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Tristan Adventure 2: why am I here?

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Why, one might ask, would a Canadian scientist working in the UK travel via South Africa to the most remote inhabited island in the world? The answer involves 19th-century British garrisons, fishing boats in Brazil and Namibia, Napoleon, a helicopter, and my mad Photoshop skillz.

Tristan da Cunha comprises 4 main and 2 smaller islands.  There’s the main island of Tristan da Cunha, which includes the 2060 m high Queen Mary’s Peak, and is 96 km2.  About 40 km south are two other islands: Nightingale (4 km2) with its associated Alex (or Middle) and Stoltenhoff Islands, and the aptly-named Inaccessible Island (14 km2).  Gough, the last island, is 350 km to the south, and the second largest (65 km2).  And to paraphrase the classic movie, of all the islands in all the oceans in the world, the Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross (Thalassarche chlororhynchos) had to nest on these four. And only these four.

And, all else being equal, the Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross would continue its albatrossy existence, doing what albatross do (fly, dance, breed, and repeat for 30, 40, 60, or even 70 years).  But all else is not equal.

The first problem, if you are an Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, is that you are large and delicious.  Tristan had no indigenous population, and the community here today traces its origins back to only 1817 when William Glass and his family remained behind when the British garrison stationed to (somehow) prevent the liberation of Napoleon from “nearby” St. Helena (which is actually more than 2000 km away, but the closest habitation to Tristan).  On islands that were in all respects wild and rugged, the Tristanians had to adapt to the local conditions for survival, and that included harvesting the seals and seabirds that used the island.  Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross were a delicacy, and the eggs (measuring XX x XX mm), as well as chicks laden with fat (weighing > 2 kg each) were harvested right up through the 1950s.

In the 1950s, up to 2500 eggs were taken each year on Nightingale, with a further 1700-2000 chicks harvested later in the season (a collecting permit, incidentally, cost 1 shilling).  In fact, most of the seabirds on Tristan were exploited in some way or another.  Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross are now protected under the Conservation Ordinance of 2006, and what limited poaching used to exist has all but fizzled out.

The second problem, if you were an Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, is that somewhere along the line, black rats were introduced to Tristan.  The current best guess is that they arrived on a shipwreck in 1882.  Rats love to eat, and when they produce 3-5 litters of 5-8 pups/litter it doesn’t take long to go through a fair number of birds. Petrels, close relatives to albatross that usually nest in burrows in the ground, are generally harder hit than albatross, which nest on the surface on pedestal nests, but the rats undoubtedly took their toll.

The third problem, if you were an Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, is that longline fisheries, particularly those in Brazil and Namibian waters, tend to catch a lot of Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross.  In Brazil, 0.011 birds are caught for every 1000 hooks set (and when there are hundreds of thousands or millions of hooks set, you can see the numbers add up quickly).  They’re also the most common bycatch species in pelagic longlining and trawl operations in Namibia.

So in the face of these former (in the case of harvesting) and current (rats, bycatch) threats, the natural question is “Well, how many are there, and is that changing?”.  As I write this in early September 2014, I can let you in on some inside knowledge: we honestly haven’t a clue.

In the early 1970s, a chap named Richardson was on Tristan and its other islands, and came up with what were then the best estimates of the population of most of the breeding seabirds, including the Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross.  Since then, there was some work done on Gough about 10 years ago, a count on Nightingale in 2007, and a guess at the population breeding on Inaccessible in the early 1980s.  But the main island of Tristan remained uncounted since 1974.  Back then, the estimate was 16,000-30,000 pairs, making it the largest breeding colony for the species.

There are about 5300 pairs at Gough, 4000 at Nightingale (with another couple hundred pairs on Alex and Stoltenhoff), and 1100 pairs on Inaccessible.  Even together, they don’t eclipse the estimate from Tristan.  But that estimate is horribly out of date, and a lot has changed since 1974[citation needed].

Which brings me to the purpose of my visit: figuring out just how may Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatrosses there are.  Now, this is much easier said than done, but thanks to our project partners at the Tristan Conservation Department and with the logistical support of the South African National Antarctic Program and Department of Environmental Affairs with the helicopters of the research ship S.A. Agulhas II, a couple hundred photos, a pile of computer memory, and the aforementioned Photoshop “mad skillz” we’ll photograph the entire island in about 3 hours from 100-200m above ground.  You can actually see albatrosses on their nests since their white backs stand out against the brown, green, and otherwise dark ground.  Stitch ‘em together and what have you got? Bippity boppity boo A massive image file where we can count the nest.

But it’s not that “easy”.  The photos will undoubtedly miss some nests, so will be supplemented with a healthy dose of groundtruthing where we hike up, count the nests in a set area, and compare this to the photo count to come up with a correction factor based on nesting habitat and other features that impede detecting the nests from the helicopter.

So what, some might be asking.  Without a good idea of how many there are, we don’t know the toll that bycatch is playing on populations.  Taking the same number of birds a year has different consequences for a species with 10,000 breeding pairs than for one with 100,000 pairs.  In fact, the lack of a current population estimate was identified by the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels, an international agreement between several nations (including the UK, and therefore Tristan da Cunha, as well as Brazil) aimed at reducing seabird bycatch (, as a significant gap.  So much of a gap that they actually provided some of our funding for the current expedition.

So that, in a nutshell, is why I’m here.  Along the way, I’ll also be working with the Conservation Department looking at their current albatross monitoring program, we’ll count some penguins, trap a bunch of rats to look at their diet and distribution, and continue the work to better understand the poorly-known burrowing petrels of Tristan.

But next week, I’ll be off to Gough on the SA Agulhas II to get to know the island, hopefully do a similar Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross count there, and contribute to the science underpinning the hopeful eradication of introduced house mice from the island.  I won’t be back on Tristan until early October, and will likely have the next instalment of Tristan Adventure then.

Tristan adventure 1: journey & arrival

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Tristan Adventure 1: Journey and arrival

Hello outside world! I’m safely ensconced in Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, the capital (and only settlement) of Tristan da Cunha. For those just joining us, this trip to the most remote inhabited island in the world (some 2100 km south of St. Helena (which is, itself, not close to much else other than similarly remote Atlantic Islands), and a full 2800 km west of Cape Town, South Africa) is one of the perks of my job working at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science.  I’m down here to do the first census of Endangered Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross (Thalassarche chlororhynchos) on the main island of Tristan, and to work with the Tristan Conservation Department until the end of November. So, needless to say (and at long last!), the next few months I’ll be living up to the “field” portion of this blog’s moniker more than in the past.

A joyful journey to Heathrow along the M1 and M25 (known as one of the largest carparks in England!), a 3-hour flight delay, 9 hours, and one barely passable airplane meal later, I awoke to the trickle of light coming through the shade of the British Airways 747.  Peeking through the blind so as not to wake my fellow cattle passengers, my first sight of Africa was the red sands of the Kalahari Desert and the Skeleton Coast of Namibia.

About 90 minutes later, we arrived in Cape Town on a spectacular day with Table Mountain in excellent form.  A colleague picked me up at the airport and dropped me off at my accommodation in the City Bowl.  The weekend was spent getting orientated, and seeing another friend who works on large mammal ecology and conservation in Southern Africa.  We journeyed around the Cape Peninsula, taking in the fantastic mammals – eland, bontebok, Cape mountain zebra, rock hyraxes (known locally as “dassies”), and a troupe of baboons while he explained the many and varied conservation, human-wildlife conflict, and management issues he and his students were working on.  And what better way to end the day than discussing lion trophic ecology over grilled ostrich on the Waterfront?

I spent two more days running around acquiring sundry and miscellaneous field equipment at the various (and interesting!) specialty shops of Cape Town before arriving at the offices of Ovenstone Agencies (Pty.) Ltd. in Green Point.  Ovenstone operates the fishery for Tristan rock lobster (Jasus tristani), and two ships – the MFV Edinburgh, a passenger, cargo and factory fishing boat, and the MV Baltic Trader, a passenger/cargo vessel.  I went out on the Edinburgh with 8 other passengers, including a dentist making her 4th trip to the island (and 3rd with her now 4-year-old daughter), the manager of the lobster factory on Tristan and one of the supervisors from Cape Town (originally fro Bulgaria), and 4 Tristanians, including a 7-week-old on his first journey after being born in Cape Town in June.

After 2 days, we were into steady northwest winds, and very lumpy seas.  The saving grace of this voyage was I had the luxury of being seasick in the sink in the privacy of my own cabin.  Now, I’ve been on ocean-going vessels in eastern Canada, the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, and off Australia, and never – never! – have I had such a case of mal-de-mer.  Thankfully, by day 6, the winds had shifted around to the southwest and were from behind.  This afforded several days of small luxuries, like being able to eat more than bread, water, and an apple in the run of a day.

But the northwesterlies had slowed us down, and our 7-day passage turned into 8, 9, 10 days.  On the following Friday (i..e, 10 days after we left Cape Town), we pulled into the lee on the southeastern coast of Tristan da Cunha, the engines stopped, and a wave of excitement permeated the passengers in the mess as we chowed down on oxtail stew.  The only problem was that the settlement, and “harbour” were on the northwestern side (as in, on the exact opposite side of the island from which we current found ourselves at anchor).  The winds were too strong, the swells too great, and the boats that were to fetch us unable to leave the harbour.  But a pleasant day was had by all watching early 1990s British mysteries on DVD, and I spent some time getting some old data in order (after a week of not being able to look at my computer screen without inducing emesis, it was actually quite enjoyable!).

Saturday morning came, and the engines started up.  We rushed up to grab a quick breakfast in anticipation of being ashore for lunch.  But it was not to be.  After a quick peek, the seas were still too rough.  Back to the anchor, and Helen Mirren solving murders in 1980s London.  But, in mid-afternoon, things looked promising, we steamed north, and next thing we knew, the Tristan Conservation boat Arctic Tern was alongside, the Tristan flag flapping stiffly in the wind.  We rushed back to our cabins, suited up for departure, grabbed our cabin baggage (stowed baggage and cargo would have to be landed when it was calmer still), and made our way to the deck.  The police boat had been craned up next to the Edinburgh, we hopped in – 9 passengers, 3 dogs, and bits of kit, and made for the harbour.  In a blink it was all over, and we were bailing out onto the jetty, passing gear up the stairs, and shedding our waterproofs and PFDs.

Of all the beach landings I’ve done on islands in Alaska, Newfoundland, and Australia, this was one of the fastest (thanks to the two 120 hp motors), and consequently most frantic.  Literally within 15 minutes, I went from waiting on the Edinburgh to standing on Tristan da Cunha.

But now, I’m dry (aside from the near 100% ambient humidity), warm(ish, it is winter south of the equator, after all), and I’ve had lovely fish pie, date pudding, and cheese sandwiches.  The island store opened again on Monday and after a visit to the Finance Department (which acts as the island bank – it’s cash only on Tristan), I was supplied for the next few days.  Monday was also when the cargo from the ship, including food, fuel, supplies for the store, and the passenger baggage came ashore.  Two barges go out from the harbour to the ship, anchored about 400m offshore, and the goods are craned from the ship onto the barges, which then chug back to the harbour where the harbour crane reverses the process.  When the ship is unloading, most other work on the island stops (particularly that involving able-bodied men), but that enabled me to take care of some running around (see Clarence, the island’s only police officer, to get my passport stamped and say hello, thank Dawn for arranging our accommodation and learn that one must dial 89 and then an outside number, and stop by the admin building to chat finances).  I can also happily report that the bread maker produced an excellent loaf of whole wheat on my first attempt.  I’ve got less than three months to perfect it.

Science-wise, I haven’t even started yet, and we won’t start gathering data until the S.A. Agulhas II takes us 220 miles south to Gough Island in about two weeks.  It took more than 2 weeks to get from my front door to my field accommodation (which, incidentally, is spectacular), but I’ve seen some incredible wildlife (including my first albatross since 2010, and my first wild penguins!), thought a lot about science, scientific expeditions (including the trials and tribulations, particularly those in the days of olde), made some friends, and can heartily recommend the grilled springbok paired with a Western Cape merelot at a little place on a side street in Cape Town near the cable car to Table Mountain.


A journey to Tristan da Cunha

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Starting this Friday, I’ll begin my journey to the most remote inhabited island in the world – the UK Overseas Territory of Tristan da Cunha.  I’m headed there as part of a project funded by the Darwin Initiative, and the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) to do the first quantitative survey of the endemic Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross (Thalassarche chlororhynchos) on the main island of Tristan, and to update counts from Gough Island (400 km to the south).

About half of the world’s population of “Mollys” breeds on Tristan, and the only estimate is “16,000-30,000″ from 1972-74, and is based largely on expert opinion.  Tristan has introduced mice and rats that can actual eat albatross chicks alive.  Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross are also frequently killed in fisheries as bycatch.  So you can imagine that not having a reliable population estimate of the (possibly) largest breeding population for more than 40 years is a bit of a conservation gap.

We’ll be working with the Tristan Conservation Department, the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, and the South African Department of Environmental Affairs to count them.  Working from the S.A. Agulhas II, we’ll do helicopter flights to photograph the birds as they sit on their nests early in incubation (the albatross are large, white birds and show up against the brown/green vegetation).  But that’s the easy part.  When the Agulhas II departs, we’ll have 2 months of hiking around the slopes of Queen Mary’s Peak to ground-truth our aerial counts.

The only way to reach Tristan is by ship – between 5-7 days’ steaming from Cape Town, South Africa.  Consequently, there aren’t that many opportunities to get there.  Or get back, for that matter.  So for the (northern) autumn, The Lab and Field will be on a bit of a hiatus.  I’m hoping, though, to find time to post a few updates from the field, and hopefully some photos (Tristan does have satellite internet, but it’s been known to go down for several days at a time).  You can also follow along on Twitter with the #TdCadventure hashtag.

So until December, here’s to fair winds and following seas!

“Old” meets “New”: the role of preprints in natural history

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The title of this post is a little tongue-in-cheek because preprints are a relatively recent adoption in ecology, conservation, and environmental science, and natural history is, of course, the foundation of ecology, conservation, and environmental science.  Regardless, though, I think preprints have a huge role to play in natural history.

Preprints are non-peer-reviewed documents that are posted in online repositories where others can comment on them, authors can upload revised versions, and most importantly, get information out.  Preprints are often submitted to journals, and their ultimate version usually contains the same text as the journal article.  Importantly, the preprint is archived, is citable (with a DOI), and gets the information into the world and out of our filing drawers (or more likely, computer folders and field books). The case for preprints in biology is fairly strong, and I’ll add one more: natural history and conservation.

Natural history, I’ve argued (as have many, many, many, many, many others) is an important part of modern science. Sadly, not everyone agrees (but this is my blog, and they’re wrong). But there are still journals that value (and are dedicated to!) natural history, and rightly so.  But even putting together a “natural history paper” isn’t trivial. There are still hypotheses, observations, analyses, and interpretation.

Now, maybe it’s a particular proclivity of ornithologists, but we tend to write a heck of a lot of reports – to government agencies, for permits, and to funders.  These often have some preliminary analyses, lots of methodological detail and background, and in the case of most of my field studies, heaps of “ancillary information”.

During my PhD, my primary field site was Kiska Island, a lovely volcanic island in the Rat Islands group of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.  It’s a fantastic spot, and cumulatively over the four years, I spent nearly 300 days there (probably the 2nd largest amount of time of anyone alive right now).  Each year, we filed a summary report with the US Fish and Wildlife Service that detailed the effects of introduced rats on Least and Crested Auklets.  But we also did much more than that.  In particular, we (and the other 3-6 ornithological research camps in the Aleutians each summer) compiled an annotate list of bird sightings.

“Hey!” I hear you exclaiming, “That’s some pretty awesome natural history data form a neat part of the world! When will you write it up?”.  Sadly, the answer is not anytime soon.  This makes me sad, but my current job doesn’t allow for Natural History Fridays.  What if you were interested in the distribution and effect of introduced predators on Aleutian Cackling Geese? Or were examining range-wide variation in Glaucous-winged Gull egg size?  You would have no way of knowing that I collected useful data because it’s in an unpublished government report (or other “grey literature”), and doesn’t merit a paper or note on its own.

If I had deposited my annual reports in a preprint repository like PeerJ PrePrints, or bioRxiv, not only would these data be out there, but others could cite my report/preprint.  Furthermore, the publicly available copy wouldn’t just be the one on my old lab’s webpage, but it would be available after I’m long gone, and since it would have a DOI, it would be easy to find.

Tracking down grey literature is a royal pain.  Reports are rare, are often poor black-and-white reproductions, and usually hard to find in the first place.  Citations of grey literature also tend to be more prone to errors, which exacerbates the whole process of finding them.  And, I think most importantly, the information they contain doesn’t always make it into a paper.  All solved if they were deposited on a preprint server.

We are, after all, already producing these reports, and more importantly, they’re already cited frequently, and data appearing in these reports is also in published papers.  So the reality is that nothing would really change, except that the information would be more widely available, better curated, and citable.  I don’t see a downside.

So if you are, in fact, interested in the distribution and effect of introduced predators on Aleutian Cackling Geese, or variation in Glaucous-winged Gull egg size, you will hopefully soon be able to add my wee bits of data to your analysis.  When my various colleagued return from the field, I’ll convince them that we need to deposit our annual reports in a preprint archive.  In the meantime, you can see them on the “Downloadable reports” section of the Kiska webpage.

We have work to do

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I’m not a linguist, but I think the theory that swearing and other “taboo” words came about to express extreme emotion.  Regular readers of The Lab & Field will know that I rarely (never?) use such words.  Similarly, in scientific writing, we couch emotion in verbose syntactical constructions, often devoid of feeling.

Such will not be the case with this post because today I had to, quite literally and without hyperbole, suppress the urge to wretch, and I feel my writing on this topic should reflect that reaction.

Buckle up, because we have work to do.

No, really. I’m assigning homework.  Or more accurately, work-work, because today we (as individuals, and as “the scientific community”) need to stop what we’re doing, and think about what we’ve done.  I’m not fucking kidding, either.


1. Read Clancy KBH, Nelson RG, Rutherford JN, Hinde K (2014) Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault. PLoS ONE 9(7): e102172. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102172

Not just the abstract, and not a news outlet’s coverage.  The actual article.  It contains things like: “A majority (64%, N = 423/658) of all survey respondents, stated that they had personally experienced sexual harassment”.  That’s two out of three.

“Over 20% of respondents reported that they had personally experienced sexual assault”.  That’s 1 in 5.  ONE IN FIVE!

“women respondents [were] 3.5 times more likely to report having experienced sexual harassment than men (70% of women (N = 361/512) and 40% of men (N = 56/138)”

“Women were significantly more likely to have experienced sexual assault: 26% of women (N = 131/504) vs. 6% of men (N = 8/133)”

Again, that’s a quarter of women who engage in field work reported being sexually assaulted.  By whom? I’m glad you asked: “Harassment aimed at men primarily originated from peers at the field site (horizontal dynamics) whereas they originated from superiors when directed toward women (vertical dynamics)”

This is not OK. It’s so far away from OK that it’s enraging.


2. Find your organizations sexual harassment & assault policy

Go ahead. I’ll wait. Mine was section 4.12 of my employee handbook issued in March 2011.




Got it? Good. Now read it.




Now make sure the people you supervise, mentor, and train read it, and know what to do when they are harassed.


3. Stop objectifying women, and using transfolk as jokes

The cover story of Science this week was about HIV/AIDS, and featured the mid-torso and below of three women sex workers. Again, let that sink in.  One of the leading scientific publications in the world used a graphic of women’s bodies to depict HIV/AIDS.  That’s pretty awful.

Cue the editor of Science Careers, Jim Austin, to chime in via Twitter:

Ah yes, because that makes it so much better.  I mean, transwomen sex workers make it so much better! </sarcasm>  Now, as for why such a publication though it befitting to use headless transwomen sex workers for a cover story about HIV/AIDS (read that again for full effect: SCIENCE THOUGHT USING HEADLESS TRANWSOMEN SEX WORKERS AS THEIR COVER FOR A STORY ABOUT HIV/AIDS WAS OK) , Austin had this to say (WARNING: this is what caused me to wretch):

In case Austin later deletes the tweet, here it is again: “Interesting to consider how those gazey males will feel when they find out.”

For fuck’s sake. Trolling straight cismen?  Jesus fucking christ.


There’s been lots of other reaction to the paper by Clancy et al, and the Science cover around the interwebs, and I won’t try to pull them all together here.  But we each have to look at how what we do (again as individuals and as a scientific community), and how we treat women, people of colour, queer & transfolk, because it ain’t pretty, and it ain’t right.  Here’s a wee reminder:

The Journal of Proteomics sexism case

Dynamic Ecology’s Women in Science series

The Queer in STEM study

Female Conference Speaker Bingo

Being gay in academia (and here)

Coming out as a trans scientist


And in my post on the lack of women awardees of major Canadian science prizes, let’s not forget this paragraph:

Women are also underrepresented at conferences, on editorial boardsface biases when submitting to journals (PDF) and receive smaller grants.  In terms of “big awards”, one hurdle is that fewer women tend to be nominated (PDF – $$).


If you want to play along at home, you can also calculate #MyGenderGap


The current state of affairs is fucking embarrassing, and it’s time to change.

Women are underrepresented in big NSERC awards

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Back in April, as I was knee-deep in a trans-Atlantic move, Meg Duffy wrote a post at Dynamic Ecology on the US National Science Foundation’s Waterman Award (a prize for an under-35 scientist/engineer of $1 million), and lamented that the last 11 recipients were men.  The comments on that piece were particularly excellent, and included a response from NSF highlighting some of the broader issues of why women tend to be underrepresented in such awards.

Women are also underrepresented at conferences, on editorial boards, face biases when submitting to journals (PDF) and receive smaller grants.  In terms of “big awards”, one hurdle is that fewer women tend to be nominated (PDF – $$).  So it is with a heavy heart that I add to this mounting evidence the following:

Women have been awarded only 17% of major NSERC awards since 2004.

NSERC, Canada’s national granting body for natural sciences engineering, has six prizes that I would include as “big awards” (which includes both large-value, and low-number/high-exclusivity prizes). Let’s break them down.


André Hamer Postgraduate Prizes

From 2004-2010, there were two awards annually, and from 2011-2013, this was increased to five. They’re relatively low at $10,000 each, and “are awarded to the most outstanding candidates in NSERC’s master’s and doctoral scholarship competitions“.  Of the 29 prizes awarded since 2004, women received 13 (45%), which isn’t that bad. Until we realize that this accounts for nearly half the women award winners that I’ll cover in this post.  Since the number of prizes was increased in 2011 (n = 15 prizes at 5/year), only 3 women received them (including none in 2013, the last year for which data are available).


Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research

This is usually one award made to multiple people (anywhere from 2-11 in a given year), and there was no 2007 award.  The Brockhouse Prize “recognizes outstanding Canadian teams of researchers from different disciplines who came together to engage in research drawing on their combined knowledge and skills, and produced a record of excellent achievements in the natural sciences and engineering in the last six years.”.  We can look at these data in two ways: based on the number of awards (1/year), and based on the number of recipients, but as we’ll see it doesn’t make any difference.  Of the 9 years from 2004-2013 with an award, women received awards in 2006 and 2012 (2/9 = 11%).  Over the same period, 39 people were part of the award-winning teams, 4 of which were women (10%).


EWR Steacie Memorial Fellowships

The Steacie Fellowships are “awarded annually to enhance the career development of outstanding and highly promising scientists and engineers who are faculty members of Canadian universities“, and up to 6 are awarded annually.  From 2004-2013, there were 59 recipients, 9 of which were women (15%).  Parity occurred only in 2009 (3 women, 3 men), and no women received a Steacie Fellowship in 2004, 2007, or 2012.


Gerhard Herzberg Canada Medal

This is NSERC’s premiere award, often touted in the media as Canada’s “top science prize“, and is for “both the sustained excellence and overall influence of research work conducted in Canada in the natural sciences or engineering“.  Of the 10 recipients from 2004-2013, there were no women recipients.  In fact, since the award was established in 1991, it has never been awarded to a woman.


John C. Polyani Award

The Polyani Award is a bit trickier, since it can be awarded to groups or consortia for “an individual or team whose Canadian-based research has led to a recent outstanding advance in the natural sciences or engineering“.  It’s also only been around since 2006, and in that time, two groups have won the award (with no indication of the gender make-up of the teams), so the analysis is restricted to the 6 years where I could find details on the actual recipients.  In that time, there have been 9 recipients, 1 of which was a woman (in 2010).


Synergy Awards for Innovation

Lastly, these prizes are for “examples of collaboration that stand as a model of effective partnership between industry and colleges or universities“, and began in 2009.  Between 3-14 people have received this prize annually, and out of 33 recipients from 2009-2013, there have been 3 women, and none since 2010.


Of NSERC’s 185 “big award/prize” recipients from 2004-2013, only 31 (17%) were women.


Year Hamer Brockhouse Steacie Herzberg Polyani Synergy
2013 0/5 0/2 0/6 0/1 Group award 0/3
2012 2/5 3/11 1/5 0/1 0/1 0/7
2011 1/5 0/5 1/6 0/1 0/1 0/4
2010 2/2 0/2 3/6 0/1 1/1 1/5
2009 2/2 0/4 1/6 0/1 0/3 2/14
2008 1/2 0/2 0/6 0/1 0/1
2007 1/2 No award 1/6 0/1 0/2
2006 2/2 1/8 1/6 0/1 Group award
2005 0/2 0/3 0/6 0/1
2004 2/2 0/2 1/6 0/1
Total 13/29 4/39 10/65 0/10 1/9 3/33
Percent 44.83% 10.26% 15.38% 0.00% 11.11% 9.09%


And as you can see from the table, no women were recognized in any of these categories by NSERC in 2013. W.T.F.


I. like others, think the solutions to rectifying this ridiculousness must come from the scientific community, and from NSERC.  Community members need to nominate more women, as the comments in Meg’s post point out.  But in turn, the groups that receive the nominations should scrutinize the list of nominees and ask why there are fewer women, and what can be done to change that. When underrepresented groups see themselves in those selected for these awards, it increases the visibility of the group as a whole, gives others role models with whom they can identify, and neither of these should be discounted as not important for science.

Does the fact that no women have been awarded Canada’s top science prize, ever, mean there are no deserving women recipients for such a prestigious award? Heck no. It just means they’ve not been recognized because of systemic biases (whether those biases are recognized or not).  I highly recommend you scroll through the “Women in Science” category at Dynamic Ecology, as Meg Duffy has written extensively on stereotype threat, and was to improve the current gender imbalance.

But whether it’s major scientific prizes, or your own local seminar series, make the effort to balance the recognition of men and women in science. It shouldn’t be hard to do given how many fantastic women scientists there are.


The Ward Test, and the importance of metadata

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On 31 August 1869 in Birr (then Parsonstown), Ireland, Mary Ward met an untimely demise.  She is the first motor vehicle  accident mortality, having fallen off a steam-powered car built by a relative, and dying of a broken neck.  But Ward was also an amateur scientist, and being relatively young when she passed away, no doubt had unfinished investigations or projects that remained unfinished.

“But!” I hear you saying, “what on earth does a 19th-century Irish road accident have to do with science?”.  The answer is metadata.

I recently started a new position where I inherited some projects from me predecessor, which is certainly not unique.  A post-doc starts a project/experiment, and leaves before it’s finished, or a grad student builds upon some previous work in the lab, or uses data collected by a summer student.  All common phenomena in the scientific world.  And whenever one starts to use data collected by someone else, chances are, there will be problems.

On Twitter, this is often expressed using the #otherpeoplesdata hashtag.  and Christine Bahlai even started a fantastic blog, Practical Data Management, about some of the data issues she’s encountered, and how to avoid them.

At a team meeting today, we spent some time talking about the challenges of working with other peoples’ data, which is something we do quite frequently here.  The conversation then turned to the challenges I’ve had accessing, interpreting, and analyzing data from my predecessor, and that’s when I thought of the Ward Test.


Take a look at a particular dataset (where “dataset” is defined as what you need to write a paper).  If, like Mary Ward, you were shmucked by a car, would someone else be able to access, interpret, and analyze your data?  This is the Ward Test.


For many of us, the answer will be a resounding “NO!”, and the reasons for this are diverse and many, and not what I’m going to get in to here.  But what I do want to emphasize is the importance of metadata and organization.

Metadata are the bits of information that provide context for the data.  In my line of work, this could be where a bird was banded, it’s band number, species, age, sex, measurements, etc. that accompany some tracking data.  Technically, all the data are the positions recorded by the tracking device, but without the metadata, it’s utterly useless.

Even simple spreadsheets (do such things exist?!) could do with some metadata.  It also helps for when you go back to re-analyze data, or use data for a different project, or collaborate with others.  And as the culture of data sharing increases, this data about data (metadata!) will be increasingly important.


So, my goal is to include the metadata for each new dataset I generate.  In a spreadsheet, this can be included on an extra tab with definitions of what the columns mean.  In other cases, it would be a text file explaining what certain files are, and where the required information can be found.  I’ve written before about the importance of having a plan for what to do with data when a scientist passes away – the trick is making sure the data passes the Ward Test.

The same applies when sharing data – including metadata, and having data that pass the Ward Test will maximize the chance that whoever tries to use it has what they need to succeed.