Go see Ant-Man. Right now.

Ant-Man Movie Poster

Photo courtesy of imdb.com

Another Marvel blockbuster, Ant-Man, has come out this summer. With polite nods to previous Avengers and Shield storylines, this is the tale of a good guy, a super-cool shrinking suit, and a pretty amazing scientist with an affinity for ants. Not to give too much away about the plot, I’ll just leave you with this: ants help save the world from weapons of mass destruction. Yup, a tiny massed little thing saves the Earth.

This blockbuster does well to point out diversity among ant species, and the wonderfully amazing things they can do. Although some parts are definitely Hollywood-ized, the movie is great in explaining the basics of chemical communication, social living (colonies, etc.), and various adaptations to habitats. It seems to take more liberties with the physics than biology in terms of realism, but nonetheless, this is somewhat of a victory for passive science education for the public.

Education aside, it was more of a hit than its publicity would have you think. Then again, ants are tiny things with surprisingly huge impacts. Give it a shot!

Being a guest scientist is weird, but fun

I was recently invited to serve as a guest scientist for ISB202 (Applied Environmental and Organismal Biology), a nonmajors class teaching the basics of science.

The modules of this course are set up so that students learn to think and speak like scientists, and to develop critical thinking and logical skills to analyze the validity of information and arguments. For their last section, the students watched my recent TEDxMSU talk on my work, and posed several questions. I read through them, and here was the basic overview of the categories of the questions asked:

1. How does this relate to humans?

2. How do other animals have sex?

3. Is it always the female who chooses, and how do they do it?

4. How does homosexuality fit into all of this?

5. How did you get your data? (specifics)

6. How can I learn more?

So, this week I was asked to respond to students in a filmed chat with the course instructor (and friend) Dr. Stephen Thomas. This was hopefully able to show that scientists are real people and talk about their work in different terms in everyday speech and with the public than the language used in publications and formal presentations. We talk about the above and some other important things, like evo misconceptions and what I do when not ‘sciencing’.

https://cdnapisec.kaltura.com/p/811482/sp/81148200/embedIframeJs/uiconf_id/27551951/partner_id/811482?iframeembed=true&playerId=kaltura_player&entry_id=0_rq8tokqh&flashvarsstreamerType=auto&&wid=1_96tbjli7

Check it out. Cringe with me. Laugh with me. And most of all, share resources that the students can use that I can pass along to them!

Using Jurassic World to Teach Variation

If you’re like thousands of other fans, you probably made your way out to see Jurassic World this past weekend. It’s an incredibly lucrative film series, and if you’ve never read the books, they’re worth picking up.

One other thing that Jurassic World and indeed the whole franchise does well is teach variation. It may sound silly, but when the general public (myself included), can’t name all of the different dinosaurs (including the artificially-enhanced ones), the focus then shifts to concentrating on characteristics about each organism.

Even the tiniest of movie-goers can recognize that pointy-teeth generally mean meat eating, and the larger, flat-teethed dinos are probably safer company compared to those with sharp claws. Older movie-goers, like the couple in front of us that, let’s say, was overly ‘sharing’ during the film, seem to be able to focus on other traits, such as arm length. They begin to conjecture that those with shared features either are somehow related (which in the Jurassic series can mean either shared ancestry or spliced genes) or that they have characteristics that serve a common function.

Noticing similarities and differences, both within and between species, is critical for observing evolutionary change. Although some characteristics are not derived from shared ancestry, the repeated evolution along several branches of similar characteristics in similar environments (e.g., sugar gliders and flying squirrels) can be used as support for teaching evolution.

The repeated nods to bird and reptile similarity in the film help to integrate the idea of evolution across broad phyla, too. It is no wonder that people begin to see the similarities between these two groups once they are shown side-by-side.

The idea of variation (along with inheritance, selection, and time) is critical to how evolution works. Without variation, there are no differences in traits for selection or drift to act on. Simply, you can’t select from only a single option. Variation therefore allows for meaningful biological differences which can amount to evolutionary change over generations.

Although it gets a lot wrong scientifically, if we can entertain a broad swath of the population with these sci-fi blockbusters, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. We’ll have to work on some of the details, but if we can get people talking about genes and variation, it’s a small step in the right direction. No, it’s not the thunderous, seat-shaking, water-rippling steps of a T-rex, but hey, we can still embrace the various media promoting the recognition of variation and its important role in evolutionary biology.

Failure. Eep!

Failure.
.
.
It sucks, but everyone successful has failed at some point, so it’s useful to talk about how to “fail well”. I was recently asked to share my thoughts on failure with a mentee, and how to avoid/overcome it. This is what I mean by “failing well”. To “fail well”, I mean to fail at something a minimal number of times and with minimal severity such that you learn enough to succeed (or at least break even) in the future.
.
Learning to fail well is going to be really important, because when/if you go into academia, it is one of the disciplines with the most opportunities for criticism and rejection. Every paper and grant proposal—and even you in yearly reports and all presentations– will be judged in some way. It can SUCK. It can get into your head and lead to impostor syndrome feelings (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome) if you don’t watch out. So, even though dealing with rejection gets easier over time, you can do yourself some favors to buffer yourself from some of the effects now.
.
Here are my top 5 tips for failing well and keeping your sanity:
.
  • First: You may put all of yourself into your work, but you are not your work. When a grant isn’t funded or a paper rejected, they aren’t criticizing you, just the work. You are still the same worthwhile person before and after review.
  • Second: Learn what people are trying to tell you. When you fail, it’s feedback, and reflecting on the feedback can improve your work in the future. If you don’t understand what someone means, ask for clarification. If they are needlessly cruel (which sadly happens too often in in many disciplines), try to read through the negativity and see the message. I tell myself (excuse the language): “Ok, this reviewer’s an a**hole. But does the a**hole have a point?” The feedback will improve your work, and as a side-effect reduce the amount of further rejections and the negative emotions that come with them.
  • Third: Learn the difference between big comments and little comments, and pet peeves vs. legitimate issues. If you get multiple reviews, look for patterns, and if you don’t, show the work and reviews to straight-shooting colleagues, and they can help you focus on what needs to happen. Over time, this step will get easier, and you’ll notice patterns (ex. From what I’ve seen, pet peeve comments tend to come from people who have worked in that one small thing and they will suggest their own work for you to review. This typically comes in a giant paragraph or two response much longer than for any other point. However, the comment won’t appear in other reviews at all and won’t show up later in the review, but will show up if they summarize the review).
  • Fourth: Nothing is perfect. Even if you did well, there is likely feedback you can ask for to improve things. Don’t be afraid to ask for additional feedback, even if it is what someone liked best. You may be misattributing successes, and feedback helps you understand which factors are helpful, harmful, or neutral with respect to reviewers.
  • Fifth: Proactively avoid failure, if you can. Form friendly peer review groups, or have a partner who you trust well to tell you straight when things suck (and you do the same in return). It can help you spot errors before you are on the chopping block. Consider, too, asking for successful past grants or assistance from the people running the program. This can be as simple as following examples or asking if your pitch sounds like it aligns with the goals of the group to which you’re submitting. This can save you a ton of time and really improve your work, without having to go through the step of not succeeding beforehand.
I’ve tried to summarize above what has worked for me from advice I’ve been given. I’m failing less often now, but not avoiding it totally. And that’s ok. I am not my work. So in that spirit, I ask, what do you think?

A Broad Abroad: Why International Experiences Help

I was recently asked to serve on a panel for recent alumni from the International Plan (IP) at Georgia Tech. Essentially, the IP is an add-on to your degree that requires more substantial international experience and knowledge that simply going abroad for a bit or taking international affairs courses.

I’m in science, and yes, it’s global. It’s definitely easier on me being in the US and being a native English speaker, but I think it’s valid to point out gains to these potential IP students.

International Experience: Anyone who knows me has probably heard me say at least once, “When I was in Germany…”. It’s probably a bit annoying, but when you spend 1.5 years in a foreign country by yourself as a 20-something, coming-of-age female, it’s probably a wee-bit impressionable. A wee bit.

For me, going abroad saved money. I was able to use scholarships to cover my schooling and living expenses while abroad, and I was able to take a ton of biology courses Tech didn’t offer. I also got a reprieve from working multiple jobs, which did allow me to focus on what I was learning, vs. trying to balance a million things at once. Perhaps most importantly, I was able to explore several different research labs and discern that research was right for me (and not feel like I was wasting time/money trying to find my way). Academically it was great.

Personally, I grew a lot from the experience, too. I had been taking German since I was a kid, but I never had to rely on it. Talk about scary when suddenly you’re signing legal documents (visa, rental agreements, X-ray safety notices) not in your native language! The experience helped me see all of the little things I take for granted, and it helped me build independence and self-confidence. I learned when I need help, and when I should tough it out, and how to recognize when not knowing is actually beneficial. I learned much more how to go-with-the-flow and be less of a control-freak, both in my personal and professional aspirations. I can’t say I wouldn’t have gained this perspective eventually, but I think being in Germany hastened the process.

Courses: Yes, I took a lot of German courses to fulfill requirements, and yes, I did have to take other courses for IP while at Tech, too. I learned I had a passion for the history of science and how that interacts with culture. I also learned a bit about managing diverse teams. These skills have come in handy when examining the history of ideas within behavioral biology (helping to answer, “Why is this what we know? Would we have come to this knowledge another way if society and scientists were more diverse?”). They’ve also helped me to understand the privilege I have in conducting science (and society broadly), to recognize when I’m likely to face barriers, and importantly, how to influence open access to science for everyone.

Life since the IP: Random things have come up which have drawn from my experiences in the IP. Most notably, when I work with a German scientist, we can communicate on two levels, which often means the writing we produce is clearer and captures ideas better than if we were to pick one language for all parts of the conversation. Also, as an RA in an on-campus dorm, I was able to make some of the students feel more at home and welcome by saying hi and explaining differences between ‘home’ and MSU in ways that made sense; this was particularly valuable when explaining US open container laws and football obsession. I’ve also remained in contact with colleagues who have since collaborated with me in publishing papers and giving presentations, and who are generally some of the best friends I have.

If you ever have the opportunity to go abroad, do it, but not just for your CV. Your perspective will be broadened and you’ll learn a lot about yourself and others. And hey, if it is something you want to do, stop reading this post right now and start googling your options!

TEDxMSU: Hot or Not? Just Try.

tedxphoto

Shouting “Sex!” in front of nearly 2,000 people can be scary, but it proved to be a pretty effective way to grab an audience’s attention. On March 4th, 2015, I delivered a TED talk on my evolution research at TEDxMSU, an independently organized TED event held at Michigan State University.

The process to getting selected was an interesting one. One of the TEDxMSU coordinators had apparently run across my profile on Twitter, and after seeing my website, invited me to apply. Since giving a TED talk was a bucket list item of mine, I decided to give it a shot. The competition was stiff (nearly 200 applicants!), and I was one of the lucky 12 who found out, just about a month before the event, that I’d be presenting. Cue scrambling.

To prepare, there were lots of on-campus practices for speakers. However, since I’m finishing up my dissertation from afar, I was challenged to find listeners who didn’t know my work, but would be willing to give me feedback about the ideas. From the input of both strangers on public transit and my friends and family, I was able to craft a talk that captured people’s attention, and which expanded my view of how the public thinks about evolution and sex. In particular, I was encouraged to describe evolution without saying the word, and to include as much humor as possible to get those less accustomed to thinking about sex (at least in public) to engage with the material. This feedback was hard to hear (why not say evolution?!), so it meant I needed to change my general approach if I was going to get ideas across without hitting barriers.

The event’s theme was “The Will,” mirroring the campaign at MSU “Spartans Will”. In every talk at the event, the theme “The Will” manifested itself, from solutions to mass incarceration, to recovering from traumas, to understanding the will to survive. My talk focused on an extremely variable population of sticklebacks, in which we found courtship vigor, or “trying” in mating, appeared to best predict whom females chose as mates. In the talk, I pointed out that investments in different traits, including behavior, have been under study since Darwin, and that which individuals are getting lucky can shape the evolution of many species.

Now that things are calming down from the talk, I’ve been able to reflect on the feedback. I’m still a bit scared to see the official talk appear on the TED website, but the feedback from friends and faculty who attended has put my worries at ease. I was able to speak to several students afterward who were interested in the same types of questions which originally grabbed my attention, and I was moved by the students who said they were now considering evolutionary biology as a career.

Talking about science to a general audience can be scary, particularly when your topics are those which aren’t always easily discussed. But it is important that we have the will to do it, learn from each experience, and keep trying.

See my talk here (session 1, about 25 min in): http://new.livestream.com/msualumni/TEDxMSU2015