About Meghan Duffy

I am an ecologist at the University of Michigan. My research focuses on the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases, particularly in lake Daphnia populations.

Book Review: Merchants of Doubt

Thanks to #readinghour increasing my reading pace, I recently finished reading Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. I really enjoyed it and think it’s a very important book, including for those of us who are ecologists who also think about the factors that influence public views on science. The book demonstrates that the campaigns to deny the harms (and, in some cases, even the existence) of acid rain, the ozone hole, cigarette smoking, DDT, and climate change all used the same tactics – saying that the issue wasn’t totally settled, there was still work to do, that taking action would be premature, etc. That would be interesting on its own, but the really striking part is that, in addition to these campaigns using the same doubt-mongering strategies, it was often the exact same scientists making those claims. The book also has a good overview of how modern science works, which, in my opinion, would make it a really interesting book to use in an undergraduate course. This would obviously work well in a course related to climate change or environmental science, but it also would work in courses focused on information literacy or on biodiversity and conservation.

screen shot of cover of Merchants of Doubt

This won’t be a complete review, but there are a few points I thought worth blogging about, including:

  • the ends justify the means?
  • the dark flip side of “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world”
  • an all purpose expert is an oxymoron
  • harping on a subject until your opponents give up in exhaustion
  • science communication & intimidation
  • phosphorus

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What if we make a class better for student learning but unsustainable for faculty?

I wrote a few years ago about our overhaul of Intro Bio at Michigan. We substantially reduced the amount of content we cover in the course (though I suspect current students would be surprised to realize that – it still feels like more than enough). We also added in more in class activities (clicker questions as well as other things such as in class short answer problems and exercises aimed at increasing students’ comfort levels with figures). And, most notably for this post, we added in frequent quizzing. Students are expected to take a quiz before every class, with more basic questions related to the readings for that day, as well as higher order questions related to previous classes. Writing the questions for the quizzes the first semester was overwhelming, but my hope was that, in future semesters, it would be much less work. While it’s been less work, it’s still quite a stressful part of the course for me. After teaching the course multiple times after the semester where we overhauled things, I still feel like I am crawling across the finish line at the end of the semester – and that’s with teaching only half the semester! When I teach Intro Bio the next time, I will teach the whole semester, and I am pretty concerned about what state I will be in by the end of the semester if I teach the course the same way we have in recent years. The current course does not feel sustainable.

In talking with others who use similar approaches, I know I’m not alone in this feeling. Teaching this way takes up a huge amount of time, and we still have our other responsibilities (mentoring students, keeping our research programs going, department service, editorial responsibilities, etc.) Lately, I’ve been in multiple conversations with others where we wondered: what do we do if we’ve made a course demonstrably better for student learning but, at the same time, not sustainable for the faculty teaching it?

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There is Shit Going On but it’s not my story to tell

As I mentioned in my post last week, just before I headed to the airport, Terry McGlynn posted a list of topics that he wishes people would blog about. Given that I was already planning on doing some #airportblogging, this was really tempting! A couple of his ideas especially stood out to me. The first was about how graduate students can get experience that will prepare them for non-academic positions; I wrote about that last week. The second was this:

-Thoughts about parenting and doing science and academia. (I have written about being a parent and a spouse on the rare occasion, but at a very young age, my son asked for privacy about these matters, and I’ve respected this.) I realize I should be talking about being a parent-in-science more often, because this is a huge part of our lives, and keeping this sequestered just amplifies gender inequities.

I’ve written regularly about the juggling act of parenting and doing science and academia, so it wasn’t the first part that really caught my attention. It was the parenthetical bit. Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how quite a few people I know are juggling so many big things but, for the most part, only close friends or colleagues know about what they’re dealing with. A partial list of the issues includes personal health conditions; aging parents (or death of a parent); partners who have a chronic illness or major injury; non-trivial things with children; infertility; financial struggles; harassment and/or bullying; and major work upheaval.

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How my student has explored career interests outside academia

Last week, Terry McGlynn wrote a post with a list of things he wishes other people would write posts about. I read this minutes before heading to the airport, and this was like catnip given my #airportblogging habit. So, I sat in the airport thinking about this topic Terry suggested:

How PhD students and postdocs are getting professional development to do things other than become a tenure-track faculty member

This is something I’ve been discussing a lot on seminar trips, with prospective grad students, and with colleagues, but I hadn’t thought about writing a post on it before. So, with thanks to Terry for the prompt, here’s the story of how one of my students has explored career interests outside academia.

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When writing, tell us your biological results!

Quick quiz! Let’s imagine you are reading the results section of a manuscript. Which of these is the most useful/interesting/compelling/informative?:

  1. Figure 2 shows the relationship between infection and lifespan.
  2. Our experiment on the relationship between infection and lifespan found unambiguous results (Figure 2).
  3. Including infection treatment as a predictor improved model fit for lifespan (stats, Figure 2).
  4. Infected hosts lived, on average, half as long as uninfected hosts (20 days vs. 40 days; stats, Figure 2).

I think we’d mostly agree that option 4 is the most informative and interesting by a long shot. It focuses on the biological results, which, as ecologists, are usually our primary interest – presumably you did the experiment because you wanted to know whether and how infection impacted reproduction, not because you just really like making figures or doing stats!

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Poll: What’s your preferred number of times to teach a particular course?

I recently had a conversation with someone who said he thinks the second year of a course is the best year and that, after three years, he wants to move on. But I’ve also had conversations with others who would be happy to teach the same course for eternity. And I know still others who initially wanted to teach the same course over and over and over, but who now prefer to switch more often.

Part of why I’ve been having these conversations is I’ve been thinking lately about how long I want to teach Introductory Biology, even though I’m not sure how much of an option I have in terms of how long I will teach it for – I don’t think I’d be forced to if I said I absolutely didn’t want to do it, but there is definitely pressure to stay in it. But, for reasons I’ll explain more below, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how many times is the “right” number of times to teach a course and whether that number changes over the course of one’s career.

So, let’s start out with a poll. And, to be clear: I recognize that there are often things that take us away from what we’d prefer, and that, for some, some of these questions might feel like imagining what you’d do with an extra million dollars. (Yes, I sometimes wonder about that, too.)

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Postdoc position available in the Duffy Lab to work on predation and parasitism!

Meghan is searching for a postdoc to study the influence of predators on ecological and eco-evolutionary host-parasite dynamics! Read on for more info on the position.

Position Summary
A postdoctoral position focusing on the impact of predators on the ecological and eco-evolutionary dynamics of host-parasite interactions is available in the laboratory of Dr. Meghan Duffy in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan. The Duffy Lab studies the ecology and evolutionary biology of host-parasite interactions, using the aquatic crustacean Daphnia and their microparasites as a model system. The successful candidate will have access to a vibrant intellectual community and state-of-the-art facilities in the brand new Biological Sciences Building at Michigan; the Duffy Lab will move to this building in April 2018.

The successful candidate for this position will be expected to carry out independent research relating to predation and parasitism, using Daphnia and their microparasites as a model system. The project involves lab experiments (at scales from beakers to buckets) in Michigan; setting up these experiments will involve some field work, especially to collect predators and water for experiments (though alternative arrangements could be made if the postdoc is not able to perform field work). Ideally, the successful candidate would also work on larger scale experiments in cattle tanks in Indiana for 3-4 months in summer-fall 2019, based out of Spencer Hall’s lab at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Depending on interest and abilities, the postdoc will also have the ability to work on mathematical modeling of disease. There will also be the potential to develop additional projects building on the strengths, interests, and expertise of the successful candidate.

This position will also involve mentoring of undergraduate researchers in the lab.

How to Apply
Interested individuals should send a CV, a brief description of research accomplishments and future goals, and the names and contact information for 3 references to Meghan Duffy by e-mail (duffymeg@umich.edu). Review of applications will start on March 12, 2018 and will continue until the position is filled. The University of Michigan is an equal opportunity / affirmative action employer.

Required Qualifications
PhD (by start date) with experience in aquatic ecology, disease ecology, community ecology, eco-evolutionary dynamics, and/or evolutionary ecology

Desired Qualifications
Experience working with Daphnia would be beneficial, but is not required.

Other information
Preference will be given to applicants who can start by mid-summer 2018, though start dates as late as Fall 2018 are possible. Funding is available for at least two years, but is contingent on satisfactory progress in year one. The salary for the position is $48,000 per year plus benefits.

Who is ecology’s equivalent of Erdős?

Paul Erdős was a prolific Hungarian mathematician who spent much of the later part of his career traveling to visit collaborators around the world. According to his Wikipedia biography,

Erdős published around 1,500 mathematical papers during his lifetime, a figure that remains unsurpassed. He firmly believed mathematics to be a social activity, living an itinerant lifestyle with the sole purpose of writing mathematical papers with other mathematicians. Erdős’s prolific output with co-authors prompted the creation of the Erdős number, the number of steps in the shortest path between a mathematician and Erdős in terms of co-authorships.

Or, to quote from Stephen Heard’s recent post on Erdős:

Paul Erdős (1913-1996) was a Hungarian mathematician who published somewhere around 1,500 papers (in mostly pure-math fields including set theory and number theory) and had somewhere around 500 coauthors.  He was a fascinating figure, and his biography The Man Who Loved Only Numbers is a great read.  He was famous both for brilliance and for broad collaboration.  Those two things in combination inspired mathematicians to invent the Erdős number as a metric of their collaborative closeness to Erdős.  Here’s how it works: Erdős’s own Erdős number is E = 0; those who have coauthored research papers with Erdős have E = 1; those who have coauthored with an E = 1 scientist have, as a result, E=2, and so on.

Stephen’s Erdős number is a very impressive 3. And, since I’ve coauthored a paper with Stephen, that means mine is 4, which I think it pretty neat. (That’s the same as Stephen Hawking’s!)

Right after reading Stephen’s post (or, more accurately, Jeremy’s link to Stephen’s post), I visited the University of Florida to give a seminar, hosted by Bob Holt. When I got my schedule ahead of time from Bob, it included a couple of people who are not at the University of Florida, but who are/were there visiting Bob. That was sort of surprising, but not very, as Bob is someone who has collaborated with lots of people – as just one indicator, I remember as a grad student hearing that Bob Holt and Andy Dobson were the two people who were involved in by far the most NCEAS working groups. Given the breadth of topics Bob has worked on, as well as the strength of his contributions, it’s not surprising that lots of people visit him to work on things.

This combination of events got me wondering: is there anyone in ecology who compares to Erdős in terms of being prolific and exceptionally well-connected (in terms of collaborations)?

I think Bob Holt is a great candidate. According to Google Scholar, he has 446 papers. By my count, he has had 574 different coauthors! (You can check the list I assembled here.) Should we have the Holt number in ecology*, or can you come up with someone who is even more connected to other ecologists?


*Clearly this could be expanded to a Holt-Erdős number, a Holt-Erdős-Bacon number, etc. Thanks to Hao Ye, I know that Bob Holt has an Erdős number of 4, so my Holt-Erdős number is 6. (Updated to fix error — I originally said 8, but my Holt number is 2, so I don’t know why I wrote 8!)

How to support undergraduate students experiencing mental health concerns

(Trigger warning: mental health, self-harm, and suicide discussed below)

I recently attended a really great workshop on interacting with students who are experiencing mental health issues. The workshop was run by Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT), which is a fantastic resource. One thing that makes it especially good is that it has the CRLT Players – a theatre program that “uses a diverse array of performance arts to spark dialogue”. Often, they act out a scenario and then pause, allowing the audience members time to reflect and discuss different aspects of the situation in small groups. It’s amazingly effective! They are really good at creating scenarios where there’s no clear “best” option, which leads to really rich discussions.

In this case, the focus of this workshop (run by Sara Armstrong) was student mental health, and the players acted out a scenario where a student approaches her professor to ask for an extension on an end-of-semester assignment. The student discloses that she’s been having a rough time and having a hard time getting her work done. I suspect I’ve spent more time than the average faculty member thinking about how to support students with mental health conditions, but I still learned a lot from the workshop. The workshop also included a great handout with principles to guide interactions with students with mental health concerns. I’ve been thinking a lot about what was covered since the workshop and there’s been a lot of interest in the past when I’ve posted about supporting students with mental health conditions, hence this post.

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Sexual harassment changed my career path, even though I wasn’t the target of the harassment

Back when I was a graduate student, I visited a lab where I was hoping to do a postdoc. I had thought about lots of different options and was by far the most enthusiastic about this one. I reached out to the PI and was thrilled when I was invited for an interview.

At the interview, I saw the PI harass a grad student and a postdoc (both of whom are women). Sometimes, harassment is subtle, and it’s only later that you fully realize something was wrong. This was not that kind of harassment. I mostly haven’t shared the story with others, but, when I have described what happened to a few people, their jaws dropped (literally). And it was definitely sexual harassment – this was not a case of a PI being a bully to everyone in his lab (though obviously that is unacceptable, too). He would not have done the same to men.

I left the interview feeling very confused. This was the place I wanted to be in terms of the science I wanted to do, but I really didn’t know that I wanted to be in that environment. But did it mean I wasn’t committed to science if I didn’t go somewhere that was a great fit science-wise because I was concerned about the climate? Fortunately, while I was working through this, I spoke to some people who made it clear that it is absolutely okay to consider the work environment. I was not less committed to science by not working there; rather, I was committed both to science and to my personal well-being.

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