Guest Post: iPads and digital data collection in the field

From Meghan: This is a guest blog post by ecologists Isla Myers-Smith and Gergana Daskalova from the University of Edinburgh. I loved their comment on my post on our new lab notebook backup system and asked them if they could turn it into a guest post. I was very happy that they agreed! Isla and Gergana are off to the Arctic this summer with the Team Shrub field crew for another year of hopefully successful digital data collection. To find out more about their research check out the Team Shrub website and blog (https://teamshrub.com/).

Guest post:

Two things have really changed my academic life over the past five years: the first is embracing GitHub for version control of code, data, manuscripts and my research group’s individual and combined science, and the other is switching over to digital data collection. For ecologists who haven’t made the switch from paper field books to iPads and digital data collection it is not as scary as you might think!!!

Caption: Collecting plant phenology data – the recorder sitting in the back with an iPad! (photo credit: Jeff Kerby)

The benefits of going digital

Digital data collection can be more rigorous with error checking as data are collected to prevent mistakes. Data can be better backed up. And finally, it forces us to put thought into the structure of data before we collect it (significant digits, continuous or categorical data, are the data unrestricted or constrained to a particular range or particular set of values, etc.), which helps down the road when it comes time for analysis. Digital data collection has saved days, if not months, of data entry each year for my team and has allowed us to go from ecological monitoring in the field to analysis of results within hours instead of days. Our work flows are streamlined and our iPads are waterproof, so data collection can occur under any conditions – and we work in the Arctic, so we experience it all from wet to dry, hot to cold, rain, snow, you name it.

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Rough drafts, getting words on the page, and the pain – and pleasure – of writing

Intro: this is the first of a series of posts exploring some common themes in three books I’ve read recently that relate to writing: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, and Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story. (And, yes, one of those is not like the other.) This post focuses on getting started with a new writing project, rough drafts, and the pleasures of writing.

The post:

Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.

     – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Unfortunately, a universal experience of writing is that getting started can be hard. Rocket knows this:

The next day, Rocket returned to his classroom. It was time to begin. He looked down at the blank page and the blank page looked up at him. But no story would come.

From Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story

This is something that all writers struggle with, but that can be especially problematic for new writers. The task can seem so big and daunting – and there’s a decent chance that you are feeling like an imposter who is about to be exposed.

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My lab’s new lab notebook backup system. Part 2: The system

In yesterday’s post, I talked about my motivations for seeking a new system for backing up lab notebooks and data sheets. Here, I describe the system we’re now using for backing up lab notebooks, data sheets, etc. I think it’s working well. At the end, I ask for suggestions of systems that work for backing up files on lab members’ laptops, which I think we could do a better job of.

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My lab’s new lab notebook backup system. Part 1: The backstory

Back when I was an undergrad, the fire alarm went off while I was working in the lab. As people gathered outside the building, it became clear that it wasn’t a drill – I don’t recall specifics, but I think it was actually an issue in a neighboring building that caused someone in our building to pull the fire alarm. In the end, it wasn’t a big deal (even for the neighboring building!) But while people were standing around outside, the conversation turned to how much data would be lost if there was a full-on fire. It was clear that lots of people did not have complete backups of their lab notebooks and other data files.

When I was telling about this experience to a friend, Brooks Kuykendall, he told me of his father Bill’s related horror story. In the fall of 1963, Bill had completed his PhD research at Johns Hopkins in Archaeology, and started teaching at Erskine College in rural South Carolina. In the summer and early fall of 1964, after his first year of teaching, he had managed to finish writing his dissertation. In early October, he had assembled the six copies (and these were the days of carbon copies) ready to be submitted to his committee. They were stacked on the floor of his office, needing only to be packed off to go in the mail.

And then that night Bill heard the sirens. Rushing to his office, he found that the building was on fire. The firemen had cordoned it off, but somehow two students—of whom he forever after spoke with gratitude—managed to get in through the window of his ground-floor office, recovering only 1) a single rough draft for the whole text, and 2) a box that had the originals for all of the illustrations. The copies on the floor—and virtually everything else in the office—were ruined by the water.

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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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Concerned about the US tax bill? Here’s what to do.

Last week, the United States Senate passed a tax bill that would have major implications for universities. This comes on the heels of a bill that passed the US House of Representatives, which contained provisions that would make it much more costly to be a student. To quote from a piece by the University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel and Michael V. Drake,

The House bill would repeal current tax incentives, including the Student Loan Interest Deduction (which in 2014 helped 12 million taxpayers), the tax-exempt status of tuition waivers for graduate students serving as teaching and research assistants (which helped close to 145,000 people in 2011-12), and the above-the-line deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses.

 

This means interest on student loans would be treated just like credit card interest — neither would be deductible, at a time when many are struggling to repay their student loans. Graduate students who work their way through school by serving as research or teaching assistants receive tuition waivers that would be taxed. And students and parents from families with moderate incomes will no longer be able to deduct up to $4,000 in qualified higher education expenses from their taxable income.

The House bill would also repeal or devalue key credits that help low- and middle-income students, including the Lifetime Learning Credit, the Hope Scholarship Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit. The lower-income students who use these credits are those who can least afford to pay more for their educations.

The main hope at this point comes from the House and Senate having passed very different bills. The House bill contains the provision that would mean tuition waivers are no longer tax-exempt. The Senate bill does not contain this provision.

We’ve now reached the stage where the House and Senate bills have be reconciled — that is, where legislators and their staffers need to work out the differences between the two bills (which, as I said above, are pretty different). Universities are working hard to make sure that the final legislation does not include the House version of the grad student tuition waiver (or lack thereof).

One piece of information that came to light yesterday about a mistake in how the Senate bill taxes corporations means that it is more likely that the reconciled bill will also get rid of the grad student tuition waiver, which is not good news for graduate students or universities. The reason for this is that legislators will want to fix that mistake to add back corporate tax deductions, which will increase the cost of the bill. They’re already at the $1.5 trillion max, so they need to do other things to increase revenue. Like tax grad students. In other words:

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the mistake also means the Senate is likely to have to vote again on the bill. But I think focus yesterday was on how ridiculous it is that Republicans passed legislation with such a major mistake in it (which is true), without also focusing on the implications of this for the grad student tax.

I asked people who know a lot about this what someone like me or the students I know who are concerned about this can do. There was universal agreement that it is really important for students and others who care about this to contact their Representatives and Senators to let them know how they feel. The National Humanities Alliance has a tool that will make this easier for you. You can use the standardized language they provide, or you can personalize things to your situation. I always get nervous when calling my policymakers (even though I usually end up just leaving a message rather than speaking to an actual person and, when I have spoken to a person, they’ve always been very polite). So, I write out what I want to say ahead of time.

One thing to consider for students: if you live somewhere like Ann Arbor where our representative (Debbie Dingell) already shares our concerns with the bills but are still registered to vote in another area (say, the place you grew up) and the person in that area does not share your concerns about the bill, it might be more effective to contact the person who does not currently share your concerns. And, if the debate continues through the holiday break, you can try to visit your Representative and Senators at their district offices!

Another question that comes up is whether to contact the local office number or the DC office. I’ve been told by some people that it’s better to call the DC office (and the tool I linked to above will help you figure out those numbers). But if you can’t get through there, you can try the local offices. If you are unsure of who your representative is, you can click here. (By the way, other folks say it doesn’t matter which office you call. Everyone agrees that the most important thing is that you call somewhere, with where you call being less important!)

So, I like Ethan White’s strategy:

You can change “review big chunk of PR” to “count one sample” or “write two paragraphs” or “make two slides” or whatever works for you. But, if you’re concerned about the potential changes to the tax code, make sure you carry out steps 2, 4, and 6!
December 8th Updates:
  1. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has more information on the proposed tax overhaul, suggestions for things you might want to highlight when talking to legislators, and information on how to take action.
  2. The National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) is organizing a #DontTaxEducation campaign. Their message “Don’t let Congress deliver a disproportionate and unprecedented hit on higher education. Ask lawmakers to accept the Senate position on these provisions.” Their page will help you contact your legislators.

What I learned from my visit to Capitol Hill about engaging with policy makers and mentoring students

As I discussed last week, the most eye-opening part of the AAAS Leshner Fellows training that I did recently was the part about engaging with policy makers. This is a new area of engagement for me, and I was really interested in learning more about this. I was surprised to realize how interested I was in it — when I first read Nancy Baron’s Escape from the Ivory Tower, the thought of engaging with policy makers was so anxiety-provoking to me that I felt ill. (It probably didn’t help that I was reading it on a plane going through turbulence.) Last week’s post covered some policy engagement fundamentals (make sure to read this great comment by Elliot Rosenthal on the importance of building community support before doing policy engagement). In this post, I will talk about what I learned on our visit to Capitol Hill. One of the most striking things to me was that, when meeting with two staffers from the House Energy & Commerce Committee, it took me a while to remember which one was the staffer working on the Republican side and which was on the Democratic side. Given all the talk of how divided things are in Washington, I hadn’t expected that! I also hadn’t expected the meeting would leave me not just with thoughts on how to engage with policy makers, but how to mentor students.

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How can scientists engage with policy makers? (Updated!)

Last week, I visited Washington DC for training as part of the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement. I spent the week with the other 14 incoming Leshner Leadership Fellows, learning about writing and pitching opinion pieces, storytelling, evaluating outreach, and much more. But perhaps the thing that was the most eye-opening for me was our trip to Capitol Hill, where we met with two staffers from the House Energy & Commerce Committee as well as several staffers from the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (HELP). Prior to going, we got a tutorial from some AAAS folks on policy engagement fundamentals. In this post, I’ll go over the policy engagement fundamentals that I learned at AAAS, supplementing with things I learned in this free online course related to public engagement, which included several expert opinions on engaging with policy makers. In a follow up post, I’ll talk about what I learned from my visit to The Hill.

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Mathematical constraints in ecology and evolution, part 4: dimensional analysis

This is the extremely-belated fourth post in my series on mathematical constraints in ecology and evolution.

By “mathematical constraints” I mean the mathematical rules that all our numerical data and other scientific numbers have to obey. In previous posts, I discussed

In this post, I’ll explain the mathematical constraints on dimensions (units of measurement). Any theoretical model or data analysis that violates these constraints literally makes no sense. But on the plus side, you can take advantage of dimensional constraints to make analysis of your model easier, through the magic of “nondimensionalization”.

Note: this is going to be an informal introduction. It’s intended as an entry point into the relevant literature, not a substitute.

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