I am not an academic (for now)


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I’m a bit of a pedant when it comes to some things. I detest dangling participles, I become annoyed at misuse of the semi-colon, and I find words used as “shorthand” for much larger, broader concepts are irksome. One of the most personally egregious examples of this is the binning of anyone doing scientific research into the category of “academic”. It’s very meaning – an adjective describing those things pertaining to the academy – betrays its exclusion of those who are not part of the academy, sensu stricto. Like me.

I work for an NGO, a charity, an organization that by its very definition is non-academic. Some have dubbed this “alt-ac” (short for alternative academic), but even this moniker posits, implicitly, that one could reasonably be called an academic, rather than a researcher, scholar, scientist, or artist. I think many people are scientists, and many in science (and more narrowly the scientific academy) often forget that those non-academic, non-professorial positions exist, particularly when they opine on the challenges of grant writing, student supervision, collaborative work, or scientific (not academic!!) publishing. As a non-academic scientist, I do all these things, too.

Stephen Heard, on Scientist Sees Squirrel, recently wrote about what he dubbed “Academic Inclusive Fitness” – those aspects of his job that ultimately contribute to his professional legacy (akin to the survival of his genetic diversity in others, such as nieces, nephews, or siblings), but appear altruistic on the surface. Reviewing papers, being an editor at a journal, serving on graduate student committees (mine included!), serving in organizational administrative positions, and publishing his much anticipated book on scientific writing* are all activities that have the potential to decrease direct research output (the metric, deeply flawed, that is often used to measure scientific “production”)

In his post, Steve related an anecdote about a non-academic asking who his boss was, which is not a straightforward question for an academic to answer. Herein lies one of the biggest differences between academic and non-academic science. I have a boss. And she has a boss, and so does he. I can draw a solid line from the staff I supervise right up to the Chief Executive with ease. It was the same when I worked at Environment Canada, in the Canadian federal government. I am, ultimately, responsible to someone else in the organization for certain projects, and my research is guided, or even dictated by the organization’s research needs, agenda, and priorities.

While this might rub some the wrong way, it’s how just about every job outside academic research operates. Organizations have a mandate, and its employees work toward the goals within that remit. Academics, however, have a tenuous balancing act between the demands of their organization (teaching, administration), and their own requirements (research), though there can obviously be varying degrees of overlap.

So my first suggestion is, rather than talk about “Academic Inclusive Fitness”, consider “Scientific Inclusive Fitness” as a broader term that encompasses the entire research community.

This raises, though, some particular challenges for those of us “on the outside”, so to speak. While I’m pretty lucky, and can undertake some of these seemingly altruistic tasks, others may not be in the same situation. The result is that much of this ends up being done outside “normal work”, which often means weekends, evenings, or early mornings. This poses several problems for those who can’t (or chose not to) do this “non-work work” on, essentially, their own time. I’m under no illusion that many academics don’t face the same pressures, but when one already has a 40-hour work week, yet is still expected by the broader scientific community to chip in, it can be trying.

Which brings me to Amy Parachnowitsch’s post on Small Pond Science about how we define “work”, and the problems of “carry-over” from one position to the next. Like the activities that contribute to Scientific Inclusive Fitness, it can be challenging for non-academics (and indeed academics!) to find time to wrap up projects from their previous positions. As Amy put it on Twitter, the system works (relatively well) when everyone is in the system, but when someone leaves, it becomes very hard. This could be a student leaving research after their degree, or someone getting off at a different stop along the career subway, including leaving academic while remaining a scientist. Often it’s this past work, and activities that might contribute to “Scientific Inclusive Fitness” that get dropped.

In the end, it all comes down to expectations – both our own, and those we have of our colleagues, applicants, students, collaborators, and friends. And recognizing that non-academic scientists face many of the same challenges as our academic brethren, but also some challenges that academics may not necessarily think of. Which can be problematic when we are all assessed, judged, or evaluated against criteria driven by academia.

One day, I may end up in a university, being an academic, but that’s just a job title, not a career.


*I received no commission for this mention, though am open to negotiation when the royalties start piling in. What about financial inclusive fitness? Steve, you know where to find me.

Why the #LGBTSTEMinar succeeded & was needed



I’ve just returned from a conference, but it was unlike any other conference I’ve attended. The attendees weren’t drawn together because we share similar research interests, or work in similar places, or are from similar institutions. We had physical chemists, medical physicists, medical geneticists, engineers, mathematicians, and conservation biologists from academia, industry, and NGOs. What drew us together was that we were all (or >90% of us were) LGBT* scientists attending the LGBT STEMinar

I’ve written before about the need for LGBT scientists to make links, the challenges we share, regardless of discipline, and how conferences can help that. Which is why, when Beth Montague-Hellen raised the idea of a conference targeted specifically at LGBT scientists, I was quite keen to see how it would turn out.

The actual event in Sheffield on Friday blew me away.

There were more than 80 LGBT scientists attending from all over the UK (and one from Sweden!), plus a few expats living in the UK, such as myself. In addition to amazing high-quality science, it was a chance for us to, frankly, be ourselves. Never have I been to a conference with such a wonderful sense of humour, camaraderie, and palpable excitement among those attending. We didn’t have to worry about awkward coffee break small talk about partners, reactions of colleagues, or be guarded about which pronouns to use. All of these coping mechanisms that hide our true selves are exhausting, and the sense of liberation around the room was infectious.

We opened with Dave Smith’s talk ’No Sexuality Please, We’re Scientists’, based on some of the research he did (and that I highlighted) a few years ago, on the lack of visible LGBT science role models. It was an excellent primer for the day to come, and a video will be up on Youtube in the near future is on Youtube.

What followed were around 15 oral presentations from other scientists, ample time to socialize during long coffee breaks / lunch, and an opportunity to view about a dozen posters.

The day wrapped with an inspiring talk by Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, who highlighted the challenges many LGBT folk in STEM still face – the feeling that by being ’out’, it might impede career progression. But the message that I took away was much bigger. A number of surveys have revealed that even though departments of workplaces may be accepting, though not overtly so, LGBT staff and students still feel a lack of support. It’s not good enough to be accepting, we have to be encouraging.

I’m of the belief that by being an out visible LGBT scientist, it will, in however small a way, be useful for others to see. Not everyone is necessarily comfortable with this role, but I’ve chosen to own in a bit. And since I started blogging about being an out gay academic back in 2013 (though I’ve been out in my personal and professional life for more than a decade), several other LGBT scientists have gotten in touch to discuss the challenges we face as a group, or their own personal journey. I don’t necessarily have all the answers, but the starting point for the conversation is further ahead than many, or all of their straight mentors.

So bringing together all these LGBT scientists who would otherwise not encounter each other (or at least not in nearly so large a number) is a Good Thing.

One of the other most amazing things about this conference is how Twitter-driven it was. Many of us knew each other via Twitter, though had never met in real life. Before Friday, I had only met 3 or 4 other out LGBT scientists. I can now add so many more. More than a few people commented at the end of the day how many new Twitter followers they’d received simply though other attendees. I’ve added as many as I could recall to the QueerSTEM Twitter list, so follow along if you’re interested (or let me know if you’d like to be added!). The conference hashtag apparent trended during the day, and there were more than 500 tweets (which will eventually be organized into a Storify).

There were also many other LGBT scientists (both in the UK and elsewhere) following along on Twitter, and many expressed a wish to attend such a conference. My advice is to just do it. It’s a non-trivial amount of work to pull off, and is likely more challenging in Canada or the US owing to distances between universities, but it is so, so worthwhile. And Beth (and her wife Kate, and all other other helpers from Sheffield) pulled off an amazing day.

Following the official wrap-up function, several of us headed out for a drink and bite to eat. Now, everyone has their own journey when dealing with their sexuality, and had the conference happened during my MSc 10 years ago, I likely wouldn’t have been too $%!&-scared to attend. And many folks live or go to university or work in places where there aren’t that many other queer folk around so the idea of or ability to go out socially with other out LGBT people isn’t possible. So this was clearly a case where the non-science part of a conference could be equally important, and highlights, at least in my mind, the importance of being out and visible.

Lack of diversity in science is a hugely important issue, and our conference was by no means an exception. The vast majority of attendees were white, most were male. I have no idea how this reflects the population of LGBT scientists in the UK, or UK scientists in general, but as we move forward to discussing both visible and invisible diversity, it’s something that we need to keep in mind.

It looks like this might become an annual-ish thing, so I hope to see more of you at the 2017 LGBT STEMinar.


*A shorthand, I admit, for any non-straight person

Landing an academic job is like an albatross


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No, really.

This post over at EcoEvoEvoEco, which stated “Anyone with a decent record can get a faculty position”, made the rounds on Twitter last night. In it, Andrew Hendry posits that, based on his experience (in 2001), if one is not picky (i.e., has minimal selection criteria), and ’sticks with it’, one will end up a tenured professor somewhere, and voila, problem solved.

Unsurprisingly, this elicited a rather fierce reaction by some readers. The academic job market has changed since 2001. ’Not being picky’ amounts to moving anywhere regardless of family, or other constraints. And what I think is perhaps the most germane (here, and in many of these advice posts to academic job seekers): this is the experience of one individual in one set of circumstances in a process that, as someone described it, has high variance and and multiple confounding covariates.

Now, instead of throwing gas on the fire of this perennial topic, I want you, dear reader, to consider the albatross.

Adult Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross. They are endemic to the Tristan group, and the largest population is on the main island.

An albatross (of the Atlantic Yellow-nosed variety). Consider it, please.

Because ultimately, this whole discussion is one of demographics, and if there’s one thing I now a bit about (aside from tea, improv, puns, and naan bread), it’s demography. It’s a significant part of my research, and I think the whole ’I can academic job AND SO CAN YOU!!1!’ can learn something from it. But first, some basics.

Albatross lay a single egg each year (or every 2 or 3 years in some cases). Chicks fledge (usually about 70% of the time), and spend the next 5-18 years at sea before returning to land to breed for the first time, and recruit into the breeding population. They then breed (at some interval) for many, many years, and then perish. Albatross’s annual survival can be grouped, broadly, into 4 categories:

  • S1 – the survival of chicks in the first year
  • S2 – the survival of immature birds at sea
  • S3 – the survival of birds recruited into the breeding population
  • S4 – the survival of old birds nearing the end of their natural lives

S1 and S2 are always lower than S3. Those years at sea are tough. Birds have to find enough food, figure out migration, avoid getting caught in fishing gear, learn that eating plastic is bad, and make it to breeding age, court and find a mate.

Breeding adults tend to have high survival. They know what they’re doing, know how to find food for them, and for their chicks, and are pretty adept at avoiding longlines. But as they get older (in some cases, 40, 50, 60+ years old), their reproductive success can drop, and so does survival, and they disappear.

How do we know this?

Scientists have, collectively, put millions of small metal rings/bands on birds, and looked for these individuals year after year, or had bands from dead birds sent in from fishing vessels. And we know that these survival rates, S1 through S4, depend on a plethora of covariates: species, site, year, climate, individual quality, introduced predators, fishing effort, sea temperatures, food availability, … We also have to consider those albatross for whom we don’t know the ultimate fate… they simply didn’t show up in year x, but may show up again in the future.

Consider the case of Wisdom, a Laysan Albatross on Midway Atoll. At 64, she’s the oldest bird of known age, and is showing no signs of stopping. But also consider the case of the much lesser-known J22503. J22503 was a Tristan Albatross chick that our team banded on Gough Island in September 2014. S/he was found dead 2 months later, the victim of predation, mice, starvation, or some other factor.

Now, let’s swap ’albatross’ for ’academic’ (leaving aside, for the moment, that this also applies to some non-academic scientists, too).

Academics can apply to many jobs in a year, but the survival rate of those applications is low (at the population level; S2). After enough years of zero job application survival, the academic perishes (stops looking for academic work). And there are many factors that influence academic survival during this ’immature’ phase, while ’at sea’: gender, location, field, sub-field, individual quality, … And some proportion of academics survive this period (find a job), and thereafter have high annual survival (S3) until they approach retirement (S4).

Any scientist worth their salt would tell you it’s pointless to extrapolate from Wisdom, or J22503, to all albatross worldwide. Or even all Laysan (or Tristan) Albatross. Or even all albatross of the same species in the same site in the same year. We simply need a bigger sample. The same is true of academics. A good mark-recapture (or demographic) study needs a minimum of 200 ’marked individuals’ to estimate annual survival (and that applies to each strata we want to potentially consider!). Extrapolating from 1, or 2, or even 10 isn’t sound.

In 2013, I solicited some data on the number of job applications & interviews, and got a decent response. But even this is far too low a sample size (n = 63) to be of much use. What we need is, ultimately, a study that follows the job applications of quite literally thousands of hopeful academics from graduation to their exit from the job market (for whatever reason), along with all the covariates that we know influence job application success. I certainly lack the time (and IRB approval) for such a study. But in the meantime, remember that ’your mileage may vary’, and extrapolating from one person’s (or even 10 people’s) experience is perilous.

Note that I’ve also not said anything about density dependence and carrying capacity of the academic population. Or about how both of those parameters change over time (and have likely changed since 2001). Or about luck and stochasticity. You get this idea.

Yes, there are things one can do to try and improve the probability of a successful job application, but these are by no means a guarantee, and criteria vary by field, location, institution, department, moon phase, …

And I get that these posts are trying to be helpful in some way – showing that success is indeed possible. But they often gloss over many of the finer details (much like How To Draw An Owl).

UPDATE: Katie Burke pointed out on Twitter that a better analogy would be one where leaving the academic job search is a transition to another state, or permanent emigration, rather than death. I, myself, have done such a transition. The model then becomes a multi-state mark-recapture, with all the joys that entails.

2015 by the numbers


It’s time once again for my annual round-up of science, and science blogging by the numbers. You can also read the 2013 and 2014 editions.



The number of posts, which by all accounts isn’t that bad since I was away for 4 months on Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island, and away for most of May.

The most popular posts this year were:

Like most writers, I think some my favourite bits are missing from this list, like tips for applying for field jobs,or how to be an LGBTQ ally at conferences, or the continued under-representation of women in NSERC major awards.



The number of page views this year. I continue to be amazed that there are people out there who are interested in the ramblings of a wayward Canuck navigating the world as best he can. My deepest thanks.



The number of countries/autonomous regions represented by those readers. Wow.



Days I spent in the field, on Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island. I hope to have a post on time spent in the field sometime in the new year. Suffice it to say, it’s a long time, and filled with rewards and challenges.



The number of new papers published this year, up from 10 last year thanks to some exceptionally productive co-authors! Many of them were also a glut from postdoc work that have finally seen the light of day. I think this reflects more my career stage than productivity: I suddenly have staff, and a glut of collaborative projects.



The number of co-authors I had in 2015.



My Gender Gap for co-authors in 2015 (the ratio of female:male coauthors). Not particularly happy about this one, but I will take some solace in the fact that I inherited several projects that had a large number of male collaborators. Need to do better next year.



The number of posts I have started this year, but not finished for various reasons. Not happy about that one, either, since I think they’re all important things to write about, and I think I have some thoughts to contribute.



The number of keyboards that died on me this year. Was it something I said typed?



The size, in ml, of the average Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross egg, which has remained unchanged since at least 1854. Just one of the highlights of a paper I’m working on at the moment.


and lastly…



The number of family members lost this year who told me I could do anything.


Here’s to a happy, productive, and successful 2016!

The high price of scientific conferences



As a student, I quite enjoyed going to conferences. My first was the Society of Canadian Ornithologists in 2005 in Halifax, a gathering of about 100 people from universities, government, and the private sector in one hotel conference room for 2 days. If memory serves, I think I paid $50 (or rather my supervisor did), and we all drove the 5 hours from Fredericton. I met lots of great folks there, and learned a lot.

But lately, I’ve become rather frustrated with conferences. It seems to me that conferences are increasingly becoming less about the science, and more about the conference. As someone who’s spent many years producing local theatrical productions, I recognize many of the same things: promotion, venue, sound/lights (AV equipment), catering, … all of which can be had on a sliding scale of cost, but which are increasingly costing more and more. And then there are the conference add-ons that really have little to do with the actual science: the often-accompanying tote bag/swag from various sponsors, and the bar service (often during the poster session evenings).

Now, some of these costs are imposed by the venue. If you want alcohol served, there’s usually a minimum purchase, and you’ll also pay for serving staff, for example. But there are some steps that people organizing conferences can take to reduce what is becoming a burdensome cost. Do we really need those posh biscuits at the 10am tea break? Swanky tapas during the poster session? I’d argue not.

Here’s a quick spin through some of the ornithological conferences just to see how much they currently cost (assuming early-bird registration for a non-student, and not counting travel & accommodation):

British Ornithologists Union 2016: £235 members / £440 non-members

American Ornithologists Union/Cooper Ornithological Society 2015: $320 USD members / $395 USD non-members

North American Ornithological Congress 2016: $499 USD

Pacific Seabird Group 2016: $285 USD / $330 USD

International Penguin Conference 2016: R4500 (roughly $300 USD)

And some general ecological ones thrown in to boot:

Ecological Society of America 2016: $342 / $510

British Ecological Society 2015: £350

International Marine Conservation Congress (2014; 2016 price not yet posted): $462 / $624 USD


And again, this is exclusive of any travel, accommodations, or food. The PSG meeting, for example, is in Turtle Bay, Hawaii (an hour’s drive from Honolulu at a $300/night resort… though more ’affordable’ accommodation is likely to be found within 15-30 minutes’ drive).

Given that we’re often asked, as scientists, to show value for money, and budgets are ever shrinking (or at the best, not increasing, which is a decrease in real terms), we need to start asking whether it’s good value for money (often public grant money) to attend these expensive meetings. Sure, they’re fun, and a good chance to catch up with friends and colleagues, but is that enough for 1-4 days’ of listening to others talk about their research? Or at best, spend 15 minutes talking about some recent work of our own?

Yes, it costs money to run a conference. As a former producer, I’m only too aware of how much it costs to rent a venue, host a website (let alone one with online registration/payment), and coordinate a herd of cats group of scientists. But could we not all bring a brown-bag lunch one day? Plan meetings in more affordable cities near major airports? Forego the complementary drinks at the bar?

While most conferences offer a discount for students, the number doing so for postdocs or scientists who haven’t been visited by the magical funding fairy is much lower. To say nothing of scientists who spend money from their own pocket to go these shindigs.

There are of course also the ethical arguments about the potentially large carbon footprint of flying all over the place (and as an aside, we also have a carbon budget here at the RSPB).

I’m not arguing that we do away with conferences. I think they provide valuable time to interact with colleagues, network, and I very much enjoy attending them. But we need to make scientific conferences more affordable, or worth the ever-increasing prices.

While I was away… some recommended reads


I have just returned from 3 months of field work on Gough and Tristan da Cunha, and in addition to the hundreds of emails, piles of fliers, and loving family that welcomed me back, there were a couple hundred blog posts in my RSS feed (yes, I still use RSS. It could only be improved if it were coupled with a typewriter). Last year, I did a quick run-through of the posts that tweaked my interest from the massive amounts of fantastic writing that happened while I was away, and I’ll do the same this year. As always, there are heaps of other fantastic posts out there by these same folks, and more, so this is hardly a ’best-of’, but more a ’in-case-you-missed-it-like-I-did’.

So without further ado, below is a quick summary of some of the posts that caught my attention (in no particular order).


Open your mouth and say… science! (Unmuzzled Science)

Canada had an election back in October, and science seems to have been given a bit of a boost, and in particular, government science. A nice summary of what needs to happen next if actions are to match Trudeau’s rhetoric.


Giving Thanks for My Mentors (Chronicle Vitae)

Jeremy Yoder has a great post on the often unsaid good things that mentors do. We’re quick to complain about the negative side, and bad mentorship (and rightfully so), but I’d wager there’s a larger population of good mentors than bad.



We’re Looking to Grow (Liberal Arts Ecologists)

The great blog Liberal Arts Ecologists is (well, was back in August) looking for more contributors!


The Midget Subs of Kiska Island (Aleutian Islands Working Group)

I spent 4 summers on Kiska doing my PhD research, so it’s great to see Richard Galloway write about the beached Japanese midget sub from 1942 at the south end of Kiska Harbour. The preservation of historic sites in such remote areas is a great challenge.


2015 caRd – A diveRsity of Santas (The EEB and Flow)

An amusing evolutionary look at the wide and varied forms of Santa Claus (and related phenotypes) around the world. It seems reindeer transport diverged early, and is highly conserved.


Top 10 signs that a paper/field is bogus (Raj Lab)

There are piles of papers that are simply crap, sometimes the case of ’a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing’, and I’ve wondered in the past why we seem to just ignore these in ecology & conservation. Here are some good tips for spotting those papers (or more broadly, fields).


Dealing with mental health: A guide for professors (Caroline Anne Kovesi in University Affairs)

This is a particularly fantastic piece, and not just because it’s written by someone from my wee alma mater! And more broadly, I think it applies outside academia as well, as a guide to those of us who supervise staff. Just because it’s not for degree credit doesn’t mean some of the same issues don’t apply.


And because they’re perennially at the top of my reading list when I return, some highlights from Dynamic Ecology…:

Why fit is more important than impact factor in choosing a journal to submit to

I generally try to go for fit when deciding when to send papers, and Brian makes the compelling case even more clear. Read those Guidelines for Authors!


Techniques aren’t powerful; scientists are

All tools, in the right hands, can be useful. But one must know how to use them!


The hardest part of academia? Moving.

Having done 3 large (>1000 km) moves, including two >4000 km moves, this resonated with me a fair bit. I think it’s even harder to move internationally (a topic I hope to write on in 2016).


Musings on reading older literature

I’m a fan of older literature, but it must be looked at, at least in part, through the lens of the time. And occasionally when you delve deep to find the source of some oft-quoted ’fact’, and finally see the evidence that underpins it, you just might think twice.


Strategies (and reasons) for being more productive with fewer hours

Meg has some fantastic tips for time management, something I need to work on.


… and Small Pond Science:

A lot of scientists are kind, careful and caring

This certainly matches many of my experiences. We don’t always hear about the positive folks in grad school, so there can sometimes be a negative ’reporting bias’ with respect to bad supervisors. This is part of the reason the Academic Kindness tumblr irked me. See also Jeremy Yoder’s piece above.


If you have a bad advisor in grad school

Though not everyone has a good supervisor-trainee relationship. Terry offers some good advice on what to do in those cases. Non-supervisor mentors are key.


Prescriptive reviews are a scourge

Finally from Terry, a look at whether reviewers should be prescriptive. I sort of disagree with some of this post, as it assumes that editors are capable of, and actually do, provide the critical next steps. Too many editors simply forward the reviewer comments without adding much (or by summarizing the comments. I don’t mind suggestions for what to do to improve the paper, and if it’s simply not possible, will say so in the rebuttal letter, which hopefully the editor understands. Though I will continue to maintain that peer review is much better done over a pot of tea or pint of beer.


Lastly, heaven help us, Terry McGlynn has a science podcast (Not Just Scientists), and it’s pretty awesome.

FAQ, and answers thereto #4


The latest in a light-hearted look at the search terms folks use to find The Lab and Field.


how much one make in giving a seminar in a university

Typically nothing.


pnas, predator publisher

While you may not like them, there not considered predatory sensu stricto.


as told by alex bond

Yes, it is.


i have nserc visiting fellowship but no supervisor

Well, you’ve been approved on the list. A government scientist needs to step up to the plate and look for a postdoc. Though the status of the program is a bit ambiguous.


how to seminar

Cookies. Coffee/tea. Speaker. Engaging. Listen. Think. Question. Beers.


journal “beware !! running more not as bad”.pdf

Never heard of them. Might send my next article though.


hipster font philosphical lines

Can you tell the difference between Arial and Helvetica?


saskatchewan flat land

All of it.


why librians gets always hurted?

Bad grammar and spelling?


journal paper on fixing of laboratory tiles

“Temporal lag between maintenance requests and renovation: effects of bulky lab equipment and overworked facilities management staff”. Forthcoming.


why academic library saves as a learning laboratory discussed

Sounds like an assignment question. How about: “Academic libraries saves as a learning laboratory because knowledge is found everywhere, even in books. And if anyone knows books, it’s librarians. They’re awesome.” You’re welcome.


data management in the ward

Keep those colours outta my Excel spreadsheets. Those need intensive care.


the reasons behind labrador dick’s extinction



tell me something about field work job

It’s fun.


how do publishers profit with open access

I’m not involved in any journal finances, but usually they’re subsidized by some external funding (e.g., from a large society), or they work on economies of (massive) scale.


lab captions

“Figure 1: door to the lab”

“Figure 2: lab coffee machine and tea station”

“Figure 3: why scientists should not consume food in the lab”

“Figure 3b: or beverages”


the name field bird found in african

the question order word in awkwardness


every summer breeding brazil

Hey, what you do on your own time is your own business.


swallow the birds



do i need a phd to become a ecologist




Return to Tristan da Cunha


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Perhaps it’s wanderlust. Or maybe some kind of zugunruhe. But it’s that time of year when I’m about to ditch the comforts of modern living and head for the field. I don’t just mean a week or two, but several months. And what better place to go than the most remote inhabited place on the planet – Tristan da Cunha.


The village of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, the settlement on Tristan da Cunha

Sitting about 2800 km WSW from Cape Town, South Africa, this 12 km-diameter island is home to about 270 Tristanians. Aside from the main island, my work will take me to Gough Island, Nightingale Island, and hopefully Inaccessible Island (which, despite the name, is, in fact, accessible, but only during the confluence of good weather, good seas, and luck).

Last year was my first journey to the South Atlantic, and it was eye-opening. Aside from the fantastic (and novel) biodiversity, the visible impact of humanity was also in plain sight. Whether this was the mice on Gough that eat albatross chicks alive, or the deafening silence of the main island, it’s clear that though remote, Tristan is far from pristine.

So on Wednesday I begin the long journey for what I’ve dubbed on Twitter #TdCadventure. But not before another small adventure – the annual crew change at Gough Island.+

Panoramic view of Tarn Moss on Gough Island

Panoramic view of Tarn Moss on Gough Island

Along with the University of Cape Town, the RSPB runs an annual monitoring program on Gough that measures population size, breeding success, survival, and the effects of mice on a myriad of species. This year marks the 61st expedition to Gough, and so is dubbed Gough 61. Our team of 3 scientists will join the 5 staff of the South African weather station on the island for a 13 month posting. in September, we’ll relieve the Gough 60 expedition, and transition to Gough 61. It’s a hectic time, as we only have about 18 days on the island, and need to transfer skills, knowledge, and methods to the new team. Lots of long 18+-hour days, but also some amazing scenery, great company, much laughter, and for the last number of years, great success.

Tristan Albatross chick. This species is endemic to Gough and is greatly affected by introduced mice.

Tristan Albatross chick. This species is endemic to Gough and is greatly affected by introduced mice.

Then, when the S.A. Agulhas II departs Gough, it will deposit me back on Tristan for another 2 months where we’ll hopefully accomplish our delayed survey of the endemic Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, and deploy autonomous acoustic recorders to get a handle on what nocturnal burrow-nesting species are on the main island.

Adult Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross. They are endemic to the Tristan group, and the largest population is on the main island.

Adult Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross. They are endemic to the Tristan group, and the largest population is on the main island.

The internet is fairly poor, so don’t expect much, but I’ll try to put up a few blog posts. You can read about last year’s adventures here: Prologue, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.


Being out or an ally at scientific conferences – UPDATED



The Ecological Society of America is holding its 100th annual meeting this week in Baltimore (congratulations!), and they’ve added something that I think is fairly unique (at least I’ve not seen it before) – ribbons to append to your name tag that identify you as a council member, session chair, or, interestingly, a rainbow ribbon with “ally” written on it.



This got me thinking a bit about LGBT participation at scientific conferences. Some organizations/conferences have an LGBT section (mostly informal), and occasionally I’ve seen notes pinned to the conference notice board for “OutGroup” off-site get-togethers (OutGroup being a rather tongue-and-cheek pun for out LGBT attendees).

I should say that I’ve never been at a conference with any sort of official (or unofficial… at least that was broadcast to attendees) LGBT event. So when I saw Josh Drew’s ally ribbon, I thought that could be an interesting idea, especially at a conference like ESA, where there are 8000 attendees or so.

Back in 2005/6, I ran a campus “Safe Space” program, running workshops and distributing safe space stickers for students to put on their dorm doors, and less frequently for faculty/grad students to put on their office doors. Our biggest concern was that the program be genuine, and participants be somehow vetted. We accomplished this with an hour-long workshop and some take-away literature.  The ESA ribbons can be obtained at the registration desk, and I suspect that given their public display (alongside attendees’ names) that the lack of vetting won’t be a problem.

Conferences and scientific societies are increasingly becoming aware of the social issues around their meetings, and many now put in place codes of practice (you can see the ESA’s here, which includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender, but not gender expression, which needs to get fixed).  I couldn’t easily find the equivalent document for the British Ecological Society.

Most of the conference I go to are much smaller – a couple hundred people at most. Consequently, they don’t have codes of conduct, or rainbow ribbons, or an OutGroup get-together. That makes me sad.

So, here are a few rambling thoughts on what scientific organizations (and their conferences) can do to support their LGBT members:

Have an LGBT section

Putting LGBT scientists in touch with each other is huge. I didn’t (and still don’t really) have any LGBT scientific mentors that I can look to for professional advice or mentoring.  I think having LGBT mentors is incredibly important, and there are some organizations that are going down this road – the National Organization of Gay & Lesbian Scientific Professionals (NOGLSTP), for instance, but their representation in ecology & evolution and outside the United States is small/non-existent.

Even if this is something unofficial to start, societies encouraging their LGBT members to get together will make those members feel welcome, and hopefully more likely to be more active in other aspects of the organization.


Have an LGBT event

This is, of course, much easier if there are already active LGBT members who can aid in organizing it. Networking is a major aspect of scientific conferences, and people I’ve met at conferences have become friends, collaborators, and close colleagues. Most, if not all, of these relationships have been forged at lunch/dinner/the pub/wandering around the poster session and not sitting in a lecture theatre listening to a talk.

Some conferences have informal groups (I think the Evolution conference had an “Out Group”, but can’t find the link) where folks met for drinks one evening.

If the society has other “interest groups” for subsections of the discipline, or other groups, follow the lead of what they do. If not, start something!


Be mindful of LGBT members when planning meeting locations

This is particularly important for international meetings. There are 75 countries where homosexuality is illegal, mostly in Africa, the Middle East, and South/Southeast Asia. Everyone decides for themselves what their comfort level is, and for me, these 75 are right out.


The ally ribbon

The experiment at ESA is intriguing, and I’ve asked folks to let me/teh internetz know what sort of reaction/interaction it elicited, if any.  I’m genuinely curious. I see this as being a potentially useful thing at larger conferences, like ESA, where there are many more nameless faces.  Even if no one comes up to say anything, having them visible can be incredibly valuable. Like the Safe Space program I coordinated, just having the stickers on the doors can send an important message, and is very important even if no one explicitly comes in looking for a safe space.


In a perfect world, though, we wouldn’t need any of these things. But we’re not there yet. And like I said, these are just my thoughts.  Things that I think would be useful to my professional career, and that I’d like to offer other early-career scientists. Not everyone would find these useful/relevant, and that’s ok. We’re all products, at least partially, of our time and culture, particularly when it comes to LGBT issues, and have different needs/wants/challenges/solutions. But let’s start somewhere.

Have you been to a conference with any LGBT events/groups? What else would you like to see at both big and small scientific meetings?


Update – 12 Aug

This tweet from Ms. Dr. Joseph Simonis indicates that she was mis-gendered when introduced for her talk by someone wearing an ally ribbon. Not cool. The ribbons were freely available at the registration desk, apparently, so there appears to have been no vetting/training/standard-setting for those sporting them. Also not cool. When tags like “ally” are given away with no level of quality control, they are self-ascribing someone’s status. Being an “ally” means different things to different people, and it’s clear from the case above that the expectations from the LGBT* community differ from what some self-described allies think. This is a dangerous mix, and throws the utility of the ally ribbon right out the window.

When I ran the safe space project, we made sure those sporting the sticker on their doors met some minimum level of competence and shared values. This is immensely important, or else the trust just isn’t there and it’s a make-the-ally-ribbon-wearing-folk-feel-good exercise more than anything else. And that’s dangerous and unproductive.

It would be great to get some LGBT* folk involved with the ESA to run/help run a workshop pre-meeting if these ally ribbons are going to make a repeat appearance. I, for one, am free for early August 2016 in Fort Lauderdale. Let’s chat, ESA.

Some lessons learned from 10 years of sciencing


As I highlighted back in December, 2015 is my 10th year as a practicing scientist. I’ve not reflected on this milestone all that much, and with the field season sneaking barrelling up on me, I thought I’d change that. To start, some thoughts on lessons I’ve learned about Science™ since I began in 2005.  This isn’t advice, or necessarily representative, for everyone, but a reflection on my experiences.


Things take a long time

Longer than you think.  In fact, Scotty’s advice to multiple estimates by a factor of 4 is not that unreasonable (miracle worker or not). Whether this is the amount of time to hire a field tech, publish a paper, get reimbursed, write a paper, get results back from the lab, or nearly anything else involved in professional science, chances are you will underestimate how long it takes.  Even now, 10 years in, there are still things that take longer than I had expected. One day I might get it figured out. Hopefully in the next 10 40 years.


There are far more excellent scientists than there are jobs

I’ve seen this from both ends – as a job applicant, and as the person hiring. And it covers the gamut from field techs to grad positions, to postdocs, to term jobs, to permanent positions.  Yes, there’s a degree of stochasticity, but to chalk it all up to chance does a disservice to the applicants and the folks hiring.  It’s bloody hard when faced with 60+ applications for 2-3 positions to separate the “Yes” pile from the “Definitely Yes” pile (and then the “Absolutely Definitively Yes” pile). I don’t have the answer to this problem (I don’t think anyone really does).


Relocation sucks

I moved 225 km between B.Sc. and M.Sc., another 1700 km between M.Sc. and Ph.D., a massive 5500 between Ph.D. and postdoc, and over 6300 from postdoc to permanent job. None of them were stress-free or all that enjoyable. That’s about one third of the way around the world at the equator just in relocation (to say nothing of field travel, conferences, visits home, … I am now an Airport Pro™).  Because of the intense competition for jobs (or just plain lack of them in the first place), scientists often move long distances between positions. This is tough. As someone who grew up in small-town-suburbia of the Maritimes (if there is such a thing), I found it challenging to get established, forge new friendships, and feel “at home”. Based on our three big moves, I’d guess it takes me about 2 years each time. And it still sucks.


Some people are jerks (but most are amazing)

Just like everywhere else, some people involved in science are jerks. Some like to pontificate from upon high. But there are far more, in my experience, who are supportive, fantastic, and encouraging. Just like Real Life. Shocking, isn’t it? Illegitimi non carborundum, I always say. Forge links with good people, and when jerks do show up, you’ll at least have someone to rant to.


There is no shortage of cool amazing science that needs done

I have, on several occasions, been searching for a reference for something in a paper I’m writing, only to come up empty. “Someone should do that” I quip to myself. Sometimes it’s good for that someone to be me.  There’s heaps of science, from natural history to histology to physiology to statistical and mathematical biology to be done.  One person obviously can’t do it all, but a team of the right people can do some pretty cool things. I’ve collaborated with many of these people and it’s been fantastic. Not only does the science get done, but we both/all learn heaps in the process.


Collaborate. Often. But carefully.

This sort of follows on the last point, but I think it bears repeating. As a grad student I sought out a couple of external collaborations or otherwise got myself involved in projects outside my thesis, which was a great experience. Many of these collaborations have continued for years, and been highly productive.  But a small minority have been dead ends, but that’s OK as long as I’ve learned why they stalled. In some cases, it’s been everyone’s other commitments, while in others, it’s just dropped off the radar of all involved. Very rarely (only once?) have I ended up “burned” by a collaboration gone south.


Each career stage has been the best of my career (for different reasons)

As a M.Sc. student, I had the opportunity to explore research for the first time. As a Ph.D. student, I had the stability to dedicate 4 years to a series of related questions. As a (NSERC-funded) postdoc, I had the freedom to plot out my own research program. Now as an NGO scientist, I’m involved in shaping policy and on-the-ground conservation.  Each also had/has their downsides, but these have been/are outweighed by the good things.


Productivity isn’t just measured in papers published

My first draft of the paragraph above included that my postdoc was “the most productive time”, which just isn’t accurate. I’ve been productive for 10 years, but in different areas. Some of it has been in publishing, but some has also been in teaching, developing curricula, contributing to larger projects (particularly when I was a postdoc at Environment Canada, and here at the RSPB), supervising others, and learning new tools.  Just as each career stage has been “the best” in different areas, each has been productive in its own ways.


I have some more thoughts on some of the particularly frustrating parts of the last 10 years (job searching, publishing, and our professional culture), but will save those for the next post.


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