How Male Biology Students See Their Female Peers

We talk a lot about diversity in STEM on this blog. But up to this point the conversation has largely addressed how the pipeline is likely leaking in graduate school of the post graduate career.

However, work from Sarah Eddy and Daniel Grunspan at the University of Washington reveal that it might be much earlier than we think.

In a study that spanned three years, 1,700 biology undergraduates were asked to name classmates who were “strong in their understanding of classroom material”. It turns out that male students underestimated their female peers, over-nominating men over better performing women.

Read about it over at the Atlantic

Or read the PLOS one paper here!


Happy Anniversay, Planet Earth! (Pt 1 of 11)

Shots of Earth from space. The voice of a man you can’t see, but know you can trust.

One hundred years ago, there were one and a half billion people on earth. Now, over six billion crowd our fragile planet. But even so, there are still places barely touched by humanity.

So begins Planet Earth – a documentary series by the BBC and Sir David Attenborough that is so highly esteemed by us here at Nothing in Biology that we’re celebrating its 10 year anniversary by devoting the next 10 weeks to it. We’re reliving the majesty and checking in on some of our favorite places, organisms and phenomena. Essentially, we wondered “Where are they now?” Are any species better off than they were ten years ago? Have any gone extinct? How are we doing in terms of protecting the biodiversity hotspots?


This series will take you to the last wildernesses and show you the planet and its wildlife as you have never seen them before.

We see breathtaking landscapes, terrifying heights, beautiful creatures and gruesome battles. We see millions of animals moving together and solitary animals rarely seen by humans. We see the highest peaks and the deepest depths. This series is the definition of awesome. Each week, we’ll embed full episodes and/or clips in the posts (the series is also on Netflix) for convenience but if you’re reading this and the links don’t work – definitely find another way to watch/re-watch/re-re-watch.

The first episode, From Pole To Pole is an overview episode that starts in Antarctica with the charismatic Emperor Penguin.

“Imagine our world without sun.”

As is true of many polar species, and especially true of species that use sea ice, there is much concern over the effects of global climate change on emperor penguins. Accordingly, some work has gone into assessing their current population sizes. Emperor penguins became the first species to have their population size estimated from space. The first recorded loss of an emperor penguin colony has been reported, and it is associated with rising local air temperatures and declining sea ice. Also, some modeling has been done, which suggests that global warming may result in a catastrophic decline of this species over the coming century.

On the organismal biology front, there has been tremendous interest in the emperor penguin’s ability to dive to extreme depths in search of prey. Recent work has established that they can dive as deep as 564m. Physiological research has shown that this ability is facilitated by an extreme slowing of heart rate (going from 85bp at rest to 6bpm at the end of very long dives) and the ability to survive blood oxygen levels so low that they would be “catastrophic” in many birds and mammals.

“A polar bear stirs.”

Next, we follow a mother polar bear and her two adorable cubs. Even more than emperor penguins, polar bears are a species of extreme concern when it comes to the effects of climate change. Their dependence on sea ice, and their fate as it declines has been the subject of much research and discussion, so I won’t go into it much here.

There are, however, other environmental concerns. It turns out that some pollutants from industrialized regions of the world find their way to parts of the arctic and reach high concentrations (PCBs, PBDEs). Some of these can be bioaccumulate, and because polar bears are at the top of the arctic food chain, there has been some research demonstrating high concentrations of these chemicals in their bodies and suggesting these could be a threat to the health of their populations, even effecting the bone density of male bears’ bacula. [Penises and penis bones are a long-standing interest of this blog].

Among novel research findings, in contrast to other bears, polar bears avoid bone density loss during hibernation. The mechanism may prove to be of medical importance to humans because bone loss with age, during prolonged bed rest and IN SPACE are problems.

“The immensity of the herd can only be properly appreciated from the air.”

Moving south across the arctic tundra, we next see the great Caribou migration.  As in, 3 million migrating caribou, the longest distance of any overland migration by any animal. Caribou are still very numerous in 2016, but declining and have been extirpated from some regions, while some other ungulates (e.g., Moose, White-tailed deer) are expanding northward into some of their former habitat. The mechanisms of decline are unclear, so much recent research has gone into trying to understand the interplay of climate change, direct anthropogenic alterations to habitat and predation.

“…a third of all the trees on earth.”

Boreal forests: low animal density, but massively important. They’re also massively threatened – by… you guessed it, climate change, but also by industrial resource extraction (logging and tar sands being major factors). Check out this map from of forest loss in northern North America since 2006:

forestLink copy

Because boreal forests are so extensive and contain so much biomass, they hold huge amounts of carbon. As we all know, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are the primary driver of global climate change, so understanding the dynamics of these forests, their fate in a warming climate, and their role in carbon cycling through the atmosphere has been a major research priority.

“…at 50 degrees latitude, a radical transformation begins.”

Broad-leaved forest, complete with easy to digest food for herbivores. We’re treated to a relatively rapid montage through Eurasia and finally see a highlight of the episode – the rarest cat in the world, an Amur Leopard and her cub. In one of the bright spots for conservation in this episode, the number of this species has increased from 40 at the making of Planet Earth to around 70 today! HUZZAH!

“All animals, rare or common, ultimately depend for their energy on the sun.”

Next we see Japan’s Cherry Blossoms and some super cool time-lapse videos of seasonal change. A common theme in climate change research in northern latitudes is the ever earlier arrival of spring. Because Japan’s cherry blossoms are so culturally important, there are over 1200 years of data on the blooming of cherry trees available. Big surprise, these data reinforce that theme. Cherries in Japan are now blooming earlier than ever in recorded history.

A couple of bird species of note are also shown in this sequence: Baikal Teal and European Starling. Baikal teal are strongly recovering from a population crash in the mid-20th century, with some reports having their population increasing by up to several hundred thousand birds in the last decade. European starlings, however, are declining in Europe (almost 80% in Britain), though they remain an abundant invasive species in North America.

“There are parts of the world that have no seasons.”

The focus then moves to tropical forests, and some more really amazing footage, this time of birds of paradise in New Guinea. I mean – this footage is truly spectacular. There is not much work done on these birds (uncommon rainforest birds on New Guinea aren’t the most pliable study system). On the conservation front, they share with all spectacular rainforest creatures twin threats of poaching and habitat loss.

“Life in the oceans”

The episode then shifts focus to the oceans, and another iconic sequence: Great White Sharks feeding off the coast of South Africa. Life hasn’t gotten any easier for Great White Sharks in the last ten years, they are still hunted for teeth, fins and trophies and they are still a victim of bycatch. Oceans in general aren’t faring that well – suffering from overfishing, climate change and pollution. On the plus side, some conservation efforts in North America have led to an increase in population size in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Yay!

“…a search for water.”

Perhaps the most heartbreaking scene from the whole documentary follows a mother elephant and her baby in the Kalahari Desert, as they are separated from the herd and then separated from each other. The baby is last shown alone, following its mothers scent but in the wrong direction, to almost certain death. As you could probably guess, African Elephants are still in serious danger, with ivory poaching driving a global decline in their numbers (as many as tens of thousands a year). Saving these creatures requires international efforts – perhaps some more demonstrations like the destruction of ONE TON of ivory products that New York City held in Times Square last year.

“After four months of total darkness, the sun rises once more rises over Antarctica.”

We revisit the Antarctic as the episode ends – going Pole To Pole as the title episode promises. Be sure to come back next week when we revisit Episode 2: Mountains.
PS – There are now ~7.4 billion people crowding our fragile planet. And counting.

Noah contributed equally to this post.

Another Bacteria that Causes Lyme Disease

Sure, finding new and interesting species and describing them is exciting.

But finding new bacteria that cause a well understood disease? Equally if not more exciting (my little parasitic loving heart is all aflutter!).

While it has long been thought that lyme disease is caused by one bacterium (Borrelia burgdorferi), researchers at Mayo Clinic found something floating around in blood samples of people suspected of having Lyme disease that is totally different.

It has been named Borrelia mayoniiand it is remarkably similar to it’s lyme disease causing brethren. But it also has some important differences.

Read all about it over at NPR


Reflections on getting your first publication out the door

I know friends who celebrate every paper they submit. I think that is awesome.

But by the time I get a paper submitted, back for revisions, revised, submitted again, accepted and final edited, I hate that paper. I have seen it so many times, and written each sentence with exacting intention that I never want to see it again.

Which is why a post over at the blog “Ecology B1ts” entitled Reflections on my first first-author pub (and the seven years it took to get there) was so interesting to me. Margret Kosmala talks about how life, mentorship and rejection can all influence getting a paper published.

Well worth the read!




The authors would like to thank…

I’m abysmally bad at acknowledgments sections of papers. I just want to write a quick “thanks guys!”

But over at Scientist Sees Squirrel there is a really good post by Stephen Heard about how to acknowledge criticism.

“For critical suggestions and discussion I thank [names]. Not everyone agreed with everything but even that helped (West-Eberhard 2014).”

The post goes on to discuss how, feedback on a manuscript helps the most when it comes from people who don’t agree with you. It makes your paper and your argument stronger.

Also, for those of you who don’t get to the footnote, it also mentions how “constructive criticism” is important, but being a jerk is just that… being a huge jerk:

“*^It’s true that some reviewers don’t understand this. I once submitted a manuscript reporting some limited but (I think) interesting natural-history data. One reviewer wrote, anonymously, that they wouldn’t have given my manuscript a passing grade in their undergraduate Introduction to Ecology course. Nothing more – they didn’t explain what they thought was wrong, or how they thought it might be improved! The editor should never even have passed this “review” on to me; but fortunately, I was too stubborn to give up, and I sent the manuscript to another (better) journal. It was accepted with a few minor revisions, and now I have a funny story to put in a footnote.”


Museums: The endangered dead

Across the world, natural-history collections hold a multitude of species, some of which have never been identified. In fact, scientists are currently finding more new species by sifting through decades-old specimens than by surveying tropical forests and remote landscapes.

Additionally, museum collections are becoming increasingly valuable thanks to newly developed techniques (ancient DNA anyone?) and databases.

But just as these collections are increasing in value, they are falling into decline.

Read about it over at Nature!


Ricardo Moratelli examines bat specimens in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. (Photo by Chris Maddaloni/Nature)


This Valentine’s Day, Celebrate Science-Love

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and what better way to celebrate than by showing some love for science?

(Tumblr: kochajikan)

(Tumblr: kochajikan)

Portrayals of science in popular culture are often quite negative, which is why it can be so impactful to come across works of fiction with a pro-science message.

The podcasts/movies/books below cast science in a positive light. They depict scientists as the heroes of the story, rather than the villains. They include characters that are excited about doing science, and encourage the development of scientific thinking. They celebrate the power of science to explain the universe around us. And most importantly, they evoke feelings of passion, affection, and fondness towards science. Which is why I love them!

If you like your science-love in audio form:

Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast that details the goings-on in an exceedingly weird fictional desert town. One of the main characters in the show is a scientist named Carlos, who frequently uses science to solve problems within the community. For instance, throughout the show Carlos has rescued the mayor, prevented citizens from transforming into mysterious shadow creatures, and disposed of a set of plastic flamingos threatening to disrupt the space-time continuum- all with science! Welcome to Night Vale portrays Carlos as a hero, and celebrates the power of science to improve people’s lives.

If you like your science-love with some action and adventure:

The Martian is the story of an astronaut named Mark Watney, who is mistakenly stranded on Mars. In an effort to survive the ordeal, Watney is forced to do a lot of science, including rebuilding an abandoned spacecraft and growing potatoes with his own poop. The Martian is a celebration of science because it captures the exuberance of scientific discovery, along with the frustration of scientific failure. The Martian is both a movie and a book, so you can choose your favorite! It is also the source of one of my favorite science catchphrases of all time.

If you like your science-love animated:


Frankenweenie is a movie about a boy named Victor, whose dog, Sparky, dies. Victor then attempts to bring Sparky back to life, using some lightening and his school science lessons as a guide. If it sounds like a standard retelling of Frankenstein, it isn’t. Frankenweenie manages to successfully subvert common mad scientist tropes, while also providing meaningful commentary on the current state of science education. Frankenweenie thus offers a science-positive message by celebrating and encouraging the development of young scientific minds.

If you like your science-love to horrify you:

If you’re looking to fill your Valentine’s Day festivities with terrifying monsters, this one’s for you! Spring is the story of a biologist named Louise, who carries an ancient secret in her DNA. I like Spring because it’s one of the few horror movies that does not blame science for the horror we witness throughout the movie. Instead, Spring celebrates the power of science to address as-of-yet unexplained phenomena in the universe.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, most of the suggestions above feature love in some form or another. Spring is the story of a romance thousands of years in the making, Frankenweenie tells the tale of the bond between a boy and his dog, and Welcome to Night Vale follows the development of Carlos’ relationship with his radio host boyfriend, Cecil.

So really, what more could you ask for? This weekend grab some chocolate and red wine, and let’s show some love for science!

A semester long chalk talk

cropped-beaconMeetingPanoramaLike many instructors, all of my lectures are power point slides. I have spent 3 years crafting, refining, and finding the optimal photos for them.

However, one comment I get consistently from students is that there is “too much information”, “The slides go too fast”.

So I was pleasantly surprised by this excellent blog post about Michigan State University Professor Chris Waters, and his experimental abandonment of power point slides for a semester. Instead, he essentially does each lecture as a chalk talk.

While this sounds like it might be difficult for the first time you teach a class, I think it sounds like an excellent way to engage students.

Check it out over at BEACON!


Interdisciplinary research to the rescue!

Many a engineering accomplishment has actually been guided by biological inspiration. For example, Velcro was invented after Swiss engineer George de Mestral picked burrs from the fur of his dog and the high speed Japanese train has an aerodynamic front shaped like a kingfisher’s beak.

And what’s more, bioinspiration and biomimicry (the imitation of biological traits or systems in non biological applications) has had a surge of interest.

Read all about it over at nature!



Power Pose! Or not?

Amy Cuddy, a Harvard Business School social psychologist with a famous TED talk, claims that “a person can, by assuming two simple one-minute poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful.”

The pose is characterized by “open, expansive postures”. Imagine Wonder Woman’s pose (or just see image below).

In a paper from 2010, Dr. Cuddy and collaborators reported that such posing can change your hormone levels, and your life!

However, recent researchers lead by Eva Ranehill attempted to replicate the original study and found nothing. No effect of posing at all…

Read about the controversial power posing over at Slate!