Monthly Archives: September 2015

Is biology beautiful?

Photo: Glasswing butterfly, probably Greta oto, on Asclepias curassavica; Eddy Van 3000 at CC BY-SA 2.0

We could quit now, with our eyes on that glasswing butterfly: of course biology can be beautiful. Birds of paradise, lynx, ladyslipper orchids, Spanish moss*, orcas; can there be any doubt? But that’s not really what I mean. Is biology as a science beautiful, the way math is beautiful, and physics is beautiful? Continue reading

The paradox of university governance

How is a university run? I’ve been part of universities for many years, I’ve been a departmental Chair and a Dean, and I don’t know. What I do know is that academics spend a lot of time talking and arguing about how a university is run, and how it should be run, and (usually) about the supposedly large gap between those two things.

The reason academics argue about university governance is that there’s a paradox at the heart of the modern university. Continue reading

The one thing I teach that nobody ever forgets

Image credits: Sockeye salmon: (c) William Rosmus, CC BY-SA 4.0 via “Semele consumed by Jupiter’s [=Zeus’s] thunder”, 1733, Bernard Picart. In Tafereel, of Beschryving van den prachtigen Tempel der Zang-Godinnen, H. Chatelain, Amsterdam.

NOTE: the etymology in the story I tell below may not be right!  Or it may… it’s not entirely clear, and I think the story is interesting.  Blog post on it here (but read the story below first).

I’ve been teaching undergraduate courses in ecology and population biology for 23 years*. I’ve seen a lot of students from behind my (metaphorical) lectern: brilliant ones and less brilliant ones; motivated ones and passive ones; a few with their whole future careers mapped out and a few hopelessly drifting and lost.

Like every teacher, I’d love to think that my students retain most of what I teach them – ideally, for their entire lives; but at least until the final exam. But of course they don’t, and every year I find grading the exams a bit depressing because (and here’s a shocker) some students get some questions wrong. But there’s one thing I teach that nobody ever forgets – and it came up in my Population Biology course just last Friday. Continue reading

Please stop asking me to think outside the box

Caution: curmudgeon ahead.

If you’ve been around universities for a while (and believe me, I have), I’m sure you’ve heard someone suggest that it’s time to think outside the box. Often, it will be an upper-level administrator: the notion that it’s good to think outside the box seems to be some kind of virus transmitted by contact with offices containing nice furniture but no journals. (An important note: administrators are not (all) evil. I’ve done my time in administration, and you should too. But I’d be lying if I tried to convince you administration was entirely free of vacuous sloganeering.)

What might it mean to think outside the box? Usually, it seems to mean deciding to do something that nobody else is doing. This is sold as creativity, and if you don’t think very hard, that’s a pretty appealing prospect. Who wouldn’t want their programs to be unique and their initiatives to be trailblazing?

Well, me, for one. Continue reading

Creativity, play, and science

Photo: Mushroom arrays on the forest floor in a “play” experiment (S. Heard).

Much of science is a craft: doing it well involves the application of practiced skills, which can be honed (if never completely mastered) by anyone with time and experience. In an experiment, for example, we have powerful experimental design, meticulous repetition and recordkeeping, appropriate statistical analysis, and clear writing to report the results – all things we can become objectively better and better at with practice.

But there’s creativity in science too, and it lies in the source of our ideas. This part of science is more mysterious. Continue reading

I’d rather be teaching non-majors

The new teaching semester starts today, and this afternoon I’ll give my first Entomology lecture. It’s been 8 years since I’ve taught Entomology, and I’ve missed it. The bulk of my research is on insects (mostly the ecology and evolution of insect-plant interactions), and insects are fascinating, beautiful, and incredibly important both ecologically and economically. When I’m standing at the front of my Entomology class I’ll be happy and I’ll be energized – in fact, the adrenaline high will probably keep me from any real work for a good hour afterwards.

But I’d rather be teaching non-majors. Continue reading

Why goldenrods don’t make you sneeze: the biology of pollination

Image: Not being allergic to Solidago juncea. © Stephen Heard

Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I wrote for the newsletter of the Fredericton Botanic Garden. I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license . If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.

One of my favourite autumn sights is a field of goldenrods, blazing yellow and alive with insects flitting and buzzing from bloom to bloom. I’ve learned, though, that not everyone agrees with me – especially sufferers of seasonal allergies, who tend to recoil from goldenrods rather than rejoice in them. But if you’re sneezing, goldenrods aren’t the culprit – and there’s some interesting biology behind understanding why. Continue reading