About Jeremy Fox

I'm an ecologist at the University of Calgary. I study population and community dynamics, using mathematical models and experiments.

Friday links: Berkson’s paradox, writing review papers using Twitter, and more (UPDATED)

Also this week: you vs. your departmental seminar series, research experience for school teachers, nut grafs figures, Berkson’s paradox, the Zizek Maneuver, a link from Brian (!), and more. Also, Jeremy gives in to peer pressure and comments on Courchamp & Bradshaw (2017).

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Guest post: a career in departmental technical support

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from my Calgary colleague and friend Louise Hahn. Cheers for this Louise!

This post is the latest in our continuing series on non-academic and non-faculty careers for ecologists. See this post and the comments over there for links to previous posts in the series.

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“Do as I say, not as I do”: what scientific advice do you give or teach, but not follow yourself?

Recently, in writing a letter nominating someone for a scientific award, a colleague and I wrote something like “It’s difficult to convey just how strong a candidate Dr. So-and-so is.” Which is not a letter-writing approach I would recommend. There are in fact words that can convey just how strong a candidate Dr. So-and-so is, and you should write them. Which we did, of course–our letter didn’t actually rely on the bald assertion that Dr. So-and-so is too awesome for words. But still, that sentence could be considered a minor violation of the standard advice that I (or anyone) would give about how to write a reference letter.

Hence my question: is there scientific advice that you give to others, or teach to students, that you don’t follow yourself? Or only follow sometimes?

Here are some of mine:

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What new technology will soon change ecology the most?

Many changes in the content and practice of science arise in response to changes in technology. Think for instance of how the advent of the internet has changed how scientists publish and communicate their results. Or think of how the advent of cheap computers changed statistics. PCR is a third example. Tiny GPS tags for monitoring animal movement are a fourth.*

So, what do you think is the next big technological advance that’s about to change ecology in a big way?

Here are a couple of candidates off the top of my head:

  • Drones. Potentially let you sample larger and more inaccessible areas more quickly than you could in other ways. See here and here for a couple of recent randomly-googled examples.
  • Smartphone apps for identifying organisms. With all due respect for drones, this is my pick for the Next Big Technological Thing in ecology. There are already apps that will identify common birds via their songs, even automatically without user input. I bet the day isn’t too far away when you’ll be able to use your phone to identify a lot of species of plants and animals as quickly and reliably as an expert taxonomist or natural historian could, just by taking pictures or recordings of them with your phone. What’s that going to do for ecology? What new research avenues will it open up? And what does it mean to be a taxonomist or natural historian in a world in which accurately identifying organisms (and then looking up all that’s known about them) is something anyone with a phone can do instantly?

What do you think will be the next technological advance to change ecology in a big way? Looking forward to your comments!

*Totally random aside: way back when I was a grad student, I saw a talk about the movement behavior of large lizards such as monitor lizards. I still remember the speaker’s passing remark that one of the great things about working with monitor lizards is that “you can cover them with sensors and they don’t care.” This remark was accompanied by a picture of a monitor lizard with a chunky radio collar and a big battery pack duct-taped to the base of its tail. Perhaps one day (or even today!), my old school science cred will be that I saw someone give a talk on movement behavior that involved attaching heavy kit to animals large enough not to be bothered by this.

Ask Us Anything: are statistics in ecology papers becoming too difficult for students and readers to understand?

A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Here are our answers to our next two questions, from Andy Park:

  1. For undergraduate courses in which students are expected to read journal articles, are you finding it harder to find current papers that are relatively easy for an undergraduate to follow? The statistics in current papers are getting more complex.
  2. On the same theme: how many studies are being published these days in which the statistics are a black box to many of the authors?

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Hoisted from the comments: EEB poetry slam!

In last week’s linkfest I linked to this post on clerihews: four-line poems about a reasonably well known person, with an AA BB rhyming structure, providing a witty or gently humorous summary of the person’s work. Many (not all) clerihews also end the first line with the name of the subject of the poem. I jokingly offered +1000 Internet Points to any commenter who could write a clerihew about a famous ecologist or evolutionary biologist.

I didn’t think we’d get any submissions. Boy was I wrong! Our commenters came through in spades. We even had a clerihew battle over who should be considered the founder of biogeography! So here are just some of the brilliant, charming clerihews our commenters wrote. Click through to the linkfest to see them all.

Things were kicked off by anon, with a terrific clarihew about Steve Hubbell’s ecological neutral theory–including a stinger at the end about ecological neutral theory’s less-famous co-developer:

An idea by Hubbell
will be reduced to rubble
or maybe time will tell
and it will turn out swell

(or the credit will go to Bell)

I also really liked these two, via email from an anonymous correspondent:

Ideas from Trivers
Will surely send shivers
Up and down a mom’s spine
When kids cry and whine.

When Orians baked his blackbirds
He put his theory into words
Mating systems were explained
By all the insights it contained.

That Trivers one is a fine illustration of why brevity the soul of wit. And I like referring to Gordan Orians as baking his famous blackbirds.

In my linkfest post I joked that I’d write a clerihew myself, except that nothing rhymes with “Darwin”. I stand corrected. From Jeff Ollerton:

Following the theories of Darwin
Science and religion were a-warrin’
But after natural selection
Came more balanced introspection

David Jenkins:

Friends told ailing old Charles Darwin
You better finish that book about evolvin’
Young A.R. Wallace wrote a letter
And he got it right, but your book is better

Rhyming “Darwin” with “evolvin'” is tough to top, but Steve Walker was up to it:

To many a friend of Darwin
His work was an abominable sin
But his readers died
Without getting fried

I love the matter-of-fact brevity of those last two lines. Great marriage of form and content.

jim chimed in with several Darwinian clerihews, of which these were my two favorites:

The Galapagos were favorites of Darwin
His recollections of them were quite ardent
He recalled he saw many finches
And measured their bills in inches

There’s a popular book by Darwin
You can get at a pretty good bargain
I think I paid ten for a copy that’s fine
Printed at Princeton in 1909

Commenters even started writing clerihews on request. In response to my lament that no one had worked “zombie ideas” into a clerihew, it only took Jeff Ollerton a few minutes to come up with:

The community ecologist Jeremy Fox
Writes sharp critiques in which he mocks
The folks who fall for zombie ideas
Reducing many a scientist to tears

Zombie ideas” wasn’t meant to mock anyone, and I hope it didn’t reduce anyone to tears! Jeff reassures me that this was merely artistic license on his part. 🙂

But the joint thread winners were Rafael Pinheiro and Jeff Ollerton, for battling over the founding father of biogeography using clerihews. Rafael kicked it off:

Look to this poor man called Wallace
He was not born and raised in a palace
But don’t get fooled by this misleading photography
The man is the father of biogeography

A lesser man might have conceded immediately to an opponent who found a rhyme for “biogeography”, but not Jeff “I’ll see your biogeography rhyme and raise you” Ollerton:

Von Humboldt travelled and mapped plants
When schoolboy Wallace wore short pants
So in a more accurate historiography
Von Humboldt’s the father of biogeography

At which point the thread turned into the world’s first and only clerihew-based game of “Can you top this?” Rafael again:

Humboldt came first, I will not deny
But Wallace is the father and I’ll tell you why
He was not the first to study species distribution
But the one who explained it through evolution

After that I was imagining the two of them on stage at a scientific conference, with mics and a screaming audience. Like an extremely nerdy rap battle. Jeff again:

Sure, Hooker embraced Darwin’s evolution
And came up with a very modern conclusion
But fatherhood is not about interpretation
It’s about the initial insemination

I call it a draw. A glorious, glorious draw.

Thank you again to all of our commenter-poets for making my day. Y’all are the best. 🙂


p.s. Here’s Jeff’s follow-up post on clerihews.

Ask Us Anything: PhDs from outside N. America and Europe, and the current status of classic ideas in life history theory

A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Here are our answers to our next two questions, from Johan Argovis and Carlos Trigueros, respectively:

  1. When seeking a faculty position in N. America, is it a disadvantage to hold a Ph.D. from outside N. America or Europe?
  2. What’s the current status of Grime’s CSR theory and r-K selection in ecology? In particular, why is r-K selection regarded as obselete or incorrect?

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Late Friday link: the GOP tax bill would tax grad student tuition waivers

Don’t want to wait on this until next week, because anyone who wants to act on it needs to do so quickly. The GOP tax bill proposes taxing graduate student tuition waivers as income. This would mean that many grad students would be taxed on a nominal total income of >$50,000, meaning that their actual take home pay would no longer be enough to live on.

Academic scientists are among those best positioned to convey to Congress just how bad an idea this is and how disruptive it would be.

I emphasize that I’m passing on the news without having dug into the details of the bill myself, so it’s possible I’ve overlooked some crucial details. If I’ve made an error or missed something, I’ll correct the post as needed.