The Eco-Evo Lab Blog

Cognitive Dissonance from the Left

On Tuesday, the fears of many ecologists, environmentalists, and conservation biologists came true as He Who Must Not Be Named abolished many of the protections against climate change put in place by President Obama. Frankly, these should also be the fears of anybody planning to live on this planet in the coming decades. These protections weren’t going to be enough to reverse the trajectory of climate change, but complying with the Paris Agreement was our best option of at least slowing climate change.

Most businesses are unlikely to regulate their own carbon emissions if it affects their bottom line. The quick fix would be to set a global standard restricting the average carbon footprint of one human or business entity, but those attempts have met with mixed success. This no longer seems likely at the federal level in the United States, so states like California and New York have decided to control carbon emissions within their own borders. As the control of one’s carbon footprint moves down the chain of command, it is becoming increasingly obvious that this will come down to personal responsibility. So what are you going to do now to reduce your own carbon footprint? More importantly, are you sure you’re even committed to doing that?

Lately I’ve noticed more and more cognitive dissonance on the left about this issue. Liberals are arguing for increased state and federal regulations of carbon emissions (which is clearly important, and which I fully support), while not accounting for their own personal carbon footprint. Part of the rationale is, well, what difference can one person make relative to a huge coal plant spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? That’s understandably daunting, but a large group of people with the same goals CAN offset the negative consequences of bigger entities. Look at what was accomplished during the Arab Spring. More recently, the Women’s March in January gathered together nearly a million people in the streets around cities in the U.S. and in other places in the world (and those were just the most fervent of people who were free to march that day). The full power of progressives has yet to be harnessed and put into action. If a million people can significantly reduce their carbon footprint (and maybe convince a few friends to do the same), that can offset a lot of carbon pollution.

“But I’m already conscious of my carbon footprint”, you say. Great. I’d guess that on average, liberals probably have a lower carbon footprint than conservatives, though I wonder about that when I think about how many of us travel long distances for work, conferences, vacation, etc. See here for a previous post about your conference carbon footprint. Just because you’re conscious of it doesn’t mean we can’t be doing more. Is it fair? Nope. It’s never fair that the conscientious have to sacrifice more, but it’s the only way to avoid the tragedy of the commons. So let’s not worry about fair and still do what’s right. I’m infuriated when I have to pull my neighbors’ recycling out the the dumpster, but it doesn’t mean I dump my recyclables in there too. So you’re going to have to make bigger sacrifices than others, but if you are truly concerned about climate change, put your efforts where your mouth is, starting today.

Speaking of your mouth, think about what you’re putting in it everyday. The Women’s March has yet to produce substantive change, but our diet choices as consumers have. Between 2005 and 2014, Americans cut their beef consumption by 10% (a pretty modest decrease), and cut carbon emissions equal to the annual output of 57 million cars. That’s a huge decrease in carbon emissions for a very small sacrifice. How many hamburgers and steaks do you eat per year? Think you could cut it in half to save the world? Or *gasp* stop eating beef altogether? If you want to think more about your food choices, here are the foods that are the biggest contributors to climate change:

If you’re not a vegetarian or a vegan, you could be doing more. (except for eating asparagus, which was a big surprise to me! apparently it’s because there’s so much air travel required to get asparagus to market.) Besides it being better for your health, you’re also helping to save the lives of those that would otherwise be lost to climate-related tragedies. How many times have we all been at a scientific conference, where we spend the whole day talking about the effects of climate change, followed by a dinner where everybody orders meat.

If you want an example of cognitive dissonance, think about a table of ecologists gorging themselves on cheeseburgers, while complaining about what Trump is doing to the EPA. 

What if we thought more about what to feed ourselves and our kids? Or what if we thought more about whether or not to have kids at all?

Yeah, that’s right. I’m grabbing that third rail and criticizing people for having kids. I will argue that ultimately the biggest contributor to climate change is overpopulation. Yes, I’ve heard the argument that your kids will be better environmental stewards. But will their green lifestyle have less carbon footprint than their non-existent counterpart? NPR had a great story about the ethics around whether or not, as a conservationist, it makes sense to have kids. I know I’m not going to change many minds on this, but this is really something that we need to talk about more. Consider this: if you drive less often, drive in a hybrid car, recycle, use energy-efficient appliances, and do all the other things you should be doing to live a green lifestyle, you could save 488 metric tons of carbon over the course of an 80 year life. That’s a lot of work, with a huge payoff in carbon credits. If you choose to have one fewer child, you save 9,441 metric tons! That’s 20 times the benefit for doing nothing at all. We don’t talk about these numbers nearly enough, because it’s taboo to tell people not to have kids. But here I am telling you, stop putting more and more people on this planet.

Look, I don’t hate your kid. In fact, I like kids a lot. My best friend is pregnant and I can’t wait to meet that kid. I know there are more considerations than just climate change when deciding how to live your life. I’m just saying, the cost of your decisions to the world deserve some consideration too.

Not eating your favorite foods is a huge sacrifice. I love a well-prepared ribeye, a sizzling al pastor taco in Los Angeles, or a properly fried piece of chicken. Deciding not to have kids, or at least having fewer kids, is even more of a sacrifice for a lot of people. When we make these decisions, too often we forget the fate of millions of people who will suffer from climate change. Are you willing to help out? Or are you going to only rely on the government and other people to do that? Keep marching, and keep calling your congressperson and senators and asking for big-scale changes…but while we’re doing that, let’s also take personal responsibility for our own actions. If I’ve learned anything from the post-election protests and marches, it’s that collectively, we have so much potential energy that just needs to be put into action. I leave you with the cliche quote from Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Imagine what a large group of thoughtful, committed citizens could accomplish. Be a thoughtful, committed citizen.

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The Past, Present, and Future of the EPA

I heard an interesting story last week on NPR’s Morning Edition about the public’s perception of the current state of the environment titled “How The EPA Became a Victim of Its Own Success”.

You can listen above, but here’s a quick summary. This story aimed to convey that the support of the Environmental Protection Agency was not always a partisan issue, and to explain why this changed in very recent years. During the last election cycle, the public did not see the environment as a pressing issue that needed fixing. William K. Reilly, a past administrator of the EPA, responded to this by saying, “the kind of issues that were emergency issues that prompted the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency have been very well addressed by the Environmental Protection Agency.” Thereby, the EPA is a victim of its own success.

Many of us have lived our entire lives in the age of the Environmental Protection Agency, which was created by Richard Nixon in 1970. We take it for granted when our water is clear, and when we can walk through a city without suffocating from smog. However, it certainly was not always this way, as is cited in the NPR story. Pollution is not a new problem, and America is not the only country that has suffered from its effects.

While binge-watching The Crown, a series that follows Queen Elizabeth II’s monarchy, I learned of an extreme-pollution event in London. In Season 1 there is an episode (Ep. 4, Act of God) devoted to the true-story of the “Great Smog of 1952”. This deadly smog was caused by an unfortunate combination of a rare weather pattern and the excessive burning of coal. There was minimal worry regarding the impending fog, and therefore no actions were taken to decrease emissions in the days leading up to it. This led to a 4-day fog that killed upwards of 12,000 people (Bell, Davis, Fletcher 2004), and eventually to the Clean Air Act of 1956, which aimed to reduce air pollution.

Do Americans need to be reminded of events like these to realize the importance of the EPA? Although it may not be a deadly fog, environmental disasters from oil-spills, to gas leaks, to poisoned water, are all-too-common today. I’m not sure what it will take to convince the country that we are in crisis, but clearly these occurrences aren’t enough.

As most of us know, Scott Pruitt, a self-described advocate against the EPA, was recently confirmed as the head of the agency. Because of this, the 800 EPA employees who petitioned against him have a multitude of reasons to fear for their jobs, and the more than 300 million people in this country have reasons to worry about the future sustainability and safety of our country. At least big oil companies can add to their collective $200 billion in annual revenue now that they don’t have to follow all of those pesky regulations, right?….

I urge my fellow scientists and colleagues to remind the public of the core reasons for the creation, and success, of the EPA. For our future, and the future of our ecosystems, we must persist. For some ideas of how to do that, check out Nickie’s blog from last week.


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Why scientists must be activists

Many scientists try to stay “neutral” and “unbiased” – and accordingly, out of the political and activist spheres . But science is inherently political and claiming that any person can be unbiased actually hinders the public’s understanding of the scientific method.

By staying out of “political issues”, we fail to communicate and defend the value of our research and our careers. Scientists that do research and find important, novel results but refuse to actively stand behind them and discuss their implications are hurting their field. This has probably always been the case, but with anti-truth and anti-science sentiments thriving under the current governmental administration, the death of science appears imminent. It is time for reform. It is time for activism. This will require those of us who are introverted, non-confrontational, and/or privileged enough to feel more comfortable “staying out of politics” to speak up. Remaining silent only contributes to the stereotypes of scientists being pretentious, unreachable, and out of touch with reality.

While these stereotypes certainly hold true for some scientists, I have interacted with many incredible scientists. Though my sample size is limited, I have hope that the majority of us are more of the shy, nerdy, quirky type.

Social media outlets provide an enormous opportunity for us to share what we do with a wider base of people than those we interact with on a daily basis- like that old friend from middle school, your parents’ friends who requested you, your friends’ parents who requested you. What’s great about posting about science through social media is that it allows us to share a different perspective with those who might not understand what we do. For instance, Twitter hashtags like #actuallivingscientist #womenscientist #thisiswhatascientistlookslike #BLACKandSTEM and #STEMselfie help increase the public’s accessibility to a larger number of scientists and their research and help to expose the misconceptions of scientific stereotypes (old white dudes with crazy hair and a lab coat, anyone?)

Nonetheless, listening to critics who appear to oppose science and truth is also important, as is recognizing that the way they feel is valid and there is a reason for it. We can all take action by speaking up and addressing misconceptions about the scientific method and inaccurate information. Right now is an excellent time to examine why so many people disavow science. Some thoughts:

The scientific community:
-We don’t communicate our research well enough, or often enough, to public audiences with different backgrounds.

-Some of us do in fact see our careers and ourselves as better than others. The number of comments I’ve heard degrading the arts and humanities- even from colleagues at institutions I’ve been associated with- is disappointing to say the least. If you are guilty of this, educate yourself on the importance of art AND science.

The general public:
-Many people haven’t had any biological or even scientific education since high school. That means since they were 15-18 years old. Take a second to process what that means.

-The science education they did have however many years (or decades) ago may have been less-than-stellar.

-After graduation, exposure to science regularly includes interpretations by the media that often inappropriately extrapolate the results of a study for attention-grabbing purposes.

On a positive note, here are some promising scientific outreach efforts you can get involved with:

-Crowdfunding and citizen science efforts are on the rise and with names like “The Lost Ladybug Project”, how can you resist helping?!

-Scientists and, importantly, people who support science will March on Washington on April 22nd, with satellite marches happening in cities around the U.S. and around the world.

The coming months and years in the U.S. represent a critical junction for science. Scientists and allies will need to mobilize- by marching, by being involved in outreach efforts, by acting locally, and by identifying our responsibility in creating the current anti-truth sentiment. Do your part. Help save science.

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Failed Invasions: Why losing is just as important as winning

Growing up, we’re always told to learn from our mistakes. When we trip over our shoelaces, we learn how to tie them so that the laces are out of the way when we walk and we don’t have to worry about future embarrassment.  Every time we fell off our bike when learning to ride, we made a mental note to try not to repeat the movement that caused the imbalance. Even as adults, we learn from rejection—whether for a job, a date, or even publication in a journal—and we try to improve for the next time. This concept of using past experience to do better in the future is inherent in our lives, whether or not we realize it. However, in the world of science where failure is not sexy, those “mess-ups” often get swept under the rug.

In a recent article I read, researchers Rafael Zenni and Martin Nuñez at University of Tennessee sought to lift up the rug and talk about the “elephant in the room” of invasion biology: failed invasions. In their 2013 Oikos article, they argue that considering reasons for failed invasion is just as important—if not more important—for understanding the reasons for an invasive species’ success across different environments. In invasion biology, as well as science, negative or nonsignificant results and failed invasions are often deemed less important than studies showing significant results and drastic effects of invasive species, which are a hot topic in conservation biology. However, the same hypotheses that invasion biologists have posed for invasion success—propagule pressure, predator release, genetic variability or plasticity, novel weapons—can also serve as the reasons for the downfall of a non-native species. In their review, they gathered (with some serious effort I might add) 76 examples where there was intraspecific variation in invasion success outside the species’ native range. In other words, rather than comparing the differences between native and non-native populations, they were interested in what made populations of a species successful and non-successful in areas outside their native range. This is a less commonly used comparison, but may be better for ruling out certain invasion hypotheses, and determining the relative importance of others (Blackburn et al., 2011).

Of the studies they collected, only one third of them even attempted to provide reasoning for failed invasions. The main hypotheses Ruiz and Nuñez focused on were propagule pressure, abiotic resistance, biotic resistance, mutualist release (in contrast to predator release), and genetic constraints (inability to be plastic across environments) and they suggest how including information from failed invasions may change our current theories about these hypotheses.

Reason #1: Propagule Pressure

Having enough propagules during the initial stages of invasion is undoubtedly important for establishing a population in the initial phases of invasion. Even then, some small populations still fail despite being able to naturalize to an environment for reasons unrelated to initial propagule pressure. They recommend using propagule pressure as a null hypothesis for invasion studies, then moving onto other hypotheses if high density of propagules cannot explain the success or failure of an invader.

Reason #2: Abiotic resistance

Like propagule pressure, having just the right environment to start a non-native population may be a first step to success because abiotic factors are acting on individuals before they hit reproductive maturity (Moyle and Light 1996, Castro et al. 2002). So in a sense, this is the “make it or break it” stage for the recruits, and they could still fail despite swarming in large numbers.

Reason #3: Biotic Resistance

Even past the recruitment stage, life doesn’t get any easier on an invader, whether or not the environment is “just right”. Having to compete with other species for space and resources, the invader will either have to outperform the native species, or exploit their weaknesses. In a similar sense, an environment under constant disturbance provides more opportunities for an invader to jump in than one that rarely changes. But if the invader is not able to exploit those opportunities, understanding why can be useful for management and eradication efforts.

Reason #4: Genetic Constraints

Though the role of genetic variability or adaptability could be very important for understanding the success or failure of an invader, none of the studies on failed invasions included comparison of genetic characteristics or tests of potential hypotheses such as the bottleneck effect. For all we know, species could be experiencing bottleneck effect in different environments throughout their non-native range leading to their demise. But without comparing genetic constraints across environments outside their native range, we’ll never know how important of a component that may be to their success.

Reason #5: Lack of mutualists

This hypothesis serves as a sort of contrast to the ‘enemy release’ hypothesis by Keane and Crawley (2002), and reminds me a lot of my lab mate’s work. She works with an invasive legume that may rely heavily on a rhizobial mutualism to successfully invade different habitats with varying degrees of precipitation. In other words, this mutualist may be a crutch upon which the success of the species depends. This just goes to show that having friends around in a new place is just as important (if not more important) than not having enemies from home.

One thing that stood out to me in this paper was their argument for comparing not just between native and non-native populations, but also between non-native populations across environments or communities that did or did not succeed. I’ve only ever come across studies comparing traits between the native and non-native parts of a species range, and those have been very helpful for understanding whether there’s carryover or changes in species traits that allow them to become widespread. However, the idea of understanding what does and doesn’t work across places away from home makes just as much sense in ruling out potential mechanisms for success and understanding the relative importance of others. To understand this better, I like to think of it as going to a bar you’ve never tried before in the hopes of meeting new people:

In your normal bar, you’re the regular—you’ve made a lot of friends, know the bartenders, and know who to avoid. But you’re getting bored. You decide to try something new, and go outside your comfort zone to a bar you’ve not been to before with the intention of making new friends. Though some tactics used in your normal bar may also work well for “breaking the ice” with a stranger in the new bar, other normally successful strategies may be met with awkward glances or Irish exits from your converser. Nothin’ wrong with that, you learn from it and move on.

Now, let’s say your signature story about “that one time at band camp” was a huge success in this bar and have gained the courage to walk down the street to another bar to try your hand at chatting up more people. At the second new bar, you tell your story, regaling your experiences in great detail, but just get crickets from everyone. Despite the social environment in both new bars being the same, you didn’t succeed in making friends in both, but ignoring the fact that you failed in one of the bars doesn’t help anyone. To help yourself in future conversations, it’s just as helpful to understand the things that work well between normal and new bars as it is to know what will and will not make you a social butterfly across all new bars you try. The same goes for failed invasions, knowing what made them fail is just as important as knowing what makes non-native species succeed.

The bottom line: though including data on failed invasions may change what we think we know about invasions and predicting potential invasive ranges of species, it is important to consider them to help support or deny existing hypotheses about reasons for invasion success. Furthermore, Diez et al. (2009) points out that if failures are ignored, the probability of success would have been overestimated for most invasive species. So I ask the following question: If we’ve always been taught to learn from our mistakes, what’s stopping studies of widespread invasive species from doing the same?


Blackburn, T. M. et al. 2011. A proposed unified framework for biological invasions. Trends Ecol. Evol. 26: 333–339.

Castro, J. et al. 2002. Mechanisms blocking Pinus sylvestris colonization of mediterranean, mountain meadows. J. Veg. Sci. 13: 725–731.

Diez, J. M. et al. 2009. Learning from failures: testing broad taxonomic hypotheses about plant naturalization. Ecol. Lett. 12: 1174–1183.

Keane, R. M. and Crawley, M. J. 2002. Exotic plant invasions and the enemy release hypothesis. Trends Ecol. Evol. 17: 164–170.

Moyle, P. B. and Light, T. 1996. Fish invasions in California: do abiotic factors determine success? Ecology 77: 1666–1670.

Zenni, R. D. and Nuñez, M. A. (2013), The elephant in the room: the role of failed invasions in understanding invasion biology. Oikos, 122: 801–815.

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Address Science Locally

The last couple of weeks have been pretty frustrating as a scientist. Well, they’ve been pretty frustrating as a human being too. But as this is a science blog, we’ll stick to the science. The measures that President Trump has imposed in the last few weeks have been shocking, but they’ve also been part of a growing wave of anti-intellectualism and anti-science that is growing in the country. We’ve moved from bad (Republican congressmen questioning the legitimacy of NSF grants, despite thorough peer review) to worse (lack of acknowledgement of climate change) to the worst (government scientists not being allowed to discuss their results with political approval). This has stirred furor among scientists and informed citizens alike, leading to lots of political action in the form of protests, marches, and calls to congressional offices. These actions are useful for changing policy at the federal level, and in no way do I mean for this post to discourage such actions. We need big changes in policy at the national level, even though they will be slow to come. However, while we’re protesting for changes at the national level, it’s more important than ever to act locally. Here are some thoughts:

Be a better educator. The importance of scientists has never been more important at the local scale. I embracing my role as an educator as a way to make a difference. I’ve shifted some time away from research towards teaching, but more important than time, I’ve shifted my goals. I have over 200 students in my Intro Bio class. I used to hope they would all leave with a firm grasp of taxonomy and ecological and evolutionary principles. Now I see the basic facts they learn in the class as secondary to the way they think. If we want to fight against the wave of anti-intellectualism in the United States, that has to start by teaching students how to think…how to make a rational argument…how to use facts to support your argument…how to critically analyze the arguments of others…how to consider arguments that don’t meet your worldview…how to be a better Bayesian (i.e. use what you knew before and weigh that against new evidence). This isn’t a quick fix, but my hope is that my students will be better, more logical thinkers before the next election.

Be a voice in your community. Make your presence as a scientist felt in your community. Talk to your neighbors. Don’t withhold your expert opinion in conversations (but don’t be an arrogant ass either). Be an authority. Run for office. Host a science Q&A. Volunteer at your local school, pub, or farmer’s market to answer people’s questions about science. People need a face to associate with their image of “scientist”, preferably a face that they know and like.

Reduce your carbon footprint. With threats against the EPA and likely lack of compliance with the Paris Accords, the United States is unlikely to do much in the way of lowering carbon emissions. That means we’re going to have to do it ourselves. That’s not easy..but with a lot of people acting together, we can do a lot. Imagine if the millions of people who have marched over the last few weeks dedicated themselves to reducing their carbon footprint by some amount. Now imagine each of them convinced a friend to do the same. Drive less. Attend a local conference instead of one on the other side of the country. Eat less meat and dairy. The carbon footprint of a vegetarian is about half that of an omnivore. If you can’t cut everything, start with beef, lamb, and cheese. It continues to shock me that those most concerned with climate change, regularly contribute to it in such a big way. Hey, I live in LA, so I’m far from a low carbon footprint too, but I’m working on it. We can’t just protest…we also need to take personal responsibility.

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From Kelp Babies to Kelp Forests

In my first month of graduate school, I sat in Casey’s office trying to think of a possible thesis project. I knew that I wanted to look at genetic variation, and how such variation could facilitate persistence in a changing climate, but did not know what system I wanted to use to ask this question. Casey asked, “what about Macrocystis pyrifera?”

I’m from the East Coast, and my undergraduate research was on deep-sea corals (which, for obvious reasons, do not have photosynthetic algae living inside of them like tropical corals do). Needless to say, I was not familiar with the scientific name of the smelly, fly-covered, kelp that I had seen while walking on the Southern California beaches. Over the next few weeks, I read a lot of papers and went free diving to get more familiar with giant kelp… the species that would soon fill my thoughts, cause a lot of stress, and little did I know, lead to a successful thesis.

Our initial project idea was to culture Macrocystis in the lab, and transplant juveniles into the field. This was quickly diluted to only look at zoospore settlement and gametogenesis. I shied away from raising kelp in the lab because I was told by multiple people how difficult it is, and I figured there was no way I could figure it out before graduating. Yet somehow, mostly by accident, I now have a mini-kelp forest growing on a microscope slide.

I started collecting kelp in September 2016, and collected from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Monterey. I’ll spare you the details, but I induced zoospore release from the blades, and let those spores settle on microscope slides at different temperatures. I also let the settled spores mature for one month under white light in enriched seawater. I imaged my slides every week and what I referred to as “my kelp babies” were maturing into gametophytes, some of which were fertilized and growing into microscopic plants (embryonic sporophytes).

Embryonic sporophyte

Mature gametophytes










They grow up so fast, don’t they?

Macroscopic juvenile sporophytes

After my experiment was over, I decided to keep some of my best cultures in the off chance that some of them could grow into juveniles. You could say I neglected the kids…I didn’t check on them for about a month. To my surprise, there were juvenile plants growing on some of my slides! I moved these slides into a larger tank, and they are currently thriving in their new home.

I guess I got lucky, because despite many people advising me not to work with kelp, I successfully raised Macrocystis from spores to macroscopic juvenile blades. Times like these remind me why I love research so much.


Moral of the story: Don’t let others discourage you from trying something new.

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Helping girls get the GIST of science careers

Members of CSUN’s Women in Science Club have joined together to establish an after-school program in an effort to improve the retention of girls in science between middle and high school. Girls in Science and Technology (GIST) STEMmed from a few of us connecting with science teachers at a local middle school while we were volunteering as science fair judges. (See my previous blog post on that science fair here).

Largely led by Hannah Nelson, former WIS president and Melissa Kurman, former outreach coordinator and current president of WIS, a group of 4+ WIS members and award-winning middle school science teacher, Darshana Shah, lead the group of mostly* young women through fun activities each meeting.

We have been celebrating our 3-month GIST anniversary with a Chemistry theme. We deemed this week’s meeting “mad scientist day” and had all sorts of fun chemistry demonstrations – from making dry ice + soap bubbles to learn about sublimation to learning about the chemical structure of polystyrene by combining Styrofoam and acetone.

Here I am demonstrating the power of sublimation by creating a bubble using dry ice and soapy water. (Behind me Sarah is using acetone to break down Styrofoam)

In our conversations with science teachers, we discovered that historically, many talented 8th grade girls who showed interest in the sciences tended to avoid the science-focused high schools for various reasons. In an effort to combat this loss, we chose to create the club to expose the young women to careers they could have in science, to serve as role models and importantly- to bring in established female scientists to speak about their own career paths. As we all know from our personal experiences and research, representation is so important in driving career choices. (Check out this report by the American Association of University Women for more on that).

We aim to act as role models the best way we know how- by being super nerdy and excited about science in front of the group. In these critical years, being seen as “uncool” for liking science, or having math and science abilities doubted by teachers, peers, or parents can have lasting effects on the future careers of young women. (Some of us in WIS know this from personal experience!)

We have all been impressed with the intelligence and enthusiasm of the young women we have gotten to know over the course of the semester. I personally have gained tremendous respect for middle school teachers. The patience, grace and creativity necessary to retain the attention of young students is remarkable.

If you’re looking to be a role model or ally to young women in your own life, I think this article has some great points.

For our end of the semester wrap up, we have invited these young women to visit our campus for a planetarium show. Stay tuned into our GIST club website for updates, photos and directions for our cool chemistry demos!

*We welcome all genders but especially encourage students identifying as female to join.

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WSN’s Top 100 papers…by men

At the 100th anniversary of the Western Society of Naturalists meeting this weekend, the Presidential Address by Jay Stachowicz focused on the results of a survey intended to determine the top 100 papers of the past century. Here’s how it worked: anybody could nominate a paper, which resulted in 400+ nominations. Then folks could take a survey in which they were given 20 random papers and asked whether they belonged in the top 100, 50, 25, or 10 papers, or should not be in the top 100 at all. Survey takers were encouraged to take the survey more than once to ensure that each paper received enough feedback. As Jay noted, this was not a scientific survey, which means that one can’t put too much faith in the results. However, while the numbers might shift slightly with more scientific rigor, the process seems like it more or less works for identifying the standout papers in the field.

During his address, Jay noted the top 10 papers overall, as well as the top few papers conducted in different ecosystems and from different decades. As more and more papers were revealed, a whisper began to go around the room: “Why aren’t there any women on the list?” Shortly after, the Twittersphere began to lament the same fact, noting that none of the papers highlighted had a woman as the lead author. Likewise, there were no papers by people of color, further highlighting the lack of diversity in ecology. While there is far too little representation of people of color in the field, women are well represented, and compromise more than half of the undergraduates in marine biology classes. More than half of the conference attendees are women, as are the next two presidents of WSN. So why were there so few women on the list of the most influential papers in the field? Here are some possible answers:

(1) Although there are many women working in marine biology today, that hasn’t always been the case.

Certainly it’s true that women have been historically underrepresented in most sciences, but are far more represented today, at least at the undergraduate and graduate levels. But we’re fooling ourselves to pretend there were no important women working in the field in earlier decades. Twitter (h/t @nielsen_karina, @algaebarnacle, @KatMAnderson @RebaFay @burt_jenn) quickly pointed out a number of well-known woman scientists in marine biology, even from the earliest days: Sarah Baker (who studied seaweed zonation on the short in the early 1900s, well before Joe Connell or Paul Dayton studied barnacles), Jane Lubchenco (who is not only influential in research, but also led NOAA under President Obama), Alice Eastwood, Isabella Abbott, Kathy Ann Miller, Mimi Koehl, Nancy Knowlton, Jenn Casselle, Rachel Carson (you can buy a children’s book about her work here!… the list goes on. None of these people are fringe names in the field; all are scientists that most of us would—or at least should—recognize as influential. If you need more evidence, this photo shows that even from the earliest days of WSN, women were part of the mix:

(2) Papers with women as lead authors weren’t nominated.

This doesn’t appear to be true, either. Twitter helped refute this, as users noted a number of papers that they had nominated with women lead authors. Including entries led by the scientists listed above, papers by people such as Katherine Bradegree, Vicki Bushbaum Pearse, and Jane Watson were nominated. Furthermore, this list compiled by Karina Nielsen (below) shows even more nominated papers that made the top 100*, but weren’t recognized in the presentation as particularly influential. (Although the full list of nominated papers is online here, the rankings are not yet available on the website. Thus, it’s unclear how many of the people listed here were co-authors vs. lead authors.)

*correction: These are authors listed in the nominated papers, not necessarily the top 100. Apparently only two women lead authors finished in the Top 100 (Rachel Carson and Jane Lubchenco).

(3) It’s a leaky pipeline between undergraduate student and influential faculty

Although marine biology is dominated by women undergraduates and graduate students, the pipeline to faculty jobs is very leaky, and many good people leave the field before reaching faculty status, and moreso, before the point of producing work that influences others for generations. This is almost certainly part of the explanation for the few women that were highlighted in the Top 100. Even when departments have a 1:1 gender ratio at the faculty level (which is rare!), that’s still abysmal considering the numbers that we’re starting with at the undergrad level. We still have a lot of work to do in recognizing this problem, much less solving it.

(4) Influential men and women teach papers by men

This is probably true too. In general, many important papers are written, but only a subset become influential because of their popularity. The papers we teach to be “influential” were written by men. And then taught by men. And then taught in the next generation by more men. It’s not that excellent woman-authored publications don’t exist, they’re just not the ones we make our students read in class. For example, instead of every intro marine student reading about barnacle donation, why aren’t they reading about the algal zonation papers from a half century earlier? We all need to do a better job of highlighting woman-authored papers in our classes.

This isn’t just about expanding the canon for the sake of political correctness. It’s also about understanding why we value certain epistemologies and certain subjects over others. Our biases—and we all need to own up to having biases, both acknowledged and unacknowledged—don’t just cause us, as a field, to favor papers that have been helped, in any amount, by privilege that we can easily see, papers that were authored by the people who have always and widely been acknowledged as leaders, the men who have attained faculty positions, prestigious grants, and publications in the most respected journals. These biases might also cause us to favor certain ways of writing certain topics—barnacle zonation over algal zonation, for example—over others.

While it’s a slippery slope to suggest that there is some essential quality to each gender that causes women to write differently than men, it’s worth acknowledging that writing and work are often more personal and more political for people who are marginalized within the field, and that this difference might sometimes come through in writing. When we deride a line of inquiry as not useful or a paper as not rigorous, how much are we reflecting an implicit preference for the topics and styles that have been privileged unquestioningly for decades by the people who led the field—in other words, by men? Recognizing and celebrating different styles of writing and research is not charity, or meaningless political correctness. It’s a necessary step toward making sure our science is inclusive. And if we, as scientists, want to have and spread the best, most accurate knowledge, don’t we have to make sure we include every voice, every way of researching, writing, teaching, and understanding? This brand of inclusivity doesn’t devalue the men in the field or the work they do. Bringing other voices into the mix doesn’t mean the current voices are wrong, or bad, or done with. It means that they’re just one important part of a field that needs to continue to push for inclusivity and excellence.

This post was co-authored by Casey terHorst (Cal State Northridge) and Q Sarah Ostendorf (Occidental College).
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A letter to my students

The last couple of days have been pretty tough for me, and maybe for some of you too. Some of you might be fearful about what the future may bring, both personally and professionally. I’m concerned that we’re going to see more attacks on science, discrediting of scientists themselves, and personal attacks on groups of people that have already been marginalized in this country. We’re bound to see some dark days ahead.

I want you all to know that I will do everything in my power to prevent any of that from happening. The Biology department will always be a safe space for discussion of scientific ideas and rationale debate.  Women, men, people of color, underrepresented groups, people of any religion, people of no religion, people of any sexual orientation, or really any human, should never be subject to intimidation, abuse, or made to feel uncomfortable in this environment. If you ever feel that way, please don’t hesitate to talk to me about it and I will do whatever I can to solve the problem. I’m here to be your ally and support you.
We live in the Age of Enlightenment, where we are meant to be ruled by reason, rather than emotion or belief. The last year has made me fear that we’re moving out of that age and back to a more regressive stage of society, where gut feelings and irrational thought matter more than reasoned debate. There’s never been a more important time for scientists in the world. We just witnessed a total failure of “scientific” polls, which were not based on solid facts or good modeling. Much of what these pollsters are doing is stuff that we’ve been covering in Biometry. No matter what grade you get in the class, I want you to be able to understand some of these basic methods and be able to reasonably separate fact from fiction. You are all scientists, whether or not that’s your career goal. Be an advocate for science. I need you. The country needs you. And the world needs you. When you hear misinformation or poor reasoning, correct it. When you see or hear injustice, correct it. When you see or hear prejudice, correct it. It’s not always easy to do, but sometimes we have to choose between what’s easy and what’s right. Choose what’s right. Everyday. In your all of your interactions. Be an advocate. And in return, I will always be an advocate for you…as a scientist, as a student, and as a person.
Finally, let’s all support each other and remember that a lot of good things happened in the United States yesterday. Four women of color were elected to the Senate, meaning that our government is closer to representing the composition of our country and more minority voices will be heard on the national stage. California passed a reasonably progressive slate of legislation, although there is still work to be done there too. As California continues to pass legislation that is intended to mediate climate change and support science, the rest of the country and the world have often followed suit. There is no place in this country that I’d rather live than in California. In an open email, our legislature wrote: “California has long set an example for other states to follow. And California will defend its people and our progress. We are not going to allow one election to reverse generations of progress at the height of our historic diversity, scientific advancement, economic output, and sense of global responsibility.”
“Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light”
     -Albus Dumbledore
Be good y’all.
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Microbial landscapes

How much time do you devote to thinking about the microbial organisms that share our environment with us. Perhaps you think of them before washing your hands or when someone sneezes next to you in the bus. Perhaps you think about them all the time. Perhaps you are not willing to confess here, just how much you think about bacteria, fungi and protozoans swimming in the water, covering all surfaces, floating in the air.

Honestly, I would love to be able to see them. I realize that scale is an issue and I would need to be around 10um tall to be able to appreciate the marvels of the microbial world. Thus, I fully prepared for the advent of technology that will make us tiny. Here is my top 5 of sights to see if I ever get to be around 10 um tall.

  1. Colony on agar:

Early microbiologists relied on colony morphology to identify, describe and study microorganisms. They would report the size, color (pigmentation), shape, margin, texture and abundance. Importantly, each colony is made out of thousands of cells arranged along a density gradient from a dense center of the colony to a sparse periphery. If you were walking on top of the agar towards the colony, you would first see few cells, arranged seemingly at random – not unlike walking towards a patch of forest and finding trees are sparse at the edge. Then, cells will become more densely packed, probably one on top of the other, to the point where the colony is elevated over the substrate and cells are packed in dense layers. Interestingly, cells arrangements would differ across bacterial species as they differ across types of forests. But bear in mind that each colony grows from a single cell and all of its constituents are clones of one another. You have just walked through a forest of clones. See some spectacular pictures of bacterial cell arrangements here and, less spectacular but more informative, see here for electron microscopy of different sections of colonies of B. subtilis and B. cereus.

  1. Bacterioplankton

Bacteria floating in lakes, rivers and oceans are critical for chemical transformations providing resources for phytoplankton and zooplankton alike. Bacteria are capable of fixing nitrogen, providing critical nutrients for photosynthetic processes, thus fueling primary productivity. But bacteria are also important in recycling organic matter and in providing resource for bacterivorous species of ciliates, flagellates, and other eukaryotic microorganisms. This is an incomplete list of the role bacteria play in aquatic systems (they can also transform sulfur, iron, manganese and mercury, among many more). I can imagine immersing myself in this environment, to see them clump around copepod fecal pellets, colonize the surface of diatoms or turning into a nanoflagellate’s lunch. It has to be a fantastic view, tiny bacterial cells moving across an aquatic landscape of colorful eukaryotic plankton. It sounds terrifying to be chased by a ciliate, unable to swim due to drag. Perhaps I’ll bring a little propeller with me.

  1. Marine biofilm

Submerged surfaces in aquatic environments are readily colonized by microorganisms. In particular, bacteria attach to the surface and begin the formation of a three dimensional structure composed of exopolysaccharide (EPS) and protein secretions. This newly formed habitat can then house other kinds of bacteria, in addition to algae and diatoms becoming a complex tiny jungle, a mature biofilm. I imagine climbing through the bridges of EPS as one climbs across the roots of a mangrove forest. I wonder if we can see slow migrations of cells across the different layers, sudden changes in the chemical environment driven by quorum sensing or the death of an old biofilm, when all inhabitants leave and the structures degrade like an old, abandoned city.

  1. Gut bacterial community

The entrails of our bodies remain a source of inquiry for scientists and non-scientists alike. I vividly remember cartoons and drawings of voyages (accidental or on purpose) across the gut. Now we know that a large portion of the function of our stomach and intestines is facilitated by millions of bacterial cells that reside right there, inside of us (see here for the Human Microbiome Project). I can imagine being able to walk down the small intestine, trying not to step on large colonies of bacteria lining the floor, walls and roof around me. It would be interesting to see whether they are clumped, well distributed or completely randomized in their distribution across the surface. I would not want to be there when the food bolus coming in – a mix between the scene from Indiana Jones running away from a big rock sphere and a laparoscopic video of your small intestine.

  1. Hydrothermal vents.

I would like to see this full ecosystem thriving away from the sunlight. As columns of thick smoke seep into the cold waters, bacteria chemosynthesis provides resources for worms, crustaceans and snails in an oasis of productivity amongst a desert of darkness and emptiness. I would like to see yeti crabs waving their hairy claws full of bacteria, or vestimentiferan tube worms waving in the current like weird bald palm trees. I would like to see the bacteria on their tissues and the mats of bacteria covering the seeps. I would even settle for visiting while fully human sized, the deep see seems as a crazy place as the microbial world.

What microbial habitats would you like to see if you were 10 um tall?

Note 1: I have to confess I am aquatic in my heart which is reflected in the lack of terrestrial habitats.

Note 2: Michael Crichton is way ahead of me, and if this is all sounding interesting to you, you should probably read Micro too.

Note 3: But I did write a song about it.

Notice: before you go wondering around as a 10um sized creature, remember that drag, gravity and viscosity will work differently on a tiny organism. Practice swimming in honey.

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