The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: General geekery

Wrong for science?

Last night I was up too late (again), nursing a too-busy brain with a good dose of Internet, when the Twitterverse led me to an post by Marie-Claire Shanahan on the blog Boundary Vision, entitled, “Who is the traditional right type of person for science?”

It would appear there are some common themes in terms of (high school) students’ opinions about what makes a good scientist, i.e., they are inquisitive, creative, follow rules, employ critical thinking, and have a certain level of theoretical or technical expertise.

There are also some common misconceptions, which are brilliantly illustrated in a comic that a number of my science-student-buddies were passing around last week:

Public perception of science, and the reality (from

It seems that students often think they’re not “the right type of person” to do science because of the mistaken notion that scientists have such giant, enormous brains that they never struggle, make mistakes, or have to ask questions. For example:

[A] student, who didn’t see herself as a science student despite having good marks, told me that she based her assessment mostly on the fact that she asks the teacher a lot of questions to make sure she understands. “Real science students shouldn’t have to do that”, she said. This seems in some ways antithetical to science. Isn’t asking questions and pushing until you understand one of the defining characteristics of scientific scholarship? Some students went as far as to say that real science students don’t need to participate in science class because they should know the right answers already.

That student could have been me.

When I was in my second last year of high school, I was struggling to keep up in my senior biology class. My mark was dismal. My parents came in to chat with the teacher.  Her helpful advice? “Science isn’t really your thing.  You should try something else.”

If I hadn’t felt stupid already, I sure did now. I figured she was right: I did not, after all, really fit societal expectations of “a good science student”. My struggle turned into apathy. I stopped asking questions in class. I scraped by with a barely-passing grade.

The effects of the teachers’ words lingered. At the time of our conversation, I had been thinking about going to vet school. A year later, I was passionately anti-science, and would tell anyone who would listen that I was an “artsie”.

I applied for university programs in psychology, journalism and technical theatre. I ended up in journalism . It quickly became clear that, although I was doing well, it really wasn’t turning my crank…what on earth was I going to do?

Then, a lucky fluke: in my second semester I took an elective class called “Natural History of Ontario”. It was like a floodlight went off in my brain. HOLY CRAP, THIS STUFF IS AWESOME!  THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO DO!!! That summer I took 3 senior science and math classes, and started back at my university in the fall as a first-year biology student.

I haven’t looked back since.

Says Shanahan, in the original article on which her blog post was based:

The ability to generate new explanations, see novel connections, and navigate fluidly between representations are among only some of the aspects of scientific intelligence that have been neglected in students’ conceptualizations….In a classroom, however, [an] impoverished view of intelligence is the one that is likely rewarded. Grades are the primary measure of success in school science…

What I discovered as I successfully navigated through two science degrees, and continue to learn as I work on my third, is that many of my “messy” or “not-sciencey” characteristics are what help me learn and do good science. I “reauthored” myself as a science student, with new ideas about acceptable roles and attributes.

I ask a lot of questions – I don’t know everything, after all.

I make a lot of mistakes – but I learn from them.

I work hard to grasp new concepts – it helps me remember them and make meaningful connections to other concepts.

I do things my own way sometimes, not always following set rules – it lets me develop new approaches or ideas.

I permit myself to be distracted – my meandering, random brain often hits on great stuff that way.

As much as I’ve come to recognize the value of these traits, I am still, in some ways, as guilty as ever of believing that maybe I’m doing science all wrong, and that others are better scientists than me because they better adhere to my old notions about “real science” or “real scientists”.

Can we change the culture of science and science education to recognize and value traits other than those pervasive and persistently-held? DOES the culture change beyond high school? I would love to see this study repeated with, say, second-year university students. And again with tenured professors.


Shanahan, M., & Nieswandt, M. (2011). Science student role: Evidence of social structural norms specific to school science Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48 (4), 367-395 DOI: 10.1002/tea.20406

Wherein I celebrate a talk, cry over natural history, and do new things to this blog

I am finally back from conference-madness-land.  The annual Entomological Society of Canada meeting wrapped up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Wednesday.  To summarize:

1. It was super-fun and my brain is full of ideas and delicious nerdspeak.

2. I am super-stoked that I gave my first talk as a PhD student and I didn’t get boo-ed off the stage; not bad for having a data set of, oh, about ZERO ENTRIES less than a month ago, and for having frantically finished making my last slides the morning of the talk (this is not something I plan to make a habit of, because it is nauseatingly stressful). I am highly motivated to make next year’s talk awesome.

3. I am super-depressed by the tsunami-like wave of molecular biology sweeping over the ento research world, because it seems to be crushing every last little terrified, clinging speck of natural history work to smithereens.

Since when are genes more interesting than the animals to which they belong? *LONG DEEP SIGH*

 (Note: Morgan at Biodiversity In Focus tweeted about this Natural History Network today. It is freaking out my web browser for some reason, but when that settles down I hope to hear some good news about this subject. )

Acorn weevil taking off (Curculio sp.)

A weevil (a photo taken at BugShot). Entirely more awesome than a SNP. Amirite?

Anyhoo. You may have noticed something a little different around here: the blog formerly known as “Fall To Climb” is henceforth the domain (figuratively and literally) of “The Bug Geek“.  Also, I was a very nice person and made your lives easier by linking my old blog name to this one, so you don’t even have to update your readers (you’re welcome), but you can (but no pressure).

I am going to be messing around with the layout and things a little over the next few weeks, so bear with me if things are glitchy or stupid-looking.

Now, first things first: blogroll update. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while and just haven’t gotten around to it. Since attending BugShot 2011, I have added a number of fun new bug blogs (some of which belong to BugShot attendees) to my blog reader, but haven’t yet mentioned them here. Some may be old news to you, but just in case: – bug photographs and photog tips by Scott – more bug photos, with bonus natural history (yay!), and a dash of general geekery, by fellow (undergrad) student Alex Webb – portraits of insects with dreamy, beautiful, natural light by Rick Lieder  – great photos and field notes by Charley Eisman – bugs and other critters in the Ozarks, by George Sims (he gets bonus points for getting the words “bugs” and “booger” in the same domain!) – bug photos from Edmonton, Alberta, TONS of natural history, referenced literature … swoon! – “Bug Squad” – a great new bug blog out of U California Agriculture and Natural Resources, by Kathy Keatley Garvey

If I’m missing anybody, let me know! I hope you all find something new and fun to enjoy here 🙂

Edited to add: Forgot one! It’s got beetles!  Awesome beetles! By Jon!

Ooh, found another! – Great photos, natural history, from the UK!

Happy Halloween!

My wife (K) and I were invited to a Halloween costume party this past weekend.  It’s been far too long since I’ve been to such a shindig, and this one had a great reputation for really going all-out, so I relished the excuse to get my creative juices flowing and put some great costumes together.

Here’s what I came up with for me:

Yours truly as Carabus vietinghoffi! (Yes, I'm a dork).

Here’s the rest of it:

Elytra, prothorax and sternum made from foam board (with wire taped beneath so I could shape it), celophane wrap and glitter; pipecleaner antennae and florist foam eyes (painted and "ommatidia" glued on) attached to a black toque, old long johns converted into legs, and foam mandibles attached to a cheapo mask.

Elytra, prothorax and sternum made from foam board, celophane wrap and glitter; pipecleaner antennae and florist foam eyes (painted and "ommatidia" glued on) attached to a black toque, old long johns converted into legs, and foam mandibles attached to a cheapo mask.

I wore this with a black long-sleeved shirt, black tights, socks and gloves.  The only downside was that I was the only entomologist at the party (not including K, who is an excellent amateur!), so there were a lot of comments about me being a “fly” (HARUMPH) and we had to explain K’s costume a bit…I thought her (TOTALLY AMAZING) prop would have made it crystal-clear:

She was the “entomologist/insect collector” – DUH!

Despite the confusion, we still took second prize for the costume competition (first place went to an utterly creepy and impeccably detailed corpse bride and groom)!

It was great fun and a welcome distraction from my ESC-talk-induced panic.

A facelift for Fall To Climb?

Clearly I spend way too much time on the internet and blogging and/or thinking about blogging, because the subject at the forefront of my brain right now is the name or “brand” of this blog (unless my advisor is reading this, in which case he should stop reading and go back to whatever he was doing, safe in the knowledge that I am utterly consumed with thoughts of Kug beetles. Seriously. My desk is covered with them at this very moment. Go back to work.)

Now, for the rest of you: I want people to easily find and read this blog. I want to spread entomo-goodness far and wide.  I want to expand my readership and the people in my network, because, frankly, I keep finding more awesome people and things to read out there. I’m very aware that the number of Canadian-based insect blogs is not exactly hefty, and I think it’s time for Canuks to step up and get noticed (because, like, we have bugs too, eh?).

See? A bug! From Canada! Ok, not a bug, a fly (maybe Dryomyza anilis - thanks Morgan!)...but it's definitely an insect!

The name of this blog was selected years ago when I had no idea what the blog would be about. Now that I’ve got a bit of a “thing” going here, it’s clear that the name “Fall to Climb” has little to do with the blog’s current persona.

So I’m thinking, perhaps it’s time for a change.

BUT. If a change means losing touch with the people that I know and love RIGHT NOW, I’m not sure I’m willing to take the risk.

So, please humor me, people I know and love.  What do you all think?

BugShot 2011 = Awesome

I’m home from BugShot, bleary-eyed and sleepy from a long night of travel and three prior days of sleep deprivation.  No, Alex Wild, John Abbott and Thomas Shahan weren’t working us THAT hard, but I was so darn fired up and excited about everything we were doing that I found it hard to tear myself away from my camera, even at 2 a.m.!  The Shaw Nature Reserve in Missouri provided a beautiful setting for this jam-packed and very hands-on workshop, and the new (to me) ecosystem meant encounters with a lot of  new critters!

In the field with Alex Wild, as he demonstrates some lighting and diffusion techniques (I'm convinced his awesome field hat is at least party responsible for his photography-super-powers.)

I had the most amazing weekend: I learned everything I hoped to, and more.  Even better than the fact that I’m feeling considerably less camera-stupid (I’m not shooting in Auto Mode as a default!  I can manipulate my exposure all by myself!  I’m using FLASHES!!!), I am coming away from this weekend feeling incredibly inspired.  I’ve got some new ideas about composition, lighting, equipment and technique that I can’t wait to try in the field, and in a studio setting. I think I will get off my very disorganized arse (*badly-labelled desktop folders*) and start applying what I’ve learned about digital asset management (*metadata! LightRoom! external hard drives!*) in a serious way.

My first "keeper" of the workshop, taken in my usual style with ambient light: plant hoppers (Enchenopa sp.-on-Ptelea) and egg masses

The three instructors were friendly and incredibly generous with their time, expertise and advice.  Each had a unique artistic eye and set of ideas about how to get the most out of your equipment; I’ve taken away some great tips and ideas from all of them. I have to thank Alex especially for giving me the opportunity to experiment with some of his flash units and studio setups – it was so great to actually work with these things rather than simply observe.

Trying out Alex's Canon 430EX off-camera flash with remote trigger (WANT!) in the field. I never could have captured this image of two very cryptic grasshoppers tucked under a shady bark nook in the dark forest understory without it!

I’ve also really enjoyed sharing with and learning from all of the participants – each one brought different perspectives, expertise and levels of experience, and I’ve benefited from so many of them. Special shout-outs have to go to some of my online friends who I FINALLY got to meet in person: Lee, DragonflyWoman, Dave, and Ted, it was a blast! (I’ve also found some new online folk, stay tuned for some blogroll updates!)

“Fishing” for tiger beetle larvae with none other than the blogosphere’s famous Ted MacRae (fangirl moment: Ted is one of my personal blogging/beetle/photography heroes) was definitely one of the highlights of my trip (Ted, next time I’m in the area – you, me, beetle-hunting, ok? :-))

An antlion larva, fished out from its funnel-shaped chamber under a porch (my first antlions!!!) and posed in Alex's white box setup for a studio shot. What a super-fun tool! I have a lot of respect for the work Alex must do to chase down fast-moving ants in there...this little guy seriously didn't stop moving (backward!!!) for more than a nanosecond!!!

So, basically, the entire thing was awesome and if I could do it again next weekend I would in a heartbeat.  I think I’m going to start saving up now so I can go again next year (after I’ve finished saving up for some new equipment, mind you)!

I have a lot more pictures to share, but I’m not going to do it now…this workshop gave me enough blog fodder to get me through the busy fall term!

Thanks again, Alex, Thomas and John!!!

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