Author Archives: ScientistSeesSquirrel

About ScientistSeesSquirrel

I'm an evolutionary ecologist and entomologist at the University of New Brunswick. I think about a lot of random things... some of them appear here.

On creativity and science – and play!

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the notion of “creative nonfiction”, and about the relationship between creativity and scientific writing. In the talk I linked to there, I made an offhand comment about how the practice of science also involves creativity. I’d forgotten that I’d actually written about that, way back in 2015! So the rest of this post is a lightly edited version of that earlier piece. Yes, if you blog long enough, you forget what you’ve written…

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. And much of this is – deliberately – very far from creative. Continue reading

No, adverbs aren’t ruining our scientific literature

Fairly often, I run into the claim that adjectives and especially adverbs should be avoided in scientific writing. I’ve been told, for example, that using “Surprisingly” (adverb) or “This important result” (adjective) is an attempt to manipulate the reader’s opinion about the data, and that, in scientific writing, the data ought to speak for themselves. I understand the thinking that leads to this belief – but I think it’s naïve. A new study by Ju Wen and Lei Lei, on adjective and adverb usage in scientific Abstracts, gives us an interesting look at the practice, and at arguments for and against. So despite that study’s limitations, let’s dig in a little.

Wen and Lei open their paper with a claim that I hope is uncontroversial: Continue reading

Why I’m teaching online again

Our semester starts this week, and I’m once again (co)teaching an online course. This is very much swimming against the current, at least at my university, so why am I doing it? I don’t pretend that my answers here are jaw-droppingly original, but I think they’re important to what university education ought to look like, not just now but years or decades on. So I’ll explain.

First: my university, like many, is busily pushing hard to re-establish “normal” – or at least, what our senior administrators imagine that students (and prospective students) think is “normal”. Continue reading

On creativity and science

Just a couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk at the joint annual meeting of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution and the Ecological Society of America. It was, admittedly, a weird one, and I thought I’d record a version of it for those who might have been interested but couldn’t be there in person.

My talk consisted of some reflections on creativity in science, and in writing about science. Continue reading

Another accusation: did David Starr Jordan name a fish after himself?

I’ve just read Why Fish Don’t Exist, Lulu Miller’s fascinating biography of David Starr Jordan.* Jordan was a brilliant taxonomist of fishes, the founding President of Stanford University, and (sadly) a prominent and committed eugenicist. Miller’s biography explores his life and connects it to her own, and to some big philosophical questions, and it’s well worth reading.  But you know how everyone sees the world through the lens of their own special little interests? Well, this sentence jumped out at me:

“I am on my way to behold the only fish in the entire sea that David Starr Jordan named after himself”.

Jordan named a lot of fish species – a couple of thousand, about 20% of the fish species known in his day. One of them, it would appear, is Agonomalus jordani. Did Jordan really name a fish for himself? Continue reading

Convenience and ecological knowledge

Do you know the old joke about the fellow who was looking for his keys under a streetlight?  A neighbourly passerby came up and offered to help. “Did you lose your keys here?” he asked.  “No,” the fellow replied, “over there in that alleyway – but the light’s better here”.

This is quite funny until you realize that as ecologists, we do it all the time. Continue reading

So, how’s (semi) retirement going?

I’ve now been semi-retired for one month: I moved to my new 60% appointment on July 1. Already I’m getting asked what it’s like, and how it’s going. I’ll update you occasionally on this journey, but here’s my early answer to “what’s it like?” and “how’s it going?”.  I don’t really know.

Here’s what my summer has looked like so far. I still have 5 grad students (weirdly, my decision to begin retirement didn’t make them suddenly and magically finish up and defend) Continue reading

Going to the archive, and why

I don’t have a new post for you this week, but I’m going to link to an important old one and explain why.

The other day, I had what felt like the mother of all anxiety attacks. Continue reading

Which institutional affiliation should you list on a paper?

There are a lot of bits and pieces in a scientific paper. You’ll find advice for writing most of them in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, but somewhat to my chagrin I keep finding gaps – most recently when Jonathan Losos wrote to ask me this apparently simple question:

When you publish a paper, where do you list your institution: where you were when the work was done, where you were when the paper was submitted, where you are now, or some combination of the above?

Jonathan, like me, has been in the publishing game for a while, and I think he was a bit nonplussed to realize he had to ask the question.  There don’t seem to be clear guidelines, or at least not universal ones. As Jonathan put it, “A quick google suggested that…everyone, just like me, makes up their own rules”. Continue reading

Effective grant proposals, Part 4: Yes, do sweat the small stuff

Today, the fifth part in my series on writing effective grant proposals. The first three parts dealt with the content of a grant proposal: the important information a grant needs to convey about the importance of the work you’re proposing, its feasibility, and your ability to do it. (Part four, about your reader, comes up below). You certainly need the right content to have a chance at funding, but that’s not all you need – so today, a pitch for presentation.

I know, we’re scientists, and we sometimes tell each other that what matters is the objectively measured quality of our ideas, not the style in which we present them. I hope it’s obvious that that’s both tempting and wrong: Continue reading