Why do pre-meds want to do research in my ecology lab? And should I let them?

When I got my (first) academic job and my lab opened for business, I got a surprise. I expected undergraduate students to ask me about doing research in my lab. After all, as an undergraduate myself I’d learned an enormous amount by doing research with mentors – some of whom I still talk science with today. I expected to have a lot of fun sharing my love of evolutionary-ecology research with students who were as excited about it as I was. But, as I said, I got a surprise.

It turns out that, over the years, many of the undergraduate students who’ve inquired about doing research with me aren’t actually as excited about evolutionary ecology as I am. That was the surprise: pre-meds wanting to do research in my ecology lab.*

Why would a pre-med student want to do research in my lab? Continue reading

Better Posters: Zen Faulkes on ways to rescue the poster session

When I was revising The Scientist’s Guide to Writing for its forthcoming 2nd edition, I had a problem: too many topics I wanted to cover, and not enough space under my word limit to do it. That means my book has gaps. That’s no surprise, of course; every book does. But one gap that irked me is my coverage of poster presentations. Many posters are dreadful, there are few resources for those wanting to do better, and my book disposes of posters in a couple of hundred words. Ugh.

Well, I have good news. The gap in my book is now filled – more than filled – because I can simply cite Zen Faulkes’s new book, Better Posters: Plan, Design, and Present an Academic Poster. Continue reading

Why write well?

Writing is hard; writing well is even harder. It’s easy to find advice, as a result, not to work too hard to polish what you’ve written. You’ll see people arguing that an imperfect-but-submitted paper is better than the perfect one you might finish next week, or that writing something just good enough to be accepted lets you move on to the next paper.

At some point, of course, these thing become true. It would be a bad idea to spend your entire career endlessly polishing one paper that you publish, on your deathbed, perfect and deserving of a (nonexistent) award for literary merit in the scientific literature. But the state of that literature – to a considerable degree turgid, tedious, and impenetrable – suggests that nobody much is making that mistake. Continue reading

How many university instructors phoned it in during the pandemic?

Another one of those tiresome articles made the rounds the other day, asserting that online instruction during the pandemic was an outrageous failure and that students hated every moment of it. No, I’m not going to link to it; it doesn’t deserve your time (but you can find it, and a dozen of its shallow kin, easily enough if you must).  These articles are worthless for at least three reasons. First, they rely on self-reported student satisfaction, and surely by now we all understand that this correlates loosely at best with instructional quality. Second, it’s not a mystery that these articles are a product of motivated reasoning: people want to be outraged, so media produce stories that feed that outrage – whether they represent the situation fairly or not. And third, what exactly would objectors to online instruction like us to have done? If we could simply wish a pandemic away, we’d already all have ponies. Flying ponies. I want my pony.

But there’s a legitimate question lurking in these otherwise facile articles. Continue reading

Fictional species, fictional names

For as long as humans have been telling stories, they’ve been making up creatures to populate them. Orcs and ents; snallygasters and golden snidgets; and many thousands more. Some stories give us only fleeting glimpses, while others paint their creatures in more detail. Only a few, though, give their creatures Latin (scientific) names. As you may have noticed, I’m fascinated by names and naming. So here are a few examples of fictional species that bear fictional Latin names. There’s no database of such things, so this is a quasirandom set I’ve run across recently. Do you know of more? Please add them, in the Replies! Continue reading

Don’t use your Discussion to shred your own work

The Discussion of a scientific paper is, I think, the hardest part to write. That’s because every other section has a fairly well-defined purpose and thus a set of standard contents: the Methods communicates how you did the work, the Results shows what you found, and the Introduction sets the work in context while foreshadowing what’s to come in the Discussion. But the Discussion is a challenge because the writer has considerable freedom in both content and organization. What goes in a Discussion? Almost anything, it seems.

Actually, Discussions aren’t quite as free-form as that. Continue reading

Yes, that paper is paywalled. But you can read it anyway.

Last week, I wrote about a fascinating and puzzling (if somewhat dispiriting) paper assessing the value of science-communication training. In an (obviously futile, I know) attempt to counter the scourge that is “I didn’t read the paper but here are my thoughts anyway”, I suggested repeatedly that folks ought to read the paper. And I suppose I should have seen it coming: a veritable deluge of “It’s paywalled, I can’t read it”.

The first half of that objection is true: the paper is “paywalled”. So are a lot of good things in life: Continue reading

Is science communication unteachable?

Have you ever read a scientific paper that simultaneously left you in deep admiration, but also crushed?  I have – just now. It’s Rubega et al. 2021, “Assessment by audiences shows little effect of science communication training”. In a nutshell, several of the authors teach what sounds like an absolutely terrific graduate course in science communication; they used elegantly designed methods to test whether taking the course helps students do better at science communication; and much to their (and my) disappointment, they found that the answer was a pretty convincing “no”.  To which I can really only say “argh”. Continue reading

How scandalized should folks be if I re-use my prerecorded lectures?

Scandals are on the horizon. Many of us poured effort into recorded lectures during the year of the pandemic, and as those courses reappear in our teaching rotations, we’ll be tempted to just upload the same lectures over again. Horrifying, right?  Well, maybe not. I’m not (yet) sure.

I’ll face this dilemma soon for my Fall 2021 courses. Continue reading

Jargon hurts our science – but we just can’t help ourselves

It’s rare that the appearance of a new scientific paper makes me snort and say “Ha, I told you so!” out loud, but it happened last week. Alejandro Martínez and Stefano Mammola’s paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, asks the simple and obvious question: does using jargon* in a paper’s title or abstract affect the citation impact of that paper?  The answer is “yes”: papers (in cave science**) with more jargon in their titles and abstracts get cited less.

We already knew, of course, that jargon hurts science communication. Continue reading