Monthly Archives: January 2016

Student blogging on insect conservation: a success story

Image: Skillet Clubtail dragonfly, by David Marvin (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This year in my 3rd-year Entomology course, we introduced a new student assignment: to write a blog post about an insect of conservation concern in Canada. (I say “we”, because most of the credit goes to my TA and PhD student Chandra Moffat. I’ll link to some of the resulting posts below; but first, a few thoughts. Continue reading

Academic inclusive fitness

Photo: Belding’s ground squirrel, by Yathin S Krishnappa via; CC BY-SA 3.0.

I think I’m typical as a scientist in that I spend a lot of time doing things that don’t seem to add to my research productivity – in fact, they take away from it. Yesterday (as I write) I gave a guest lecture about writing in somebody else’s grad course. I review manuscripts and grants, serve as an Associate Editor, sit on grad student supervisory committees, consult with colleagues about stats, serve in academic administration, and on and on. Actually, our whole academic system depends on us doing these kinds of things – things that (at least on the surface) seem altruistic. For an evolutionary biologist, apparent altruism always raises a question: Why? Why do academics do things that seem to benefit others, not themselves? There may be a variety of reasons, but increasingly I’ve come to understand my own career as heavily influenced by academic inclusive fitness. Continue reading

What do you think about “celebrity” Latin names?

Photo: Heteropoda davidbowie, by K.S. Seshadri via CC BY-SA 4.0

The passing of David Bowie last week brought new attention to his life and his long career in the arts. Over at the Biodiversity Blog, Jeff Ollerton reminded us that one of the many ways Bowie is immortalized is in the naming of the huntsman spider Heteropoda davidbowie (by Peter Jäger).

A lot of species are cruising around unaware that they bear scientific, or “Latin”, names commemorating celebrities. Continue reading

Supervisory inflation and “value-added” mentoring

Photos: “Mentor”, from my cherished Oxford Universal Dictionary (1933; 1955 reprint). As a very small child, I sat on this dictionary at my grandmother’s dinner table. When I no longer needed a boost in height, it provided a boost to my vocabulary instead. Yes, I’m a nerd. Longtail widowbird: Public Domain by Mohanr53 via

It’s grant reviewing season*, and that’s gotten me thinking about mentorship. NSERC (Canada’s main basic-science granting agency) refers to the students and employees a PI supervises as HQP (for highly qualified personnel), and weights both past HQP training record and future HQP training plan very heavily in its deliberations**. Although NSERC funding rates are relatively high (and the grants correspondingly small, and that’s good), they’ve been tightening somewhat, and this seems to be driving some remarkable supervisory inflation.

What do I mean by “supervisory inflation”? Continue reading

1.8 billion years in a jar

Photo (and chutney) by Stephen Heard.

Jim Croce would like to save time in a bottle, but I can save time in a jar. I mentioned recently that I make a mean mango chutney (with a connection, and I swear there was one, to public belief in vaccinations and global warming). Not long before that, I’d posted about the Plant Gastrodiversity Game. Putting the two ideas together made me think about the evolutionary history in every jar in my chutney. It’s easy to calculate such things these days, and I’m a world-class nerd, so of course I didn’t waste much time getting started. I’ll share my chutney recipe, and some things I learned from my analysis. Continue reading

Where the heck are my students?

Photo: Wondering where the students are, courtesy JP de Ruiter (pictured).

Disclaimer: I’m not a teaching-and-learning expert; you can think of this post as an interested person hashing out possibilities in print. If you know more than I do, please use the Replies!

I’ve been standing in front of classrooms for about 25 years now, and I’ve become increasingly irritated by the fraction of my students who aren’t filling the seats in front of me. In my typical course on a typical day, somewhere around 1/3 of my students are missing*. Get that: a third of my students aren’t even present in the classroom. All that buzz about lectures vs. “active learning”, learning styles, assessment design, and on and on: aren’t they just a distraction from the big issue, which is that no technique can reach a student who isn’t even in the classroom?

So how do I get my students into the classroom? Continue reading

Vaccinations, global warming, and the fork in the canning jar

Images: Global Warming Predictions Map, Robert Rohde, CC BY-SA 3.0 via and (Business-as-usual projection, 3ºC average warming. Jars of mango chutney: Photo (and chutney) by Stephen Heard.

Do you cringe when someone asserts that vaccines cause autism, or that global warming isn’t happening? I do. I’m a scientist, and like most of my colleagues, I think of this not just as a 9-to-5 job but also as a way of thinking about the world around me. So, at least in my mental picture of myself, when I have a choice to make, I quantify and tot up advantages and disadvantages of each option* and come to a reasoned decision. When I don’t know something, I look for answers in the scientific literature. When it turns out that nobody knows that something, I have a set of approaches to fill the gap – experiments and models and statistics and the rest (and I can deploy this scientific toolkit in writing and cooking and doing laundry every bit as much as I can in matters more traditionally scientific). In short, I picture myself as a rational being – and this is probably why antivaxxers, climate-change denialists, and their irrational brethren drive me bananas.

But. Continue reading