Birds Beware: Of the Praying Mantis?

“Tom Vaughan, a photographer then living in Colorado’s Mancos Valley, kept a hummingbird feeder outside his house. One morning, he stepped through the portico door and noticed a black-chinned hummingbird dangling from the side of the red plastic feeder like a stray Christmas ornament.

At first, Mr. Vaughan thought he knew what was going on. “I’d previously seen a hummingbird in a state of torpor,” he said, “when it was hanging straight down by its feet, regenerating its batteries, before dropping down and flying off.”

On closer inspection, Mr. Vaughan saw that the hummingbird was hanging not by its feet but by its head. And forget about jumping its batteries: the bird was in the grip of a three-inch-long green praying mantis.

The mantis was clinging with its back legs to the rim of the feeder, holding its feathered catch in its powerful, seemingly reverent front legs, and methodically chewing through the hummingbird’s skull to get at the nutritious brain tissue within.

“It was staring at me as it fed,” Mr. Vaughan said. “Of course, I took a picture of it.” Startled by the clicking shutter, the mantis dropped its partially decapitated meal, crawled under the feeder — and began menacing two hummingbirds on the other side.”

Curious? Read more here. It’s disturbing. You’ve been warned.

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LGBTQ+ issues in STEM diversity: Diverse science = better science

Why does this matter? Because, to stay competitive in the world economy, America needs more scientists and engineers—and evidence shows that diversity may lead to better science.

Evidence suggests that diverse teams encourage more innovation and creativity, and may lead to better science. A 2014 article in Scientific American on “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter” notes that “simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints, and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.”

And yet, the lack of data on LGBTQ+ careers in science leads to a silence that is discouraging from those same groups we are trying to incorporate.

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The other side: I Love Being a Professor

Everyone I know is leaving academia. It started a few years ago with great postdocs taking alternative academic positions (head of an NSF institute, lead of a nature preserve, etc.), and has now progressed into most of my friends moving to industry (data science, start ups and biology industry).

So it’s really refreshing to read a post about someone who flat out loves their job. Maybe there is still hope?

Read more here.

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The Sprint Towards the Finish Line

The last few entries in this series have been about how difficult graduate school is. The recent piece by 

“But with all of this attention paid to the “being miserable” part of grad school experience, we stopped talking about the things we need to talk about more. So here goes. Grad students, you are extremely worthy and accomplished. Getting into grad school demands hard work, dedication, stubbornness, and sheer skill. You’re here because someone saw something in you, and decided to help you nurture it. You may not know what this someone saw in you; this someone may not know it either. But it’s here. Your mental health matters.”

This week’s advice is about the hardest part of graduate school, the final sprint. In the American PhD, the last year, and especially, the last few months, are by far the hardest*. So here are some tips/things to think about to get through:

  1. The main thing is keeping “the main thing” the MAIN thing. This is catchy and easy to remember. It is also a nice way to say, “stop procrastinating”. Do you really think that alphabetizing your students’ test scores is a good use of your time? Or writing four different versions of that quiz for your students? I hate to tell you this, but you’re avoiding writing/finishing your dissertation. Those things seem important, but that’s because you are blinded by your need to do anything except the main thing. Keep that main thing the main thing.
  2. Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be finished. This is the biggest misconception, as graduate students tend to be perfectionists.  The belief is that the submitted thesis/dissertation is the height of perfection. NO. Perfect is for Michaelangelo and the Sistene Chapel (and x-rays tell us a lot about the layers underneath the final paintings of a lot of masters). What the thesis/dissertation needs to be is finished. Stop spending your time crafting perfect sentences and perfect figures. Make sure they are good enough, and then move on. As much as you think it’s critical to make sure that last little bit of the figure looks so perfect your advisor will cry, that extra time you are spending is actually procrastinating.
  3. Communicate with your committee as much as they are willing. Yes, they are super busy with important jobs. Spoiler alert: one of those jobs is helping you finish. The last thing you want when you walk into your defense is a surprise. SURPRISE that one of your committee members doesn’t like any of your analyses. SURPRISE that another one thinks the entire dissertation needs to be rewritten. SURPRISE that one of your committee members is going to grill you during your defense. Each of these are real situations that people I know have experienced.  Each of these likely could have been alleviated by talking to their committee members ahead of time. Make sure you and your advisors are all on the same page, and address any concerns they have with your dissertation BEFORE you are in the room.
  4. Just keep swimming. I must have said this a million times towards the end. Yes, it’s a saying from Finding Nemo (an excellent movie for any biologist) and yes, it’s a kids movie (my previous statement stands). But it really does help; you just have to keep your head down and keep going. It’s tiring and exhausting but you’ll get there!
  5. Support each other. This one seems obvious, but it’s worth saying. This may be the final sprint, but remember you wouldn’t have gotten here without support, and you’re unlikely to finish without it. Make dinner for someone who’s close to the end, or take care of laundry, or be a shoulder to lean on. And when you’re close, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Team effort all the way.

So good luck, and remember, it gets better. No, but seriously, after you finish tipping the celebratory drink and sleep a lot (this was the best part  -. I left my “congratulations you finished” party early so I could sleep soundly for the first time in months), the “post PhD” life is way better than the “pre PhD” life. It really does get better!

*One of the interesting thing about living abroad is noticing the difference between earning a PhD in America and earning one in Europe.  I’ve recently talked my colleague here to describe the difference, and here I’m explicitly talking about the end of the American PhD (the European one has a different and more drawn out ending).

Rodents of Unusual Size? I don’t think they exist… until now.

The Solomon Islands: dense, lush rainforest and the  coral reef biodiversity is among the richest in the world. Many of the plants and animals in the Solomon Islands have evolved in splendid isolation, and now, one of these animals has emerged from its idyllic surroundings, revealing itself to science for the first time: the vika (Uromys vika), a big-ass rat four times the size of even the heftiest of the familiar, city-slicker variety.

What, you were expecting a gorgeous tropical bird or something?

Read about them here!

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As a woman in science, I need to conceal my femininity to be taken seriously

Over at Vox, Eve Forster, a female neuroscience PhD student, conducted an experiment. For one week on Twitter, she changed her avatar to a male avatar to determine if she would be treated differently as a man. She kept everything else the same, and is very hesitant with her preliminary results (as a good scientist, she recognizes that this is largely anecdotal) but her experience is none-the-less fascinating.

Read about it here.

And tell me about a terrible mansplaining experience you’ve had (a student explaining to you what’s on the test you’ve written…)

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Big Lab or Small? What’s right for you?

Similar to my advice about picking a PhD advisor, a new article in Nature asks the same question… about postdoc labs.

I particularly like the story of an advisor needing to rend 3 buses to get everyone to the end of summer party (I can’t even imagine a lab that big)(no seriously).

Read it here!

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Ann Miller (centre) carefully selects postdocs to ensure that they are a good fit in her small lab.

Science first, scientists later

In the biological sciences, authorship of scientific, peer-reviewed articles is perhaps the single biggest determinant of career success, recognition and grant funding. However, merely being one author out of, say 5, on an article is not enough, where you are on that list matters too.

Steven Burgess has proposed a radical idea on how to do away with this problem:

Want to know how? Read about it here!

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Publishers go after ResearchGate for illicit sharing of journal papers

“The unasked question that this all comes down to is: Do publisher-owned rights matter more than the sharing of research for whatever benefit?” says Jon Tennant, communications director of professional research network ScienceOpen (also an STM member) in Berlin. “There’s a chance that ResearchGate will fail to recover from this, unless they fight back, and crumble as a business.”

Want to know more? Read about it here.

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Are preprints the future of biology? A survival guide for scientists

Although physicists have been posting preprints for nearly 3 decades, many biologists have only just begun to widely share their unreviewed papers. The shift has been catalyzed, in part, by endorsements of preprint publishing from high-profile scientists, as well as the 2013 launch of the nonprofit bioRxiv by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York; bioRxiv now holds more than 15,000 papers. But in contrast to physics, where preprints took off without much fanfare or controversy, the leap into preprints is stirring strong passions in the hyper-competitive world of the life sciences.

Pros:

  1. accelerate the pace of science—and improve its quality—by publicizing findings long before they reach journals,
  2. helping researchers get rapid feedback on their work
  3. giving a leg up to young researchers who don’t yet have many publications
  4. little difference between posting a preprint and presenting unpublished findings at a meeting, except that the preprint audience can be far larger

Cons:

  1. competitors may steal their data or ideas, and rush to publish similar work.
  2. preprint servers will become a time sink, as scientists spend hours trying to sift through an immense mishmash of papers of various quality
  3. easy, rapid publication could foster preprint wars—in which the findings in one preprint are quickly attacked in another, sometimes within hours. Such online squabbles could leave the public bewildered and erode trust in scientists.

Read about it here!

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