The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: My research

Field season in the Yukon – part 2 (the fine art of collaboration)

Now that the “oooh, aaaah” part of my field work is out of the way, let’s talk a bit about doing research, shall we?

My PhD work is a component of a research program called the Northern Biodiversity Program. It involves several professors from several universities, about a dozen grad students, a postdoctoral researcher, and a multitude of private and public partners. The word that must best describe a project of this scope is: “collaborative”.

col·lab·o·rate intr.v. col·lab·o·rat·ed, col·lab·o·rat·ing, col·lab·o·rates

1.To work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort.

Although we all share the same overarching objective, our personal research goals and areas of specialization are quite different. On this trip to the Yukon, I traveled with: an arachnologist studying spider population genetics; a hymenopterist doing biodiversity inventories of wasps using molecular techniques; another arachnologist interested in the distribution and life history of a species of pseudoscorpion; and another hymenopterist working on parasitic wasps and their leaf-mining caterpillar prey. Me – I study beetles and am interested in functional ecology and food webs.

Our research questions essentially had zero overlap, with the exception of the locality: it’s what brought us together for this particular field trip. In a nutshell, it meant five different types of critters being targeted for collection using five completely different methods in five different habitat/terrain types.

Hm.

This is the kind of situation that has serious potential to turn a group of nice, sane, rational adults into cranky, snarly, whiny ass-pains. It’s true. I’ve seen it happen. It’s very easy to get all “ME ME ME” in the field, wanting nothing more than to spend all your time basking in the glow of your own beloved study subjects, and getting royally snarky over any time “wasted” on other people’s work.

Happily, this is not what happened on my trip. I have proof:

Happy campers, L-R: Barb (wasps), Katie (spiders), me (beetles), Laura (wasps and prey), Chris (pseudoscorpions). Photo by Chris Buddle.

The smiling faces you see there belong to a group of people who understand how to collaborate. We took turns, helped each other out when our own work was finished or on hold, made concessions, compromised. We chatted about research ideas, approaches, and troubleshot. It was awesome.

My beetle collection techniques are primarily “passive”: I stick traps in the ground them come back later to collect the contents. Since I had a lot of waiting time between setting and collection (which everybody helped me do), I thoroughly enjoyed myself working with the others.

Yellow pan trap, with contents after a few days

We helped Katie catch wolf spiders by marching over the tundra and scooping them into a cupped hand or net as they scurried out from underfoot.

Laura and Chris help Katie search for wolf spiders

We picked caterpillars out of the “umbrella of science” after Laura whacked the bejeezus out of willow tree branches, catching critters as they fell into the umbrella held below.

Katie, Laura and Chris pick caterpillars out of Laura’s “umbrella of science”

We turned over hundred of rocks along creeks and found lovely little pseudoscorpions, helped Barb set up and take down her wasp traps, and I took photos of some of my teammate’s fascinating finds (always handy for papers or talks!).

A jumping spider – species yet to be determined!

One of Laura’s leaf-mining caterpillars (left), killed by a parasitic wasp larva (right). Two eggs laid (can you spot them?) indicate hyperparasitism.

Our willingness to collaborate made the trip enjoyable, the work smooth, and the inevitable challenges of field work less challenging. Although academic research seems to be an inherently competitive business most of the time, the benefits of working with others effectively and collegially make the extra effort, patience and open-mindedness very worthwhile.

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Field season in the Yukon – part 1 (the Yukon is ridiculously pretty)

Yours truly at the Arctic Circle – km 405.5 of the Dempster Highway

Now that the Moth Week wrap-up is finished, I wanted to share some pics from my adventures in the breathtakingly beautiful Yukon territory.  I can now proudly claim to have survived a trek up and down the infamous Dempster Highway!

The science was awesome and the the team I worked with was incredible, but first I just want to share the tourist-ey bits of my trip.

We landed in Whitehorse late on on Sunday evening; by noon the next day we were equipped with an SUV, RV (i.e., transportable lab space), groceries and protective gear (it’s bear country after all!) and were on the road with Tombstone Territorial Park as our goal for the first night’s camp.

The caravan heading north from Whitehorse on the Klondike Highway

We arrived at Mile Zero of the Dempster Highway about 500 km later. This is where the pavement stops. We made it to Tombstone after another 75 km on the dusty, slick gravel road. It was a long drive, but well worth it: I have never experienced anything quite like sleeping in a tent surrounded by mountains on all sides. I was very glad to have brought extra long underwear and sleeping bag liners: it was a chilly night, and we awoke to low-hanging clouds and fresh snow on the mountaintops. The weather wasn’t ideal for bug hunting, but it sure was awesome to look at!

Waking up to snow on the mountains at Tombstone Mountain Campground – km 71.1

A view of the mountains on a clear evening later that week made it evident how “Tombstone” got its name:

Tombstone Mountain Range – km 74.0

I was blown away by the beauty of the landscape throughout our journey, and the way the ecosystems changed from boreal forest to alpine tundra to lush fields of pink post-forest fire fireweed as the miles piled on. Here’s a look at a few lovely spots on the drive:

Windy Pass – km 152.8

“Elephant Rock” – km 224.7

Ogilvie Mountains (a view from my tent!) – km 259.0

Fireweed blankets the landscape after a forest fire – km 302

The Dempster eventually crosses both the Arctic Circle (you can see my silly self-portrait at that point at the top of the post), and then moves into the Northwest Territories.

Crossing into the Northwest Territories – km “0”

Field of Cottongrass – NWT km 22.9

Our travels took us as far as the Peel River, but we were forced to stop there: the ferry was out of commission.

The tantalizingly close northern shore of Peel River – NWT km 74

While we were mainly focused on finding small, six- and eight-legged critters, we were also every bit the “road biologists”, often slowing our vehicles to delight in occasional sightings of larger wildlife. We saw all kinds of caribou tracks, spotted a couple of moose, a rather tame fox, many species of birds including these wonderful Sandhill Cranes

and got very excited to finally catch a glimpse of the most impressive “charismatic megafauna” of the region: a grizzy bear! It was from quite a distance, and from the safety of our SUV, but watching it stride confidently across the tundra was an unforgettable experience.

There’s a bear beyond those shrubs, honest!

The drive back down to civilization was filled with great camping, cooperative weather and, of course, scads of science – which I’ll talk about later this week. Stay tuned!

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This article was originally posted at: http://blogs.mcgill.ca/gradlife/2012/07/30/field-season-report-1-the-beauty/

If science is cake, then this is the icing…

I can honestly say that I love 95% of my work, 95% of the time.  Doing Science makes me feel happy and satisfied, and I can’t imagine doing anything else as a career.

That said, if science is my cake, then this is the time of year is the icing on top – it’s field season! I’ve chronicled some of my Arctic adventures from the past two field seasons, from my first incredible summer living in Kug to my stay in beautiful Yellowknife last year. This summer, my research will take me with a small team to the Dempster Highway, in the Yukon.

I’m excited about this for a few reasons, the first of which is that, after this summer, I will have visited every province and territory in Canada. I think this is pretty neat. Second, according to my advisor, the Dempster is the most beautiful place on the entire planet to visit. From his photos, I have to think he’s not exaggerating.

Photo by Chris Buddle, used with permission.

Of course, I’m also very excited that I’ll be collecting bugs like crazy for two glorious weeks in July as we drive northward; we’ll start in the boreal forest, end up on the tundra, then drive back down again. Awesome.

These field excursions are definitely one of the best perks of being a field ecologist; I’d never be able to visit places like these otherwise. I am acutely aware of how fortunate I am to have these kinds of opportunities, and I can’t wait to make the most of this latest trip.  I’m hopping on a plane for a loooooong flight north and west on the 8th, and then:

I am CAMPING.

On the TUNDRA.

So AWESOME.

I promise to report back with stories and photos upon my return, and have a lineup of stuff for you to read in the meantime.

Happy field season, everyone! 🙂

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*cross-posted: original post can be found here: http://blogs.mcgill.ca/gradlife/2012/06/24/if-science-is-cake-then-this-is-the-icing/

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.

So.

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?

This:

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…

A challenge: can you talk to 10-year-olds about science?

(No, I’m not talking about my manuscript this week. I am busy drinking beer and forgetting about it for a few days. So there.)

Meanwhile, I’m working on an application. If this thing pans out I’ll be doing science outreach with kids a few times a year. In addition to the usual “describe your research” and “describe your publications”-type sections one typically finds in applications,  it also included this: “Describe your research as you would to a group of 8- to 12-year-olds during an outreach program in half a page or less“.

I have to be honest: this was one of the most challenging exercises I’ve ever been asked to do for any application.  Ever.

It meant providing enough background information, context, and content to be meaningful and descriptive, while avoiding the usual trappings of unintelligible jargon we scientists so adore.  Concise and jargon-free writing should be old hat for anyone who’s ever applied for any kind of science funding… but c’mon, admit it: you STILL use all kinds of acronyms, technical terminology (and, yes, jargon) when you apply for those things, DON’T you?  You also type single space, tweak your margins, write ridiculously long paragraphs (or don’t break the text into paragraphs at all, choosing instead to use bold and italic and underlined font to designate the start of new sections), and use the smallest font you can get away with. Amirite?

Don’t lie. You know you do.

Bottom line: you just can’t get away with that stuff when you’re talking to kids. Their eyes will glaze over and you’ll lose them in five seconds flat. (Note: this will also happen at conferences, committee meetings and grad seminars. With grownups.)

Anyways, I made multiple versions of this little half-pager, and sought the opinions of several primary school  teachers to see if it was clear, kid-friendly, and interesting. I think I have something useable, but I’m going to let it rattle around in my brain for a while (i.e., drink beer and forget about it) before making a commitment and submitting a final version.

So, here’s my challenge to you: describe your research in  250 words or less with an audience of ten-year-olds in mind.

It think this is actually a pretty useful exercise, as it has broader implications for anyone doing any kind of science outreach or public speaking. Whether you’re taking to kids or to non-specialist adults, jargon and lengthy, complex explanations simply won’t cut it. Instead, clear, plain language are required, and years of work have to be drilled down to a few critical points.  Adding youthful attention spans to the mix means you also need to find a way to grab the audience’s attention and help them make relevant links to their own experiences. (Actually, you should try to do this for grownup audiences too. Most ten-year-olds probably have a longer attention span than I do.)

Can you manage it? Feel free to submit your attempt if you want. Even if you don’t, I do encourage you to give this a shot – you might be surprised at how difficult it can be!

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An unrelated aside: I am apologizing in advance for being lame and not posting as regularly as usual for the next few weeks. I will do my best to stay on schedule  (especially since I’m finally getting some field photo ops!), but I’m working on a very Exciting New Online Initiative, and it’s taking up a very large chunk of my “internet” time.  This ENOI will be live and fully operational by the end of May at the absolute latest – hopefully sooner. When my partner in crime and I are finished working out the kinks, you’ll be hearing all about it (probably won’t hear the end of it, actually) – it will likely be of interest to many of you!

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Alright, alright. Since so many of you are playing along (YAY!) I should probably share mine. This is a slightly abbreviated version of my draft text (I get a whole half page, which is a little more than 250 words) – but now that I’ve written this shorter version, I think I actually like it better…

If I told you that I have an amazing science job working way up north in the Arctic, I bet you’d think I was studying huge polar bears. Actually, I’m there to study smaller animals that can survive the terrible cold and love the warmer summers: insects! In June, I pack my equipment and fly to different places in the Arctic. At the end of an exciting summer of exploring and trapping insects, I bring my bugs back south to my lab, and use books, microscopes and other tools to learn about them.

You might wonder why I study tiny bugs instead of big bears. For one thing, there are millions of insects, and they come in many wonderful colours, shapes, and sizes. Insects also have many jobs: they help plants grow, they are food for many birds and mammals, and some act as the Earth’s clean-up crew, eating things like dead leaves and even poop! Insects are very important.

You also might wonder why I go all the way to the chilly Arctic to trap insects, when there are so many right here in our own backyards. Well, insects can live almost anywhere, including important places that are very wet (like rivers), very hot (like deserts) or very cold (like in the Arctic). Did you know that insects can tell us if these places are healthy and happy? It’s true! When the environment changes too much, sometimes the insects move away or stop doing their jobs: this is a sign that the environment is not healthy, and that we need to watch it very closely. Some people are worried that the Arctic is not healthy because the planet is warming up. By learning about the insects there – who they are and what jobs they do – I will help figure out if this special part of Canada is healthy, and I will be better able to guess how the Arctic might look in the future.

 

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