Relief Better Than 2hr Bathroom Waits: Getting Old Work Out!

So, below is the press release for this work that has been in the making since spring 2011. I cannot convey enough how amazing it is to *finally* see it out!

Background: For the BEACON course which pairs computer scientists and biologists, I pitched the idea of looking at signals, and lucky me, my co-authors thought it was cool enough to pursue. We worked on it as a class project, and our instructors (to our delight) agreed that we had something legitimately interesting to share with the broader research community. Although the project was off to a good start, we were nowhere near publishing it when the course ended. We worked hard on it, but in spurts. In the meantime, lots of life happened: degrees, marriages, moves, babies, advisor changes, Jeopardy dynasties… yeah, lots! But we persisted and got the work out.

It has been such a pleasure to work with and learn from my friends on a project, even if the project took us far longer than any of us originally imagined. It was a great learning experience, indeed, so we hope you like the fruits of our labor!

___Press Release with Layne Cameron, posted 8/19/15, MSU Today__

Sending signals to the opposite sex isn’t always a trait that’s passed on to animals’ offspring, according to new research conducted at Michigan State University.

Animal sex signals, communications between partners indicating health, the capacity to produce healthy offspring and more, were thought to be beneficial and passed down from generation to generation. However, in a new study appearing in Ecology and Evolution, these signals can actually adaptively disappear in descendants.

“This means that certain organisms, particularly those that rely on signaling to do any mating or to tell their species apart from others, may be in more danger of extinction or hybridizing with another species if they lose signals, particularly because signal loss can happen so fast,” said Emily Weigel, co-lead author and doctoral candidate with MSU’s BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action.

The advantages of signaling to one another should mean that generation after generation the animals retain and keep signaling. That may not be the case, though, she added.

“In nature, it looks like signaling can still disappear, not just a sometimes but often,” Weigel said. “And we don’t have a good understanding of exactly how and why it is lost in many populations.”

Studying this deficit in nature is difficult because scientists are trapped by the practical problem of having to know an animal population is already losing a signal to study its loss. They don’t get a good idea of what factors, such as population size, how genes are structured in relation to one-another and how strongly organisms respond to signals, start and influence this loss.

“We also don’t know how these factors interact, or how they change based on whether animals must signal to mate, or if it’s just an optional strategy,” Weigel said.

To conduct the study, Weigel and her team evolved populations in Avida, a software environment developed at MSU in which self-replicating computer programs compete and evolve. Their digital populations varied in different combinations of these characteristics. They found that signaling is indeed quite hard to lose in some scenarios, but not all. How strongly the receiver prefers the signal is a huge component of whether signals are lost or not. In addition, the factor of optional or required signaling turned out to change the importance of every other factor.

“So, when we’re looking at nature, a lot of the loss might have to do with the specific pressures on an organism from its social and physical environment, and whether its biology allows for wiggle-room,” Weigel said.

Some of these outside factors can include being able to detect a mating call in a loud environment or being rendered helpless by the extra noise.

Additional MSU scientists contributing to this research include co-first author Nicholas Testa  and co-author Sara Garnett. Alex Peer of the University of Wisconsin also contributed to this study.

MSU’s BEACON Center is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Go see Ant-Man. Right now.

Ant-Man Movie Poster

Photo courtesy of

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’.

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!

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 ( 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!