The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

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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.

Learning the importance of listening: sexism and harassment in science

No adorable caterpillar photographs today, I’m afraid. We’ve got more important things to discuss.

If you are involved in the online science community at all (and I assume you are, since you’re reading this), then you know that in the past couple of days some distressing stories have emerged regarding sexism and harassment.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then please take a moment to read this: Give Trouble to Others But Not Me.

And this: This Happened.

Even though I have no direct affiliations or associations with any of the people involved, other than occasional exchanges of tweets or blog links, the situations  and the many ensuing online discussions, blog posts, tweets and reports have left me reeling – and angry.

I’m fiercely proud of Monica and DN Lee for speaking out. Publicly talking about challenging or taboo personal experiences is a very difficult thing to do. They have taken huge professional risks, shared very personal information, and have opened themselves up for attack, criticism and blame. However, in taking these risks, they have also provided us all with an opportunity to have some incredibly difficult and uncomfortable but important conversations; conversations that ask us to check our own assumptions, actions and privileges. Most of us will not like some things we discover about ourselves.

What happened to these two women were not rare, isolated incidents. Sexual discrimination and harassment is a pervasive, systemic problem. Not just in the science community or the science journalism community but in the Community at large. We are all affected, whether we like it or not. It’s everybody’s business. We all have a responsibility to acknowledge the fact that sexual harassment and discrimination happens, TO people we know, BY people we know. And yes, it even happens in the Ivory Tower. We’re not immune just because we’re “educated”. Ask around, and listen.

There was a time when I didn’t acknowledge or believe that sexism persists in academic settings: as an inexperienced 20-something student working in a biology department with a goodish number of female professors, I thought claims of unequal treatment or harassment were dubious at best, and feminazi-ish at worst. “Look at all the female profs,” I’d say.  “Sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior? Here? It’s never happened to me,” I’d say. “It can’t be as bad as that, if it’s never happened to me,” I’d say.

I’m a considerably more experienced 30-something now, and I’m embarrassed for my younger self. For whatever reason (I have my suspicions but that’s a whole other post), I am still fortunate enough to have avoided explicit harassment while in a scientific or academic setting. However, my 30-something self has learned how freaking important it is to listen to other people when they say this stuff is going on. Just because it hasn’t happened to me does not mean it isn’t happening. This sh_t happens all. The. Time. My own (incredibly unusual) experience does not negate or invalidate the experiences of countless women (guys, are you listening?).

I have so many thoughts in my head right now, about power and how it can be abused, about privilege, discrimination, inequality, and our explicit or implicit acceptance of really unforgivable actions, words, and assumptions. I think about the ways in which I have condoned or accepted these unforgivable things (explicitly or implicitly) in the past. I think about how these things have been acted out for such a long time that some people can hardly recognize or acknowledge them, or even shrug them off as part of the “normal” culture of science. I think about the type of work environment that creates for me and my female colleagues, how it affects our professional actions and choices, and how it affects our future. I despair that things won’t change.

I don’t know what to do with all these thoughts, so I’ll keep chewing on them. In the meantime, I recognize that things will never change if we don’t talk about them. This is not something to just “calm down” about and hope it blows over. I wanted to acknowledge the situation and say that I want to listen to, and hear, what others have to say, and to be part of the conversation.

Life in the fast lane (subarctic beetles, part 1)

Sometime in the next few months my first research paper is going to be published (True story! I saw the proofs a few days ago!) The paper is based on 2 months of field work I did during my first summer as a PhD student, waaaay back in 2010. Some of you might remember that I packed up my gear (I traveled light, as you can see), hopped on a few planes and landed in a remote, barren landscape. The “remote” part ended up being pretty much bang-on, but the barren bit…not so much.

The incomparably stunning subarctic tundra is sprinkled with beautiful flowers and is home to incredible wildlife, some charismatic (grizzly bears! wolverines! snow geese!) and others more cryptic but no less important – arguably more important, in fact.

Kug flowers

Flowers from Kug (from top L, clockwise): prickly saxifrage, arctic rhododendron, arctic poppy, yellow saxifrage.

It was these these smaller creatures that I travelled all the way to Kugluktuk, Nunavut, to seek and collect: the insects. As you all know, insects are very important animals: they make up the majority of the world’s biodiversity (even in the Arctic: there are over 2000 species spiders, insects and mites living above the tree line, but only a few dozen species of mammals).  These insects all have very important jobs (or “ecological functions”) that affect the way the ecosystem works: they pollinate plants, they decompose things, they feed on plants and other insects, they bite other animals. When they do their jobs is equally important – if the timing is off, it can affect how other parts of the ecosystem work (think, for example, what might happen if pollinating insects like flies and bees were flying around and visiting plants after the peak blooming period).

Members of my research team have been travelling all over northern Canada, collecting insects and spiders, for the past few years. Most of the time, we collect in a single location for only two weeks. This doesn’t sound like much, but the summers are short and some our latest data (like for spiders, for example) tell us that two weeks is plenty of time to catch most of what’s out there to be caught at high latitudes. Also, we collect like possessed people. Over a hundred traps get set within 24 hours of arrival, and then we’re out all day every day, filling specimen bags and vials with six- and eight-legged critters.

So my time in Kug was pretty unique. Two months represents nearly the entire summer season – the time during which you would expect insects and spiders to be running and flying around. In fact, when I arrived on June 21, there were still piles of snow on the ground and the ice on the inland ponds was just starting to break up.  I left in mid-August, and friends reported that snow was flying two weeks later.

Subarctic summers are short, cold, and yet they’re an utter whirlwind of insect activity. When I was out emptying traps with frozen, wet fingers, sporting my long underwear and a toque, I was still hauling in dozens, even hundreds, of insects and spiders. Those bugs have a very tiny window of time during which they can wake up, move around, feed, mate/grow/lay eggs (for most, this can’t even happen in a single season – their life cycle has to be stretched out over several years) before having to go back to sleep for the winter again. Life for a bug in the north is life in the fast lane.

Me with samples

Whirl paks full of bugs make me very happy (even if I’m very cold)

Having a season’s worth of samples is a rare thing for studies of Arctic entomology - field work in the north, especially in remote locations, is logistically difficult and really, really, freaking expensive, so it doesn’t happen often and when it does it’s usually for a brief period of time.

When you travel on the tundra, you travel in style.

When you travel on the tundra, you travel in style.

The day after I arrived in Kug, my field assistant and I set traps at three different sites on the tundra. At each site, we put 18 traps in a wet, soggy, sedge meadow and 18 traps in nearby dry tundra.

Dry tundra (left) and wet sedge meadow (right)

Dry tundra (left) and wet sedge meadow (right)

We used both “yellow pan” traps and “pitfall” traps. Both are dug into the ground so that insects walking around can fall into them. The yellow ones also attract flying insects (those critters were passed on to other people on my research team). We emptied all 108 traps about once a week, for eight weeks, putting the contents of each trap in its own sample bag every week. That’s a lotta samples.

A "yellow pan" trap, about to be collected.

A “yellow pan” trap, about to be collected.

These great samples allowed me to ask some basic questions about the insect community and how it changes over time (i.e., over the course of the active season). I wanted to find out four things: (1) what insects live in Kug, and what habitats do they live in?; (2) what insects are active at different points in the summer – does the species assemblage change over time? (3) what buggy jobs are being performed at different points in the summer – does the functional assemblage change over time?, and (4) can anything in the environment, like weather, explain any patterns in the way the assemblages change (if they even change at all?)

Over the next few weeks I’m going to touch on each of these points and tell you what I found, hopefully cumulating in a link to the actual research paper :)

A fungus ate this moth’s head

It’s been far too long since we’ve had a good gross-out parasite post, so let’s rectify the situation, shall we?

I captured this gruesome scene at the end of June, in the park where I was camping.

This poor unidentifiable moth met a horrifying end in the grips of an entomophathogenic fungus, which, though technically not a parasite, is nevertheless growing gangbusters out of the moth’s head.

While non-pathogenic fungi use less gory approaches to dispersal and propogation, relying on things like wind and water, entomopathogenic (EP) (entomo=insect; pathogenic=disease-causing) fungi use insects and other arthropods as their food source and means of spore transmission.

EP fungi produce spores that attach to, sprout on, and penetrate the outer shell (or cuticle) of their host.  Once they’ve breached the outer barrier, they feed on the nutrients available inside the host, ultimately killing them. What you see in the photo above is the final stage – the host has been killed, and the fungus has produced mature fruiting bodies from which more spores will be produced.

One of the most fascinating aspects of these fungi is their ability to alter their hosts’ behaviours – sometimes in ways that maximize the likelihood of spore dispersal, and sometimes in ways that actually harm the fungus and help the host fight off the infection – there seems to be a finely tuned evolutionary tradeoff at play in these systems that permits both the fungus and the host to persist and thrive despite the unpleasantness of the interaction between them.

For example, a fungal infection may lead a host to seek out sunlight or other sources of heat; by raising their body temperature (a so-called “behavioural fever”), the host can sometimes make its body inhospitably warm for the invader. Other EP fungal infections, such as those seen in pea aphids, can cause an infected aphid to move to unusual, more exposed parts of the plant to feed. This could be the fungus’ way of ensuring better spore dispersal, or might be the aphid’s way of preventing the fungus from spreading to the rest of its colony. Some fungi seem to make female hosts more attractive to males (presumably to aid in spore transmission), while others cause hosts to seek out elevated sites before their deaths (as was most likely what happened to this moth).

This is all terribly reminiscent of the mind-controlling hairworm I posted about last year, and behavioural changes have also been shown to be induced by insect parasitoids; it’s clear that behaviour modification is a useful strategy for many organisms that rely on a host to complete their life cycle!

Roy HE, Steinkraus DC, Eilenberg J, Hajek AE, & Pell JK (2006). Bizarre interactions and endgames: entomopathogenic fungi and their arthropod hosts. Annual review of entomology, 51, 331-57 PMID: 16332215

Grosman AH, Janssen A, de Brito EF, Cordeiro EG, Colares F, Fonseca JO, Lima ER, Pallini A, & Sabelis MW (2008). Parasitoid increases survival of its pupae by inducing hosts to fight predators. PloS one, 3 (6) PMID: 18523578

Respect your specimens

Since I finally submitted my manuscript to a journal (YAY!), I’ve been tying up the little loose ends remaining at the end of the project. You know: organizing the useful data and image files, tossing the files marked “MESSING_AROUND_WITH_DATA_v.29),  tidying up my R code, and, perhaps most importantly, curating my specimens.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the project here (I’m saving that for the “OMG PAPER ACCEPTED” post I hope to write in the not-too-distant future).  I will say, though, that the work I just completed includes just over 2,600 beetle specimens from a single location in Nunavut (Kugluktuk, where I spent my entire first field season).

Two major aspects of the physical work (as opposed to the thinking, reading and writing) involved in an ecological/entomological project such as this one are the pinning and the identifications. Some of the tasks are a bit tedious (cutting labels; entering data; gluing over 800 specimens of the same tiny, plain black ground beetle to paper points), and some of them are thrilling (finally getting over the “hump” of the morphological learning curve and feeling good and confident when working with your keys; having experts tell you “Yep, you got those all right”; discovering rare species or new regional species records).  In the end, in addition to the published (*knocks on wood*) paper,  you have boxes or drawers full of specimens.

The specimens are gold. (Read this post by Dr. Terry Wheeler to understand why.)

Unfortunately, they don’t always get treated as such.

In the two-ish years that I’ve been working in my lab, we’ve had two major “lab clean-up days”. The first managed to get rid of a lot of clutter (old papers, broken apparatus, random crap). The second involved going through the “stuff” that was eating up all the most valuable storage space: specimens. Years and years worth of graduate and undergraduate projects’ specimens, stashed in freezers, boxes, bags and vials of all shapes and sizes.

Some things were in good shape (pinned well, or in clear ethanol). Other things were, well, downright nasty: gooey beetles in sludgy brown ethanol, dried up bits of moth wings in plastic containers, and a little bit of “what in the name of pearl is growing on that agar plate???” in the fridge.

None of these items were kept – their value as useful specimens was nil. So, the physical representation of some student’s work – probably months or years worth of work – was tossed in the trash.

Others, happily, were tucked back into drawers and cupboards, because someone had taken the time to ensure the specimens were well-preserved.

However, even many of these were suffering from a serious issue: bad labels.

Allow me to illustrate the point. This is a bad label:

This is also a bad label:

The first, you’ll note, is written in ballpoint pen (which fades) on a torn piece of notebook paper and contains almost no information. The second, although it looks fancier and perhaps more sciencey, is just as bad: it contains a cryptic code that is useful only to the bearer of the lab notebook in which said code has been written down. Or, perhaps the code is completely intelligible to the researcher who developed it, but the key to it exists only in his or her head.

To everyone else, it is meaningless. Neither of these labels indicate who collected the specimen, where, when, or how. And we all know what happens in labs: upon completion of their degrees, students move on, email addresses change, notebooks are misplaced, data files are not backed up.  The labels’ codes can never be broken, and the scientific value of the specimens – *poof*.

While there’s nothing wrong, in theory, with using labels like these temporarily (although there is always a risk that they will be misinterpreted or misunderstood after a little while, even by the person who wrote them), they are absolutely useless as permanent records.

These are good labels:

These labels, properly affixed to a specimen, provide clear and universally understood information. One provides the location, including GPS coordinates, a method of collection, a date, the name of the collector(s).  The information that goes on this label can vary a bit (it may include information about the habitat or host plant, for example), but those are the basic requirements. The smaller label is typically affixed on the pin below the first, and contains the specimen’s scientific name and the name of the person who identified it (it is the “det. label”, i.e., “determined by”). These labels, and therefore the specimen with which they are associated, will remain useful for decades, even centuries.

I am totally guilty of both of the offenses I just explained (the gooky vials of nastiness and the bad labels). For my undergraduate honors project, I identified close to 8000 spiders, mites and insects to the Family level -  it was hundreds of hours of  microscope work. Then I stuffed all those specimens back into vials with cryptic little codes, like V-1-F(!), hand-written on STICKERS(!), which I placed on the LIDS(!) and not even in the vials themselves(!). Oh, and I’ve long since lost the notebook that contained my decoder key(!). THIS IS ALL SO BAD.  I have no doubt that those boxes of vials, which I once prized so highly and felt such pride for, have been unceremoniously tossed in the trash by my former advisor.

Well, I’ve learned from my mistakes, and from working with museum and other collection specimens. I now understand that each specimen is deserving of respect – it’s the original data after all – and that means it should be properly preserved, and labelled.


Last week I spent a great deal of time, as I said, tying up my loose ends. The last thing I needed to do was remove my cryptic labels (the second in the series up there is an actual example of one of my own “secret code” labels) and replace them with proper ones, sorting and tidying up the collection in the process. The end result?


Frankly, it’s a thing of beauty. It’s also enormously scientifically valuable. These specimens will be deposited in various nationally-important collections and museums, like the CNC.

As a matter of fact, just last week I was at the CNC, and I saw specimens bearing the name of the last person to do a comprehensive survey of the insects in Kugluktuk, back in 1955. That tiny but so-important label suddenly made me feel connected to the man who, almost 60 years earlier, had stood on the same stretch of tundra as me, holding and perhaps delighting in the very specimen that I held in my own hand.

Giving my specimens the respect they deserve is worth it, not only for the scientific value, but also because perhaps, 60 years from now, another grad student will discover my name on a specimen’s det. label. Perhaps she, too, will feel that same wondrous sense of connection to the the greater scheme of scientific discovery…


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