The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: My research

Published! But not about my research…

Last week I received some very  exciting news: the first paper I worked on as a Ph.D. student has been published! It’s especially exciting because it has nothing to do with my research.


That’s right. The paper is not about my research. Well, not directly. But it does touch on something you all know me to be very passionate about: outreach and education.

It’s a book chapter entitled, “Insects in Education: creating tolerances for the world’s smallest citizens”, in a brand-spanking-new book called The Management of Insects in Recreation and Tourism.

(Pardon me for a moment…*ahem*…ZOMG I’M IN A BOOK!!!1!!…o.k., I’m good now.)

I was brought on board to this project late in 2010, after the editor, Harvey Lemelin, expressed interest in the work our research group was doing in northern Canada and the overarching theme of one of our research objectives: Northern Awareness, Education and Legacy. Since I spent a good chunk of my first field season doing outreach, education and training in a northern community, my advisor very generously suggested that I take the lead on the chapter.

Very simply, the book is a multidisciplinary look at the different ways that humans interact with insects. From the description:

[the book] challenges the notion that animals lacking anthropomorphic features hold little or no interest for humans. Throughout the book, the emphasis is on the innovators, the educators, the dedicated researchers and activists who, through collaboration across fields ranging from entomology to sociology and anthropology, have brought insects from the recreational fringes to the forefront of many conservation and leisure initiatives.

Our part of this book involves some case studies based on my and my team members’ experiences and successes working in northern communities and we challenge other entomologists to embrace the idea:

… educational opportunities involving insects engage youth and provide a tangible link to more formal science training and inquiry, and provide benefits for students and researchers.  In additional to longer-term programs, informal or impromptu learning/teaching opportunities are abundant and require little effort from scientists to find and exploit them.  Such opportunities could be as simple and brief as a chat with a local who happens to stop and make an inquiry about the researcher’s work, or a quick display of sweep netting to curious children. These impromptu teaching/learning moments take little time or effort, yet can make a profound impression on the participants, and help foster strong and positive relationships within the community.  working in the north gain tremendous benefits from partnerships in local communities.  …

The time commitment and equipment to pursue local partnerships is minimal, but the impact can be profound.  We have experienced directly the benefits of using arthropods in an educational context in northern Canada, and our experiences suggest the opportunities are untapped. Given their abundance, diversity, importance in northern Canada, and ease and efficiency of sampling, arthropods are certainly one of the best “models” for pursuing further partnerships between schools, communities, and researchers.

As excited as I am about being a contributing factor to this project, it couldn’t have happened without the support and input of my co-authors Kristen Vinke, Donna Giberson and Chris Buddle. Thanks for everything, guys!

If you’d like to get your hands on a copy of the book, it’s going to be released in the U.S. in December, so you can place your order now and have one in time for Christmas! I can’t wait to read the other contributors’ work!

ETA: There is a 20% off discount being offered right now, so get it while the getting’s good! 😀

A grad student’s guide to using social media as a tool for Doing Science

I’m finally back from an incredible whirlwind tour of entomology conferences. I’ve travelled from Ottawa, Ontario (ESO) to Edmonton, Alberta (ESC) to Knoxville, Tennessee (ESA). I am pooped and my brain is saturated with awesome science.

I was invited to give a talk as part of a special symposium at the ESC meeting: “From the Lab to the Web”. It featured other awesome people like Morgan Jackson, Dave Walters, Adrian Thysse, Greg Courtney and Chris Buddle. In my (not-so-) humble opinion, I think it was a highlight of the conference proceedings. My talk was called “A grad student’s guide to using social media as a tool for Doing Science”.  

You can check out some voiced-over slides here, but if you don’t feel like sitting through the entire 30 minutes, here’s a quick round-up of the main points:

1. Social media doesn’t need to be scary or overwhelming. Try to think of it as “hallway talk” – the informal socializing, networking, collaborating and community-building that we do as grad students every day, already.

Our peers are using social media at work. You should too. Image from:

2. Half of Canadians have a social media profile: social media is an important part of the way we communicate and build communities. Academics, especially new faculty, are using social media as a work tool. 90% of academics in the US report using social media – this is nearly twice the average for all other fields of employment. Grad students not using social media in a professional capacity (perhaps especially those considering careers in academia) need to get with the program.

3. Social media can help you:

    • Improve your communication skills. You can practice using non-technical language that anyone, even non-specialists, can understand. Blogging and microblogging are great platforms for this, because your audience is the entire world (and most of them don’t understand your crazy jargon).
    • Get stuff. Like inaccessible journal articles (try the #Icanhazpdf hashtag on Twitter), data (you can tap into citizen scientists from all over the world) and funding for projects (the #scifundchallenge on is well worth a peek if you’ve never heard of crowd-funding).

My Twitter followers. How global is your professional network?

    • Network. Not just within your institution or field of expertise – you can develop a diverse international network of collaborators and colleagues. Being involved in social media allows to you tap into a community of scientists that WANT to engage with you. You will find mentors, friends, allies, and informants in places you never thought possible.
    • Get noticed. By your school, the media and other sciencey organizations. These people are looking for cool research and passionate scientists to feature on their web sites and in articles (which, by the way, can get thousands of readers). You can also use social media and networking sites to get the attention of other academics and boost the citation counts on your articles.

4. Important people – like future thesis advisors, future employers, and faculty search committees – will Google you. Seriously. They’ll do it to learn more about your professional and personal activities. If they can’t find you online, it looks suspicious. Grad students need to take the time to create and cultivate a professional online presence so that the right people can find them when it matters most.

This will not impress your future graduate advisor.

5. Although you want to be Google-able, don’t get caught doing dumb things online. What goes on the internet stays on the internet forever (screenshots can easily create permanent records of stuff you’d rather delete). First impressions are important, so be smart about what you put out there for the world to find.

Criticism is part of the job. Learn to deal with it professionally.

6. Sometimes people on the internet are jerks. You could fall victim to a creepy online stalker (yes, this happens to scientists sometimes), so keep your private, personal information private and personal. Same goes for that of your friends and family members.  Other people might not be creepy, but they might be critical of you and your research. Learn to stand up for your work and practice responding to criticisms in a professional way.

7. Developing a professional online presence takes time, and the upfront investment can be steep, but it’s well worth the effort. Schedule some time in your to-do list to engage with other members of the online science community, and start building your network.  You’ll be glad you did. I know it’s paid off big-time for me.

Again, if you’d like to hear more details, please check out the video.

I know that I’m probably preaching to the converted already, but I’d love to hear about your own experiences (both positive and negative) with social media, either as a grad student or as someone in the workplace (scientists and non-scientists alike!)

Yes or no?

One professional philosophy that I’ve tried very hard to embrace is, “be open to the possibility of doing new things or taking on new responsibilities“: a new collaboration, a new side-project, a new outreach activity, a new workshop. In other words, to say, “yes” whenever possible.

I’ve observed a trend towards grad students saying, “I don’t have time”. They spend most of their waking hours working on their research, their papers and their theses: in other words, being good, conscientious students.

I do get why so many grad students balk at doing something new: “new things” almost invariably translate into “more work added to an already stupidly busy student workload”. And while I have no doubt that these students will be great successes academically, I worry that some of them are letting important professional opportunities slip away.

I try to view new things as occasions to learn something new, to practice or develop a skill, or to expand my network of colleagues. These benefits are significant in and of themselves, in that they enhance and enrich the overall grad student/educational experience. They also can lead to broader recognition (by your peers, your institution, or potential future employers) of you and your work, or to novel and important additions to your CV that let you stand out from the crowd (and let’s not kid ourselves – the job market is fiercely competitive right now).

I also believe that taking on just a little more than you think you can manage (you probably can manage more than you think) is a good opportunity to learn the fine art of time management in academia. If you watch any professor, you’ll quickly discover that she or he is constantly juggling about a hundred things at once: developing courses, marking papers, teaching, meeting with their grad students, running lab meetings, managing their labs, participating on committees, writing papers, writing funding applications, running journal clubs or seminars, etc. etc. etc. They rarely (if ever?) have the luxury of getting to focus on only one thing (i.e., research).

Those of us with an interest in academic careers will (hopefully) find ourselves conducting similar juggling acts one day, and frankly, juggling is not an easy skill to learn. The idea of being responsible for running a lab is already a daunting prospect: add to that the myriad OTHER responsibilities of an academic position, and…well, phew. I’d much rather figure out what tools and techniques best help me juggle things NOW, rather than to try to learn it on the fly later on when tenure is at stake.

*steps off soapbox*

That said, it’s also perfectly OK to say “no”.

Not to everything (see above), but when it matters. One thing you learn by saying “yes” is how much you really can manage – your own personal critical mass of new things, if you will. No one can (or should) do everything, and your head will explode if you try (also you’ll likely consume too much caffeine and not sleep very well – not that I’ve been there before or anything :/). If taking on one more thing would truly compromise the success or progress of your research – if you’ve reached your critical mass – don’t hesitate even for a moment to say “no”.

If the time commitment or the aggravation outweighs the potential professional or personal payoff – say “no”.

If you have a gut feeling that the new thing might turn into a time-sucking or career-wrecking disaster – um, yeah…you should totes say “no” to that.

If you think it might compromise or strain existing important relationships (professional and personal) – say “no”.

If you’re asked to take on something only sort of relevant/rewarding that might prevent you from taking on something really rewarding/interesting or relevant to your career path – it’s totally OK to say “no” to that too.

Occasionally you might be asked to so something that makes you think, “Boy, I’d rather poke my own eyes out with a fork than do THAT.” You could say “no”, but before you do, consider the possibility (with long-term career or short-term CV goals in mind) that it might be good for you do to anyways.

The bottom line is that there’s no simple formula for determining how much extra stuff you should do, or what things are worth your time – it’s all highly dependent on your own abilities and also on your own academic and professional goals. But, I strongly encourage other students to keep an open mind, to accept challenges and to step outside their comfort zones. My own experiences have led me to believe that it truly pays off in the end.

I’d like to throw this discussion out there: what do you other grad students think? How do you manage and prioritize your time and activities? Do you think there’s any value in doing non-research-related activities?  Can anybody who is now working in academia tell us about their experiences?

Getting the most out of academic conferences

In my field, the first few months of the fall term represent “conference season”. Last year I went to my first entomology conference as a PhD student. This year I’m upping the ante considerably: I’m giving a total of 4 talks at three conferences  (one is provincial, one national and one international).  Larger conferences are pretty darned fun and full of awesome brain-candy. In addition to the beer and free food and hotel rooms and  t-shirts and field trips and books lighter, more social aspects, they also provide excellent opportunities to interact with people in your  field and to learn about exciting new research.

I’m now at what I consider to be a fairly crucial stage of my PhD, in terms of completing projects I’ve started and developing quick additional projects to round out my thesis. As such, I’m considering this conference tour to be (potentially) very important.

I’ve read some blog posts in the last year or so that provided students some sound advice for maximizing the conference experience. One idea that I’ve come across has stuck with me: have a focus.  I think this can apply to any number of things the conference-goer might wish to accomplish.

Take networking, for example (this apparent holy grail of conference achievements for students is also often perceived as incredibly difficult to do). First, let’s replace the terrifying word “networking” with the much more fun “talking with other scientists about science”, or TWOSAS. There, that’s better.

When TWOSASing, what is it that you want to achieve? Simply to meet new people? To ask a specific question about their research? To talk about your own work?  I have two foci in mind for my own TWOSASing activities:

  1. Talk to people who do molecular work. I have a project in mind that I’m dying to get off to a running start, but I don’t have the equipment or expertise to get the lab work done. I have good, standardized samples, a willingness to prep them, and a manuscript looking for shared authorship if I can find the right collaborator. I plan to pitch my idea and see if I can find any takers. I’ll be primarily looking to discuss this venture with PIs, but post-docs or other grad students might be a good place to get an initial “in” (i.e., some face-to-face time for a conversation). This TWOSAS focus will take a little bit of pre-conference legwork: I plan to scope out speakers giving talks that are related to my project, and identify a few possible TWOSAS candidates in advance.
  2. Start chatting with people about post-doc opportunities outside of Canada. “Post-doc” sounds even more terrifying that “network” *shudder*, but the reality is that I’ll be figuring out the next step in my career sooner than I’m ready to admit. I’m more familiar with the scene here, but I’m very willing to look to the US or even overseas for other opportunities. I’d like to learn more about funding available, the types of things to look for in a lab/PI, pros and cons of different project types or even locations, advice for project management and developing successful applications…all that good stuff. Other grad students into the search and current post-docs will be my go-to peeps here. Perhaps easier to approach in some ways, these folks will by my colleagues down the road, and they’re just as important to TWOSAS with as PIs. Most conferences have student mixers or other similar opportunities to hang out with people at a similar career stage. I’ll be looking for events like these in the conference programs.

The other thing for which I will have a focus is: learn something new. I have a tendency to select talks that are either: a) totally in my field, b) probably not related to anything I do but sound super-cool, c) something about ecology or whole-organism biology. Since I really want to expand my current skill set and knowledge base, I’m going to pick a subject about which I know very little – ideally one that is really on the cutting edge of my field – and attend a whole bunch of talks on that one subject.

I will not, of course, limit myself only to these (there are some super-fun talks and symposia I have every intention of attending, as well as talks by friends and colleagues and people that I know from online but have yet to meet IRL)!

Fun talks aside, I think that having a focus to my talk attendance will be a bit like a mini-immersion in the subject, and will hopefully get me a little more up to speed. This one will also require some pre-conference prep: I’ll probably chat with my advisor and other people in my department and get some advice on what subjects would be best. (ALSO I WILL BLOG ABOUT IT AND HOPEFULLY PEOPLE WILL LEAVE USEFUL SUGGESTIONS IN THE COMMENTS. Yes, that was a hint.)

Anyways, I’m very interested in hearing from you folks out there: do you set goals for yourself when attending conferences? Do you have any great tips or suggestions for me or other grad students?
Cross-posted at Grad Life

Photo Friday: Beetles. With worms.

Yes, I was ignoring my blog this week.

I am working on a new project that developed when some really interesting samples came up from one of our sites in the Northwest Territories – beetles parasitized with hairworms. I’ve posted about these before, but this site is special because there are SO FREAKING MANY OF THEM. It’s crazy. I have a new collaborator in the U.S. who is going to ID the worms for me, and I’ve been working my tail off to get all the hosts ID’d.

Since I’m totally obsessed right now, I thought I’d share my obsession:

Anyone who follows my Twitter or facebook accounts is probably sick to death of hearing about beetles with worms.

I’m sorry.

I promise I’ll try to talk about something other than squiggly things creeping out of beetle’s butts next week, ok?

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