The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Donning “New Binoculars” of Natural History

I’ve been mulling over my last post, in which I ranted about the preponderance of molecular biology in current entomological research.  I found it interesting that several people, people who I like and respect, quickly leapt to MolBio’s defense. Which made me wonder if maybe I was off the mark about the whole thing.

Then I listened to a dialogue between Gary Paul Nabhan and Josh Tewksbury, recorded as part of the Natural Histories Project, wherein advanced chemical, analytical, and visualization techniques are described as the “the binoculars of our age”.

Which made me think some more. And I asked myself, “Self, why are you so darned resistant to this whole concept?”  And the answer I finally came up with was both humbling and embarrassing:

I’m afraid of it.

Worse, I’m afraid of it because I don’t understand it.  Yikes. Not an easy admission for me to make.

Blethisa catenaria, a ground beelte (Carabidae)

I guess its genes could be equally awesome? (But probably not as SHINY)

See, I was the kid who barely scraped through high school chemistry. I moaned and sighed and drudged through mandatory introductory organic chemistry, biochemistry, and genetics courses as an undergraduate student.  I REJOICED when finally I was able to take courses that dealt with whole organisms, their environments, and the complex interactions between them.

The truth is that I have a very hard time working with and understanding things I can’t actually see with my unaided eye or touch with my own fingertips.  Everything else, all the cellular- or gene- or smaller(!)-level phenomena that are obviously integral to the organisms I so love to observe…well, they fall into the realm of “abstract” for me. I simply trust that they are going on as people claim they are (funny thing, that, considering I usually take very few things at face value).

So, my conceptual and practical comprehension of these things are, sadly, probably far more rudimentary than they ought to be at this stage of my career.

I’d like to fix this.

I’ve decided to adopt a new mindset, based on Nabhan and Tewksbury’s interview. I’ve decided to view these things as simply being “new binoculars” – new tools at my disposal that can help me better understand the animals I’m studying – not as high-tech annoyances.

Over the next week or so I’m going to develop a plan of action to help me get over this brain-hurdle I’ve imposed on myself. I expect it to be challenging, and I’m quite certain that it will take me well outside my academic comfort zone.  These are both very, very good things.

If anyone has any suggestions that might help highly kinesthetic/concrete experience-type-learners such as myself, I would gratefully welcome them.

* Expect regular posts from me on Mondays now. I’ll be sharing thoughts, pictures and updates about my research and growth as a grad student.

10 responses to “Donning “New Binoculars” of Natural History

  1. Katie November 14, 2011 at 5:25 PM

    I truly love this post. It’s so honest. I’ll be curious to see if this changes your path in any way.

    • TGIQ November 16, 2011 at 6:49 AM

      Thanks, Katie. I think dilemmas like this really require honesty – starting with being honest with myself. I don’t foresee any major changes in how I think about science, or what really stirs my passions, but I do think the way I DO science might change a bit.

  2. Morgan Jackson November 14, 2011 at 6:33 PM

    This is awesome Geek, and exactly the sort of thing I wish more entomologists, not just bloggers, would do. It’s ok not to know everything, and ok not to play on the cutting edge of technology. Unfortunately the way granting agencies generally work means that you have to come up with bigger and better ideas to get the same amount of money, even though the techniques we’ve used for the past 50-150 years work just fine for many taxa. I’m looking forward to hearing your perspective on the issue in a few months when you’ve had some time to learn about the ins and outs!

    To get started, I’d recommend “Techniques in Molecular Systematics and Evolution” by Rob DeSalle, Gonzalo Giribet, and Ward Wheeler. While it’s a little old (2002ish), it is an excellent primer on the basics of molecular systematics, both the techniques to get data and the analyses and stats to deal with it. From there you can move on to the cutting edge work of pyrosequencing and phylogenomics!

    • TGIQ November 16, 2011 at 6:50 AM

      I have placed a request with interlibrary loans; I should have the book in my (terrified) hands tomorrow. Thanks for the recommendation, Morgan!

  3. Adrian D. Thysse November 14, 2011 at 10:04 PM

    Great post, I admire your forthrightness. I’ve always appreciated how much your excitement for natural history comes through in your posts. Once you are all molecularly replete, I hope you keep writing in terms that the little people (i.e. me) can still understand.

    I’m going to miss the shiny though… (snif, snif) 😥

  4. stevenhamblin November 15, 2011 at 1:06 AM

    That’s a great attitude! And if you get stuck, you can always do what I did: throw yourself into a post-doc in the field that scares you. 🙂

  5. TGIQ November 16, 2011 at 6:55 AM

    LOL! Actually, that was totally my backup plan. These thoughts have been bouncing around in my head for a while, just not articulated very well. But I do recall thinking, well, I could figure this stuff out during my post-doc 😛

  6. Warren November 17, 2011 at 11:05 AM

    molecularly replete? sounds kinky! loves it

  7. Pingback: Arctic beetle trophic structure and shiny new research direction! « The Bug Geek

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