The Bug Geek

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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.

Adventures in manuscript-writing

I’ve been working on a manuscript on and off for a few months, but diligently for the past few weeks.

I enjoy writing, and usually start these things with a positive outlook (“My research is awesomesauce 😀 <3!”), but things go off-kilter when I start to tackle the introduction, and then all hell breaks lose once I get to the discussion.

Usually by the time I hand it in for review, I hate it and wonder why I ever wanted to write the stupid thing in the first place. (In reality, they’re never actually that bad, but I am very supremely excellent at being my own worst critic.)

I got the dratted draft paper off to my advisor mere moments ago.

And then, probably because I’ve been immersed in the creation (and re-creation… and re-re-creation) of figures for days, I felt compelled to share my manuscript-writing experience in the form of a graph (Fig. 1). Behold:

Fig. 1. Writing a Manuscript, by The Geek In Question

Do any of you go through similar cycles when working on papers?  Also. I would be super-entertained if you felt compelled to create your own graph, and share it with me (I’d post it here or share any links!)


Yay! Easily-entertained grad students with too much time on their hands! 😀

David Winter from The Atavism gives us another take on the manuscript-writing process (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Another take on manuscript-writing, by David Winter from The Atavism

Morgan Jackson at Biodiversity in Focus created this to explain what it’s like Doing Taxonomy (Fig. 3):

Fig. 3. Taxonomic Process Graph, by Morgan Jackson at Biodiversity in Focus

These are great! Any more takers? 😀


Update #2: Yay! Easily-entertained professional research entomologist with too much time on his hands! 😀

Ted MacRae at Beetles in the Bush shows his version of the ups and downs of entomological research (Fig. 4):

Fig. 4. The ups and downs of bug collecting, by Ted MacRae

Science outreach may not be a useful currency for grad students – but we should do it anyway

About two weeks ago, an email from my advisor turned up in my inbox that said something to the effect of, “Canopy researcher Nalini Nadkarni is coming to give a talk and hang out with our lab. This is a great opportunity, so please come.”  When I pulled out my Top-Secret Graduate Advisor Decoder Ring and reread the email, it clearly said, “BE THERE OR I WILL THROTTLE YOU”.

I immediately marked the dates on my calendar.

Now, canopies are not my area of expertise. In fact, I mostly work in climatic zones where there are NO trees (or else the trees are small enough that you can reach up and touch the so-called “canopy”), so I really had no idea what the big deal was. I just figured that my advisor’s excitement stemmed from the fact that canopy work is one of the tools he uses to address questions about arthropod ecology.  Nevertheless, a few days before Dr. Nadkarni’s talk, I thought it would be prudent to take some time to acquaint myself with our visitor. So I googled, found her web page at Evergreen State College, and read her CV.


Then I watched both of her TED talks.  Yes, that TED. You can watch them here and here. My brain-crush amplified exponentially. Not only was she an incredibly prolific and well-respected scientist, she was also an extraordinary advocate of science outreach. *swoon*  In the final days leading up to the talk, I was all ohboyohboyohboy.

My advisor asked me to live-tweet the event, something I’d never done before, and I gave it a try. From those tweets, I created my first Storify (an application that compiles social media soundbites). You can read my Storify summary of Dr. Nadkarni’s talk here: 

Some of the last few points she made were among the most poignant for me:

She was definitely preaching to the choir, in my case.  The Q & A period allowed me ask something that’s been on my mind. It was similar, actually, to a question I recently asked about teaching.

I stood at the microphone (a little nervously), and said something like: “I’m a grad student. One thing I’m passionate about is science outreach with both specialist and non-specialist audiences. However, we grad students repeatedly get told that the only important currency of academia is our publications, and that science outreach is not a good use of our time. Clearly, you’re someone who thinks it’s important. What do you say to this idea that it’s not valid or important work, and how do you find the time?”

Her answer, I thought, was both honest and encouraging. It also very much reflected a general philosophy that threaded through her discussions of her work and her outreach activities.  The philosophy seems to be: “There are systems that have been in place for a long time. These systems are not likely to be changed any time soon. There is little point in trying to change a system if you want to advance you own ideals or goals: you’d probably be wasting your time. Rather, find ways to work both with and outside the system, and create your own opportunities.”

Basically, she said this: If you’re interested in working in academia, then you need to work within that well-established (and unlikely-to-be-changed) system and generate the required currency. Do your research, and do your publications. As a grad student, your outreach contributions may not be recognized or valued.  You may not be able to do the kind of outreach you’d like, either because of the time or resources required. But go ahead and do the outreach stuff anyways, in whatever capacity you’re able.  Later on in your career, when you have access to the resources and as long as you’re working for an institution that accommodates it, you can expand the outreach component of your work in bigger and more meaningful ways.

What I heard was, “Play the game and pay your dues BUT don’t be afraid to also work outside the system in the meantime: in the long run it will pay off“.

I think an additional underlying message was: If doing outreach is a reflection of your values as a scientist – if it’s important to you and personally satisfying – then there’s no reason not to do it just because “the system” says it doesn’t matter.

March to the beat of your own drummer, in other words.

What do you all think?

Undergraduate “advising”

Sometimes, being a grad student means that you are perceived by undergrads as being something like A Person With Knowledge and Authority. They assume that you’re someone who has seen things and done stuff and, rightly or wrongly, that you might be more approachable (or perhaps simply “safer”) than a professor if they’ve got something they need to get off their chest.

So, every now and then, an undergrad lingers at the end of class or finds me in my lab, not to talk about their course work, but to chat more generally about their schooling, their interests, and the next steps they’re considering in their academic careers. Sometimes my role is simply that of a sympathetic ear (“I have no clue why I’m here or what I’m doing with my life.”); sometimes it’s that of someone with experience (“What things did you do to help you get into grad school?” “What’s it like working with so-and-so?”); and other times it’s that of an advice-offerer (“What should I be looking for in a future advisor/job opportunity/grad program?” “How can I make my resume better?”)

I’m always flattered when I’m approached by these students, but I’m also always hyper-aware that they’re likely actually LISTENING to what I tell them, so I have to choose my words carefully and be certain that they understand that THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE IS THE OPINION OF ONE GRAD STUDENT ONLY, AND DOES NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF OTHER, BETTER, SANER, MORE EXPERIENCED PEOPLE.Despite feeling unnerved over having young people actually care about what I have to say, I do my best to encourage them in their efforts and help them explore different options for positive actions they can take to help them reach their goals.

I also think it’s important to be honest with them about the nature of graduate studies and what it’s like to do research.  Many undergrads don’t really understand what it means to Do Science, so it’s hard for them to wrap their heads around what a future as a scientist might look like.

I get that. I had no idea what it meant either when I was in their shoes.  I was just a really, REALLY lucky schmuck who, in her third year of a B.Sc., was taken under the wing of a professor who saw potential in a student who got easily geeked out over interesting natural minutae. And bugs. (Especially bugs).

This professor offered me a position in her lab to do an undergrad research project in my fourth year.  It was my first real exposure to proper research.  I applied for and was awarded my first research grant; I designed and executed a study involving both field and lab work; I learned how to deal with the literature; and I wrote a paper that was eventually published.  I liked the experience so much that I stayed on and did my M.Sc. under her supervision.  Had she not taken the time to guide me through the process and to show me how things worked (the good, the bad, and the ugly), I might not be where I am today.

So, when an undergrad asks about Doing Science, I usually tell them something like this: “Doing science means spending a lot of time thinking about what question you want to answer. Then you spend a lot of time reading about what other people have done, and what they have discovered. Then you do experiments and collect data, either in the field or the lab. I consider myself lucky: I get to spend at least a few weeks every year in the field.  Yes, only a few weeks. A couple of months at most. The rest of my time is spent in the lab, analyzing samples, entering data into spreadsheets, doing statistical tests, reading more (and reading MORE) and writing. Then hopefully I’ll publish my results.  Then I start over.”

They’re usually surprised (and often dismayed) that Doing Science does NOT look like being David Attenborough. But they’re also usually grateful to have been given that insight.  More often than not, they’re still interested in trying it out, either as a volunteer or during the summer as an assistant.  Whenever possible, I’ll try to steer them in the direction of an opportunity, if I know of any. I even took on a volunteer of my own this term; he’s working with me in my lab, and it gives me great satisfaction to see a young person showing interest AND talent, and that I’m able to give him a useful outlet for both.

What do you all think? How do you approach advice-giving when it comes to undergrads? How do you perceive your role in these kinds of situations? Have you ever regretted the advice you gave? Have you ever wished you’d done more? Is there such thing as being “too honest”?

(Cross-posted at

Giving back by speaking out

O hai, terrifically neglected blog and blog-readers! I totally got sucked into that weird swirly vortex of work/rest/procrastination that sometimes happens over the winter break (you grad students know the one I mean), then suddenly found myself back in action at school (including teaching three days a week) and I am just now getting my spinning head above water again. Phew! Anyways, I’m back now.

The start of this new term was marked by my latest presentation. I didn’t give this talk at a conference, nor at a departmental seminar or even for a grad course. No, this talk was given to a special interest group called the Arctic Circle – a group of people with experience working in the Arctic and/or who are simply interested in what goes on in Canada’s northerly latitudes. I had been invited to speak about my research on beetles from Nunavut and the program of which I’m a part.

Now, consider this:

The audience members were not people in my field. The networking opportunities were therefore not ideal and it was unlikely that I would get the chance to schmooze with any potential future advisers or employers. I did not get paid.  This was not an academic event. There was no press coverage. There wasn’t even any free swag or food.

So why on earth would I spend hours carefully preparing slides and rehearsing? What was in it for me?

Well, that’s actually not really the point. The point is that one of our jobs as researchers and leaders in our chosen fields is to bring new and interesting information about our work to the general public.  I think we are often guilty of forgetting who it is that we’re doing research for: Mr. & Ms. J. Q. Public.

We grad students are doing lots of amazing research, but it often doesn’t make it past the pages of the latest issue of X Journal. It’s read, of course, by our academic peers, but what about everyone else? Don’t they also deserve to know about our research, and how it affects them personally? We find our  own work super-interesting (hopefully) – wouldn’t we want other people outside our field to be excited by it too? Let’s also not forget that most of us, in one way or another, are conducting publicly-funded research; the public deserves to hear what their tax dollars are doing.

I think we all have a duty to take these kinds of opportunities for outreach or education with the general public whenever possible – to share our work (and our enthusiasm for it) with others.

If you must have less altruistic motivations for doing this kind of thing, here you go:

  • sometimes you get paid (Or fed. Or offered beer. Or all three.)
  • you can practice your communication skills
    • public speaking (this talk was the first lecture-length presentation I’d ever delivered – and it went well!)
    • PowerPoint slide-making
    • NOT USING JARGON (completely impractical when speaking to a non-specialist audience, or to children!)
  • you might meet someone that could end up being a collaborator or supporter ($) of your work
  • it can be fun!

Personally, I really look forward to these kinds of opportunities. It’s refreshing to speak to more diverse audiences than the usual conference-goers. Working with kids can be especially rewarding – they have such enthusiasm and a wonderful sense of adventure, and they really provide the perfect audience for doing hands-on or outdoor workshops!  I have another general interest talk lined up at a garden club this spring to address the matter of a certain pesty red beetle – should be fun! I see this blog (and Facebook, Twitter etc.) as being a natural online extension of these activities.

Some kids in Nunavut, checking out my specimens, and ones they caught outside themselves - public outreach CAN be fun and games!

What do you all think?

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