A happy ending to a tenure-track job search

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from Greg Crowther.


Previously I have whined about the difficulties of getting a good, stable college teaching job.  This whining is perhaps justified by the extremely low supply of these jobs relative to the demand.  But since almost everyone, including me, likes happy endings, I now wish to present a happy ending.  That’s right – I have received and accepted an offer for an ongoing full-time position.  At the age of 44, I have finally climbed aboard the tenure track.

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The teaching job that slipped through my fingers, and what I learned from that experience

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from my friend, biologist Greg Crowther. Thanks very much to Greg for being brave enough to share some personal experiences and advice that I’m sure will resonate with many readers. Thanks as well to Greg for only sharing non-embarrassing anecdotes about our time together as undergrads. 🙂


This blog has featured fascinating personal stories (from Jeremy and Carla) on the often-long, sometimes-quixotic quest for a traditional faculty job.

Today I’d like to add another job-search saga to the pile – this one focused on teaching-focused positions – and to extract some lessons, if possible.

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Imperfect analogies: shortcuts to active learning

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from my friend Greg Crowther. Who among other things has been a biochemist, and an instructor in various biology courses including ecology. He’s an unusually thoughtful and creative teacher, for instance using songs to teach anatomy and physiology. Oh, and he has three papers in Annals of Improbable Research (e.g.), which is like the science humor equivalent of having three Nature papers. Thanks to Greg for writing us a guest post on a handy teaching tip. 


Most people who think hard about how to teach well accept that students should engage in “active learning,” which has been defined (by Freeman et al. 2014) as follows: “Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasizes higher-order thinking and often involves group work.”

Sounds good, right?  In general, it is good.  I enjoy challenging students with hard problems and helping them find their way toward an answer, and they are usually glad to be moving and talking, especially if the problems resemble ones they’ll encounter on tests.

Active learning is relatively easy to include in teaching about a specific research study.  For example, after providing some appropriate context, one can simply work through the figures by asking students how and why the data in each figure were collected and what they mean (Round & Campbell 2013).

When teaching basic conceptual material, though, I slip into straight-up lecture mode more often than I’d like.  It can be very time-consuming to add nontrivial interactivity to coverage of this material.

However, I do have one fall-back strategy for quickly turning a traditional lecture slide into a mini-discussion.  I call this approach the “Dissection of the Imperfect Analogy.”  Here’s how it works.

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A book is everything a tweet is not (but please tweet about my book)

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



I was not at the ESA meeting this year, but a handful of advance copies of my book, The Theory of Ecological Communities, were, and Margaret Kosmala was kind enough to send me a photo of the first buyers.  I’d like to be able to play it cool and say this was just another ho-hum moment in the life of a scientist, but it wasn’t.  I stared at the photo for a good while with a huge smile on my face.  Maybe that was just because smiling is contagious and it was instinctual to smile back at the two people smiling at me through the screen.  But there was also a sense of deep gratification.  Following in the footsteps of some of my scientific heroes, my name was on the cover of a green and yellow book, the book was now born, and at least two people other than my Mom and Dad were willing to pay money for it.  Success!

Writing a book is a teeny bit like having a child, but also not like it at all.  The similarities: long gestation period, intense anticipation for its arrival, major investment in its success, worry about its uncertain future, and sometimes wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into.  The differences: I (gender: male) actually did most of the work this time getting it to parturition, books are decidedly precocial (no diapers, bottles, tantrums, lunch boxes, or swimming lessons), I’m not sure anything I do now will influence its future, and although one might say the journey was difficult at times (f*$%ing index!), it’s not even in the same universe…I’ll just stop there instead of pretending that words can do justice to the difference on this point (just received stink eye from across the room).  I guess I’m just trying to say that there’s a bit of emotion involved.

This post is the last (I think) in a short series based on thoughts that grew out of the process of writing the book.  The others (here, here, and here) focused largely on scientific issues that flowed directly out of the contents of the book.  In addition to the little story and handful of thoughts above, I figured I’d now step back from the content of the book, and share some thoughts on writing books in general.  (Pretty thin cover story for shamelessly advertising a just-released book now available from amazon.com, I know.)  Before diving into this project, I had a short-lived but intense bout of wondering why anyone would write a really long document that people need to pay for in an age when nobody reads anything they can’t download for free.  Now I can think of several reasons:

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Guest post: Life as an anxious grad student

Note from Meg: This guest post (which starts below the break) is a follow up to my post on life as an anxious scientist, where I talked about having an anxiety disorder and some of my strategies for managing it. The post below was written by a graduate student who wishes to remain anonymous. It summarizes that student’s experience with an anxiety disorder, and includes information that I think will be useful to students and advisors. My plan is to have a follow up post in the future with more thoughts on the topic.
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Is citizen science about science or outreach?

This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and co-founder of citizen science projects Season Spotter and Snapshot Serengeti. She blogs regularly at Ecology Bits.

Back in December, I wrote a post here on Dynamic Ecology about citizen science data quality. I was in the midst of drafting a paper about the same topic (that I hope will be published soon-ish in a publication near you), and it was nice to explore some less-quantitative ideas in blog format.

You may recall that I had a brief survey at the beginning. It asked about career stage, level of involvement in citizen science, and one’s opinion about the primary purpose of citizen science. With the caveat that Dynamic Ecology readers do not form a representative subset of anything (and the caveat that that particular post attracted a disproportionate number of people involved in citizen science), I’m going to tell you about the results. I tried to capture the couple dimensions that I thought might most matter in influencing people’s opinions of citizen science. So I think the survey is actually a reasonable representation of what ecologists – or at least web-savvy ecologists – think of citizen science.

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Making waves: can basic ecological research generate headlines? And does it matter?

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Andrew Kleinhesselink, a PhD student at Utah State University, and Peter Adler.


“Gravitational waves: why it’s impossible not to be thrilled by this discovery”, announced the Guardian newspaper after last month’s discovery of gravitational waves by the Laser Inferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO). You had to admit that it was pretty thrilling. Even President Obama congratulated the LIGO team. Just like the detection of Higgs bosons by physicists in 2012, or the 1998 discovery of the universe’s accelerating expansion, physicists had somehow attracted massive attention to a scientific result that few members of the public can fully understand and that has little (or at least only indirect) practical significance.

It’s easy to justify basic research when the public celebrates a discovery like this as a pinnacle of cultural and intellectual achievement. Maybe this is the source of ecology’s often diagnosed physics envy: we wish our science sold itself this well. So why doesn’t basic ecological research attract LIGO-levels of public interest? What kinds of ecology stories do attract attention? Should the answers to these questions change how we justify our research—or maybe even the kind of research we do?

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A distribution of thoughts around a central tendency: the meaning and impact of stochasticity in ecology

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post, written by Karen Abbott after soliciting thoughts and discussion from Lauren Sullivan, Chris Stieha, Robin Snyder, Lauren Shoemaker, Sean Satterlee, Ben Nolting, Brent Mortensen, Chris Moore, Brett Melbourne, Brian Lerch, Geoff Legault, Aubrie James, Katie Dixon, and Sam Catella.

Karen adds: This was very much a group effort and these contributors (listed in reverse alphabetical order because regular alphabetical order feels a bit tyrannical when imposed by an Abbott) each made this post significantly more interesting than anything I would have come up with on my own – thanks to all.


Over the past five years or so, I have spent more time than I should probably admit feeling hung up about what stochasticity really means. When my thoughts start to fall down a rabbit hole of semantics or to philosophical questions of determinism versus free will, I pull myself back. I’m not interested in those things, important as they may be. I’m interested in gaining a deep understanding of the role that “stochasticity” — the conceptual construct — plays in ecological thinking, as well as the role that actual stochasticity plays in real ecological systems.

Lots of other people think about these things too (particularly the latter question on the role of actual stochasticity), so I asked a non-random group of colleagues, collaborators, and lab members to share their thoughts on what stochasticity means and where or how stochasticity is important. I’m not sure if this exercise has made me feel more or less hung up, but it was really fun and a number of interesting themes emerged:

1) Collectively, we have lots of ideas about what stochasticity is, and what it’s not. These ideas can be roughly organized by whether stochasticity contributes as a mechanistic driver of observable patterns or whether it exists outside of (deterministic) drivers to add variance to observations.

2) Questions of scale are ubiquitous.

3) Semantics aside, there are some meaningful differences in how ecologists apply the concept of stochasticity. “Stochasticity” is a rather precise-sounding, technical word that may hide a lack of conceptual precision.

Taking these one at a time —

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DiversifyEEB: Introducing a new resource for ecology and evolutionary biology

Note from Meg: This is a guest post by Gina Baucom, a colleague of mine and my partner in creating DiversifyEEB. Here, Gina has written a guest post describing the initiative. We’re hoping to follow up with more posts in the future!

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Where do ideas come from, and what counts as “novel”?

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


During my very first research experience in ecology (mid-1990s), Graham Bell, a famous evolutionary biologist, talked about the forest plants we were studying as if they were essentially just large and slow versions of the algae multiplying rapidly in the highly simplified test tubes of his lab. The other undergraduate field assistants and I (the “Carex crew”) – all of us thrilled to have paid jobs to tromp about in Wild Nature – felt that this perspective sucked all the beauty and wonder out of the forest that we so loved. But it stuck with me.

This is a second guest post expanding upon thoughts and some personal reflections that arose while I wrote a book on community ecology during sabbatical last year. The first post is here, and I couldn’t help noticing that it was given the tag of “New Ideas” by Jeremy. Hmmm…I wonder how we decide whether an idea is “new”? I think the answer has rather important implications for how we judge papers and the scientists that write them. All the top journals want “novelty”, but what is that exactly? And where do ideas come from in the first place?

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