, and clear, understandable writing is unquestionably an advantage in having work published. Large international conferences are usually conducted in English. Sometimes there is no translation for a key word and the English version is used directly, regardless of the language of the conversation. Even base commands in coding languages like R are in English. There is an undeniable but some times unmentioned advantage to being a native English speaker in science.

A common language is inevitable and necessary to communicate in a time of global connectivity, but it is also necessary to acknowledge that many scientists speak English as a second (or third, or fourth) language and barriers can arise as a result of this. The energy activation to move between languages is high for people, and it can take longer to read and write. But sometimes the costs are more subtle: for example, students may be less likely to give oral talks at conferences as a result of concerns about being understood. Even if they are relatively proficient, the question period after talks is difficult, since questions are often spoken quickly, are not clear, and are expressed in a variety of accents. That’s a difficult situation to address directly, but there are ways to facilitate communication across a variety of English proficiencies. And many of these are simply good practices for communication in any language.

First: slow down. Some of us are guiltier than others, but if you speak too fast, you lose listeners. This is another reason to consciously try to breath and relax during presentations and lectures. Some people speak so quickly that even the native English speakers have trouble following along. Now imagine listening to that talk while needing a little extra processing time.

When you give lectures and presentations, make sure that the slides and the verbal component both provide the overall message. I’ve followed talks in French and Spanish before, because the slides were well-composed (and in English). If someone misses something you say, it should be possible to follow the important points by the slides alone. And vice versa. This is good advice for any talk. Don’t be boring, but also be aware of when overuse of idioms or culture-specific references prevent understanding.

Sometimes fluent English speakers unknowingly dominate conversations because they speak faster and may be more confident in expressing themselves. In group activities like workshops and meetings, allow breaks in the conversation so that non-native speakers (or just less dominating personalities and quieter people) have a chance to express themselves as well.

An ear for accents comes from practice listening. Practice speaking improves accent. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

Also, remember that culture and language interact. English is interesting in that we have no pronouns differentiating between formal and informal relationships (we have ‘you’, not ‘tu’/‘vous’, etc.). This can make English speakers seem informal and friendly, or disrespectful, depending on the context. Keep this context in mind when interpreting interactions.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

#EcoSummit2016 The internationalism of ecology –variety is the spice of science

To look around at the faces, or to hear the languages at any science conference is to see the world in a single place at a single time. Science is one of the truly global enterprises, involving people from all regions. Of course this is not to say that science isn’t disproportionately dominated by some countries and regions, but geography does not have a monopoly on ideas. In my lab over the past seven years I have had 15 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers come through my lab from 9 different countries. The question is: does this internationalism influence science? Or does science happen in the same way regardless of who is doing it?

Caroline and I have had a couple of conversations on this topic, and we have both noticed that there seem to be cultural differences in various aspects of how science is done. Of course there is substantial variation among people regardless of their geographical origin, but there are important and maybe subtle differences. From how many hours a day people work, to how professors interact with students and junior researchers, to how quickly new ideas and tools are adopted, there are noticeable differences among geographical regions.

This geographical variation results in different priorities and emphases, and different rates of scientific production, but there is no ideal way. As students move around, international collaborations grow, and people meet and talk at conferences, the best parts of these cultural differences are transferred. I can say that from my year in China, how I view certain elements of my science has changed, and I suspect my Chinese students would say the same about their interactions with me.

The Ecosummit conference we are at is a very international meeting with 88 countries represented. This makes for fertile ground for the sharing of not only scientific ideas and methods, but also learning and sharing notions of what it means to be a successful scientist. This variety is the spice of good science.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

#EcoSummit2016: Conferences –the piñata of ideas.

One of the greatest benefits of attending conferences is that they represent learning opportunities. I don’t necessarily mean learning about new techniques or analyses, though you can undoubtedly find out about these at conferences, but rather conferences are opportunities to hear about new concepts, ideas and paradigms. In some ways conferences are like a piñata of ideas –they are chalk full of new ideas but you never know which you’ll pick up.

Ecosummit is not the typical conference I go to, it is much more diverse in topics of talks and disciplines of the attendees. This diversity –from policy makers, to social scientists, to ecologists, means that I am exposed to a plethora of new concepts. Here are a few nuggets that got me thinking:

  • Knowledge-values-rules decision making context. Policy decisions are made at the interface of scientific knowledge, human values (what is important to people –e.g., jobs), and rules (e.g., economic laws). This seems like a nice context to think about policy, though it is not clear about how we prioritize new knowledge or alter values.


  • Adaptation services. I work on ecosystem services (e.g., carbon storage, pollination support, water filtration, etc.), but I learned that ecosystems also provide adaptation services. These are aspects of ecosystems that will help human societies adapt to climate change (e.g., new products).

  • Trees and air pollution. The naive assumption most of us make about trees in urban areas are that they improve local air quality. However, I saw a couple of talks where this may not necessarily be the case. Some species in North American (red oak, sweet gum, etc.) release volatile organic compounds. Spruce plantations may not take up nitrogen oxides, and in fact might release it. Thus we need to be careful on how we sell the benefits of urban trees.

  • Transformative. This is a term I have certainly heard and used before, but in listening to a wide variety of talks, I realize it is used in different contexts to mean different things. I think it best to avoid this term.

  • a-disciplinary.  I heard a guy say in a talk that he was a-disciplinary and so was not bound to the dogmas and paradigms of any discipline (I already have a hard time wrapping my head around interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, etc.). He then presented a new paradigm and a number of prescribed well-formulated tools used to move from idea, communication, to action. I think the irony was lost on him.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

#EcoSummit2016 Day 2 History and ecology go hand in hand.

The role for history in ecology can be tough to generalize. For a neo-ecologist, 5 years may be a long time scale, for a restoration ecologists, 50 years might be, for a paleoecologists, millions of years could matter. But multiple talks today argued that without considering history we are lost. Whether it is using climate history to understand how the effects of past climate change are still being felt today (from Jens Christian-Svenning), or the oft-mentioned debate about whether local biodiversity is truly in decline, the past is necessary to understand our changing planet. [The various papers on this debate came up in at least 3 of talks I saw]. Regardless of which way the diversity relationship goes, Frederic De Laender pointed out that loss of functioning due to increased environmental stress meant that local communities were changing anyways.

Related to this is the question of how ecologists should incorporate and understand the role of human history in their studies. Are humans simply a disturbance? A covariate in a statistical analysis? Or an intrinsic component of ecology across the globe? What is a baseline for ‘naturalness’ in the absence of humans anyways? Further, human records can be potentially misleading as ecological research tools. For example, P. Szabo showed that the popular conception in the Czech Republic (based on archival data) is that beech forests are the true ‘natural’ forest, and coniferous forests were simply the result of forestry plantations. Policy reflects this and promotes preservation of broad leafed forests. However, analysis of paleo-pollen data showed that in fact spruce and other conifers appeared to have dominated for thousands of years in some regions. What then is the true ‘natural’ forest? From Emily Southgate’s fascinating talk showing how the development of an oil refinery in the 1800s and its impacts could be investigated using historical land surveys, to maps showing the still-unfilled ranges of European tree species, the legacy of the past is clear in present day data.

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.