About Brian McGill

I am a macroecologist at the University of Maine. I study how human-caused global change (especially global warming and land cover change) affect communities, biodiversity and our global ecology.

Doing Ecology in Brazil: the feeling of being almost there (and should we really want to be ‘there’)?

Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Thiago Silva a professor in the Geography department of São Paulo State University (UNESP), in Rio Claro, Brazil. A while back we had an ask us anything question on perceptions of ecology coming out of developing countries. This post stimulated a lot of discussion and it was suggested to solicit some first person experiences. This post is currently the last post on this topic (for a while at least). There have been a lot of common themes but also a lot of diverse perspectives. I encourage you to read them all!

So I had about 2400 words written about “Doing Ecology in Brazil”, after receiving Brian’s invitation to write this guest post (Thanks!). And I went on and on detailing the problems with funding, infrastructure, bureaucracy, and so on. Some of it echoed previous posts from Isabela, Pavel, Falko, and Marco, some was new. You can read it here, if you’d like, and it might help give context to what I say below. But as I wrote it, I kept having the feeling that “there was something else”, and when it hit finally hit me, I wrote this instead.

It is very noticeable that the posts were mostly negative, and focused on problems and frustrations. And from the start, I kept asking myself – “Why is this question being asked?”. No one would even think about asking “how much do scientists in the developed world contribute to ecological research?”, so the subtext is that scientists in developing countries are lacking in some aspect, and that begs questioning the importance of their contribution.

And it is true, we are lacking. In funds, in infrastructure, in opportunities, in stability, and so on. Everyone made that very clear. Although, let’s be honest, myself and the writers of the previous posts are still very privileged. Both Brazil and South Africa are part of the BRICS, and Brazil is the 9th largest economy in the world. We often receive exchange students from African countries at my university, and if you can ask them about research in Brazil, the picture will be way different. I remember witnessing a very heated argument between a bus driver and an African exchange student, who would just not accept the complaining by the driver and kept insisting that we had it great in Brazil. But we don need to go that far; just ask anyone working at a satellite campus of a smaller Brazilian university, somewhere in the interior of the poorest Brazilian states. Their reality is way, way far from ours. That was the second thought I kept having: how can I be so negative about being a researcher at a university consistently ranked among the best in Brazil, located in the state which alone contributes with about a third of the country’ s GDP and has a state science foundation with a budget comparable to the entire federal funding agency? Am I just ungrateful? Am I just being a Xennial?

And then it hit me. The dominating feeling of frustration that echoed in all the posts comes exactly from not being at either tail end of the curve. If we imagine Ecology or any science as a race*, our countries are not be leading, but we are close enough to see the leading racers. We are close enough that our universities, funding agencies, and even our peers expect us to race equally. And when we continuously fail to meet these expectations, we feel frustrated, and inadequate, and see ourselves as imposters.

But this is the thing, we aren’t failing because we’re not good enough, but just because we don’t have the same support system as scientists in the developed world (which was what I was initially writing about). We can’t get grants as large, and when we get we’re not paid on time or get the amount due. When we finally do get paid, then our money buys us less. And even when we can afford it, we get held back by paralyzing bureaucracy. And if we do manage to afford and have it, it will likely become impossible to maintain it because of the rollercoaster. And this is just the funding aspect.

Educational gaps also make a huge difference. We don’t speak the consensus language of science natively, nor are properly educated on it when young. Our entire education system is inferior at all levels, from primary to higher education, so we all need to work extra hard to bring ourselves to the level of the ‘developed world’. And this problem continues even after you “make it’; your supervised students will also be ‘behind’ students in the developed world in reading, writing, and overall learning. Look at the stats given by Falko. That means investing significant more time in mentoring and supervising students, so they can themselves become good scientists and make important contributions.

On top of this, there is the significant administrative overhead, as we receive much less support from our institutions, and most departments are understaffed. We have no grants offices, so each PI must manage every cent spent, keep track of every single receipt, and fill every single line of the insanely complex accounting spreadsheets. Even at the best research universities in Brazil, we have teaching loads similar to American teaching universities, but are expected to do research like we were at a R1 university. Oh, and with no TAs. If you follow Terry McGlynn’s accounts on working at a teaching university that serves underprivileged students, you have the picture of how it is to work at any Brazilian university. Except you still have the high-level research expectations.

So that is the gist of being an ecologist (or any scientist) in a wealthy developing world country. You haven’t really made the jump to the developed world, but you’re expected to act and deliver as if you had, even though about everything else in the system is lacking. And not just by your employers and funders, but mostly by your colleagues in your country and outside it. You will be seen as ‘less productive’ because you don’t have as many papers, even though it costs you many more hours of work and money to produce and document that same piece of knowledge. You will be seen as ‘less competent’ because you publish stuff on your small national journals, even if it is just because you cant afford to pay as often for revisions/translations and/or publication fees, so you can publish your work of the same quality on the consensus “Plan B” open access journals of the develop world.

And the worst of all is knowing that you could do all these, and be producing as much good ecological knowledge, if you had the same support system. Is the feeling of not being able to answer this really cool question because you can’t afford that one extra lab analysis or have the assurance that you’ll actually receive the grant that was awarded to you. Is seeing that question being answered by someone else, while the unfinished manuscript is still lingering on your computer, which you could have finished if only you had received that one piece of equipment in time, or the help of a TA, a research assistant, or a grant manager to free up some of your time.

And this shared frustration gets me both worried and angry. Worried because the pattern I’ve been observing is that to be “internationally recognized”, Brazilian scientists progressively sacrifice their humanity and that of the people around them. With every up-tick on impact factor and H-index comes an increase in questionable grant spending practices, questionable publishing practices, and more treatment of students, assistants and even colleagues as slave robots, fodder to be sacrificed to the publishing and funding gods. All of a sudden, being a ‘recognized scientist’ becomes more important than the science itself, and if that is what my future holds, I’ll pass. I know a lot of my senior, ‘recognized’ colleagues would criticize me, saying I just need to ‘man up’, and do what it takes, but as I’ve been saying more and more lately, if being a ‘leading scientist’ means betraying what I believe in, then I guess I’ll never be one .

And I get angry, because at the end, we’re chasing and being judged by standards that were not decided by us, which are based on working conditions and realities that are not ours, and that are even being increasingly questioned from within. After living in Canada for six years for my PhD, I returned to Brazil following a very unsuccessful foray into the North-American academic job market. At the time, I rationalized this ‘failure’ to myself by saying “Well, at least you wont have to work so hard”. And yet, now I find myself working as hard or harder, while ‘achieving less’ by the conventional standards, and I feel increasingly frustrated and betrayed by the system. But a lot of that is my own fault, by accepting and pursuing standards that should not apply to me.

So maybe we should stop asking the question that in truth is “how much do scientists from developing countries contribute to ecological researchby the standards of the developed world?” and just realize that of course we do contribute as well as any scientist, to the best of our ability, and often in important ways that aren’t recognized by the current standards. And we should be proud of that, and stop measuring ourselves by the standards of others. The best perk of being a developing anything is having the opportunity to learn from the experiences and mistakes of the developed, so we can skip steps and do better without having to copy or repeat them.

I would like to thank Annia Susin Streher for reviewing this first version of my rumbling, and both her and Tadeu Siqueira for long and repeated lunch and beer discussions over these issues.

* This is just a metaphor. We shouldn’t see science as a competition, and the fact that people do so is a large part of the problem.

Guest post: ecology done and being done in Latin America

Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Catherine Hulshof, a professor in Puerto Rico. A while back we had an ask us anything question on perceptions of ecology coming out of developing countries followed by several first person accounts. Catherine had a very different perspective from anything we’ve heard so far on the topic that I thought was important to express. She has a blog here.

There are two perspectives of science in developing countries. The first perspective provides examples of scientists who ‘did science correctly’ to demonstrate that these regions contribute to global knowledge. The second perspective considers science a product of social, cultural, and political values of a particular place and time and, because of this, is subject to fashion.

Unwrapping these two perspectives requires a history of a people who long ago catalogued all living species, their varied uses and ecological interactions in some of the most biodiverse places in the world.

It’s easy to forget this because the oral tradition is dead or dying and the biodiversity catalogues preserved in stone codices, paintings, or stelae were systematically destroyed. The famous 1552 ethnobotanical herbarium from Mexico was kept secret in the Vatican for 400 years (Domínguez et al. 2015).

What was substituted were descriptions of the natural world written by priests, monks, and other colonists sent from Spain, France, and England to inventory resources for the empire. These explorations gave rise to the first universities in the Americas, like the Universidad Santo Tomás de Aquino, established in 1538, 150 years before Harvard.

During the 18th and 19th centuries the success of mining and agriculture in Latin America was married to rapid scientific growth. This success funded the construction of botanical gardens, natural history museums, universities and other specialized laboratories like the Real Seminario de Mineria in Mexico (where Alexander von Humboldt visited and taught for several months).

How easily forgotten are the scientists who accompanied our von Humboldt, Bates, and Darwin.

The booming mining, agriculture and scientific sectors demonstrated the strength of the Spanish colonies and independence followed. In many ways, scientists (who were already among the Creole elite) led the independence movement, becoming congressmen and writing constitutions. The Mexican Constitution, for example, makes reference to scientists like Rousseau, Newton, and Benjamin Franklin, reflecting the prominent role science played in shaping these nations.

The 19th century was another major period of growth for science in Latin America. Immigration of scientists fleeing Europe during wartime, international funding from institutions like the Rockefeller and Kellogg Foundations, combined with the adoption of more inclusive education policies, were major instruments for strengthening the scientific sector.

Today, many of the same institutions that were founded before and after independence still support modern science and have produced generations of scientists, Nobel Prizes, and scientific literature, predominantly in Spanish.

That’s the differentiating factor between the two perspectives of science in developing countries. English is the dominant language of science. It wasn’t always English. It may not always be English. At times it was Latin, others German, further back Arabic. We live in the Information Age but access to information is not equal. This is one of the greatest tragedies of science.

Multilingual scientists have a major advantage because they can connect different narratives. Narratives that are too easily lost if not written in the modern science vernacular.

Narratives like that of Hipólito Unanue y Pavón a naturalist who wrote detailed botanical accounts of the Peruvian flora. Or Hipólito Ruiz López, considered the Peruvian Linnaeus. And José Celestino Mutis whose botanical collection was only rivaled by Joseph Banks’ in London and who collaborated with Alexander von Humboldt. Or José Antonio Alzate y Ramirez who published the first scientific journals in Mexico. Or what about Francisco José de Caldas who invented the hypsometer and measured altitude with von Humboldt. Or botanists José Mariano Mociño and Jose Longinos Martinez who promoted the natural sciences in Guatemala. Or Agustín Stahl, the famous Puerto Rican naturalist. And Costa Rica’s Clodomiro Picado Twight who pioneered snake research and antivenin development and whose work on molds predated Alexander Fleming’s. Or Cuba’s naturalist Felipe Poey y Aloy. Or Carlos Chagas of Brazil’s Instituto Oswaldo Cruz who discovered the parasite and insect responsible for Chagas disease. And Cuban Carlos Juan Finlay who identified the yellow fever vector decades before U.S. scientists. And of course the Peruvian physiologist Carlos Monge who studied the effects of high altitude on humans and animals and created the Institute of Andean Biology. Or Ynes Mexia, a Mexican-American botanist who discovered 500 new plant species. Or Miguel Álvarez del Toro a famous ornithologist from Mexico who founded the Instituto de Historia Natural in Chiapas. Or more contemporary scientists like Mario Molina who received a Nobel Prize for his work relating the environmental effects of CFCs, Rosalina Berazaín Iturralde a leading botanist in Cuba, Cleofé Calderón a grass and bamboo specialist from Argentina, Colombia’s Juan Posada a leading plant ecologist or Susana Caballero a marine biologist, or Ariel Lugo from Puerto Rico who popularized the idea of novel ecosystems, or Carla Restrepo a tropical ecologist with a charismatic path to science or Sandra Díaz in Argentina, recognized globally for her foundational work by a long list of awards (including a Peace Nobel Prize).

The list is endless.

The contributions of ecologists from developing countries are not periphery to or separate from those of developed countries. On the contrary, collaboration between scientists gave rise to entire branches of science, ignited independence and the development of new nations, and is pioneering our understanding of biodiversity and global change in the 21st century.

We’ve heard accounts of doing science in the midst of political and financial instability (from Brazil here, here, here; from South Africa here; from Puerto Rico keep an eye out here). Despite interruptions and reduced funding, institutions like Colombia’s Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt represent the next generation of science in Latin America.

During the Dark Ages, science declined in Europe and flourished in Islam. During the last half of this century, science investment declined in the United States and is flourishing elsewhere. Developing countries are perfectly positioned to lead some of the world’s most challenging ecological questions in some of the world’s most biodiverse regions. Indeed, these regions are most affected by the fashions of the developed world.

For more detailed accounts of the history of science in Latin America check out:

  1. Glick, T.P. (1992) History of Science in Latin America. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Latin America and the Caribbean, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
  2. Quipu, Revista Latinoamericana de Historia de las Ciencias y la Tecnología
  3. Domínguez, F., Alonso-Castro, A. J., Anaya, M., González-Trujano, M. E., Salgado-Ceballos, H., & Orozco-Suárez, S. (2015). Mexican Traditional Medicine: Traditions of yesterday and Phytomedicines for Tomorrow. In Therapeutic Medicinal Plants: From Lab to the Market, 1.
  4. A great interactive teaching resource from the Smithsonian Institution highlighting Latino Natural History

Thanks to Maga Gei for feedback on these ideas!

Poll results on statistical machismo

An ongoing theme to some of my posts has been the notion of statistical machismo. As noted recently, statistical machismo is not really about using (or not using) complex statistics. It is about using more complex statistics for bad reasons (e.g. to impress people) or forcing other people to use more complex reasons again for bad reasons or out of the ill-conceived notion that there is always one correct, best way to do statistics. The discussions on the last posts raised interesting questions about whether statistical machismo is really a problem or if it occurs just as often in the other direction (forcing people to use simple statistics). So of course that called for a poll . I am going to report on the results here. Continue reading

Guest post: Doing ecology on a rollercoaster in Brazil

Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Marco Mello a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil. A while back we had an ask us anything question on perceptions of ecology coming out of developing countries. This post stimulated a lot of discussion and it was suggested to solicit some first person experiences. This post is the fourth of several on this topic. Marco is the most senior of all of the guest posts solicited and I think you will notice the long term perspective in his post. I am indebted to Marco for inviting me to speak at the 25th anniversary celebration of the ecology department at his university and for getting me excited about the great ecology happening in Brazil. Marco also blogs at Surviving in Science (in Portuguese but Google Translate is pretty effective).

Have you ever tried to write a paper in a rollercoaster? Let me tell you how it is to do science in a developing country, where the long-term funding policy changes constantly. Continue reading

Poll on experiences with statistical machismo

In a couple of recent posts on statistical machismo, it has become increasingly clear to me that there is disagreement about how common statistical machismo even is. Which is an irresistible invitation to produce a poll (as also suggested by a commentor). So please take the following poll. Results will be published after Thanksgiving (week of Nov 28).

Clink here to leave Dynamic Ecology and enter unframed google survey (or link to share): https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSea-c6lbTGCPgj0iJ2rgk38X6HQ6bo2LQ8gj1rsZQyvWKZVUQ/viewform?usp=sf_link

Or take the poll directly here:

Guest post – doing ecology in Canada and Brazil

Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Isabela Borges, a Brazilian who completed part of her undergraduate degree in Canada and is now exploring where to pursue a graduate degree. A while back we had an ask us anything question on perceptions of ecology coming out of developing countries. This post stimulated a lot of discussion and it was suggested to solicit some first person experiences. This post is the third in that series.

As a Brazilian who spent the past few years studying ecology and evolution in Canada, I’ve thought a lot about the differences between doing science in developed and developing countries*. I grew up in Rio de Janeiro, where I started my undergraduate work before transferring to Canada to complete my degree, and am now back in Brazil considering where to continue my education. Having navigated both worlds, I’ve had the great privilege of seeing first-hand how science is conducted and perceived in these countries. Pavel and Falko already gave an overview of how ecology is done in developing countries, so I thought I could talk a bit about the contrasts between Brazil and Canada that most affected my experience as a student. Continue reading

Taking statistical machismo back out of twitter bellicosity

The post last week on readability of statistics made me realize that the term “statistical machismo” has grown and morphed quite a bit from my original intent. One blog commentor noted that he now hears the phrase statistical machismo thrown at him when he works on developing new statistical methods. And one twitter commentor implied that statistical machismo was equated with “mocking complex statistics”. Both of these usages horrify me. Which has led me to a new word coinage: twitterized – verb – to become overly simlistically black and white as in the phrase “statistical machismo has become twitterized way past its original meaning”. (NB: apparently the word twitterized is already used in another sense but I of course prefer mine).

So I know just as in science, where you don’t have full control over how a paper is perceived once you release it into the wild, I have no control over how the term “statistical machismo” is used. But I at least have to try … Continue reading

Guest post: doing ecology in South Africa

Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Falko Buschke a tenure-track faculty member in South Africa. A while back we had an ask us anything question on perceptions of ecology coming out of developing countries. This post stimulated a lot of discussion and it was suggested to solicit some first person experiences. This post is the second of what I hope will be several on this topic.

My mind started racing when I was approached to share my experiences as an ecologist from a developing country, South Africa. There were so many things I could write about that I soon became overwhelmed. So, rather than touching on several issues, I will focus on the single biggest obstacle I face as an early career researcher in a developing country.

But before that, here is a short list of topics I chose not include:

The reality is that these types of issues have become commonplace in South Africa and I suspect that they may be even more prevalent in other less-developed countries. But despite these serious concerns, folks from developing countries are resilient and manage to get on with doing good ecology.

Nevertheless, the biggest obstacle I face as an early career ecologist from a developing country is not one of these macro-level political or economic issues. My biggest roadblock is academic isolation and the accompanying feelings of inadequacy.

Before I go on, I need to describe my background because the easiest way to patronise folks from developing countries is to assume that we are all the same. I grew up in a rural part of South Africa, where only four out of every ten people complete high school. However, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world and I was fortunately born as one of the few ‘haves’, rather than one of the many ‘have-nots’. I went to a good school and completed my BSc and masters at the closest university: a mid-ranking institution by South Africa standards. I then received a scholarship from the for a PhD in Belgium. After defending my PhD in 2014, I returned to South Africa to be closer to home and started in my current lecturing position (at the same mid-ranking university of my undergraduate studies).

Having spent time in Europe, the thing I miss most is the comaraderie. I went from being part of a huge research lab to being the only ecologist in my current department. Gone are the lunch-time discussions about ecology. Gone are the Friday afternoon seminars by visiting speakers. Gone are the envy-soaked congratulations to my peers who had their papers accepted by Science, Ecology Letters or Global Change Biology.

Now, the closest substitute for this cohort of like-minded ecology geeks is the comment section on Dynamic Ecology, which, while great, can’t replace the real thing.

I suppose many ecologists experience isolation after leaving graduate school, but I suspect it is worse in developing countries. A major worry of mine is building a research group because there isn’t a long queue of aspiring ecologists ready to join my team. Sadly, this is not due to a shortage of enthusiasm or ambition, but rather a bankruptcy of science capital. In an unequal country like South Africa, it is frightening how few of the students I now lecture had exposure to real science before they reached university.

My university did a study and found that only 60% of incoming undergraduates had the literacy levels expected from university students. Even more alarming was how 80% of students lacked the numeracy skills needed to succeed at university. This is a symptom of a schooling system crumbling under widespread national poverty. Poverty also means that the few students with sound science backgrounds tend to gravitate towards more lucrative fields like medicine or engineering, further limiting the number of new ecologists.

Good mentors are also hard to find. This is illustrated by what a friend of mine experienced during his first lectureship at one of South Africa’s leading universities. He was so excited to work in a department with some world-class ecologists, but left after a realising how these top ecologists were too busy with international collaborators to even notice the arrival of a new researcher. This dilemma is especially sad because it reinforces the perception that to be a good ecologist, you need to work with foreign collaborators. This alone is not the problem – the best ecology should be relevant internationally – but it feeds the misconception that ecology does not have value unless it includes inputs from abroad. Put another way, it reinforces the view that South African ecology is second-rate.

Being an early career ecologists is hard anywhere in the world. Insecurity is rife and we all feel like impostors sometimes. Coming from a country outside the traditional hubs of North America or Europe, makes feeling like an outsider much worse. Of course, many of the barriers I face are imagined; fed only by insecurity. But some barriers are real. All I hope is that readers of Dynamic Ecology get a small glimpse at being an ecologist in a developing country. Hopefully, you all see that we are real scientists working hard to improve ecology as a whole. We’re not asking for special treatment, we just want to be taken seriously as ecologists in our own right.

 

Guest post: doing ecology in Brazil

Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Pavel Dodonov, a postdoc in Brazil. A while back we had an ask us anything question (from Pavel in fact) on perceptions of ecology coming out of developing countries. This post stimulated a lot of discussion and it was suggested to solicit some first person experiences. This post is the first of what I hope will be several on this topic.

Brian invited me to write this post on my own “experiences, questions, challenges, opportunities, etc on doing ecology in a developing country”, namely in Brazil, and I gladly accepted. In order to have a more representative view, I also asked some friends about their own impressions; still, it is likely that my post is too optimistic, especially considering that I did all my studies in a university in São Paulo state, which is the most developed state in Brazil. Plus, being the son of a university professor, I come from a fairly privileged background, which made things easier for me.

I have a degree in Biological Sciences and a Masters and PhD in Ecology, all from the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), and currently I’m a post-doc at the State University of Santa Cruz, in Bahia. During my PhD I spent six months in Canada, including four months at Dalhousie University in Halifax (NS) and two months doing fieldwork at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre in Manitoba. This was a fantastic experience for several reasons – Canada is beautiful; I was able to work more closely with my cosupervisor; doing fieldwork in a totally different environment was quite awesome; but, most of all, it made me realize that we in Brazil are not as far behind in Science as we often think we are. During the two-month field season I noticed that my own ecological training was on the same level as of the other people working there, and in Halifax I was able to help some people with statistical analyses. So my first impression is that we do have good knowledge and training here; what we often lack is self-confidence and a more publication-oriented thought, or more confidence in our ability to write papers for high-ranking journals. Yet I know many great researchers here, publishing in high-ranking journals including Nature or Science, driven by scientific curiosity and applied conservation issues and performing really fantastic research.

Still, there are many difficulties, some of which I present below:

Language:

The main difficulty for doing ecological research may be the language. English is the lingua franca of science – but, even though we have English as a school subject, it is really basic and often not well taught. English is needed not only to read and write manuscripts, but also because many important text books have not been translated and because software often does not have support in any other language. Even learning R without understanding what the function names mean seems quite hard.

There are English courses and schools, but they are often too expensive for people with lower income. Yes, it is possible to learn English by yourself, but it demands a lot of time and dedication which many people just don’t have. Basic English knowledge is a requirement to entering at least some grad courses, and recently (in 2012) the Brazilian government started the program “Inglês sem Fronteiras” (“English without Borders”), providing free online courses and free TOEFL exams for students and staff. Still, it’s not the same as having good English education since childhood.

Funding:

Actually, I’m not quite sure how hard it is to get funding here as compared to, for example, Canada or the USA. We have some advantages: the good universities, including grad courses, are free – so no debts acquired to pay for your education. On the other hand, one usually has to go to a good school to pass the university admission exams, and these schools are quite expensive. The good news is there have been several initiatives to make the universities more socially inclusive, including racial quotas or quotas for people from public schools. There are also bolsas, which can be broadly translated as scholarships, from the undergraduate to the post-doc level; some of them are directed at lower-income people whereas others analyze solely the applicant’s grades, curriculum and research project. These bolsas may be granted by the University, by State funding agencies or by Federal funding agencies. As a reference, those given by the main Federal agency, CNPq, are of about 125 USD per month for undergrads, 470 USD for Masters students, 690 USD for PhD students, and 1280 USD for post-docs, and may or may not have additional resources for fieldwork, conferences, equipment etc. There is also funding to send students abroad – the Ciência sem Fronteiras (Science without Borders) was a really fantastic program for this – and to bring researchers for conferences or research projects. But now we’re facing severe cuts in funding for science, so the future of Brazilian science as a whole may be at stake.

Equipment:

Acquiring equipment is often hard, due to importation taxes and the not really effective mail delivery. And I’m not speaking solely of expensive equipments; basic stuff, including flagging tape and rite-in-the-rain fieldbooks, is quite hard to come by, so I sometimes ask my cosupervisor to bring flagging tape from Canada. When equipment gets broken it also takes a long time to be replaced, often delaying one’s research for months. The good part of it is that we’re good in improvising and “doing more with less”. In addition, there often isn’t enough funding to pay for gas etc, or for some reason you’re not allowed to use your funding for it, so paying from your own pocket to do research is not uncommon. My own research was only possible because I had a car and was not afraid to use it.

My car during my Master’s field work at a cerrado site

There are many well-equipped laboratories, with equipment acquired from different funding sources throughout the years. Conversely, there are other universities with a lack of things like toilet papers and doors in the bathrooms, and even the best universities may lack drinking water in some buildings. So, as for all else in Brazil, there’s huge variation in university infrastructure.

 

Safety in the field:

For some strange reason first-aid or survival courses are neither mandatory nor common, not even in large projects such as the BDFFP. In many sites there are issues with poachers or criminals – I have a friend who had to be escorted by the police due to poacher activity, and another who had to stop fieldwork for a week or two because of gunfire in the area.

 

Other fieldwork issues:

This likely applies to other countries as well… Dealing with people is not trivial, and it may happen, for example, that the management of a protected area changes during your fieldwork and the restrictions to your research change as well. Private owners not always respect what was agreed on; tags, equipments etc may be stolen by people living or passing through the area; when working in areas of traditional or indigenous communities, it is often not clear to whom as for permission, and your study may be interrupted at the final and most important stage. These are all true stories.

 

The good things

Still, not all is bad. Working in an ultra-biodiverse country is amazing;  we sometimes get to see maned wolves, golden-headed lion tamarins, toucans and hear the howler monkeys howl even when we’re working with plants, and a lot of fieldwork can be done in closeby areas. A significant part of my own research was carried out at a Cerrado fragment within the university.

Golden-headed-lion-tamarins at a university campus in Bahia.

There are also great opportunities to work with environmental education with the people living at or near your study sites. There are opportunities to hire local people to help with the fieldwork – people who are much better than we are at doing the hard work. It is of course necessary not to treat them as cheap work force – still, I think they receive as much as a biologist would receive to do the same work. I myself always relied on volunteer help from friends and colleagues, and provided volunteer help for many people as well, but in some cases – climbing trees, placing transects in really difficult sites, driving long hours and so on – volunteer help is not enough, and even for simpler taks finding help is never easy.

 

Finally, we sort of have our own blogosphere, in Portuguese! For any Portuguese-speaking people reading this, some recommended blogs are Marco Mello’s “Surviving in Science”, Renata Muylaert’s “A Biologist”, Rafael Loyola’s “Zen Scientist”, Agusto Ribas’s “Recology”, and my own “Another Ecology and Statistics Blog”. (An aside from Brian – Google Translate makes it possible for an English speaker to read these blogs in a matter of seconds, believe me it is worth the slight extra effort).

Many thanks to Raquel Miatto, Renata Muylaert and Milene Eigenheer for helping me with this post, and to Brian for the invitation and the great post on this subject a while ago.

Why don’t we scientifically measure teaching effectiveness?

This post might as well be subtitled “A rant on the misuse of student evaluation of teachers”. I’ll just get that out of the way right up front.

One of the defining attributes of being a scientist is that we’re really good at the practice of quantifying things in a repeatable, meaningful way. Take journal impact factors as an example. We’re able to talk about them and pretty quickly agree that journal impact factor is a flawed and noisy but useful one-dimensional representation of a high-dimensional quantity, journal quality, but a rubbish measure of the quality of a single paper. Or say you’re on the committee of a student who tells you they want to measure competitive effects. You’re pretty likely to lead them down several conversations. Do they mean per capita effects on population growth rates? or per unit biomass impacts on biomass? or coexistence effects on other species? Conversely is their measurement of competitive effect likely to be strongly impacted by overall species richness or by productivity of the system? And what are the error bars on their measurement methods likely to be? If they are looking at biomass impacts are they measuring wet or dry biomass? How will this be standardized? How much variability can be removed by standardizing techniques?

Phew! We scientists sure make measuring something into a sophisticated exercise (and I hasten to note that is because experience has taught us it is important to do this). So how come both faculty and administrators are content to just take student evaluations of teachers on a 1-5 Likert scale so seriously?

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