The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

The finish line is in sight

Because mole cricket.

Clawing my way to the finish line! (Alternatively titled, “Excuse to post a picture of a mole cricket, which is an awesome animal, period.”)

Fifteen centimeters of snow fell yesterday, we’ve burned through nearly our entire cache of firewood, and there’s not a hint of green life to be found. Nevertheless, it’s just past the first day of spring, and a startlingly short 3 weeks until the last day of classes.

I swear I have not been deliberately neglecting this space, and my extended absence this time ’round is absolutely no cause for alarm.

The simple truth is that I have been having an excellent term and am entirely preoccupied with other things that are firmly at the forefront of my attention as this year rushes by, roaring full-tilt towards what I am grudgingly recognizing as the imminent conclusion of this PhD (*sad face*).

In the last few months I have: a) begun searching, and applying for, postdoctoral positions (another post for another day, but it will probably start with something along the lines of, “womp, womp”); b) started working as an assistant at The University’s teaching and learning services office; c) been blessed with a small army (I’m not exaggerating even a little bit – there are so many) of enthusiastic, intelligent and hard-working undergraduates who are helping me squeeze out the last bit of data for my thesis by volunteering in my lab; and d) having an absolute blast teaching.

Teaching is exhausting. Anyone who says it only takes 3 hours of prep for 1 hour of lecture is a LYING LIE-FACE, at least for the first go-round with a new course. It is challenging as heck: I’m learning/re-learning an awful lot on a daily basis and stepping well outside my comfort zone. It is also enormously humbling. My students are SO FREAKING SMART and I am a flawed human being who sometimes makes dumb mistakes, which they invariably – and delightedly – point out.

Teaching this class has also brought me so much joy I can’t even begin to tell you.

In a few weeks, once the dust has settled and exams are marked and grades are in, I’m going to sit down and write some of my thoughts about this experience, and also about where things stand with my research and “career” progress (and, if this winter ever decides to end, maybe even some new photos of bugs), but in the meantime I just wanted to check in and say, “Hi!”, and “Happy spring!”, and “I’ll see you at the finish line!”

Taking the plunge: first-time teacher trolling for tips!

A really incredible chance to try something new and exciting arose this fall. After the logistics and paperwork were sorted, and I officially decided to take the plunge

accepted

I (rather giddily) made this announcement on Twitter:

1

I’m taking on a third-year Population and Community Ecology class this winter. It’s a lecture-based course with a hearty focus on quantitative approaches, and I’ll have about 100 students (eek!) with very diverse scholastic backgrounds and strengths.

Those of you who have followed along here for a while know how I feel about teaching. It’s something I really love doing, and I have worked hard to find and create opportunities to improve and enhance my teaching skills throughout my grad studies, despite the fact that grad students are often discouraged to do so (the argument being that we should only focus on producing publications). While I recognize the importance of publications, I also want to come out of this program with a well-rounded skill set that will compliment my research activities and make me a more effective academic. Teaching is a standard and significant component of an academic career and for the life of me I’ve never been able to understand why grad students don’t receive more explicit mentoring and training in this area of their professional development.  ANYways. [/rant]

Since I’m always up for learning about new approaches to teaching and classroom management, I tossed this request out to the Twitter community:
2My tweeps didn’t let me down, and I was given some great tips to mull over.  Some people pointed out that attitude, passion and performance play an important role:

reply 1

Tips regarding question-and-answer periods had a recurring theme:

reply 4

Others highlighted some practical aspects related to workload and time management:

reply 2This last point from Mitch started to ring very true as I began preparing some lectures:
3
And people shared their ideas about it:repy 3
The conversations I’ve had with experienced lecturers, both online and in person, have been really helpful.  I wanted to share these tips with you all, in case there are other new or wannabe teachers out there.

I also want to throw out my original question to you readers: what are some of your tips? Is there anything you wish you’d known/been told? Something you’d do differently? Anything you think is really critical for first-time teachers to do (or, alternatively, to NOT do)?  I’d love to learn from your experiences and hear your thoughts!

UPDATE (long overdue): Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, everybody! (Readers, they’re well worth the extra click!) I also finally published a Storify of tweeted teaching tips:

Where and Whither the Monarch?

One phenomenon I can usually count on every late summer/autumn is a sudden swelling appearance of Monarch butterflies as they begin to make their long migratory journey southward for the winter.  During the summer, I see them flitting about in my garden, and spot the caterpillars munching away on their wild host plants (milkweed).

monarch male

Male Monarch butterfly in my garden in September 2011.

This summer, though…nada.  Nothing. Zip.

Honestly, I didn’t see a single caterpillar, and although I remember thinking I might have had a glimpse of one adult flying across my road in August, it seemed small and could easily have been a mimicking Viceroy.

It wasn’t until just a few days ago that I found this:

Monarch pinned

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

I found it lying back-up in the middle of the rarely-used old gravel road where I take my dogs for walks.

It was sad and beautiful: starkly, vividly orange on top of the dirt and scattered brown leaves. It was also dead. I gathered it up carefully in my gloves and walked it home. I felt it would be a waste to leave it there to be stricken by the elements since there was no other insect life out that might otherwise scavenge the body. Frankly, I was quite shocked to see it there at all, given the cold weather and heavy overnight frosts we’ve been experiencing of late.

So now it’s on a pin. Other than a couple of scales scuffed off on the top edge of the right forewing, it’s in excellent shape overall – no tears or tattered wing edges. I’m not usually one to pin butterflies (I find spreading wings fussy – the scuffed scales on the left wing were my own clumsy fault), but the utter absence of Monarchs this year made me think that this one was worth preserving.

Any casual observer of wildlife has noticed that the number of Monarchs in Ontario/eastern Canada has been way down this year.  I just went to ebutterfly.ca, a great new citizen science initiative, and drew up some maps comparing the reported observations of Monarchs in Ontario from May-October in 2012, and in 2013.  The difference is pretty remarkable:

2012-2013 Monarch ebutterfly

Citizen science reports of Monarch butterflies (from http://www.ebutterfly.ca) in southeastern Ontario in 2012 (L) and 2013 (R). There are also a few points to the northwest on the 2012 map that aren’t shown here. You can click to embiggen.

I made sure to add my “dot” to this year’s map.

Researchers suggest that this big change is likely due to a combination of less-than-ideal climate and a lack of habitat, and therefore of host plants. Here in the north, we get the last round of breeding adults; generations of butterflies progressively make their way northward throughout the breeding season, starting way down in the southern US.  Although we’ve previously thought that breeding grounds in the central US were the most critical for their success, new research by a team at the University of Guelph suggests that the entire breeding range is actually quite important. These scientists feel confident that the population will rebound, though perhaps not to the same historically high numbers.

Labidomera clivicollis, a milkweed specialist leaf beetle

Labidomera clivicollis, a milkweed specialist leaf beetle

I live in a rural area with lots of old fields and unmanaged roadsides: perfect places for milkweed to grow and so perfect places to observe its characteristically-coloured red/orange-and-black insect fauna.

One interesting thing I observed this summer was an absolute gangbusters number of specialist milkweed leaf beetles, Labidomera clivicollis.

I usually see a couple of them here and there but the milkweeds were covered in them this summer. Perhaps they were doing better with reduced competition? I’d be curious to know if others elsewhere observed the same thing.

WiFi in the woods: new article on mobile technology and inquiry-based learning

For the past four years I’ve had the great pleasure of TAing a course run by Chris Buddle, called St. Lawrence Ecosystems. SLE is an undergraduate, field-based ecology class with a strong emphasis on experiential learning.

Last year, students were tasked with designing a research project – start to finish – that they could execute in the arboretum on our campus. They could pick any plant or animal they wished to study, had to come up with a research question, design their methods, pull off intensive data collection during three 4-hour outdoor lab periods, then analyze and present their data.

This project was quite novel, considering that, a) undergrads rarely get a chance to experience outdoor labs in their first year of university education (WHY???), b) undergrads rarely get a chance to experience real, self-directed research, and c) we were loaned a set of WiFi-enabled tablets to “test run” the use of mobile technology in an outdoor class setting.

Students were not required to use the tablets: they were simply presented as another tool.  As such, the tablets were adopted to various degrees by different research teams. For some, they were integral to the data collection process. Others used the internet access to check out online field guides to help them identify their study species. And some groups found they were more useful as a flat surface upon which they could write field notes on a good ol’ piece of paper.

As a component of this project, students were also required to reach out to, and connect with, different online audiences, including the general public as well as scientists, via Twitter and blog posts The tablets let them post some pretty interesting tweets spontaneously and on-the-spot while in the field and doing research. Some of them were surprised (and pleased!) to discover that other people “out there” were interested in what they had to say, and that these people were happy to offer feedback, advice and assistance when asked.

Just a few of the many great tweets by this year's cohort of students! Their enthusiasm for their chosen subjects is infectious!

Just a few of the many great tweets by this year’s cohort of students! Their enthusiasm for their chosen subjects is infectious!

One very cool development with this year’s group was that they (totally unprompted) started to tweet at their classmates in other groups, sharing relevant sightings and asking questions.  This kind of in-the-field communication and collaboration was really fantastic to see (example top left, above).

Another fantastic benefit of the tablet-enabled connectivity was that it let us instructors keep tabs on, and chat with, the students much more easily.  In the past, we’d spend most of the lab running around in this 245 hectare forest, trying to locate the research groups so we could check in on their progress. With the tablets we were a mere text message or a Skype conference away, and we could easily pinpoint their locations using shared GPS coordinates.

Anyways, I’m super-excited because the team I worked with on this project has just published an article about this tablet-trial-run in EDUCAUSE Review, an excellent periodical devoted to exploring the use of information technology in higher education.  You can read the article here: “Tablets in the forest: mobile technology for inquiry-based learning“.

sle screenshot

Screenshot of the SLE class blog

Also, if you haven’t already checked out the SLE students’ blog, “St. Lawrence Lowlands“, I highly recommend it </shameless plug>; it’s chock-full of really excellent natural history! This year’s cohort of SLE-ers are also writing blog posts about their study systems, and first of ten just went live this week, so please consider stopping by and leaving comments or questions.  And, our students are still tweeting up a storm: you can easily check out their great, information-rich posts by following the #ENVB222 hashtag!

Grad school is hard: you’re not alone.

I’m back home and settled in after a wonderful ESC annual meeting. From photography, social media and teaching workshops, to stellar talks, to prizes won by friends and labmates – it was really a fantastic conference.  If you want to see some excellent photos of the event, Sean McCann posted a great roundup of some of the week’s highlights. One of the most memorable moments for me was actually during Sean’s great Student Showcase talk on wasp-specializing Caracaras, when he showed incredible video footage of these social birds all-out slamming into nests full of big, irate wasps as a means of knocking them down so they could be collected and eaten (!!!BOOM!!! It was awesome.)

I have to say, having been to larger meetings in the US, I really do prefer the smaller Canadian scene. It’s a good-sized and diverse yet close-knit group: I find it so much easier to catch up with colleagues and friends and also to meet new people and make new connections.  At ESA last year I found it very difficult to find anyone amidst the thousands of attendees, and it often felt like each school’s department was a bit of an “in-group” that was a little hard to penetrate.

Meeting and talking face-to-face with other scientists is, of course, one of the main draws of any conference. This year I found the experience particularly helpful and enlightening, not just from a science perspective, but also from a Doing Science perspective. Having had a [understatement] bit of a slump [/understatement] this past year with my work*, I had some great chats with a number of established researchers about their own challenges as grad students.

One conversation really stood out among many. This particular researcher does Very Sexy and Fascinating Science and has always conveyed a lot of passion for their work through their writing and talks. However, this person told me that by the end of their PhD they absolutely HATED their study taxon with a burning fiery hate and never wanted to see/work with another one again. It took two or three years before they were able to remember why it was that they were interested in the subject in the first place. Needless to say, I was shocked to hear this – I couldn’t imagine this person ever being anything but enthralled with their science.

Yet, this was only one example of several stories I heard about how people struggled with their graduate studies: “Grad school is hard. It messes with your head. It almost killed me. You’re not alone.” was the refrain I heard over and over again. It was, frankly, incredibly reassuring to hear their stories and know that they still managed to establish successful research programs and careers despite their early-career challenges. It reminded me that even the best sometimes falter, even fail. Few among us are immune to feelings of inadequacy, doubt and occasionally despair about our work. 

Sometimes all this is just ... a bit overwhelming.

Sometimes all this is just … a bit overwhelming.

Joshua Drew recently shared a great presentation that addresses this very issue, and I’ve pulled out from it one quote that particularly blew me away:

But I am very poorly today and feel very stupid and hate everybody and everything. One lives only to make blunders.

Any guesses as to who said that?  It sounds like pretty much every grad student I’ve ever known**, at one point or another in their careers.

It was Charles Darwin writing to to Charles Lyell, one year after publishing On The Origin of Species (1861). Wat?  Yes.  Even the brightest and best among us have their bad days.

There’s hope for us all yet.

____________

* The good news is that, for whatever reason (change of season, change of scenery, change of activity, medical treatment finally kicking in, fear of God thesis committee, better coffee, some combination of the above – heck, who knows), I feel like I finally got my groove back. I’m productive and loving it, and it’s consistently been this way for a couple of months now. This is a really freaking welcome change of pace from what I’d been experiencing in the first half of the year.

** Seriously. Every time I’ve had a conversation with other grad students about impostor syndrome and/or their own work, some form of this sentiment invariably comes up at some point. It’s rampant. Also rampant are the effects this can have on student mental health. I can’t begin to tell you how many people have contacted me over the past few months to tell me their own stories – it’s incredible that we don’t hear about/talk about it more often. I sincerely thank those who DID talk about it with me – it really truly helped a great deal to hear your stories and to be reminded that I wasn’t flying solo on this crazy journey.

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