Sometimes we get too close to our research. Ok, all of the time we’re probably too close. If you’re like me, you’re fascinated by what you do, and even when things are slow-going, you’re still excited to wake up and think about things.

The problem is, you might spend all day, every day, thinking about specific things, but rarely will others do the same. So, when you have to present, how do you choose your focus? And how do you best present things which must flow sequentially when the ideas are linked conceptually (rather than chronologically)?

These are hard questions to answer, but I’ve been able to synthesize some ideas on how to clearly present the main points for yourself and your audience (once you decide what they are!):

  1. Decide what is important, what your goals are, and how generally the presentation should flow. If you’ve got the ideas sketched out, the presentation will flow more logically and will be constructed faster.
  2. Use color. Do so consistently, in contrasting shades, and with caution. Remember that color can be used to trigger associations (e.g., red for danger), but also keep in mind red/green or other types of colorblindness might prevent seeing distinctions.
  3. Use text sparingly, and when you do, make it easy to read. Use a large enough font to see from the back of the room, and ideally an arial font, as it can be read more easily. Don’t use all caps, as it is actually (for many) harder to read than regular text. Remember that, between text on a slide and what you are saying, audiences will focus on the slide first, so don’t overload it!
  4. Use (high-quality) images. If you can show a picture, the ideas tend to stick better.  Be sure the images are not blurry, though!
  5. Use consistent slide design, but avoid templates. Often we try to make stuff ‘fit’ a template that doesn’t fit the content. Don’t be afraid to make a new one.
  6. Leave space by not cramming every idea, graph, or image onto a single slide. Some may live and die by the “1 min/slide” rule, but if your 1 minute is spent with your audiences’ eyes roaming the slide trying to figure out the point, you’ve failed to convey anything.
  7. Don’t overdo animation. Some is good, but too much can be distracting.
  8. Use the slide sorter and presenter view to discover whether the logical flow of your presentation is as good as you think it is. Often, slides should or can be broken up to help the audience, and putting notes to yourself about the transitions can help you see whether a few words or a whole slide need to be devoted to transitions.
  9. Check spelling and grammar. We all make mistakes. Correct them!
  10. Have a backup, particularly if you have a very large file or are switching devices. Sometimes things won’t display correctly or at all, so be sure you can deliver a lower-tech version and/or explain your presentation even if the slides don’t cooperate.

What tips have you got? Tweet them to me @choosy_female !

“Whatcha gonna be for Halloween?”

I normally don’t announce until the unveiling on the day of, but for Halloween, I’m going to go as Hera. Our Biology department has decided to go as Greek Mythological characters, and if Hades, Poseidon, and Medusa are having as much fun scheming about their costumes, it is going to be a blast!

So, why Hera? Besides being the Queen of the Gods, particularly Goddess of Marriage and Women, symbolically she can be represented by the peacock. Those of you who don’t know, the peacock is a classic symbol of sexual selection, so I had to jump at the chance to get more peacock things. They’re beautiful in their own right, but the symbolism appeals to my nerdy side.

I’ll be wearing a low-budget version of this dress with a giant curly wig (leftover from last year’s Gatekeeper/Keymaster Ghostbusters costumes) and a gold crown (because who doesn’t want to ride MARTA as a Queen of the Gods?).

Oh, and I’m a complete goofball for puns/inside jokes. So, I’m giving out Ringpops for Halloween, ’cause, if Hera’s about marriage, then…

Whatever you choose to be, have fun. And if you’re so inclined, pick a costume that symbolizes your science and use it as a teachable moment. Trick or teach!

UPDATE 10/30: Look how awesome our department looks!!


So… when am I ever going to use this?!

Nearly every instructor I know has at one point heard, “Will this be on the test?” or “When will I ever use this?”. These bug us (listen up, students!) because the perception is that what we’re teaching them is important or relevant, and it often reveals that our students might not really be thinking about the material deeply enough to see its utility is all around us, even if subconsciously.

Ex. When will I ever use math? Well, even if you never plan to buy anything, your life would be pretty dull without any technology that relies on math, and I’m pretty sure without stoichiometry and flow equations, breathing and bloodflow might be a tad limited.

This random image of choking/disgust is courtesy of I’m not endorsing the website, but find it amusing that my distaste for this question and the biological outcome of ignoring math can be captured well in a single photo. Huzzah! 

Turning now to the point of this post: I was recently asked to speak as an alumni of Georgia Tech’s International Plan (IP) at the 2015 IP Induction for new students. This program seeks to foster greater global understanding and requires substantial time abroad, as well as additional globally-focused and language courses.

One of the main things the speaking invitation asked for was for me to speak on how the IP has benefited me since graduation. They wanted me to specifically provide testimonial that, hey, you do indeed use this, and it comes in handy. In particular, I wanted to draw a strong distinction between the benefits of simply studying abroad to what the program offers as a whole, and why students should stick with it.

Here are the top 5 benefits in my career of having done the IP:

  1. Get great at questioning assumptions: Going abroad exposes you to other ways of doing things. Different doesn’t mean bad, and often questioning how things have been done and why can lead to new insights. This has helped me in interacting with mentees in the lab (why do they think the way they do?), and in finding the ‘good’ questions to ask in research.

  2. Build your network and networking skills: One of the great things about going to a new place is meeting new people, and new places can simply be a class that none of your friends take, or as far as thousands of miles away. When you get used to meeting new people often, you get better at it (yay!), and you also begin to develop a good sense of where you can reach out and how you can connect others. I’m still friends with many of the people I met while in Germany and in other IP courses, and I’ve since been able to work with them on projects (including translating a book for class- more on that soon!).

  3. Get comfortable being uncomfortable: One of the hardest transitions for me as a scientist was going from textbook science ‘knowns’ to investigations butting against the edge of what we know, and being ok with it. We don’t talk about feelings in science much, but it is true that humans do science, and generally they can feel hurt (after a rejection), ecstatic (after an acceptance), and flustered (literally any time). The independence required to stay abroad for a long time, and the patience and tolerance of your embarrassment/’differentness’ you develop by being an outsider can, believe it or not, raise your self-confidence. More than anything, it helped me to establish for myself what acceptable risks are, and lowered my self-consciousness and anxiety in social situations. I’m not suave by any means, but I can deal when I don’t know things, and that helps me to greet problems and learn information to solve them.

  4. Broader background: Participating in something extra (surprise!) means you are doing extra! For the IP, this means having a much broader background on global issues and how they relate to your discipline than those peers who don’t participate. Furthermore, you have to option to take courses your college does not offer. For me, this was life-changing: I first took Animal Behavior abroad. And hey, now I’m a behavioral ecologist. Broadening your coursework can mean exposure to new things or a deepened level of understanding of an interesting topic. If you’re doing extra, make it count!

  5. Get a (better paying) job and reduce student debt: It’s no secret that the world is becoming more global, and that most things you can do to stand out from the crowd will help you land a job, or negotiate for higher salary. What maybe is less known is that there are tons of scholarships for going abroad, and often, because tuition is virtually nonexistent compared to tuition in the US, you can actually save money by going abroad. This was a big help to me, as I could finally intellectually explore my class material without working three additional jobs to cover tuition and my living expenses. The year I spent abroad helped me to avoid serious debt, and it was a great investment in my future.

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.