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.)