Ask us anything and we’ll answer! (UPDATED)

It’s an annual tradition: ask us anything! Got a question about ecology, academia, or anything else we blog about? Ask in the comments! We’ll compile the questions and answer them in future posts.

Past questions have ranged from how to be an ally, to what statistical methods ecologists need to know, to when to accept a “starter” job, to how we’d fix the entire US scientific funding system, to our worst moments in science. So ask away!

UPDATE: This AUA is now closed, we have all the questions we can handle. Thank you to everyone who asked a question, look for our answers in upcoming posts.

41 thoughts on “Ask us anything and we’ll answer! (UPDATED)

  1. How would you recommend teaching the scientific method to middle school students? I am a first year teacher seeking to get them a head start for high school!

      • Yes, although I don’t necessarily agree with everything in that post. I hope we still tackle this as a question.

      • Yes, absolutely. In pointing questioners to relevant old posts, I don’t mean to foreclose the possibility of tackling the question again. Sorry, I should’ve said that explicitly and up front.

      • Thanks for the reply. Vague question I realize and I have read the article (loved it too). What are some scientific skills you think all children should have heading into high school and college? I am working at a private school so I have a little more leeway in what I teach.

      • If I may…

        I have a close friend who taught middle school science at a private school for many years. She focused on basics – especially on clear, organized lab reports – and her students were very well received by high school science teachers in the area.

        IMO writing lab reports that follow the standard protocol (abs, intro, methods, data, discussion, conclusion) is where students get a chance to pull the pieces together for themselves and actually learn what is happening both in the particular experiment and in the process of experimenting. Doing it over and over gives them a chance to work through their difficulties and refine their skills.

        Sorry for butting in but IMO writing and thinking go together and are **so important** and both require alot of practice! I couldn’t help myself… Ok, nada mas from me!

  2. I have about 18 months left of my PhD and have recently started thinking about where, and with whom, I would like to post-doc.

    When I was searching for a PhD there were lots of things which I didn’t think about when picking and institute and lab (lab funding, collaborative relationships, lab community etc.). Though I’ve had a wonderful PhD experience, it would certainly have thought about these aspects if I knew then what I know now.

    I would be fascinated to hear your opinions on important considerations when searching for your first post-doc.

    Thanks in advance!

  3. I love these “ask us anything” posts! 🙂
    – What should I do to get more invitations to review manuscripts? I like reviewing and it’s something useful.
    – Do you think that ecological research should always be prediction-driven / hypothesis-driven, or should there be more space for descriptive research, either describing an ecosystem (e.g. “What is the basic community structure in the Brazilian caatinga?”) or a process (e.g. “What kinds of edge effects are to be found in South-American mangroves?”)?
    – In your experience, how much to developing countries contribute to ecological research? I’m speaking of scientists from developing countries, not about scientists from developed countries performing studies in developing ones.

  4. Hi Jeremy, Meg, and Brian

    1) Why, in your honest opinion, are biologists paid so little compared to other fields of science and the private sector?

    2) As a field-based postdoctoral researcher based in South Africa, it is becoming increasingly frustrating that the majority of research positions that I see advertised, particularly in North America and Europe, require an ecological modeling component. Why does there appear to be such a high demand for ecological modelers/scientists that can create, test and implement ecological models when there is so much empirical baseline data that still needs to be collected and deciphered with regards to food web assembly and ecosystem functioning?
    Consideration: In my personal experience, field biologists don’t make good ecological modelers and vice versa.

    3) (continued from 2) Do you think, in your honest opinion, that field biologists still have a place in ecological science, considering the higher demand for young scientists to preverbally “be able to do it all”?

    Thank you for the wonderful blog!

    Jeff Hean

    • Re: 1, do you mean academic biologists as compared to academics in other fields? Academic biologists aren’t paid any less (or more) on average than, say, academic chemists or physicists as far as I’m aware. In N. America, faculty salaries at many universities are collectively bargained with the faculty union, so that paying faculty in different fields differently would be a violation of the collective agreement. But maybe I’m wrong; can you link to data on this? Or perhaps the situation is very different in South Africa where you are? I confess I know nothing of academic salaries outside of N. America and would need to do research on that.

  5. You may have advice elsewhere on the blog to answer this question, but broadly speaking, what advice would you have for those from other disciplines who have an interest in ecology? I am a mathematical biologist with some work in very theoretical aspects of ecology (e.g. proposing and analyzing general frameworks of models with only cursory emphasis on motivating literature from specific organisms), but I am keen to continue doing some things in ecology, broadly interpreted, as opportunities present themselves. I suspect that ecologists may have some solid advice for mathematicians, physicists, and statisticians in order to produce more useful insights in collaborative or interdisciplinary research of any kind. I suspect collaboration is a key part of this, and I might be able to guess at a few other things, but I would be keen to read any advice you have in this general direction towards doing more productive interdisciplinary science.

  6. What do you think of evolutionary approach in ecology? Should it be incorporated in the intro lecture for ecology or leave it for advanced topic?

    What to do with statistical “bias” in doing ecological research, e.g. using only certain type of analytical tools just because you are familiar with it or its justification? I saw this apparently in many emerging faculties in the rural part of my country: they only do linear regression and t test for everything and adjust their research design to statistical analysis they know instead of trying to expand analytical possibilities. Considering emerging statistical analysis, it is sure overwhelming and really difficult to find a point to start expanding statistical knowledge, e.g. should I learn clustering algorithm first or multivariate analysis? Try Bayesian of deepen frequentist? Study parametric analysis or be safe with non-parametric?

  7. Who writes the most favorable reviews in ecology and related fields? Grads? Postdocs? Junior faculty? Senior faculty? R1 faculty? R2 faculty? Nonacademics? Etc etc

    Are there any known trends in who writes better and/or more positive reviews?


  8. OK, here’s a couple of things:

    1) Undergraduate Education: For courses where students are expected to read journal articles, or write term papers, are any of you finding it harder to find current papers that are relatively easy to follow for an undergraduate to follow? the statistics that are used are getting more complex (sometimes I think the word should be “complicated”), and there are more and more of them in each paper. This makes papers denser and the analysis less likely to be understood by anyone without a graduate course in statistics under their belt.

    2) On the same theme, as our analyses get more complex, how many studies are out there in which the statistics are basically a black box to many of the authors. In a perfect world we would all be able to “peer under the hood” to dissect the mathematical details of an analysis. Failing that, we would at least understand the basis of a test in a qualitative way, and be able to correctly interpret the output. But is that always the case?

    3) And finally, following from a previous comment. Can we really call someone a biologist if their training has failed to teach them any taxonomic skills whatsoever?

  9. Do you read literature on paper, device (tablet/laptop), or both? What tools do you like for this purpose?

  10. How to choose a post-doc? What is the purpose of doing a post-doc? is it for learning about a new topic? is it about expand networks?

  11. My advisor has ongoing conflict with other senior people in the field that sometimes translates to difficulties for me, a grad student. This plays out in a couple ways. First, it might limit future postdoc opportunities for me. Second, other authors have publicly criticised my coauthored papers with my advisor (and I suspect the criticism have more to do with them and less to do about science. In other words, if they were single author papers they would attract less criticism). Do you have any advice for navigating these conflicts as a junior scientist?

  12. 1) Any ideas on how to make a good journal club with people working on different topics (ranging from social insect to plants)? Presentation of papers, starting questions, encourage discussions, … Our journal clubs are mostly pretty boring and only short discussion.

    2) Do have one questions/idea you always wanted to investigate but never did?

    Thanks for this every year that is pretty great!

  13. Hi! I may be a little late to the party here but I’ll go for it anyway…
    I’m just beginning to dig into the literature on coexistence theory and trying to assess it’s relevance and potential for application in my own research. This blog, the many many references to it in Mark Vellends book, and now reading the literature itself has convinced me of it’s importance (thanks for that!). What I’d like to know is your opinion on the state of hard empirical support (or otherwise) for the theory in 2017, particularly in non-plant assemblages (eg. invertebrates). Could you (or anyone) maybe point to some key studies or review papers from the last five years or so?

    • This one I can answer briefly right here.

      Re: hard empirical support, modern coexistence theory isn’t really a potentially-false testable hypothesis that data could reject. Rather, it’s a framework that identifies some interesting questions and then tells you exactly how to answer them. You’re right that most applications so far have been to plants. But it’s early days, and I think that’ll change. See Ellner et al. 2016 Eco Letts for an application to zooplankton, for instance. See Sipielski and McPeek’s very nice work experimentally testing for negative frequency dependence among competing damselfly species. And see Yenni et al. 2017 Ecology for an attempt to estimate the strength of negative frequency dependence from long-term monitoring data of various sorts of communities, including many animal communities. Further back, Carla Caceres has a nice 1997 PNAS paper quantifying the storage effect in a Daphnia population.

      Re: recent reviews, look for papers from Jon Levine, Peter Adler, and Janneke Hille Ris Lambers.

  14. Hi. I am a postdoc searching for a faculty job position in North America, but I do not have a Ph.D. from a North American or European University. So I wonder: by holding a PhD from a University abroad (not North American or European), am I less likely to get a job in North America? In other words, how much negative weight does such a Ph.D. diploma have compared to other stuff in the CV?

  15. Hi there!

    If it is still not too late. Have you have had any post already about the current use of Grime´s CSR model in ecology? The reason I ask is because, this model commonly advertised as useful framework for microbial ecology (FYI I am a micrbial ecologist). The same goes about r-K strategy, microbial ecologist seem to like this simple idea, but it seems that animal and plant ecologist have discarded, would you have some references to guide why? why r-K is so obsolete/wrong?

    I know that reading on this topic will give me eventually an answer, but I wanted to ask here first for not just shooting in the dark!

    Great work with the Blog!


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