The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: Other peoples’ research

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.


Poop, not parasites

So a very cool bug photo has been circulating on the web: I’ve seen it on Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter. It’s a pretty darn great photo:

Photo of a Cereal Leaf Beetle Larva, by Giles San Martin, used under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of a Cereal Leaf Beetle Larva, by Giles San Martin, used under a Creative Commons License.

Let’s zoom in on that a little, shall we?


Well, my goodness. That’s really something, isn’t it? Here’s the accompanying story circulating on the web:

This is a juvenile form of the Cereal leaf beetle (Oulema melanopus) after being parasitized by Tetrastichus julis, a parasitoid wasp which lays its eggs inside the larva of the beetle. They eggs hatch within the larvae and begin to feed while it is still alive, before they burst out and kill it.These parasites are often used as a biological control, as the Cereal leaf beetle is considered a pest and regularly feeds on crops.

Well, now, that is REALLY something isn’t it? Parasites are so freaking cool.

The problem is, the pairing of this particular image with this particular caption has lead to some confusion. 

While the species identities are correct, and the stated relationship between the two is correct, the caption seems to imply that the skin of the poor beetle larva is stretched shiny-tight and close to bursting from a insanely huge parasite load (indeed, this is how the interwebz has been interpreting it).

This interpretation is only a little bit correct.

The beetle IS parasitized – by one parasite. Just one. 

The rest of that squirmy-looking mass on the back of the beetle is a perfectly normal thing (well, if you’re a leaf beetle anyways): it’s a fecal shield. Yes, fecal shield. As in, “poop”.

Many, many Chrysomelids (leaf beetles) create fecal shields, depositing their feces on their backs. It’s so prevalent, in fact, that the study of fecal shields warrants its own term, apparently. From the section in Caroline Chaboo’s book chapter on Chrysomelid defences entitled, “Fececology” (ha!):

The [Chrysomelid] subfamily Cassidinae has ~3,000 species whose larvae carry a mobile shield made of dried feces, attached to paired processes at their hind end, and held over the body like an umbrella. This shield may be held flat on the dorsum or elevated to hit an attacker. In two other leaf beetle subgroups, the subfamily Criocerinae (~1,400 species) and in some members of the subfamily Galerucinae (~14,000 species) the fecal material is simply piled directly onto the back of the animals, with some falling off as the animal moves around but regularly replenished to maintain coverage of the exposed dorsal surface (Fig. 2b, c). In Chrysomelinae leaf beetles (~4,000 species), the mothers take time to build a fecal case entirely around every single egg.

Compare the photo above with this one showing the fecal shield of a Criocerine Chrysomelid, Lilioceris lilii:

Photo by Luis Sanchez, used under a Creative Commons License.

Photo by Luis Sanchez, used under a Creative Commons License.

Also goey, revolting, and arguably very unsanitary – but normal.

Here’s a different spin on the same theme, this time in a tortoise beetle larva (Cassidinae):


Photo by Kurt Komoda, on Flickr: Used under a Creative Commons License.

Less slimy, and mobile – but normal. (And still poop).

Fecal shields provide camouflage, prevent desiccation (drying out), and, ironically, can deter predators and parasitoids. Some parasitoids, however, can exploit the fecal sheild and may actually be attracted to the plant volatiles (smelly plant chemicals) in the feces. This could be what happens in the relationship shown in the photo, since the T. julis is a well-established predator of the cereal leaf beetle and, obviously, that goey shield is not much of a deterrent.

So, just to clarify what you’re seeing in the original ZOMGPARASITES photo: in addition to piles of poop, the one visible parasitoid larva is the pale, segmented critter in the front near the beetle larva’s head. Now, its placement is a little odd, because T. julis is normally an endoparasitoid, meaning that the mother wasp lays her egg(s) directly inside the body of the host (the beetle larva). In this case, though, it looks like the parasitoid larva is floating in the fecal shield, so I’m not sure what that’s all about. Lousy aim, perhaps? Even if it was a motherly misfire, I have it on good authority (hat tip to Richard Comont) that the photographer reared out the parasitoid and it did indeed grow up to be T. julis.

So. Long story short:

This is a normal fecal shield, people. Not an imminent explosion.


Chaboo, Caroline (2011). Defensive Behaviors in Leaf Beetles: From the Unusual to the Weird in Chemical Biology of the Tropics, J.M. Vivanco and T. Weir (eds.), 59-69 DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-19080-3_4

Evans, E., Karren, J., & Israelsen, C. (2006). Interactions Over Time Between Cereal Leaf Beetle (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae) and Larval Parasitoid Tetrastichus julis (Hymenoptera: Eulophidae) in Utah Journal of Economic Entomology, 99 (6), 1967-1973 DOI: 10.1603/0022-0493-99.6.1967

Schaffner, U., & Müller, C. (2001). Exploitation of the Fecal Shield of the Lily Leaf Beetle, Lilioceris lilii (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae), by the Specialist Parasitoid Lemophagus pulcher (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae) Journal of Insect Behavior, 14 (6), 739-757 DOI: 10.1023/A:1013085316606

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: Arctic pseudoscorpion

As I mentioned on Wednesday, one of my fellow travelers (my advisor) was collecting pseudoscorpions while in the Yukon. Specifically, he was targeting Wyochernes asiaticus, a Beringian species. He wrote a wonderful and poignant post about his love for these critters, which I invite you to read here: Why I study obscure and strange little animals.

I actually completely fell in love with pseudoscorpion-hunting. It involved turning over rocks – perhaps one of the most fundamental entomological collection methods, and one that nearly all of us did for fun as kids. It was with great, child-like glee that I would spot these tiny (2-3mm) creatures, sometimes with their bright yellow egg masses brood pouches (thanks Dave!) adhered to their abdomens, upon turning over just the right rock at just the right place on the bank of a rocky creek.

These critters are poorly documented – I don’t know if any photographs showing live specimens of this species existed before this trip.  Well, they do now! The very small size of these animals made the photo shoot challenging, but well worth the effort.

A female Arctic pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus, with her brood pouch

A female Arctic pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus (brood pouch removed)

Female Wyochernes asiaticus with her brood pouch

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.


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.

%d bloggers like this: