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.

My most heterodox scientific-writing lecture (or, how I annoy my colleagues in a good cause)

I’m well into my Scientific Writing course now, and I’ve just given the lecture that consistently annoys my faculty colleagues the most (well, it annoys many of them). It’s the one on writing the Methods section, and it’s heterodox in two rather different ways. This lecture stands out a bit – I don’t think my approach to IMRaD structure, or the content of the Discussion, or outlining, or writer’s block is all that different from the approach anyone else might take. But the Methods is different.

I said what I teach about the Methods is heterodox in two different ways. Continue reading

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Why my newest paper is paywalled

I’ve just returned the proofs for my latest paper. You can read about it, and access the preprint, here; or you can wait a little while and read the journal version in Proceedings B. Or, maybe you can. You see, it will be paywalled.*

Now, some folks find that scandalous: information should be free (or at least, that’s a common refrain. I have some sympathy, and I had the choice: I could have paid to make this paper open access. And all else being equal, yes: I’d rather my papers be open access than paywalled.

But that sentiment, noble though it may be, is uselessly naïve. Continue reading

What an ecologist learned observing COP15

This is a guest post from occasional contributor Emma Despland. If you’re like me, you know that UN conferences like COP15 (more formally, the 2022 United Nations Biodiversity Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity) are, but you’re a bit mystified about what goes on at one. Here Emma gives an ecologist’s perspective on both the process and the product of COP15. The agreement (provided that it’s followed, of course) has huge implications both for our planet and for our academic field. Read on for Emma’s impressions.

Last month, I attended COP15 in Montreal as part of my university’s delegation. I volunteered mainly out of curiosity and didn’t really know what to expect. Continue reading

ChatGPT did not write this post

Like everyone else, I’ve been watching the rise of “generative AI” with both interest and trepidation. (“Generative AI” is software that creates “new” text (ChatGPT) or images (DALL-E) from a user prompt – I’ll explain the quotes on “new” later.) Now, I know only a smattering about how generative AI works, so don’t expect technical insights here. But I’ve noticed an interesting gap between what I think these systems are doing and how people are reacting to them.

My interest in generative AI, especially text generators, is easily explained and probably obvious. Since I was in high school I’ve watched software get very slowly better at imitating the kind of writing humans do with great effort, and the kind of conversational interaction that humans do without a second thought.* The latest round is, superficially, really impressive: it can chatter pleasantly about nothing much, write a poem, program in R,** write an essay about Canadian history, explain linkage disequilibrium, and more. Or at least, it often looks like it can. Continue reading

On rounding numbers, assumptions, and having one’s mind blown

Last week I had my mind blown. As I am something of a nerd, I had my mind blown by rounding numbers – or more specifically, by the fact that not everyone does it like I do. I know – that’s odd on several levels; but if you stick with me, I think there’s an important and generalizable message.

It started with a tweet*. Continue reading

Six months into “phased retirement”: how it’s going

Warning: navel gazing

If you’ve been hanging around Scientist Sees Squirrel, you’ll know that last July I moved into “phased retirement”, or “semi-retirement” if you prefer. Administratively, I’m now in 62% of a professorial job, and will be for another year before full retirement. I get asked a lot how that’s working out. About a month in, I attempted to answer that question; but for obvious reasons (a month, lol!) it was a poor attempt. Now, at six months, I have a better idea. So if you’re interested (perhaps you’re contemplating something similar yourself), here’s my update.

I knew at the start I wouldn’t be suddenly and magically doing only 62% of the work. Continue reading

Career arcs and “My Life in Fish”

I mentioned the other week that one of the books in my “to-read” pile was Gary Grossman’s My Life in Fish – his graphic autobiography (by which I mean it’s heavily illustrated in the style of a graphic novel, not that it’s NSFW!). Now, books sometimes linger on my “to-read” pile for a long time; but I read My Life in Fish last weekend and it made me think.

My Life in Fish is, obviously, the story Grossman tells about his own career (he’s a recently retired fish ecologist). But reading Grossman’s story made me think a bit about my own, and the way our career arcs have been both different and the same. I hope Gary would count this as a win for his book. Continue reading

Don’t fear falling at the edge of knowledge

I was talking with one of my grad students last week, and they confessed to being nervous about their upcoming thesis defence. That’s natural enough; most students are nervous about their defences.* And a lot of scientists, at all stages, are nervous about giving talks. Early in my career, I certainly was. My nervousness wasn’t helpful: my talks (which already weren’t great) got worse as I memorized and then rushed them. And actually, I had no reason to worry. You don’t either, and I’ll explain why.

There are, I believe, two main reasons why people get nervous giving talks.  At least, there were two main reasons for my own nervousness. Continue reading

Holiday reading (some suggestions)

Semesters are winding down for most of us, which I hope means that you, like me, will get a bit of a break. So I thought I’d pull together a few book recommendations. It’s probably too late for you to use these as gifting ideas (unless you, like me, tend to procrastinate that sort of thing). But if you’d like to curl up with a book that’s not technical science reading but is sort of science-adjacent, here are some possibilities. Some are new to Scientist Sees Squirrel; others are books I’ve reviewed or mentioned before but deserve a boost.

Let’s start with something new. I’ve just finished Leslie Forbes’ Fish, Blood, and Bone,* and it was terrific. Continue reading

On text-mining using Google search tools

Content warning: includes examples, motivated by the difficulty of changing species’ common names, that mention ethnic slurs.

Other Warning: longer than usual, and somewhat technical. You’ll be most interested in this post if you’ve ever thought about using web searches to explore changes through time in linguistic usage, interest in fields or topics, and so on. 

Over the last decade or so, my research interests have been sliding a little from science (evolutionary ecology and entomology) towards science studies. (Science studies, for those who don’t know the term, is more or less the study of how science is done and communicated.) This began, I’d say, when I was working on The Scientist’s Guide to Writing and thinking about the cultural norms we’ve developed around scientific writing; and it really took off when I was working on Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider and thinking about the cultural norms we’ve developed around scientific naming. Beyond those two books, you’ve seen my dalliance with science studies in two preprints (this one about humour in titles of scientific papers, and this one about how the etymology of scientific names may influence scientific attention paid to species). Hey, I did warn you in my very first post here on Scientist Sees Squirrel that I reinvent myself often – as a consequence of having a sadly limited academic attention span.

In a post a couple of weeks ago, I built further on my interest in science studies and naming, asking whether and how we can change the common names of species. My analysis leant heavily on some web search utilities, which I used to track the usage of different English names for species through time. Because I know I’m not the only person to consider using web searches as a research tool, I thought it would be useful to lay out some of the things I’ve learned about these. Continue reading