Thoughts on the ASN Jasper Loftus-Hills Young Investigator Award

Earlier this year I had the privilege of serving on the ASN Jasper Loftus-Hill Young Investigator Award (YIA) committee, along with Rebecca Safran (Chair) and Luke Harmon. The award goes to investigators less than 3 years post-Ph.D., or in the final year of their Ph.D., for promising, outstanding research in any field covered by the ASN. Four awards are given annually. The award is in memory of Jasper Loftus-Hill, a promising young scientist who died tragically 3 years after receiving his Ph.D.

First of all, congratulations to the winners: Anna Hargreaves, Sarah Fitzpatrick, Alison Wright, and Martha Muñoz. We had 25 applicants (15 women, 10 men), all of them excellent, so we had some difficult decisions to make. In the end, the committee came to a consensus and the four winners rose to the top. It’s great that the ASN recognizes not just one but four outstanding young researchers, and rewards them with a high-profile opportunity to present their work in the YIA symposium at the next ASN meeting. The Jasper Loftus-Hills Young Investigator Award has a proud record of highlighting researchers who go on to become international leaders in their fields, and I’m confident that record will continue.

I believe this is the first time all four awards have gone to women. That wasn’t a deliberate choice on the committee’s part; it reflects the many strong women applicants in this year’s applicant pool. But nevertheless, I think it’s a nice marker of how the fields of ecology, evolution, and behavior have changed over the decades. Over the last few years, the award has gone to a fairly balanced mix of men and women, having tended to go mostly to men before that. The awards committee takes equity seriously and does everything it can to make sure that the applicant pool and the awardees reflect the diversity of the ASN membership, though the gender mix of applicants and awardees inevitably will bounce around from year to year.

The awards committee wants the awardees to reflect the diversity of the ASN membership not just in terms of gender, but in terms of research topic. One thing that struck me about both last year’s applicant pool and this year’s was the predominance of evolutionary work. Some applicants work at the interface of evolutionary biology and other fields, but only a small minority of applicants do “pure” ecology or behavior. And within evolutionary biology, applicants working on sexual selection and sexual conflict predominate over applicants working on other topics. Next year I’ll be taking over as chair of the YIA committee, and my goal as chair is to increase the diversity of fields and research topics in the applicant pool. Which will mean increasing the size of the applicant pool, since obviously we don’t want to discourage the many excellent applicants working on sexual selection and sexual conflict! So if you work on ecology, behavior, or some evolutionary topic that hasn’t been much represented among the awardees lately, please do apply next year—we’d very much like to see more folks like you in the applicant pool!

Here’s the draft introduction to my book about ecology. Please tear it apart. (UPDATED)

If you’re a very avid reader of this blog, you need to get a life will know that I’m writing a book about ecology. It’s for University of Chicago Press. The working title is “Ecology At Work”, though that’s only one of several candidate titles. Other candidate titles include “Ecology Master Class”, “Re-engineering Ecology”, and the joke titles that I and others tweeted recently.

Anyway, I’m very excited by this new challenge I’ve set myself, and also very nervous that I can pull it off. Which is where you come in. Below the fold is a draft introduction to my book. Please tear it apart.

Ok, don’t just tear it apart; any and all feedback is most welcome. But critical feedback and suggestions for improvement are particularly welcome. If you think the style sucks, or that the book sounds boring, or whatever, you are not doing me any favors unless you tell me that!

Feel free as well to ask me questions about the book, suggest things I should read, etc.

I’ll of course be getting feedback from more traditional sources as well. But every little helps.

Since many readers prefer not to comment, at the end there’s a little poll for you to tell me what you thought.

UPDATE: The comments have already given me some good feedback: it’s not as clear as it should be up front what the book is about and who the target audience is. And for some readers it’s still not totally clear even by the end. So: the book will comprise comparative case studies of what works and what doesn’t in ecological research. It’s not an introductory ecology textbook, it’s not a methods handbook, and it’s not an “ecology grad student skills” manual like How To Do Ecology. If you think of it as “kind of like A Critique For Ecology, but with lots of positive bits to go along with the critical bits and without a single narrow prescription for how to do ecology properly”, you won’t be too far off. The target audience is ecologists and ecology grad students interested in fundamental research.

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Apply for NextProf Science 2017 at UMich!

Applicants are currently being sought for NextProf Science, a workshop aimed at future faculty (advanced doctoral students or postdoctoral fellows) who are interested in an academic career in science and who have demonstrated a commitment to diversity. The workshop is May 2-5, 2017 in Ann Arbor, MI.

At NextProf Science, participants learn:

  • how the faculty search process works
  • how to build successful research programs
  • how to form a teaching and mentoring philosophy
  • why a network is important

The NextProf Science 2017 workshop is free to participants, who must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Underrepresented minorities and women are especially encouraged to apply. Travel, lodging, and meals will be covered by the program.

Applicants may nominate themselves or be nominated by a faculty mentor. Find additional information about the workshop and application materials on the NextProf Science website at: sites.lsa.umich.edu/nextprof-science/

The deadline to receive all applications and supporting materials is: February 15, 2017.

What factors influence whether “Professors on Parade” courses are useful?

Last week, I did a poll asking about readers’ experiences with courses where faculty (and/or grad students and/or folks outside academia) meet with students in a format that is often called “professors on parade” (because lots of faculty rotate through the course during the semester). I was curious to know whether people find these courses useful, and whether they like certain styles of them more than others.

tl;dr: Most people seem to find these courses useful, but a substantial minority do not. People seem to find these courses especially useful if they include presenters who come from outside academia, discussion of classic or important papers, and/or discussion of papers by department faculty. They seem to find them less useful if they include basic research skills (such as how to extract DNA), though that comes with the caveat that only 5 respondents were involved in that sort of course. (There were 100 respondents total, though 2 didn’t answer the last question about whether they found the course useful.)

More results below the break.

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Do ecologists do enough research to resolve apparent contradictions? (UPDATED)

A while back, a correspondent noted that many important advances in physics arose from apparent contradictions between established bodies of knowledge. If you’re confident that X and Y are both true, but X and Y appear to contradict one another, well, that’s a puzzle that demands resolution. And the resolution often is a deep insight into X, Y, and/or the relationship between them. My correspondent suggested that this isn’t unique to physics, that identifying and resolving apparent contradictions is a good way to advance any scientific field.

I think there’s something to this. I’m currently revising a paper I’m very proud of (we’ll see what the reviewers think!) The genesis of the paper was me recognizing what seemed like a contradiction between two things I thought I knew about metapopulation dynamics. Resolving that contradiction led me to what I think is a deep insight about how metapopulations persist.

My correspondent suggested that ecologists do relatively little research based on resolving apparent contradictions. I think that’s right, though I don’t have any data.

Assuming for the sake of argument that’s right, why is that? Is it because ecologists’ ideas about the world all are mutually compatible? And if ecologists’ ideas about the world are all mutually compatible, is that to ecology’s credit or discredit? If ecologists are unable to do contradiction-resolving research because their field seems not to contain many incompatible claims, well, maybe that’s a sign that ecology’s claims are too vague?

What do you think?

UPDATE: Our commenters always come through. See the very first comment for two excellent examples of apparent contractions in ecology and evolution–Reid’s paradox and the paradox of stasis. Also see the comments for discussion of why the paradox of the plankton and the paradox of enrichment aren’t really “paradoxes” in the sense I intended in the post.

Friday links: RIP Not Exactly Rocket Science, ecologists vs. multiple working hypotheses, and more

Also this week: The Trump administration’s war on facts begins, does “question first” science lead to bandwagons?, David Attenborough on your phone, great teaching vs. great research, RIP Beall’s list of predatory publishers, and more.

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Stylized facts in ecology

In economics and other social sciences, “stylized facts” are broad empirical generalizations that are essentially true, although they may be inaccurate in some details, gloss over some nuances, or have some exceptions. The term was coined by Kaldor (1961), who identified several stylized facts about macroeconomics; they’re now known as the “Kaldor facts”.

Stylized facts are widely seen as a key raw material for healthy social scientific research (Summers 1991, Abad & Khalifa 2015). Stylized facts give theory a target to shoot at–something to explain. Indeed, the most useful ones will suggest (though of course not prove) theoretical hypotheses that might explain them. Stylized facts allow you to evaluate theory: your theory is importantly wrong if it can’t reproduce all the stylized facts it should reproduce. Stylized facts guide theory improvement: knowing which stylized facts your theory does and doesn’t reproduce suggests ideas for how to improve your theory. Finally, stylized facts aid feedback from theory to empirical work. Theory that predicts new stylized facts for empiricists to look for is highly valued. Theory that’s hard to test because it doesn’t predict any new stylized facts is much harder to test and so much less valued. Summers (1991) basically argues that if empiricists aren’t producing stylized facts, and theorists aren’t explaining and predicting stylized facts, they’re both Doing It Wrong.

I wouldn’t go that far. But I do think Summers and the many economists who think as he does have a point from which ecology could draw some lessons.

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My proposed twist on a “Professors on Parade”-style course: scicomm training for students and faculty

As I wrote yesterday, my department has been thinking about creating a course for first year grad students that would have as a key goal introducing them to a variety of faculty in the department (as well as having them get to know each other better), and that might have as a secondary goal training them in skills that will be useful for careers in science. In this post, I will lay out my proposed twist on the course. Right now, I’m not that optimistic that it would actually work, but I’m hoping readers might have suggestions for ways to tweak it to make it work!

My idea is to create a course focused on training faculty and students in how to communicate their science to broad audiences. The general plan would be to start out with training students and faculty in science communication, and then would have faculty practice their talks by giving them to the grad students who would critique them, giving feedback that the faculty could use to improve their talks aimed at general audiences. This would meet the goals of introducing new students to faculty and the research they do (though would be focused at a different level than if they were giving general research presentations), and would also provide training and practice in science communication (thus meeting our students’ desire to get more skills training, while also hopefully benefitting faculty).

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Poll: Have you been involved in a “professors on parade” course? Was it useful?

Recently, my department has been discussing whether to (re)create a course for first year grad students that would be a “professors on parade” sort of course – that is, a course where a different faculty member leads the course each week. This proposal is in response to new grad students saying they’d like more opportunities to get to know faculty early in their grad careers. Depending on the format of the course, it could also help with another request from students: more training in basic academic skills (e.g., how to give a talk, how to make a poster, etc.)

One thing this discussion has left me wondering is how other departments do this, and how well it works in those departments.* So, today, I’m doing a survey related to how this works other places. I will follow up tomorrow with a post for my idea for a different twist on this sort of course – which I think is exciting but also perhaps doomed to fail. (edit: here’s the link to the follow up post)

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