The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: My research

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!”

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.

Winter Diapause

DiapauseFirst, Happy New Year! I appreciate you all so much and am thankful for the many friends and wonderful acquaintances that this blog has brought into my life. I wish you all the very best for the coming year!

Now, a bit of a downer: after much hemming and hawing and soul-searching, I’ve decided to put The Bug Geek into diapause* for the winter. My research activities this term are going to require a lot of time and energy, and lately I’ve been feeling like I’m stretched a little thin.

I haven’t taken on anything new, my teaching workload is actually dropping a fair bit, and my other responsibilities are pretty much the same as they’ve always been. So what gives? I seem to be in the midst of what is known as the “Third Year Slump” (or, more colourfully, “The Valley of Sh-t“), an affliction that affects many PhD candidates. The symptoms of this mysterious ailment include apathy, stress, depression, self-doubt and a drop in productivity.

I am still in love with my research, that’s not the issue at all. Nevertheless, for the past 6-8 weeks or so, the mere thought of having to get some work done sends me into a bit of a tailspin of anxiety. As I work to overcome this (really quite obnoxious) personal hurdle, I’m giving myself permission to do a little less than usual. When I wrote out a list of my responsibilities in order of their importance, blogging, unfortunately, fell to the bottom. I need to focus my positive energy on my research, which, other than my home life, is my main priority.

And so here we are. I may still post occasionally if I’m feeling inspired, and suspect that my normally upbeat mood (and my outdoorsy blog fodder) will return as the weather warms up.

In the meantime thanks for you readership and, more importantly, your friendship. Know that I’ll be back soon. If you think you’re really going to miss me, you’ll probably still find me chatting on Twitter and reblogging pretty insect photos on Tumblr.

*(Yes, I stole borrowed the term and title from Bug Girl. I think she’ll forgive me.)

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 🙂

Where?

Warning: this post contains angst.

The third year of my PhD work is quickly coming to a close (Omg. Aak. Eeek.) I’ve been thinking a lot about post-docs. About the type of research I want to do and the type of researcher I want to become in the long run. About fellowships and funding applications. About finding a great lab and a great mentor.

There’s one other unknown that seems to consistently overshadow all these other considerations, no matter how much I try to convince myself that it shouldn’t be super-important:

where am I going to work?

That one word – “where” – stirs up a flurry of other stressful, intrusive thoughts: where will my wife and I live? Will we stay in Canada, or will we have to move to the US or even overseas? Will we be able to find a nice place that lets us maintain the quiet country existence we’ve both come to love? Will we have to sell our beloved old schoolhouse – or maybe we could just rent it out for a while? Will we be ABLE to sell our beloved old schoolhouse if we need to (the real estate market isn’t exactly on fire right now)? And then there’s our pets – if we move overseas we’ll almost certainly have to put them in quarantine – would we be able to manage that? What about our families? What about my partner’s career (she also returned to school last year to pursue a new path as a social worker)? Will we be able to live someplace that recognizes our marriage – will we both be able to get health care and feel safe in a new community?

This issue of “where” is awfully big. I feel like everything else is manageable, but this one…I don’t know. There are a lot of long-term implications and emotional investments wrapped up in “where”, and frankly it scares the poop out of me if I allow myself to think about it too much

I’m not sure what will ultimately settle the “where” question. We might have to simply follow the available funding. Maybe funding won’t be an issue and I’ll be able to carve out a nice niche for myself in a lab more of my choosing, and someplace where my wife can equally pursue her own dreams. (And maybe pigs will fly?)

Half of me wants to ask you other grad students and post-doc-ey and early-career-ey people to share your own journeys and concerns about this process, but the other half of me is terrified of what you’ll tell me (aak!) What were your primary considerations when looking for post-docs/jobs/higher degrees, in terms of the “where” question?

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