Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Do you like it spicy?

They say that variety is the spice of life and this summer (Australian summer) I’m testing that idea.

For all of my previous research I’ve focused on one species at a time. Trying to catch all of the adults, find all of their nests, measure as many as possible, and generally become totally obsessed with one single species. 

Top: Superb-fairy wren. Bottom: Friarbird

This has some big advantages. You  become very cued into all of their little noises, what their nests look like, how they act when building or feeding nestlings, and the other little nuances that you need to get the job done. This knowledge provides the edge you need to get a large enough sample size, a tricky thing when working with free-living birds.
  As a result, I am very, very tuned in to two species, the dark-eyed junco and the superb fairy-wren. For both, I know all their little noises, I know their behaviors, I know where they like to nest and have a well-developed search image for their little hidden nests. 

Top: Varied Sittela, Bottom: Leaden Flycatcher
But now the game has changed. This year, in addition to focusing on female fairy-wren aggression and song, I'm also comparing nestlings color and begging calls. As a result, I need to find nests for a bunch of different species I've never worked with before. Most of them I recognize if I see them, some are new, and I am an expert on exactly none of them. This project is riding on me becoming a bit of an expert for a whole list of species, and fast.

Top: White-throated Gerygone, Bottom: Grey fantail
My days are now split between wrens and just about every other bird species living on the study-site (exceptions are parrots, ducks, birds of prey, etc). The result? Lots of fun and exhaustion. I am very much enjoying learning new birds and the challenge of finding their nests, which they try to hide. This also means that the work is never finished. I might find every fairy-wren nest in the area, but that doesn't mean I 'm done, just time to change gears. There is always more to find.  So, here's a little sample of my day to day.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Hurry-up and wait

In the life of a biologist it seems that the days are made up of bursts of hectic activity punctuated by long tedious bouts of waiting: waiting for the animal to show up, waiting for the assay to incubate, waiting for a decision from the granting agency, waiting for a decision from the journal editor. So much waiting, you feel like your brain is rusting.

This can be especially true in the field, where you can spend several hours or days waiting, and then suddenly, within minutes, it's over. In reference to this pattern of events, a colleague of mine once said

"Fieldwork is 80% boredom, 20% sheer terror".

This problem doesn't go away after you've finished the fieldwork, it can also be an issue when you are working on the analysis and writing. There are times when you are really jazzed about a project and don't need any help focusing, just get the heck out of the way and let me work. But, sometimes you find yourself in one of these waiting periods and it can be hard to do anything more than twiddle your thumbs. This doesn't mean there is nothing to do, more likely, there are a thousand things to do, but you are not immediately jazzed about any of them.

Before returning to academia I was not a to-do list kind of person. But lately I have been a list fanatic. Mostly, I use these lists when I'm in one of these waiting periods and don't have a lot of motivation. I've gotten into the habitat of keeping a running list of the many little things that need to be done. Makes me a little bit rust resistant.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


Joan Jett
What do rock stars and scientists have in common?
It sounds like the set-up for a bad pun, but in reality we actually have quite a bit in common.
Because my partner is a rock-star (kind of) I am exposed to the music world more than most biologists, and it has granted me some insight into the surprising similarities.
  • Creativity: Both scientists and rock-stars are constantly trying to innovate, and find a way to do something new and exciting. The end results are very different, but for both fields you can choose to do what everyone else is doing, or forge a new path. Doing what everyone else does might work in the short-term, but no-one will remember the copy-cats in a few years. Instead we remember the artists/scientist that give us a new perspective. 
  • Rejection: Talk to any musician or scientist and ask them about rejection. Both will have plenty to say on the subject. Both worlds require a tough skin and a willingness to get back up after being knocked down, again and again. And not only are you being rejected, it is for something you created, something you slaved over, something you are proud of. Sometimes I wonder about the level of masochism in both fields, because despite the low rates of success, we just keep trying.
  • Skill: Sure there is the occasional talentless hack that makes it big in music, but for the most part being a successful musician requires serious commitment and the development of skill. The same goes for scientists. There are a few lucky idiots out there, but most of us work really, really, hard at what we do. 
  • Glamorous lifestyles: Forbes recently produced a list of the least stressful jobs and made the mistake of listing University Professor as the #1 least stressful career. This attracted a tidal wave of backlash from people actually doing the job, and a rebuttal by another Forbes author. While amusing, and way off base, I think the articles tone reflects the general public's opinion of what it is academics actually do, what our day to day lives are actually like. The same can be said for musicians, most of who have to maintain day jobs to support their art. Going on tour sounds exotic and exciting, but the reality is hours on the road, long days, late nights and lots of time away from friends and family. Even the superstar rockers are often exhausted, beaten to pulp by the brutal schedule, constant demands, and the need to perform or face disgruntled fans that feel like you owe them.
  • Passion: So why put up with all this, the rejection, the difficult work, the demanding lifestyle? It all comes down to passion. We're willing to fail and fail and fail, and to work for hours on end because the other options are so much less appealing. There are hundreds of other things I could do for a living that do not require me to cope with rejection on such a regular basis, or would allow me to earn a much bigger paycheck for fewer hours and easier work, but you won't see me heading that direction unless I run out of other options.
Bottom line, because we are pursuing our passions, we have the coolest jobs in the world.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Unconventional teaching tools

Down here in the southern hemisphere classes are starting up again after the summer/holiday break. In my current role as a postdoctoral fellow I'm not doing any formal teaching, and I find that I'm missing it. It's not writing lectures and grading tests that I miss, but the interaction with students. I like the challenge of trying to find a new way to explain an old topic.

Along these lines I recently came across an article discussing effective teaching methods. The author focus on a new style called "peer instruction" that encourages students to learn from one and another, rather than listen to a professor lecture for the full time.

I'm pleased to see methods like these gaining more attention. I have used this particular method in my classes and found it very effective. The students that already understand the concept get a deeper understanding by having to teach it themselves. The students having problems grasping a tough topic often learn better from someone who just figured it out themselves. This method is particularly fun when teaching field courses.

The physicists have done a lot of great work to understand more effective ways of teaching complicated scientific concepts. I'm looking forward to it being a bigger parts of other subjects as well.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The human animal

I've been a little lax about posts lately.
But, to be fair, I'm in the middle of a field season, so cut me some slack.
I generally use this blog to talk about general issues that face field biologist, rather a forum to talk about my own research, leaving that topic for my website.

But, in lieu of a post, here's a link to a recent article in a popular science blog that focuses on animal behavior, The Scorpion and the Frog.
The article uses some of my research on female competition in birds as a jumping off point for discussing female competition in humans.

A great example of how we can gain insight into ourselves by studying animals.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Unknown unknowns

New field site
When preparing to begin a remodeling project the usual advice is that the project will take three times as long and cost twice as much money as any estimate you calculate. This sounds a bit pessimistic but if you've ever done a big remodeling project you probably recognize the truth of that statement. It's accurate because there are a lot of unknown variables, even unknown unknowns, which are really fun. Generally speaking these things gum up the works, complicating, delaying and increasing headaches.

A similar statement can be applied to any new project, and the reasons are the same. Unknown variables. These variables include things like learning the quirks of new equipment, using new software, or optimizing a new assay. When you are working in the field this is amplified a bit because you have to deal with things you have 0 control over, things like weather, predation, forest fires and finding your animals.

When you've been working at a particular site or with a particular species for awhile you have a pretty good grip on how things are going to go and can plan accordingly. However, if you have a new site, new species, or new technique your introducing some unknown variable and things might be a little rough at the start.

I happened to design a particularly ambitious project for my postdoc research. I'm using a new species, in a new country, with new equipment and techniques. These things are combining to make the learning curve for this project a little bit steep. Consequently, progress has been a little slower that I had planned.

However, the data are finally rolling in, and that makes it all worth it.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Playing catch-up

It's not unusual to feel behind. In fact it is part and parcel of the job. There are just too many hats to wear, too many tasks to attend to. If you don't feel a little bit swamped you're probably not doing enough, or you figured something out and should let me know the secret. One of the many things I need to play catch-up on is this blog.

Here's the quick and dirty summary of events since the last entry. I received multiple post-docs offers, made the very difficult (and also very easy) decision to take the offer  in Australia, I wrote a dissertation, defended said dissertation, move to Virginia to teach for the summer, packed up my life, traveled the US visiting friends and family, and moved my immediate family to the literal opposite side of the world.

We've been here for 2 months now, which doesn't sound like a long time but we've packed it in. In those 2 months I've been busy as a bee trying to keep all the balls I'm juggling in the air. I am simultaneously working on getting some manuscripts from my dissertation work published, writing a book chapter over some of that research, completing all the paper work and jumping through all the usual hoops necessary to start a new project plus a few added hoops because I'm new in this country, learning the new skills I'm using for this project, writing proposals to get some money for this project, and starting the actual data collection for the project.

But don't think I am complaining. I've always been a better at multitasking than single-tasking. Plus, I really do enjoy what I do and I'm hard at work ticking things off the to-do list  one-by-one. So, on that note, here's an inspirational light switch cover we saw on our US travels.