Unisexual Ambystoma

Unisexual Ambystoma

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Herpin' the Florida Panhandle

A few weeks ago I was in beautiful St. George Island, Florida on vacation with my family. A big part of vacations for me is running around searching for creatures. I was able to spend a good amount of time exploring Apalachicola National Forest and Tate's Hell State Forest. It was fantastic, and I wanted to share some of the species that I turned up.

First off, here is a Scarlet Snake (Cemophora coccinea) that was found while night driving. These beautiful snakes spend most of their time under the leaf litter hunting for eggs of other reptiles. 

A lovely Corn Snake (Pantherophis guttata) that was found just down the road from the Scarlet Snake:

Tate's Hell State Forest provided many opportunities to pull the car over and listen to a variety of frogs and toads calling. One of the loudest and most prominent members of this chorus were Barking Treefrogs (Hyla gratiosa):

Another common road-crosser, the Pine Woods Treefrog (Hyla femoralis):
There is a Pine Woods Treefrog on this bark, promise.

Here was a first for me, a River Frog (Lithobates hecksheri). I learned very quickly that the terrifying call I was hearing in the middle of the night was actually a river frog. 

Another Pine Woods Treefrog:

One of the most commonly seen and heard treefrogs in the southeast is the Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea):

One call that I immediately recognized was the sheep-like "BAAAA" of the Eastern Narrowmouth Toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis). In the second picture you can see one of the unique physical features of narrowmouth toads, the flap of skin on the top of the head that they can fold across their eyes to remove pestering insects.

Southern Leopard Frog (Lithobates sphenocephala), a species that I remember as "the laughing frog".

Here is an especially colorful Southern Toad (Anaxyrus terrestris):

Finally, here is an example from one of my favorite groups of reptiles in the Southeast, the Family Anguidae:
"Gotcha, I'm not even a snake"

It is an Eastern Glass Lizard (Ophisaurus ventralis)! So cool! This lizard is such a treat to find. I've seen them in South Carolina before, but they often disappear into pine needles way before I can get a hand on one. 

There is something so bizarre about seeing the head of a lizard on the body of a snake:

This trip was just a taster for the Gibbs' lab trip to Florida in August, when we will be assisting fellow grad student Sarah Smiley in finding Pygmy Rattlesnakes. I'm positive we'll be picking up quite a few other great reptiles and amphibians of the Southeast along the way.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Tweet Report from Evolution 2013

This past weekend, scientists from around the world met in Colorado for Evolution 2013, the largest scientific meeting in the world for folks studying evolutionary biology.

I was not one of these scientists, and I was bummed about it. 

Conferences are very important for scientists for many reasons. They serve as forums to share work that is brand new and unpublished. They allow scientists with common interests to meet face-to-face, creating opportunities for collaboration and generation of new ideas. They can even be places to find your next job!

But from the opposite perspective, conferences are expensive: registration, hotel, transportation, and food add up quickly. And if you aren't there, you miss out. While not every presentation at a conference will become a published academic paper, many of the ideas and techniques presented could pass you by due to the lag time between the completion of scientific studies and the actual publication of those studies. 

However, social media applications like Twitter are now allowing outsiders to get a peak into scientific conferences like never before in addition to giving conference-goers an improved experience. 

Let me show you how. While working this weekend, I had my tweetdeck up monitoring the hashtag #evol2013. Below are some examples of how I got to see who was presenting what and how Evolution 2013 attendees made their conference better with lighting-fast sharing. 

Disclaimer: since all of the below twitter accounts are public, I didn't ask everyone for permission. Keep in mind that they are not endorsing my opinions, and I encourage you to link to their accounts to read all about their various adventures. 

First of all, sharing interesting talks (even your own!) is easy:

Meeting up with like-minded attendees:

Making life easier for conference attendees with schedules, snacks, and saunas:

What are other scientists talking about? Now you know, from the interesting perspectives of respected faculty to the alway-relevant jokes about dress code and grad student scavengers:

Good stuff. I've cherry-picked some entertaining bits above, but in all seriousness, the #evol2013 hashtag allowed me to follow what was going on at the meeting while I was hundreds of miles away. Not only did I benefit from seeing the trends among my colleagues, but I also got a peek at the way scientific conferences are being conducted in the future.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Get to Know a (Former) Grad Student: Dr. Ana Jimenez

With this post, I'm continuing the "Get to Know a Grad Student" series, an effort to showcase the lives of real scientists. After interviewing a few graduate students, I thought it would be nice to hear from someone who has crossed the PhD boundary into the wild blue yonder. 

Dr. Ana Jimenez is a post-doctoral researcher in Dr. Joe Williams' lab here in the Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology Department at Ohio State. Ana has been my teacher and biggest supporter in the impossible task of getting salamander cells to grow in the lab. She is also my designated dog babysitter, and my dog told me she would rather live with Ana.

She was nice enough to answer the questions below. Enjoy!

"Take me to Ana's"
What kind of research do you do? Please give the scientific version and the non-scientist version.

Scientific-version: My research involves finding linkages between whole animal metabolic rate and cellular metabolic rate. 

For my Ph. D, I looked at the whole animal metabolic cost of hypetrophically growing muscle fibers, and found that larger muscle fibers are metabolically cheaper to maintain for animals, thus, there is a positive selection for animals to grow their muscle fibers as large as they can, until diffusion of important molecules such as oxygen or ATP becomes limiting

Figure taken from:
Wiersma et al 2007, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science
For my post-doc work, I have been researching how life-history trade-offs in tropical and temperate birds translate down to the cellular level. Tropical birds are said to occupy the “slow pace” of the life-history spectrum, with fewer young and reproduction occurring later in their lives, while temperate birds occupy the “fast pace” of the life-history spectrum, having more offspring and devoting more resources to reproduction early on in their lives. Additionally, we know that, on average, tropical birds have significantly lower whole-animal basal and peak metabolic rate compared with temperate birds. 

So, I have been isolating dermal fibroblasts from phylogenetically-paired tropical and temperate bird species and measuring the cellular metabolic rate of these cells using an XF24 Seahorse analyzer (machine that measures oxygen consumption in a monolayer of cells). I have found that, (lo and behold!), the cellular metabolic rate of the cells isolated from tropical birds have significantly lower basal and peak metabolic rate as well, with differences closely matching those of the whole-animal metabolic measurements. So, cellular metabolic rate does, indeed, retain the whole-animal metabolic signature of the animals the cells were isolated from.

Non-Scientific version: For my doctoral work, I researched why bigger muscle fibers are cheaper to maintain in fish and crustaceans, and for my post-doctoral work, I am researching whether whole animal metabolic rate is retained down to the cellular level in tropical and temperate bird sister species. 

Why is what you study important?

Besides the fact that it is what I love and what I have fun with? Nothing, not important at all…

Just kidding, results from our work with isolated dermal fibroblasts from tropical and temperate birds has let us (with the help of a diabetes researcher at the University of Cincinnati) to propose that cells may have a fixed “metabolic clock” that carefully regulates the whole-animal metabolic rate set-point, a finding that may have important implications in the body weight field. 

Lean and obese people metabolically defend their body weight incredibly precisely, down to the cellular and molecular level. An advantage of our proposed work is that our bird model does not include body weight, and insulin resistance parameters, which, in lean vs. obese studies, is a limitation that confounds the metabolic set-points of obesity. The answer to the question of how an animal decides its metabolic set-point is certain to be the same for bird cells and obesity models. Additionally, this work also has implications for theories of allometric scaling…touchy ground on this one though, so that’s all I’ll say about it.

What was your path to graduate school like?

I was accepted into the master’s program at The University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) to work under Dr. Steve Kinsey on muscle physiology and biochemistry of fish and crustaceans. After two years in his lab, I had the choice of defending my master’s thesis and moving on to another lab to do a Ph. D or continuing in his lab for a Ph. D. I really loved my master’s project and I was really, really excited about continuing to answer the questions that it had lead me to, so I chose to stay in the Kinsey lab for my doctorate, a decision I have never regretted.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time? How do you feel about your work-life balance?

I’m told that it is very important to have a work-life balance, but I’m really crappy at keeping said balance. In all of science, there are ebbs and flows of work, so there are times that I barely ever leave the lab, just like there are times I have to find stuff to keep me busy. 

I take advantage of the times that science is slow to spend time volunteering at the humane society or spend time hiking or swimming with my dog. Really, most of my life revolves around animals of one kind or another, and I have fun with all aspects of my life, so it’s sometimes hard to find the fine line between “work” and “life”. My post-doc advisor, Dr. Joe Williams, says “the day I stop having fun will be the day I leave science for good.” I couldn't agree more!

Describe a normal day in your life.
One of the Williams' lab field sites happens to be my house.

I wake up, walk/feed/play with my dog, go for a run (if it’s warm), get ready for work.

Two things can happen for “work:” either we are going out to collect birds, in which case we spend the whole day outdoors, or I’m doing lab work, in which case I spend an incredible amount of time counting cells, plating cells, growing cells, measuring cells’ metabolic rate or cursing at cells for not doing what I wanted them to do…

I also spend an incredible amount of time looking for funding, writing grants, and gathering preliminary data. This part of my life I don’t really like at all, but it is a necessary evil. 

What are your career plans for the future?

I’m highly undecided on my future. I think I will go back to what Joe tells us: The day I stop having fun will be the day I leave science. Right now, I really love what I do and the questions I’m answering, but academia is changing very rapidly, and I’m not sure that I support the changes that are happening.

What has surprised you about graduate school?

I think most of my graduate school experience was as expected. I have to say that the transition between student to post-doctoral researcher was a real eye-opening experience for me. For most of the Ph. D students in my department, no one really spent time discussing with us what happens after you defend you dissertation and you move on. No one told us that there are several different types of post-doctoral positions that you can apply for and that you can shape your future depending on which type of path you pick. No one told us that looking and applying for a post-doc is a full time job and that it should be happening 1.5 years BEFORE you defend. So, I had a hard time with all of that, mainly because I lacked information. Once I successfully landed a post-doc, life went back to meeting my expectations, however.

Student-life and post-doc life hasn't really changed much for me (minus the fact that I went for working with marine critters to working with birds): I work hard a lot of the time, and I have fun with it.

Ana pictured here pipetting without gloves like some sort of rebel.

What do you struggle with the most in graduate school?

I think in graduate school, I struggled the most with independent thinking. It was really tough to think about my own project outside of my advisor’s expectations and frame of mind. 

Now as a post-doc, I have been “left” to independently think since the moment I stepped foot in this lab, and my advisor helps guide my thinking, which has been tremendously helpful. My new struggle is balancing grant-writing time with actually gathering data and writing papers-time. I’m told this struggle does not cease, even after becoming faculty (great news! NOT!)

What has been the best moment of your career so far?

The day I defended my doctorate. By far, most exciting, emotional, and triumphant day of my life.

How do you feel about the dynamic of research, teaching, and outreach in your career and in the future?

In nature, we talk about a balance of resource allocation: if you are investing 60% of your time feeding, you can’t spend 70% of your time mating. 

I feel like the dynamic of research, teaching and outreach follows this model very closely. And I would say that you have to go with your strength: If you are a good, effective communicator and like teaching, spend your resources on that. If teaching the same concepts over and over again bores you and you like the dynamic of research and can be productive at it, then do that. Play to your strengths at all times. If you are good at both, then do 50-50 and find a place that allows you to do that.

Who are your academic role models?

To any animal physiologist, Dr. Knut Schidmt-Nielsen is a God! But more close to home, if I hadn't had the undergraduate research experience I had, I would have never made it to where I am today. So, I’m eternally grateful to Dr. Wayne Bennett from The University of West Florida.

What advice do you have for other aspiring grad students in your field?

Unfortunately, what I would have to say is think twice before coming into academia. But if you love it and your heart is 100% into it, then close your eyes and jump with both feet. Things always work themselves out in the end. Make sure you are having fun, and learning lots.

Thanks Ana!

If you are enjoying this "Get to Know a (Scientist/Grad Student)" series, let me know! 

Feel free to send me some suggestions for what types of scientists you want to learn more about and I promise to track them down and ask nicely. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Chased by a Robot Cheetah

Charismatic animal? Check.
Neat gadgets? Check.
A revealing look into something previously un-observable? Check.

Oh boy, we've got ourselves a Nature paper brewing.
Credit to Martin Heigan (left) and Richard Ashurst (right)

A study published in the journal Nature led by Dr. Alan Wilson shines a light on why the way cheetahs move is so interesting. By using collars with some very fancy devices that measure how the animals change speed and direction, the research team showed that even though cheetahs are the fastest land animal on Earth, their ability to stop is what really catches dinner.

The collared cheetahs displayed some of the highest values for acceleration, deceleration, and centripetal acceleration (commonly explained by G-force) that have been measured in wild animals. Check out more in-depth info from the press stories at NPR and The New York Times. The bottom line is this: cheetahs don't move like dragsters or Usain Bolt, they move like F1 race cars.

As an added bonus, I was exploring Dr. Wilson's webpage and found out that he has collaborated with Boston Dynamics in designing a cheetah robot:

My love for these videos of strange robots is only equaled by my love for how hard the make me laugh. I feel like this will quickly change as we get closer to a robot apocalypse. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Beer as a Metaphor for Biodiversity

Check out this great video from MinuteEarth that compares the dynamics of plant communities to the economics of beer. Sounds strange at first, but ends up being a great way to explain the importance of biodiversity to an economics major who is taking there required biology course.

Check it out:

Make sure to take a look at MinuteEarth's other videos on youtube and connect with them on Facebook and Twitter

Thursday, June 6, 2013

What I've learned about outreach

This past week was the last week of the first Scifund Online Outreach Class, in which more than a hundred scientists and educators from around the world got together to improve their outreach skills. I was excited to participate in the class, and ended up enjoying it more than I ever expected.

My former advisor, Stephen Richter, identifying stream insects with local biology teachers.

Science outreach is loosely defined as any activity that raises the public's awareness of science. Unfortunately, that definition is a little too simplified. The "public" are a bunch of people: kindergartners, moms/dads, police, politicians, and retirees sitting on the beach in Florida. All of these groups have different values and a different perception of science, but in some way or another, science matters to all of them. 

Some scientists, including myself, think that there is a big disconnect between  scientists and the public. Unfortunately, scientists can tend to point a finger at the public for having a negative attitude towards science. In a study led by Dr. Elaine Ecklund from Rice University, a quarter of surveyed scientists suggested that the attitude of the public is the main difficulty in science outreach. In contrast, one graduate student interviewed in the study stated that she thinks the public views scientists as "snobby intellectuals making a judgement on high". 

I'm fortunate to be a scientist, and I believe that part of my job should be sharing my science with the public. I get the feeling that most scientists have historically viewed this outreach as optional or even frivolous. However, some scientists are suggesting that science outreach is quickly going to become a necessary part of keeping your research relevant, productive, and funded.

With that in mind, here are the four most important things I learned from five weeks of outreach training with some of the most interesting scientists in the world:

1. You should be able to explain your research to anyone, no matter how complicated.

"You see that new paper about experimental
Markov chain Monte Carlo simulation methods 
for phylogeny reconstruction?"
Most scientists have extremely narrow areas of expertise (I like Matt Might's explanation here). When you have studied a single area of science for years, you are standing on a gigantic heap of prior knowledge. This prior knowledge makes it possible to come up with ideas that are new to science, but also makes it easy to forget that most folks have no idea what half the words mean in that scientific article you are reading.

The solution to this problem seems to be getting practice putting yourself in your audience's shoes. Sounds easy right? 

Imagine you are explaining what you study to a bunch of 10-year-olds. What if I told you you can only use the 10,000 most common words in the English language? Try it!

Here is what I came up with to explain salamander genetics:
"I look at animals with four legs and wet skin. These animals are made of tiny parts that hold something that is like a book. The letters in these books make the way the animal looks, moves, and eats. I study how these wet skin animals share their books and letters with their babies."

That sounds pretty bad, but it sure is good practice! 

Beyond knowing your audience, it helps to refine your message. Science is complicated, but just focusing on a single idea or message can vastly improve your ability to communicate. My eyes have glazed over listening to other scientists (in my own discipline!) describe every detail of their research, and I've learned that focusing on a single idea makes things a lot easier. One method we learned to combat this is the message box from Nancy Barron's book Escape from the Ivory Tower

2. New technology makes for new ways to connect.

Connecting to people all over the world is easier than ever thanks to the internet and social media. Twitter is a neat way to put small bites of science out there for the public, take part in a community of other scientists, and stay on top of what issues are being talked about in science. I learned more about Twitter through these slides by Jeremiah Osborne-Gowey and this paper by Holly Bik and Miriam Goldstein. 

Once you get past the "whoa, I don't understand this" phase of using Twitter, you can quickly learn how to do cool things, like chat with high school students about their science questions and take part in impromptu scientific peer review

Twitter is just one example of how scientists are using the internet to reach out. Blogs (like this one!) are important tools for scientists to connect with the public, along with comics, videos, and podcasts. Please do yourself a favor and check out those links for diverse, fantastic video interviews from some of the most influential folks in these areas. 

3. There are a lot of people who care. And they care a lot.

The biggest thing I took away from the outreach course was the number of amazing scientists and educators that I met in the process. Sometimes the most inspiring experience you can have is connecting with others who share your passions. I've learned that there are enthusiastic grad students, tenured university faculty, and K-12 teachers all around the world who are always thinking about how to communicate more effectively. Just knowing that other people are out there making a difference is a huge boost to my desire to do the same.

Google hangouts with scientists and educators, like Elaine Brewer, make practicing science outreach easy.

4. If you want to get started, then get started.

In my scientific career, I am almost always careful and slow. I plan experiments carefully, write and rewrite papers until I am satisfied, and read dozens of papers before I am comfortable weighing in on a topic. This usually makes for good science, but I don't think this approach always makes for good outreach. 

Everyone's time is limited, but if you care about something strongly enough, you make time. Grad students' weekends in the lab, professors' late nights perfecting classroom presentations, and teachers' many hours of preparing demonstrations are all testaments to making time for the things that you love. 

So if you care about sharing science, go for it. 

Start a blog. Tweet it up. Go to a school. Give a presentation. Don't be embarrassed of what you do and certainly don't be embarrassed of wanting to share your passion. 

I'm more than willing to look silly if front of a colleague if I can put this look on someone's face: