Friday links: citing blog posts, holiday gift ideas for scientists, and more

Also this week: “winning” a Title IX case, new ecology podcast, Google vs. history, a taxonomy of bad science, the scientific equivalent of novellas, does nature look natural in Ithaca?, he’s just not that into you silt deposits, and more. Including Love Actually clickbait. Because that’s what you came here for, right?

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Avoid naked salesmanship: never use these words in your papers and grant proposals

A while back I argued that we’ll never get rid of salesmanship in science, and wouldn’t want to. But there are more and less effective of “selling” your work (i.e. conveying to others why it’s interesting or important).

Here’s perhaps the worst way to “sell” your work: just asserting how great it is. This is totally ineffective. If your work is great, telling the reader that it’s great is superfluous. If your work isn’t great, telling the reader it is won’t convince the reader otherwise. As the old adage goes, show don’t tell. And don’t just take my word for it, take NSF’s (see tip #3).

Indeed, merely asserting how great your work is is actually worse than ineffective. It turns readers against you, and rightly so. It’s the reader’s place to decide if your work is great, not yours. So if you assert your work is great, it comes off as you trying to usurp the reader.

Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid simply asserting that your work is great. Never use any of the following words to describe your own work or proposed work:

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What are your favorite novels featuring scientists? (updated)

In a recent post, we came up with a great list of popular science books that appeal to scientists. Now let’s do the same thing for fiction. What are your favorite novels featuring scientists? I’ll accept novels about academia too.

I’ll kick things off with four very different but equally-excellent selections:

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Is basic vs applied research a single dimension?

Jeremy had a post on Monday musing on a propensity for researchers that start out doing basic research and end up mixing applied research in later in their careers. I think the core observation is, on average of course, not by individual, correct. And there were a lot of spirited explanations of why this is in the comments. His framing of a single trade-off dimension between basic and applied is extremely common, and embedded in the funding of many nations’s scientific agencies (e.g. in the US, NSF only funds basic research while the US Department of Agriculture funds applied research).

But I’ve always found that trade-off limiting. Among other things, it implies something cannot be both basic and applied, something which I reject (and Don S gave a pretty spirited rebuttal of in the comments as well). I have found the notion of two trade-off axes put forth by Donald Stokes, in his book Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation to be a more useful framing (also see a decent summary of the book in Wikipedia).

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Is fundamental research a young ecologist’s game?

Anecdotal observation: ecologists tend to switch from fundamental to applied research as they age. Marc Cadotte used to ask fundamental questions in protist microcosms; now he’s the editor of an applied journal who blogs about the importance of “ecosystem health”. Dave Tilman started out developing resource competition theory and testing it with algae in chemostats; these days he writes a lot about sustainable agriculture. Will Wilson used to do stuff like model Lotka-Volterra species-abundance distributions; now he’s writing a book on stormwater science. Brian started out working on how to test neutral theory, but these days he thinks a lot about how to do policy-relevant science. Meg once said that she was most interested in basic research questions, and she still is, but lately she’s been devoting increasing amounts of time to public education and outreach. Many more examples could be given.

Obviously, many junior people do applied work. Many senior people do fundamental work. And many people do a mix of both. But when somebody switches from doing one to the other, or changes the mix of work they do, it seems like it’s almost always in the direction of more applied work and less fundamental work. I can’t think of anyone who’s gone in the other direction in a big way.

Why is that?

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Friday links: how to spot nothing, Aaron Ellison vs. Malcolm Gladwell, and more

Also this week: why “crunch mode” doesn’t work, the difficult question of “fair” pay for postdocs, rethinking economics science, a high profile ecology paper comes into question, are scientists becoming less productive, confirmation bias > you, is torture ok if you do it to ggplot, WHEN WILL I HEAR FROM NSF?!?! and more. Lots of good stuff this week!

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Nominate yourself for UMich’s Early Career Scientists Symposium on phenotypic plasticity!

Every year, my department hosts an Early Career Scientists Symposium with a different theme. This year’s theme is the ecology and evolutionary biology of phenotypic plasticity. Here’s the call for nominations:

The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan invites nominations of outstanding scientists early in their careers to participate in an exciting international symposium about the ecology and evolutionary biology of phenotypic plasticity. The symposium events will take place from 10-12th of March 2017, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Eight early career scientists, alongside a keynote speaker, will be selected to present their work and to participate in panel discussions. We welcome nominations of early career scientists who are studying topics in ecology and evolution related to phenotypic plasticity. This symposium will highlight the work of up-and-coming scientists whose research foci span a breadth of subfields and levels of organization. We champion diversity and encourage the nomination of members of groups underrepresented in science.   

Early career scientists are considered senior graduate students (who stand to receive their Ph.D. within one year), postdoctoral researchers, and first- or second-year faculty. A colleague or advisor must provide the nomination.

The nomination consists of a brief letter of recommendation addressing the nominee’s scientific promise and ability to give a compelling talk, the nominee’s curriculum vitae, and a brief abstract of the proposed presentation (< 200 words, written by the nominee). Nominations may be sent electronically (in one file, please) to: using the nominee’s name as the subject line (last name first). Information about Early Career Scientist Symposia held in past years can be found at

Review of nominations will begin on December 31, 2016.

Selected participants will be contacted in mid January and will have all expenses covered (registration, travel and accommodation). An official announcement of the slate of speakers will be issued soon thereafter.

For more information, contact Carol Solomon at

The 2017 Early Career Scientists Symposium scientific committee includes:

Wei-Chin Ho
Andrea Hodgins Davis (chair)
Jill Myers
Annette Ostling
Mary Rogalski
Sonal Singhal
Carol Solomon
Earl Werner


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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What are the key ecology concepts all Intro Bio students should learn?

When I started at Georgia Tech, the “large” (80-90 student) course I was involved in was General Ecology. My first year there, I co-taught the course with my colleague Lin Jiang. I did what is probably fairly typical: I asked him for the materials he used when he last taught the course and then modified those. So, it was pretty eye-opening to me when, after that first semester, we (“we” being the people involved in teaching General Ecology and related courses) decided that we should try to assess what our students were learning. We couldn’t find a good ecology concept assessment*, so we decided to try to create our own. That involved deciding what the key concepts were that we wanted all students who had completed ecology to know. Coming up with that list was incredibly useful and changed the way I taught the next time.

I’ve been thinking about this again as I spend more time thinking about how to teach ecology to introductory biology students here at Michigan. I’ve thought about this before – we recently overhauled the course, and that involved a lot of thought about what to teach. But I feel like I want to think more about the core concepts again. I want to revisit the core ecology concepts that my GaTech colleagues and I came up with for a sophomore-level (that is, 2nd year) ecology course and figure out how to modify those for a freshman-level (that is, 1st year) course. With this post, I’m hoping to think more carefully about what the core concepts are, and to get feedback from others about the list I came up with.

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