Unisexual Ambystoma

Unisexual Ambystoma

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Three things from Evolution 2014

I just got back from Evolution 2014, a scientific conference for those who study all aspects of organismal evolution. The conference was held in Raleigh, North Carolina, and I had an absolute blast during my first time at Evolution.

One of my favorite events was Saturday's Evolution film festival. A bunch of short films created by scientists and science educators were screened to a rowdy audience. There were a lot of laughs and nerdery-induced groans. My favorite film ("Dinosaur", below) was catchy and cute, where others varied from humorous explanations of evolutionary principles to fantastic visualizations of scientific studies. You can see all the videos here (some of my favorites include "The Genetics of Mouse Burrowing", "Selfish Gene", and "Drift").

Dinosaur from Lori Henriques on Vimeo.

Here are my biggest takeaways from Evolution 2014:

1. A modern evolutionary biologist needs A LOT of skills. Many presentations I saw described projects that required fieldwork to collect samples (sometimes across continents or the entire globe), laboratory skills to collect huge genetic data sets, bioinformatic techniques to curate and analyze that data,and enough knowledge/perspective to fit conclusions into a rapidly-changing body of knowledge. I tend to perceive a typical PhD student in my field 25 years ago as having a very specific niche, whether that be a certain study organism or a particular technique to collect/analyze data. Based on chatting with other scientists-in-training, a pressure to "do it all" is noticeable, with most students feeling like field, laboratory, and bioinformatic skills were all necessary to get a job.

2. A modern evolutionary biologist needs collaboration. That being said, no one can do it all. That is why I saw (and participated in) so many lunch, dinner, and "quick we have twenty minutes to chat" meetings. Finding other scientists and labs that have experience with what you are interested in isn't hard, and most of the time these folks are thrilled to brainstorm and provide advice. This meeting was a reminder of how much our lab interacts with others around the world and how invigorating these connections can be.

Google "Bad scientific posters" for yourself
3a. Speaking of skills, where are the communication skills? Far and away my biggest complaint about scientific conferences in general is a lack of clarity in communication. At my first few conferences, I struggled to walk through a session of poster presentations and actually learn anything. This caused me to doubt that I was really smart enough to keep up with the rest of science. As I've come to learn, scientists generally have a hard time following some basic rules about communication (for instance, simplify your message and never use comic sans). There is a multitude of potential reasons for this, like a perception that simplicity equals laziness or a lack of understanding. 

Just so you don't think I'm too cocky about visual communication, here is the poster I prepared for Evolution 2014. I've got a lot to learn too!
Even though Evolution showcased some of the most exciting science happening right now, that science was sometimes much to difficult to access (even for other evolutionary biologists!). A 15 minute browse through Dr. Zen's Better Posters blog would have made my brain ache a little less at the end of the night. I will continue to be a proponent for better visual presentation of science, even if at the continued annoyance of my lab mates.

3b. Speaking of communication skills, some people have them in spades. I saw a lot of great talks from established scientists that demonstrated how powerful good communication skills are when in the hands of gifted minds. For example, Dr. Steve Jones was the recipient of this years' Stephen Jay Gould Award and gave an engaging talk about his career with snails using both art and science. I was inspired by a whole bunch of talks like his.

Also, this meeting was easily the most aware of social media technology of any I have attended. Couldn't make a talk? Need a restaurant recommendation? What posters should I swing by? Just go check the Twitter feed! There was so much Twitter participation at this meeting, and it definitely added something extra for me. I used my own Twitter account to participate, and I look forward to using the spike in blog views and Researchgate publication downloads that resulted as evidence for why tools like Twitter can help you share your work effectively!

Here is a great summary (via The Molecular Ecologist) of the tweeting that was happening and here is a great collection of tweets from the meeting organized by Morgan Ernest (check out her blog, Jabberwocky Ecology too!).

Overall, I can't wait until next time! Now I should get back to making a list of all the new ideas I need to try.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Small rattles, big personalities

In the dark recesses of Aronoff laboratory, many are surprised to know that our lab has an entire room filled with rattlesnakes. In fact, most visitors don't believe us until we show them. Behind a plain, gray door lives a group of dusky pigmy rattlesnakes (Sistrurus miliarius barbouri). This group of animals has been one of the main sources of data for our lab's efforts in studying pit viper venom and how it relates to these animals diets and behavior. This work is currently being done by our principal investigator, Dr. Lisle Gibbs, and current PhD student Sarah Smiley. 

Right now, one of our undergraduate students (Hardy Kern) is finishing a project examining how these snakes, which have been eating the same type of food for months (either mice or frogs), differ in their interest in other food items. Since some of the snakes were born in the lab, the question is pretty simple: do these animals prefer the only food they've ever known or do they have a preference? I'm sure Hardy will come by at some point to write about his project here, but until then I thought I'd share some photos of the pigmy rattlesnakes that we took as part of Hardy's graduation gift from the grad students. 

The photos show these venomous snakes as we see them: beautiful, gentle, and curious animals.

If seeing snakes in their natural habitat is more your thing, here are some photos of pigmy rattlesnakes we found last summer during a lab trip to Florida:

Wherever you see one, these reclusive snakes are always a treat.