The Mars Conundrum: How do we explore the Red Planet without contaminating it?

“The search for life on Mars is paired with plenty of strong warnings about how we must sterilize our spacecraft to avoid contaminating our neighbor planet. How will we know what’s native Martian if we unintentionally seed the place with Earth organisms? A popular analogy points out that Europeans unknowingly brought smallpox to the New World, and they took home syphilis. Similarly, it is argued, our robotic explorations could contaminate Mars with terrestrial microorganisms.

As an astrobiologist who researches the environments of early Mars, I suggest these arguments are misleading. The current danger of contamination via unmanned robots is actually quite low. But contamination will become unavoidable once astronauts get thereNASA, other agencies and the private sector hope to send human missions to Mars by the 2030s.”

Want to know more? Read about it here.



Watching a new species evolve

Biologist who study experimental evolution will tell you that they get to see species evolve all the time. However, for the first time, scientists have been able to see the evolution of a completely new species, in the wild, in real-time. And it’s not something rapidly evolving like bacteria.

It’s a new species of Darwin’s finch, endemic to a small island in the Galápagos, Daphne Major. And it evolved in just two generations.

Read about this awesome study, and gather fodder for that argument that “evolution isn’t true” that you might be having over your Thanksgiving weekend, here!


The long game against an anti-science, anti-education government

I like this post over at Small Pond Science so much, I’m not going to comment much about it. Go read it, it’s really good:

“Like you, I’m exhausted from the political assault on science and education in the United States. But please, stay with me for this little bit, at least when you can find the energy.


I think we should keep doing the four things that I identified before inauguration, which are things that are part of our basic job description anyway:

  • Keep up research
  • Teach critical thinking
  • Advocate publicly for evidence-based decision making
  • Build diverse and inclusive academic communities”

Seriously, stop what you’re doing and go read it now.



The dinosaur you’re eating for Thanksgiving dinner

I giggle a little every time people ask about the dinosaur extinction (on the inside because giggling in peoples’ faces is rude (so I’ve been told… repeatedly)). Dinosaurs, in the strictest sense, are not extinct. They are walking and flying around us everyday.

And this week, they are sitting in the middle of the table.

But, in all fairness, I should mention that this is an ongoing debate. Not whether or not Thanksgiving is going to be delicious (that should be settled soon), but whether dinosaurs still walk amongst us (and will soon be in your belly).





When This Sea Slug Eats, It Prefers the Turducken of the Sea

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about this for a few weeks. There is a new type of predation, practiced by sea slugs called “kleptopredation”.

These psychedelic slugs eat hyrdroids, and will pop polyps off the hydroid as one might pick flowers off a stalk. But a new paper suggests that sea slugs prefer to eat hydroids that have just caught plankton.

Think of it like a bear. You (a human) just caught some salmon while fishing in Alaska (I hear it’s the thing to do there). And said bear sees this and waits for you to eat your fish before swooping in to eat you both. It’s two meals for the price of one. A little human-salmon combo meal.

These sea slugs are doing the same thing. So as you head home for Thanksgiving, potentially to eat a turducken, think about how you might be practicing some kleptopredation your self. And if you want to know more, read about it here.


Reality check: Applying for the Dream Job: Part 1


This post is from a good friend of mine. They are on the job market and I asked them to write what it’s like to currently be on the market. The answer is: bleak. So they agreed to write an anonymous post describing their experience and offering advice to those of us currently out there pursuing the dream tenure-tracked job:  

Dear reader,

I imagine you’re a graduate student or a postdoc aiming for a tenure-track academic job. Here, I present a case study of that endeavor, from my own experience on the job market. I present it anonymously because that feels like the best approach. I want to offer general advice, not just draw focus to my specific situation. Names spark a search for idiosyncracies and contingencies, whereas I hope you are able to see some generality and applicability to your own path. In that way, perhaps you can glean some wisdom from this, even if I’m not sure what it is.

I’m going to do this in two parts. In Part I, I will describe my situation, factually, from the point of view of someone whose sole goal is to get a tenure track job. Who am I? What have I done? Why haven’t I succeeded yet? What do I need to do to succeed?

In Part II (next week), I will consider my situation as a human being, discussing family goals, work-life balance goals, and non-academic desires and ambitions.

None of these are ground shaking revelations, and I don’t know if I have any answers, but it never hurts to have one more case study out there in the ether. If this helps one person better understand their career and life, then I’ve succeeded.


My academic history

  • Field: evolution, ecology, genetics
  • Current employment: Post-doc since early 2013
  • Publications: >20 total, 2 first author glossy papers (e.g., Nature, Science, PNAS etc.), 1 first author high-impact review paper (e.g., TREE, AREES, etc.), several first author field specific papers (e.g. Ecology, Evolution, etc.), several papers with undergraduate advisees as first authors. My H-index is between 6 and 10.
  • Grants: NSF GRFP, NSF DDIG, co-author of a full NSF grant during my postdoc.
  • Teaching: Instructor of record during my postdoc, plenty of TAing in graduate school
  • Future projects: Solid (admittedly not spectacular) project ideas in model eco-evo-gen systems with strong potential for grant funding, student involvement, and new research trajectories
  • Toolkits: Ecological genomics, field work, lab work, organismal biology, museum experience, multivariate multi-level statistical expertise, outreach
  • Pedigree: Top 10 EEB program for undergrad, graduate school, and postdoc, with nationally recognized letter writers. Pedigree shouldn’t matter in an ideal world, but to the extent that it does in reality, mine is objectively excellent.

Application History

I got my PhD in early 2013, and a I published 1st author glossy paper from my graduate work in time for the 2014 job season. Since then, I’ve applied to ~ 7 jobs per season at a mix of R1s and SLACs, for a total of 26 applications. Overall, I’ve gotten zero interviews (phone, skype, or in person), hearing only that I made one long-short list (though I wouldn’t necessarily have heard about others, depending on grapevines at each school).

Real talk

I’ve had a number of conversations with friends and colleagues about my job search, and I’ve come to a stark realization, which my graduate advisor put most bluntly: “My CV is not as strong as I think it is”. That is, I’ve never really been competitive enough at any one time during my postdoc to land a choice tenure track job. Here’s why.

  • Early in my postdoc, I didn’t have my graduate work published.
  • In the middle of my postdoc, I didn’t have enough first-author postdoc papers, and my graduate papers, including that glossy, were getting old.
  • By year 5 in my postdoc, I finally had that 1st author, glossy postdoc paper, but too little too late.
  • During my entire career, I haven’t done enough to distinguish myself from my advisors.
    1. My graduate system was too similar to my advisor’s: I’ve actually had people confuse my work for theirs.
    2. My postdoc position was initially a hired position on a pre-existing grant, rather than a system I developed and funded.
    3. It is unclear how much of the second grant that I did co-author during my postdoc are my ideas versus my postdoc advisor’s, as the work is an extension of our previous work together.
    4. I may have a massively multivariate dataset from my postdoc that will churn out papers for years, but my publication record hasn’t proved that I can write those papers on my own.
  • Though the strong letters from my advisors address these concerns and promote my intangibles and other skills, the letters will not stand out because every advisor writes a glowing letter for their student.

In short, I’ve gotten stale, and I don’t have enough publications or independence to compete with the younger postdocs who have their own system and a higher rate of publication. My graduate advisor, at least, was thus not completely surprised that I haven’t gotten any interviews.

What have I done wrong and what do I need to do?

  • Publish or perish: I haven’t published enough. This is clear and not surprising. My h-index is decent and growing, but currently not competitive. More importantly, perhaps, my rate of publication is too low, despite the high profile, complex papers and datasets I have produced. Before the 2018 job season, I need to get two or three more 1st author manuscripts at least in review.
  • Numbers game: I haven’t applied broadly enough. Successful tenure-track job procurement requires an appreciable amount of luck (as discussed by Jeremy Yoder). Even with a strong CV and research program, many other factors need to line up just right to get an interview: who is on the committee, what are the final parameters of the job search, who is in the applicant pool, how many are in the applicant pool, what are the diversity goals, etc. Thus, one has to apply very broadly to increase the chances of success during a low probability process. Again, perhaps not surprising, and I need to be applying to 40 jobs per year, not 7.
  • Jump start: I took too long to get papers out as a postdoc. My main projects had long gestation times—2.5 to 3 years of data collection, plus a year in review for my big paper. I should have focused on taking other datasets to publication in the meantime, but did not. Thus, for a 5-year postdoc, I haven’t produced enough. One bit of advice I received recently was to take any sub-optimal (per my parameters) tenure track job and use that to jump-start my career (see point 2: Numbers Game and applying broadly). In that way, my productivity clock could restart, and if I was productive during the 3-4 years of being an assistant professor, then I’d be competitive again for my preferred jobs.
  • Move around: The jump-start, sub-optimal assistant professorship would make me competitive enough to land the choice faculty job at the close-to-perfect university for me. Apparently, plenty of people move several years into a professorship, as they are way more competitive than any postdoc who will not have shown yet that they can successfully run a lab. Maybe instead of looking for the “right” position, I need to look for the “right now” position, without the intention to stay where I land forever.


To paraphrase Cersei Lannister, in the game of academia, you publish early, apply broadly, jump-start your productivity clock if you need to, and move around a lot, or you die.

In Part II, I consider the implications of these rules for me.


Mail-Order CRISPR Kits Allow Absolutely Anyone to Hack DNA

CRISPR has become so pervasive, that while I was at a party this weekend in Berlin I had three different people ask me if I’m working on CRISPR (for the record, I’m not).

But now you can! Seriously, DIY CRISPR kits are now available for purchase online. Read about one journalist’s journey trying to figure out if she was successful in her gene editing endeavors.

But equally hilarious are the posts I’ve seen on facebook of scientist considering buying the kit for the cheap lab equipment (optional mini-centrifuge for 125… that normally costs a few thousand dollars…).