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 important work is not what I’ve always thought

Image: This mobile, hanging in my office, was given to me by my friend Mary Harris when I got tenure.  It’s driftwood from the Skunk River in Iowa.  I’d just gotten tenure, and it’s made of dead wood – get it?

A rather poorly-executed and very poorly-communicated study made a big splash last week, with the claim that half of all ecologists “drop out” of the field within just 5 years.  The many, many flaws in this way of measuring and communicating people’s career trajectories have been thrashed out in other places, so I’ll just note for the record that by the paper’s critera, I myself have “dropped out” of the field.*  Continue reading


Lemon zest, theory of mind, and the hazards of localized advice

Image: Lemon zest, © Didriks via CC BY 2.0

I hate lemon zest.  Yes, that’s trivial; but I’m going to turn it into a point that (I think) matters.

I hated lemon zest even more when I was growing up.  My mother, on the other hand, loved the stuff.  She put it in everything (well, it seemed that way to me), and she was perpetually amazed when I’d sample something new and – after my first nibble – say in an injured tone of voice “Mum, this has lemon zest in it!”.

What mystified me about the lemon zest was the stance my mother was taking.  Continue reading

Becoming a science writer: a musical in three acts (guest post)

This is a guest post by Greg Crowther, of Everett Community College, in Everett, Washington, and it’s the latest installment in my “How I learned to write” series. Image: Greg performing “Have Yourself a Healthy Little Kidney” for the University of Washington Division of Nephrology (2017).

Take it away, Greg:

As a reader of this blog, I’ve enjoyed its guest posts on the development of scientific writing skills (entry 1, entry 2, entry 3).  I’d now like to add my own perspective, but with a twist. The writing I most enjoy doing is musical in nature — so, at the risk of seeming completely self-absorbed, I’m going to sketch out my development as a science songwriter, using seasonally appropriate examples.*

Act 1: Student, aiming for humor (1987-2002) Continue reading

15th century technology and our disdain for “nearly significant”

Image: William Caxton showing his printing press to King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth (public domain)

It’s a phrase that gets no respect: “nearly significant”.  Horrified tweets, tittering, and all the rest – a remarkably large number of people are convinced that when someone finds P = 0.06 and utters the phrase “nearly significant”, it betrays that person’s complete lack of statistical knowledge.  Or maybe of ethics.  It’s not true, of course.  It’s a perfectly reasonable philosophy to interpret P-values as continuous metrics of evidence* rather than as lines in the sand that are either crossed or not.  But today I’m not concerned with the philosophical justification for the two interpretations of P values – if you want more about that, there’s my older post, or for a broader and much more authoritative treatment, there’s Deborah Mayo’s recent book (well worth reading for this and other reasons).  Instead, I’m going to offer a non-philosophical explanation for how we came to think “nearly significant” is wrongheaded.  I’m going to suggest that it has a lot to do with our continued reliance on a piece of 15th-century technology: the printing press. Continue reading

The basic arithmetic that makes meetings bad

Photo:  This meeting will never end; courtesy Rylee Isitt.

Warning: I sat through a frustrating meeting last week.  And now you’re going to hear about it.

We all hate meetings.  And yet, at the same time, we love calling meetings.  In academia, at least, they’re part of the very foundation of our organizations, which we insist are distinguished from other enterprises by our use of collegial governance.  (I’ve argued elsewhere, heretically, that we try to be quite a lot more collegial than is good for us, but that’s not my point today.)  In universities, we want to govern ourselves from the bottom up, with the faculty rather than administrators making the decisions.  The way we know how to do that is by holding meetings – big ones, and lots of them.
Continue reading

Who should organize your department’s seminar series?

My home department’s Fall 2018 seminar series wraps up soon, and I’m looking forward to next semester’s.  We’ve got an interesting lineup of speakers with lots of variety, and I’m very grateful to our seminar organizers for that.  Today’s question: who were those organizers?  And who should they be? Continue reading

How I became a writer (guest post)

This is a guest post by JC Cahill, of the Department of Biology at the University of Alberta.

Steve is an old friend from grad school, and just yesterday [as I write] he gave a well-received lecture on writing, here at the University of Alberta.  The enthusiasm and interest expressed by our early career scientists seemed genuine, and even as an old prof myself I can’t help but believe Steve is having some success in humanizing science writing.  But, also as an old prof I can’t help but feel a bit disheartened by the seemingly endless cycle of writing challenges, delays, and strategic failures I see in a nearly daily way. Choosing optimism rather hopelessness, I wish to tell my writing story with the intent of encouragement.

When I was a graduate student, I was a bad writer. Continue reading