About Jeremy Fox

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

What papers should be considered for the 2018 George Mercer Award? Nominate someone! (UPDATED)

The George Mercer Award is given annually by the ESA to an outstanding research paper published in the previous two years (so, 2016 or 2017 for this year’s award) with a lead author age 40 or younger at the time of publication. The age limit is in memory of George Mercer, a promising young ecologist who was killed in WW II.

I love awards like the Mercer Award. It’s great that the ESA recognizes outstanding work being done by up-and-coming ecologists. And thinking about potential nominees is a fun excuse to think about what makes for truly outstanding ecological research today. This would be a great topic for your next lab meeting: ask everyone suggest a nominee for the Mercer Award and then talk about them.

I have an old post looking back on past Mercer Award winners to look for common threads (more specific than, you know, “being a great paper”). So have a look at that post, and the list of past winners, if you want help forming a “search image”. Broadly speaking, Mercer Award winning papers tend to be those that powerfully combine multiple lines of evidence (often including both theory and data) to really nail what’s going on in some particular system, but in such a way as to also have much broader implications (e.g.). But there are exceptions, plus there’s no rule that says future winners have to be the same sorts of papers as past winners. In particular, it’s notable that only one review/synthesis/meta-analysis paper has ever won as far as I know. One of these years, surely we’ll see the award go to an outstanding working group paper led by a young author, or to a paper from an outstanding large collaboration like NutNet. Maybe this is the year?

So, what papers do you think should be in the conversation for the Mercer award this year? Here are three just off the top of my head, but I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch of great papers by young authors so please add your favorites in the comments. And then follow through and nominate them!

  • LaManna et al. 2017 Science. A rare beast in ecology: a discovery of new and important large-scale patterns in empirical data (a latitudinal gradient in the strength of negative intraspecific density dependence, and in the degree to which density dependence and species abundances are correlated). Further, those patterns suggest an explanation for maybe the most famous pattern in all of ecology: the latitudinal gradient in species richness. There are challenging statistical issues in using observational data to estimate density dependence and so I’m not sure if everyone is yet totally convinced of the results. But this is clearly an important paper even if it’s not the final word.
  • Usinowicz et al. 2017 Nature. Speaking of latitudinal gradients in the strength of coexistence mechanisms: Usinowicz et al. use long-term monitoring data on seed recruitment in 10 forest plots spanning a long latitudinal gradient to estimate the strength of the temporal storage effect in each plot. They find that there’s a latitudinal gradient in the strength of the storage effect; it’s stronger at low latitudes because seed recruitment is more asynchronous there. This weakens interspecific relative to intraspecific competition and so promotes species coexistence. As with LaManna et al., there are challenging statistical issues here (it looks like they’re estimating a lot of parameters), and I haven’t yet dug deep into their data and supplements to satisfy myself that they’re actually estimating the storage effect and that their estimates are accurate. But if this is right it’s a very important result.
  • Hart et al. 2016 Ecology Letters. The Mercer award has never gone to a pure theory paper as far as I know. If it ever has it’s been a long time. Which doesn’t seem quite right. I mean, it often goes to papers that test or apply theory but don’t develop it. So why can’t it also go to papers that develop theory but don’t test or apply it? Hart et al. use simple models to demolish the common intuition that intraspecific variation should generally promote species coexistence by “blurring” interspecific differences in competitive ability. In fact, intraspecific variation usually inhibits species coexistence. This illustrates one of the most important tasks for theoreticians: correcting widespread pre-theoretical intuitions and replacing them with new, better intuitions. Before you read Hart et al. it’s hard to imagine how it could be right. After you read it, it’s hard to imagine how it could be wrong. The main limitation of the paper is its focus on purely ecological effects of intraspecific variation, thereby ignoring, e.g., selection depleting variation over time and eco-evolutionary feedbacks. But every paper has limitations, so nobody should hold it against Hart et al. that they don’t yet have a complete theory of intraspecific variation and coexistence. You can’t do everything in one paper.
  • Weiss-Lehman et al. 2017 Nature Communications. I love this sort of thing: taking full advantage of the power of a model system to do an experiment that teases apart the subtle (but very general) mechanisms underpinning a striking pattern. Weiss-Lehman et al. use an incisive microcosm experiment with flour beetles to explain why populations undergoing range expansion evolve both a higher mean rate of spread and a higher variance in spread rate. Randomly shuffling the spatial locations of individuals within populations without altering population density or demography revealed that spatial evolution is a key driver of the mean and variance of range expansion speed. And they didn’t stop there; they also did phenotypic trait assays to directly test for spatial evolution of movement propensity and demographic parameters. Likely to become a future textbook example of eco-evolutionary dynamics. Last year another great microcosm experiment on the same topic became the first microcosm paper to win the Mercer award (Williams et al. 2016). The Mercer’s never gone to papers on the same topic in consecutive years as far as I can recall (too lazy to check). But that doesn’t take anything away from Weiss-Lehman et al., plus there’s a first time for everything. (UPDATE: and see the comments; the post neglected to mention Ochocki & Miller 2017 Nature Communications, a third outstanding paper on this topic. All three papers were done in loose collaboration.)

Nominations for the Mercer Award and other annual ESA awards are due Oct. 19. Details here for all ESA awards, and further details here that are specific to the Mercer award.

This year our very own Meghan Duffy is chairing the Mercer Award subcommittee. She would love for you to nominate a paper! As we’ve discussed in the past, the Mercer Award subcommittee is not overwhelmed with nominations and takes every nomination very seriously no matter who it’s from. So you should definitely go ahead and nominate a paper, even if you’re a grad student or postdoc. Your nominee might well win! Plus, writing a Mercer award nomination letter is a good way to practice explaining to your colleagues why some bit of science is really great. Which is something you need to be good at if you expect to get grants and publish papers in selective journals.

If you’re not sure how to write a Mercer award nomination letter, here’s what you do: in 1-2 pages, summarize the paper for a broad audience (remember: possibly none of the committee members will be experts on the paper topic), and place it in a broader context to explain why it’s exemplary/novel/interesting/important science. Each of my little blurbs above could be expanded into a nomination letter.

Newly-hired tenure-track N. American asst. professors of ecology are 59% women (updated periodically)

(Last update: 13 Oct. 2017. No substantive changes to the original post.)

Like last year, this year I once again quantified the gender balance of newly-hired tenure-track asst. professors in ecology and allied fields at N. American colleges and universities. I also conducted a poll asking readers what they expected me to find. Click the link to the poll for details on how I compiled the data, and why I went with a gender binary even though that’s not ideal.

I’ll present the results first, then the poll results, then some discussion.

Warning: long post ahead. That’s because I’ve tried to discuss the results thoroughly and carefully, and to anticipate and address questions that readers are likely to have. You really should read on, but if you just want the headline results:

  • 59% of tenure-track asst. professors of ecology hired in N. America in 2016-17 are women. Combined with last year’s data, it’s 57% women over the last two years. If anything, that’s probably a slight underestimate, for reasons explained below. This is good news!
  • Ecologists as a group remain unaware of this; many think recent faculty hiring in ecology is <50% women.

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Ask Us Anything: choosing a postdoc

A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Here are our answers to our next question. One is from Marine Molecular Ecologist: what are the important considerations when choosing your first postdoc? Vero Zepeda asked the same question, and also wants to know what’s the purpose of a postdoc?

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Ask Us Anything: how to move into ecology from another discipline

A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Here are our answers to our next question, from Andrew Krause: what is your advice for those from other disciplines who have an interest in ecology? Particularly those interested in pursuing interdisciplinary work.

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A cheap, self-published (but still excellent) ecology textbook: why not?

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Mark Vellend.

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The textbook I use for my undergraduate class in plant ecology now costs about $150 (it used to cost <$100).  I was alerted to this by the instructor who will be teaching the class for the next couple of years (while I have a fellowship to focus on research), and it immediately got me thinking again about ecology textbooks (see old DE posts here and here).  I have never much liked 500+ page books whose weight (>2kg) immediately doubles the shoulder strain of my backpack.  And $150 is an awful lot to more-or-less force students to pay. No wonder that students often don’t love them either.

To summarize my opinions on the downsides of textbooks, I find them:

  • Too long.
  • Too expensive.
  • Too heavy.
  • Overly packed with details (related to ‘too long’ and noted by several commenters on previous DE posts).
  • Temporally “inflexible” (big lag time between book written and book published; then the book is “set in stone” for at least the next 5 years).

To be clear, this is not a criticism of textbook writers, for whom I have immense respect and admiration (writing a good one is a massive accomplishment and contribution).  And of course textbooks have major upsides.  Textbooks can be:

  • Off-the-shelf course content for time-pinched teachers around the world (although there are typically many parts of any one book I want to teach differently).
  • A reference to consult when you need a refresher on a particular topic.
  • Markers of the state of a field for a given era.
  • Providers of a common template of understanding of what the field is about (i.e., they can help make ecology a coherent discipline), and so shapers of the field itself.

In short, I find big fat traditional textbooks very useful as a teacher, and I can also see great value for advanced (e.g., grad) students.  But undergrads?  I’m not so sure.  (And note that undergrads are where the money is made.)

And so my thoughts proceeded as follows:

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Guest post: a career as an ecologist at a non-profit conservation organization

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Aaron Hall. Thank you very much to Aaron for taking the time to share his experience.

This post is part of our ongoing series on non-academic careers for ecologists. See here for links to previous posts in the series.

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Is ecology a single coherent scientific discipline? (includes poll)

In order for a coherent scholarly discipline to exist, there has to be a critical mass of people who agree sufficiently on what questions members of the discipline should ask, how they should go about answering those questions, and about how to evaluate those questions and answers so as to distinguish better ones from worse ones. Obviously, not everybody is always going to agree on everything all the time, and if they ever did it would arguably be a sign of groupthink. Obviously, there’s scope for subdisciplines within a discipline–clusters of people who share a specialized interest that isn’t shared by the rest of the discipline. And obviously, there’s no clear bright line between sufficient agreement on the basics to have a scholarly discipline, and insufficient agreement–it’s a continuum. But we can point to examples to illustrate the extremes. Physics is a coherent scholarly discipline, with subdisciplines like particle physics, nuclear physics, fluid dynamics, etc. Chemistry is a coherent discipline too. So is astronomy. And mathematics. History is a non-scientific example of a coherent scholarly discipline. At the other extreme, anthropology isn’t really a single coherent discipline as best I can tell. Physical anthropology and cultural anthropology aren’t two subdisciplines staffed by people with specialized interests who have a shared understanding of the basics of anthropology. Rather, they’re more like two distinct and even opposing fields that just so happen to both be concerned with human societies (e.g., see here). Anthropology certainly has some of the trappings of a discipline, such as academic departments (but see). But those trappings are like wallpaper covering huge cracks.

So, where does ecology fall on this spectrum? Is it a single coherent discipline like physics or astronomy? A non-discipline like anthropology? Or somewhere in between?

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Hardly any ecology faculty jobs are filled by internal candidates. And you can’t identify the ones that will be. (UPDATED)

If you’ve ever looked at the ecoevojobs.net faculty jobs board, you’ve probably seen speculation that position X has an internal candidate, the implication being that others maybe shouldn’t bother applying because the internal candidate will have an edge or even be a shoo-in. Sometimes, the speculation is not merely that a strong internal candidate exists, but that the position is intended for the internal candidate, so that the entire search is a formality with a pre-determined outcome.

But internal candidates have factors working against them as well as for them. As illustrated by the fact that they don’t always get the job–even when they’re confident they will! For instance, see here, here, and here. Those are anecdotes, though, so it’s hard to say if they’re typical. How often are internal candidates hired for ecology faculty positions? And is there any reliable way for outsiders to identify positions for which internal candidates will be hired?

According to the data I’ve compiled, the answers to those questions are “hardly ever” and “no”.

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