Expectations (of graduate students and supervisors)

I have been running a research laboratory for close to 15 years, and I’m ashamed to say that I have not written down, formally, my expectations* of graduate students and their expectations of me. I regret this, especially since there are amazing resources out there to help with this discussion. I would argue that differing levels of expectation is probably a key source of conflict in research laboratories, and having a solid agreement between graduate students and supervisors is key for success.

Here is some context for my laboratory: I run a mid-sized laboratory (currently with three MSc and three PhD students and two undergraduate Honour’s students), focused on studying arthropod ecology.  As a Professor, my job involves teaching, research and administration. When running my research laboratory, the three tasks overlap – for example, I’m a lab ‘administrator’ in some ways, including ordering supplies, dealing with budgets, working on policies related to laboratory safety. I am also a researcher – perhaps doing research directly**, and certainly helping students with their research, from project design, to field logistics, analyses, and writing and editing manuscripts. I am also a teacher, and supervision involves different kinds of teaching, from leading lab meetings, teaching graduate-level classes, to taking parts in scientific debates, and sharing interesting literature. I assume my graduate students see my ‘roles’ as being varied, and sometimes fuzzy, because they really are! In recent years, my administrative duties at the University have increased, so I’m certainly not in the lab as much as I used to be, which can be tricky for everyone.

After a terrific laboratory meeting about expectations, my students pointed out that a lot of what is written below can be considered more as a philosophy about supervision, graduate school, and running a laboratory. This is quite true, and valid, but I think there are some concrete expectations that emerge from some of the bullet points, and the more vague and intangible expectations are a good starting point to the development of formal agreements with graduate students. With this in mind, I have agreed to work with my students (individually) to develop a “student-specific” document to outline a plan for meetings, communications, timelines, research priorities; that kind of living document will be a way to formalize specific expectations, plans, and contingencies when things don’t go as planned – such a document can give weight to the broader ideas around expectations, and allow for accountability (as that document develops, I’ll be sure to share a draft form on this blog).

For now… let’s get into some of the ideas around my expectations of graduate students, and their expectations of a supervisor.

Capture

A lab environment… should be a team environment!

As a supervisor, my expectations for my graduate students are as follows:

  • Celebrate diversity, be respectful, be honest, and be ethical.
  • Be part of the team: I expect my students to be engaged and active members of the lab. This includes taking part in laboratory meetings, and being responsive to activities in the laboratory. This could include showing up for lab clean-up days, replying to emails related to lab events and activities, and generally working to be an integral and important member of the lab.
  • Be productive: graduate school is a full-time endeavour, but being productive in work does not necessarily mean working unreasonable hours; being productive is about working well. It’s about quality, not quantity. I do not expect my students to be in the lab all the time; if work is progressing well, and students are reading for comprehensive exams, or have other tasks that don’t require them to be physically present, it’s quite fine that students are not in the lab during regular working hours. However, at other times (e.g., when there is a lot of microscope work required), I do expect to see students in the lab on a more regular basis. I do not count hours, but if productively is not where I would like it to be, we will have a discussion about this, and determine ways to see that work is being done well. Related to this, I do hope that my students to have a life outside of graduate school and that ‘work-life-balance’ is happening, and hopefully this helps promote wellbeing.
  • Communicate: I expect my students to communicate with me, on a regular basis. I will discuss the importance of this at the start of the program, and establish a system that works for both of us. Communication includes (most importantly) keeping me in the loop on their project development, but also around issues they are facing, complications with their work, and certainly about their schedules (e.g., if they will be away for extended periods of time). I need to know when things are not going well – otherwise things can go off the rails rather quickly – being proactive on communications is essential.
  • Develop a research project: a core part of graduate school is developing a research project. I expect my students to do this, with me. The project will likely be a mix of my ideas and their ideas, done with knowledge of literature and ideas, from the broader scientific community. I expect PhD students to develop their project with less input from me (as compared to MSc project development)
  • Keep research as a priority: although I’m very keen on science communication, and outreach, and keen to have students that are engaged in many parts of the graduate student experience, at the end of the day, the research is a priority. “Keeping an eye on the ball” is important, as we are all working with limited resources (mostly time and money!), and the reason students are doing a thesis-based MSc or PhD is because there is an interest and passion for the research, and the current path involves this research-intensive stage. It must be the overarching priority.
  • Be organized: I expect students to be organized; successful students students use an agenda, plan ahead, and think ahead. I expect them to come to meetings with the appropriate documents (prepared and forwarded ahead of time) and with questions prepared. Being organized is a key step towards effective time management and that is essential for success in graduate school (and beyond!).
  • Apply for funding when appropriate: I will do my best to find funding for research, but at the same time, I expect my students to be on the lookout for any funding opportunities relevant to their program, whether it’s applying to a fellowship to get them through their final year, or applying for funds to offset costs for attending conferences.
  • Be responsible for the program: I am well aware of many deadlines, and overall program requirements, but it’s also the responsibility of students to know what courses they need to take, and when to take them. Being aware of deadlines is essential for supervisors and students.
  • Finish on time: I expect MSc students to finish in under two years, and PhD students to take around 4 years*** to complete all degree requirements. There may be exceptions to this, but these should be rare, and should be discussed well in advance. My role as academic guide is to help students through the program, and help design projects that are feasible within the time limits mentioned; the students are also responsible for trying to reach these deadlines and communicating when they cannot. I am a very strong believer in avoiding ‘extended’ MSc or PhD programs: it is seldom a good idea.
  • Publish: While I provide opportunities for joint-authorship with my students, I expect my students to publish their main thesis chapters, in suitable peer-reviewed journals. Ideally, (some of?) these publications should be submitted before the student graduates, or at least within a reasonable time frame after graduation. For me, this time frame is certainly within a year of graduating. I expect to be a co-author on papers that originate from a student’s thesis work, provided I have earned that authorship.
  • Be responsible for data: I expect my students to have good data management procedures, and any field books or raw data sheets be copied regularly. I expect data-back up to be happening on a regular basis. I also expect all data files will be submitted to me at the time a student graduates.
  • Collaborate and mentor: I model a collaborative research approach and expect my students to share what they are doing with each other, and work collaboratively whenever possible. I expect my more senior graduate students to mentor more junior members of the lab. I expect my students to seize opportunities to collaborate with other students (provided it complements their own research, and doesn’t distract too much from their own research!)
  • Read: Reading narrowly and broadly will help students become better scientists. I expect my graduate students to be aware of broader happenings in science, as well as the specifics related to their projects.
  • Do #SciComm: Communicating science is a central skill for scientists. I will give students opportunities to go to conferences and I expect my students to present their work at these conferences, and to spend time and energy on developing effective science communication skills. 
  • Be independent: I expect my graduate student to be independent. I’m a busy person, and I’m not in the lab all that much. I travel, teach and have a bazillion meetings to attend. Therefore, my students need to be able to work independently. I will not micro-manage; I will not be a ‘helicopter supervisor’. I’m hands-off, much of the time, although I will be available and accessible as needed.
  • Be creative, take risks, have fun: Graduate school is a wonderful time in a career, and I certainly do my best to create an interesting work environment for my students. I hope this is an environment that will allow for students to feel comfortable being creative and taking risks. Also expect there to be ‘play’ and ‘work’ and that in many cases, the lines between the two will blur.

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Being a supervisor can be like setting out pylons in a construction zone.

Here is what I will try to provide to my graduate students – this is what I perceive to be their expectations of me (note: my current students helped with this section):

  • Celebrate diversity, be respectful, be honest, and be ethical.
  • uphold and transmit the highest professional standards of research and scholarship” (that one comes straight from my University)
  • Be supportive and human: I will develop a working relationship with students that will be based on the philosophy of being a good human! This means being supportive of my students, and to be there when they need me. A supervisor’s role is certainly to give advice (even long after graduation), and be a person they can depend on. I will strive to be compassionate, patient and empathetic. I recognize that everyone has ups and downs, and will have dark days as well as bright times: I will be supportive through all of this, and will work with my students to help them through their program, despite the challenges that will be thrown their way.
  • Be available: related to the previous point, I will be available to my students. I recognize this is a struggle at times, but when a student needs a meeting, I will help make this happen. I will answer emails, and meet face-to-face as necessary. They will know about my schedule, so it’s no surprise if I’m away on vacation, or otherwise unavailable. (as an aside: this is something I have to work on, and increasing face-time with my graduate students will be a priority going forward)
  • Communicate: I will do my best to have open communications with my students, from laboratory happenings, progress on research, troubleshooting, or just basic planning. The communication may be via different types of media (e.g., social media, emails or phone calls) but regardless, I will communicate.
  • Compromise: when discussing this document with my students, we talked about the power imbalance in Academia. It’s important to be honest about this power imbalance, recognize it’s there, and understand the stress it can put on students. Conflict can arise in part because of different priorities of students compared to a supervisor: for example, a supervisor may see a short-term gain by having another publication, whereas a student may need to devote some time to professional development activities, and see that ‘critical’ publication as being less time sensitive. This is further confounded by the power imbalance; therefore, a supervisor needs to be willing to see these differing priorities, in the context of potential power imbalance, and be willing to compromise.
  • Take the feedback: A supervisor has to be willing to be criticized, and be willing and open to comments from students. This becomes especially relevant when there are agreed-upon expectations!
  • Edit: A key role of a supervisor is to read and edit manuscripts, proposals, thesis chapters, etc. I will try to provide timely feedback on written materials. The definition of ‘timely’ is difficult to pin down, but optimally this will be within a 2 week window, provided there is advance notice and planning.
  • Provide funding: I will provide adequate support for research activities, from helping fund research assistants for the summer, to making sure students are not out-of-pocket for airline tickets or field supplies. My job is to make sure research can happen, and a big part of this is funding. We need open communication about funding, from the start, so that my students are supported, financially, in all parts of their work.
  • Help navigate graduate school: a supervisor has to help establish a research project, set-up committee meetings (help fill out the relevant forms), organize comprehensive examinations, sort out potential examiners for a PhD defense, and have good working knowledge about the policies and procedures at the University around graduate school. Although the program is ultimately a student’s responsibility, a supervisor has a key role to play in navigating the program. I will try to be organized on these tasks.
  • Leverage my network: Whenever possible, I will use my own contacts and network to help my students. At times, it may be necessary for students to get in touch with experts outside of their own network, and I will facilitate this as much as possible.
  • Help get jobs: I know my students, care about them, and recognize they will pass through the lab on the way to a career. I have a responsibility to help them with this transition, and as such a supervisor needs to be ready to write letters of reference for students (even at the last minute!), and send interesting job opportunities their way.
  • Troubleshoot: I will be there to help troubleshoot, whether it is issues with a collaborator or fellow graduate student, or laboratory equipment failure. I will make sure most stuff works and model steps to problem solving.
  • Provide a safe laboratory environment: I will provide a safe work environment by following the standards put in place by my University. I will ensure there is adequate training, dissemination of policy, and good practice. I will work with my University and my students to make sure any problems are dealt with in a timely fashion.
  • Space and supplies: I will work to make sure students have the physical space they need in the lab, and the equipment they need, from IT support to insect pins.
  • Send students to conferences: I will send students to conferences, and pay for these (in part****). For MSc students, this may be 1-2 conferences over the course of their degree, and these will likely be national-level conferences relevant to their field of study. For PhD students, this should include at least one international conference, preferably towards the end of their degree.
  • Sign stuff: I will sign stuff for my students, whether it is expense reports, or forms for scholarships.
  • Put out pylons: although I expect my students to be mostly independent researchers, this model does not apply to all students, and problems will occur. When necessary, I will play a more active role in direct supervision, have weekly meetings as necessary, and work in a more ‘hands-on’ manner with students. I like to see a supervisor’s role as one that involves setting up pylons in a construction zone: ideally a student can navigate this zone with just a few pylons, placed here and there, and I will help facilitate a route through the zone with as few pylons as possible. At times, however, more pylons are needed, perhaps placed closer together, and navigating through a graduate program may require more help for some students. Creating a laboratory environment in which it’s safe to take risks, and safe to fail now and then, is also important, so at times, veering into the construction zone is fine, and I may not stop a student, but I will help to find a way out.

I realize this is long-winded, and detailed, but it needs to be. Expectations are drivers of success in graduate school, and essential for good supervisor-student relationships. I encourage other Academics to develop this kind of document, and have this discussion with students, before they come to your lab, when they start, and during the program. It will benefit everyone.

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* To be clear, I certainly have discussions with students about expectations, but talking about it isn’t as good as having it stated more explicitly in written form.

** I don’t “do” all that much direct research anymore; although I try to get out in the field with my students, and certainly edit/write manuscripts, my research is not mostly at arm’s length to my students. I have traded field work for a desk job… 

*** Time for completion for PhD programs are more variable, and they should be. When I state ‘4 years’, it’s much more of a goal than a reality. However, I feel strongly that there are very few reasons why a MSc should take more than 2 years, from start to finish.

**** Funding for conferences will not come out of a student’s own pocket, but I do expect students to apply for relevant travel funds, or for departmental funding, to help offset costs to my research grants.

Bog spiders: a serendipitous research project

This is a guest post, written by an Honour’s undergrad student in the lab, Kamil Chatila-Amos. It’s the first of two posts about his work, and the goal of this post is to introduce Kamil and his research project. 

Research can be serendipitous and spontaneous, and that’s certainly the story of how my honour’s project started! I spent last winter working on howler monkeys in Panama (which is a story in itself) and although I adored every second of it, it certainly made me out of touch with the McGill world. When I came back, most of my friends had found themselves a summer research job and even an honours supervisor for the upcoming semester.

So there I was, barely a week after my return, erratically filling out online job applications in the lobby of one of our buildings. I was looking at all kinds of opportunities: herbarium employee in Edmonton, ichthyology assistant in Wisconsin, plant surveying in Vaudreuil, bird surveys in Ontario, insectarium employee in Montreal. I was applying to anything and everything that was still available. Little did I know that the arthropod ecology lab is right next to the lobby… Chris walked by, saw me and stopped to chat. (Well it’s more accurate to say he talked to me while quickly walking to his next meeting)*. Turns out, a student of Terry Wheeler (another entomology Prof. at Macdonald campus), Amélie Grégoire Taillefer, was going to post a job online that very afternoon! She was looking for a field assistant to help her catch flies in bogs in the James Bay area.

A couple days later I was northern-bound! A 15 hour drive north of Montreal is the town of Matagami and about 30 km north of there is Lake Matagami, along which we were staying. In a yurt. A yurt!!! Basically, a large round tent of Mongolian origins. They’re big and this one had a minimal kitchen and shower. But the fact remains that it’s a tent with the isolative properties of canvas. It got pretty cold those first couple weeks and dropped below freezing a few nights. At least it had a fireplace. (It’s actually a great place for people wanting to explore that area of Québec and the owners are wonderful. Go check them out at ecogiteslacmatagami.ca)

Kamil_Yurt

The work itself was great. The first week, we explored the area for suitable bogs to install her pantraps. That’s when I realized how awesome bogs are. There are so many things to eat in bogs! Cattails, cranberries, Labrador tea, cloud berries, chanterelles, boletes, black flies…

For the remainder of the trip two days a week were spent visiting our five sites and harvesting the pantraps filled with flies, dragonflies, crickets, spiders and the occasional putrid mouse. The following two or three days we would sort through the samples, separating the lower flies (Nematocera) from the rest.

Kamil_Sweeping.jpg

Ready for some serious bog-sweeping.

After the first week I couldn’t help but notice just how many spiders we were catching. Mostly out of pity I think, I decided to sort out the spiders as well. I felt bad throwing them out… Fast forward to five weeks later and I’m heading back to Montreal with a bagful of vials filled with dead spiders. (My roommates were not very fond of having them in our freezer).

A few weeks later I set up a meeting with Chris and essentially barged into his office with the spiders to ask to work in his lab. It took a while (and quite a bit of convincing) but here I am, sorting through spiders and writing blog posts!

The research project we structured has two components. The first part will look at how the community composition of spiders varies between the five sampled bogs. Second, I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to try DNA barcoding using COI markers. This part remains very blurry right now**, but I’m very excited to see where it leads.

Kamil_Microscope

Kamil hard at work in the lab!

If it weren’t for serendipity I would not have gone to James Bay this summer. And if it weren’t for being spontaneous, I would not have sorted out the spiders and would not be working in Chris’ lab right now. But spontaneity does have its down sides. I didn’t plan far enough ahead** and in hindsight, I should have collected some insect orders to be able to do a more in depth ecological analysis.

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* um, yes, I spend a LOT of time in meetings, and often have discussions and chats with student on my way to and from those meetings!

** for what it’s worth, research is often blurry, and planning ahead isn’t always possible!

Summer in the trees: Undergrad research on canopy spiders and beetles

Note: this post is written by undergraduate Honour’s student Jessica Turgeon, who is a member of the arthropod ecology laboratory. This post is part of the requirements for her project, and is an introduction to her research.

I’ve always been interested in nature and the environment but was never a big fan of insects. As time went on and I learned to appreciate all organisms big and small I realized that I didn’t really have a preferred “pet taxon” but rather was interested in ecology and community structure. I found others that my interests were shared with other members of the arthropod ecology lab, and I was able to start an Honour’s project in the lab earlier this fall.

Using a beat-sheet in the tree canopy, to collect arthropods

Using a beat-sheet in the tree canopy, to collect arthropods

I was given an opportunity to do an internship at Kenauk Nature, a 65,000-acre plot of land near Montebello, Quebec. This property is primarily used for the hunting and fishing industries, but they are branching into scientific research. Kenauk was keen to support three McGill interns to complete the Black Maple project, the pilot project for Kenauk Institute.

The Black Maple project revolves around black maples, since Kenauk is the only area in Quebec to have a black maple stand. The project consisted of three sub-projects, one for each intern and each project dealing with a different taxon. While the two other students worked on plants and birds, my project was about arthropods and their diversity in Kenauk. We wanted to characterise the community structures of beetles and spiders based on vertical stratification and tree species: this involved tree-climbing!

Jessica - getting ready to climb up!

Jessica – getting ready to climb up!

During the summer, I looked at abundance data and concluded that beetles were more abundant in the upper canopy and that spiders were more abundant in the understorey. This internship transitioned into my Honour’s project, where I plan to look at species richness and functional diversity to answer my questions on community assemblages. To my knowledge, this has never been done at Kenauk Nature and would provide great baseline data for the owners of the property.

We sampled in three sites, each containing three trees. Each site had one sugar maple (Acer saccharum), one black maple (Acer nigrum) and one American basswood (Tilia americana). Within each tree we sampled five times: twice in the understorey, once in the middle canopy and twice in the upper canopy. We also used two different types of traps: beat sheets, an active technique, and Lindgren funnels, a passive technique. Both trap types are specialized, with beating more tailored towards spiders and Lindgren funnels invented to collect beetles. When beating a branch, the arthropods fall on a 1m2 sheet and are then collected whereas Lindgren funnels are hung in a tree and passively collect arthropods that fly into it.

LindgrenFunnel

As part of our job, we learned how to use a single ropes climbing system, a one-person method of using ropes to climb a tree. All three interns caught on quickly and it easily became our favourite part of the job. However, we did have to sort through the samples, a job requirement that wasn’t nearly as fun as climbing trees. But this is what happens in ecology: you romp around in the woods to collect your data then spend time in the lab analysing them. It was nice to experience this first-hand and I must say, I liked it and am looking forward to future projects like this.

Now that the summer is over and collection is completed, I spend all of my free time in the lab identifying beetles and spiders. All of the beetles are identified and about half of the spiders are identified. From this work, Kenauk Nature can proudly say that the property supports 24 families representing 117 species of beetles! Once the Kenauk Institute officially launches, more rigorous research can be done to try and increase these numbers.

Learning Taxonomy... spider drawings (of male palps) help.

Learning Taxonomy… spider drawings (of male palps) help.

All in all, from the sampling in the summer to the identification in the lab, this has been a great experience. Here’s to hoping the second half of my honours project will be as equally fun and challenging as the first half was! Stay tuned for a blog post to be published in the spring of 2016: it will summarize the main results from this Honour’s project.

Monitoring northern biodiversity: picking the right trap for collecting beetles and spiders

Ecological monitoring is an important endeavour as we seek to understand the effects of environmental change on biodiversity. We need to benchmark the status of our fauna, and check-in on that fauna on a regular basis: in this way we can, for example, better understand how climate change might alter our earth systems. That’s kind of important.

A northern ground beetle, Elaphrus lapponicus. Photo by C. Ernst.

A northern ground beetle, Elaphrus lapponicus. Photo by C. Ernst.

With that backdrop, my lab was involved with a Northern Biodiversity Program a few years ago (a couple of related papers can be found here and here), with a goal of understanding the ecological structure of Arthropods of northern Canada. The project was meant to benchmark where we are now, and one outcome of the work is that we are able to think about a solid framework for ecological monitoring into the future.

A few weeks ago our group published a paper* on how to best monitor ground-dwelling beetles and spiders in northern Canada. The project resulted in over 30,000 beetles and spiders being collected, representing close to 800 species (that’s a LOT of diversity!). My former PhD student Crystal Ernst and MSc student Sarah Loboda looked at the relationship between the different traps we used for collecting these two taxa, to help provide guidelines for future ecological monitoring. For the project, we used both a traditional pitfall trap (essentially a white yogurt container stuck in the ground, with a roof/cover perched above it) and a yellow pan trap (a shallow yellow bowl, also sunk into the ground, but without a cover). Traps were placed in grids, in two different habitats (wet and “more wet”), across 12 sites spanning northern Canada, and in three major biomes (northern boreal, sub-Arctic, and Arctic).

Here’s a video showing pan traps being used in the tundra:

Both of the trap types we used are known to be great at collecting a range of taxa (including beetles and spiders), and since the project was meant to capture a wide array of critters, we used them both. Crystal, Sarah and I were curious whether, in retrospect, both traps were really necessary for beetles and spiders. Practically speaking, it was a lot of work to use multiple traps (and to process the samples afterwards), and we wanted to make recommendations for other researchers looking to monitor beetles and spiders in the north.

The story ends up being a bit complicated… In the high Arctic, if the goal is to best capture the diversity of beetles and spiders, sampling in multiple habitats is more important than using the two trap types. However, the results are different in the northern boreal sites: here, it’s important to have multiple trap types (i.e., the differences among traps were more noticeable) and the differences by habitat were less pronounced. Neither factor (trap type or habitat) was more important than the other when sampling in the subarctic. So, in hindsight, we can be very glad to have used both trap types! It was worth the effort, as characterizing the diversity of beetles and spiders depended on both sampling multiple habitats, and sampling with two trap types. There were enough differences to justify using two trap types, especially when sampling different habitats in different biomes. The interactions between trap types, habitats, and biomes was an unexpected yet important result.

Our results, however, are a little frustrating when thinking about recommendations for future monitoring. Using more than one trap type increases efforts, costs, and time, and these are always limited resources. We therefore recommend that future monitoring in the north, for beetles and spiders, could possibly be done with a trap that’s a mix between the two that we used: a yellow, roof-less pitfall trap. These traps would provide the best of both options: they are deeper than a pan trap (likely a good for collecting some Arthropods), but are yellow and without a cover (other features that are good for capturing many flying insects). These are actually very similar to a design that is already being used with a long-term ecological monitoring program in Greenland. We think they have it right**.

A yellow pitfall trap - the kind used in Greenland, and the one we recommend for future monitoring in Canada's Arctic.

A yellow pitfall trap – the kind used in Greenland, and the one we recommend for future monitoring in Canada’s Arctic.

In sum, this work is really a “methodological” study, which when viewed narrowly may not be that sexy. However, we are optimistic that this work will help guide future ecological monitoring programs in the north. We are faced with increased pressures on our environment, and a pressing need to effectively track these effects on our biodiversity. This requires sound methods that are feasible and provide us with a true picture of faunal diversity and community structure.

It looks to me like we can capture northern beetles and spiders quite efficiently with, um, yellow plastic beer cups. Cheers to that!

Reference

Ernst, C, S. Loboda and CM Buddle. 2015. Capturing Northern Biodiversity: diversity of arctic, subarctic and northern boreal beetles and spiders are affected by trap type and habitat. Insect Conservation and Diversity DOI: 10.1111/icad.12143

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* The paper isn’t open access. One of the goals of this blog post is to share the results of this work even if everyone can’t access the paper directly. If you want a copy of the paper, please let me know and I’ll be happy to send it to you. I’m afraid I can’t publish all of our work in open access journals because I don’t have enough $ to afford high quality OA journals.

** The big caveat here is that a proper quantitative study that compares pan and and pitfall traps to the “yellow roof-less pitfall” traps is required. We believe it will be the best design, but belief does need to be backed up with data. Unfortunately these kind of trap-comparison papers aren’t usually high on the priority list.

Vouchers? What vouchers? Revealing a crisis in arthropod-based research

Here’s a hypothetical scenario:

Q: “Hey I see you published a paper that shows the wolf spider Trochosa ruricola occurs up in the Ottawa Valley – I didn’t realize it had reached that far. It’s an invasive species, so tracking its distribution is quite important

A: “Yeah, we too were surprised it was up that far: to our knowledge, only Trochosa terricola was in that part of Ontario

Q: “It is tricky to tell apart those two species! What museum did you deposit specimens in? I’d like to take a look at them to verify the identification.

A: “Um, we didn’t get around to depositing specimens in the museum. There might still be some in the lab. I’ll have to get back to you...”

Not cool.  And also much too common.

Bottom line: when specimen-based research is done with arthropods, whether it is a biodiversity inventory, a community ecology study, or a taxonomic revision, the researchers must deposit voucher specimens in a research museum or institutional collection. This is only way to truly verify that the work is accurate, that people are calling things by the same name, and it puts a stamp in time for the research. Without deposition of these voucher specimens (somewhere that is publicly accessible and curated, and along with data about time, place and collector) the research cannot be verified, and this goes against the principle of repeatability in science.

Beetles in drawers: a great example of specimens in a curated museum, and shows how such specimens can be used for all kind of research!

Beetles in drawers: a great example of specimens in a curated museum, and shows how such specimens can be used for all kind of research!

This is a no-brainer, right? It’s time to test whether or not scientists actually bother to deposit voucher specimens…. As part of a graduate-level* class in Entomology last winter, we surveyed the literature to find out the frequency of voucher deposition with arthropod-based research. We looked at papers to see what percentage actually report on vouchers, assessed whether the frequency of voucher deposition varied by research type, study organisms, institution (of researcher), and whether voucher deposition has changed over time.

We published the results a few weeks ago, in the Open Access journal PeerJ, and our work has revealed a crisis in arthropod-based research. Overall, rates of voucher specimen deposition were very low, as only 25% of papers report on the deposition of voucher specimens. This is horrible, and essentially means that the specimens from the majority of papers published cannot be traced to a collection, and cannot be verified.

Some disciplines were worse than others, as crustacean researchers deposited vouchers only 6% of the time, as compared to the relatively higher rate of voucher deposition by entomologists, at 46%. Here is a summary of the main findings:

The main findings of our research: the asterisk illustrates a significant difference relative to a global mean.

The main findings of our research: the asterisk illustrates a significant difference relative to a global mean. Figure from our paper, published here.

Is there any good news? Perhaps so… when looking at rate of voucher deposition over time, more papers are reporting about vouchers in 2014 (35%) compared to 1989 (below 5%).

At the end of our paper we provide some conclusions and recommendations, and these are repeated here:

  1. PIs must be responsible and proactive on the process of voucher specimen deposition, from the start of any project.
  2. Graduate students need to be mentored appropriately about the importance of voucher specimen deposition.
  3. It needs to be recognized that voucher specimens are important for all branches of arthropod research – there is no reason that entomologists should do better than, say, crustacean biologists.
  4. Close collaboration between Universities/Research Centres and Museums is required, so that there is an agreed up, and easy process for all researchers to deposit vouchers.
  5. Everyone involved with arthropod-based research needs to work together to push for long-term, sustainable funding for institutional collections/museums so that proper curation of vouchers can be done.
  6. Publishers and editorial boards need to have clear policies about voucher specimens, so that any papers published are required to report on vouchers.

I recognize that the title of this post is provocative. Is it *really* a crisis?

I think it is: I think that even the best rate of voucher deposition that we report on is too low. We must aim to be closer to 100%. It’s important as we work to describe the world’s biodiversity, understand what is happening to our species in the face of climate change, or track the distribution of invasive species. It’s important that our hard work is more than a publication: our hard work is often a specimen, and that specimen needs to be accessible for future generations.

Voucher for critters than need to be stored in liquids looks something like this.

Voucher for critters than need to be stored in liquids looks something like this.

Reference:

Turney S, Cameron ER, Cloutier CA, Buddle CM. (2015) Non-repeatable science: assessing the frequency of voucher specimen deposition reveals that most arthropod research cannot be verified. PeerJ 3:e1168 https://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.1168

* A most sincere thanks to my graduate students Shaun, Elyssa and Chris – these students did the lion’s share of this project, and took on this graduate class with great enthusiasm, maturity and motivation. You all inspire me!

Curiosity, passion and science: On the natural history of an Arctic pseudoscorpion

I’m pleased to announce a publication about the natural history of a tiny, wonderful arachnid: the pseudoscorpion Wyochernes asiaticus.

The Arctic pseudoscorpion Wyochernes asiaticus (copyright C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

The Arctic pseudoscorpion Wyochernes asiaticus (photo by  C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

I’ve published quite a few papers, but this one is really special: it’s special because it’s about an obscure creature for which virtually *nothing* was known. It’s about a species with a fascinating distribution. To me, it’s an epic tale about a species that nobody really cares that much about. It’s special because it is research that was done just out of pure curiosity and fascination: there was no larger purpose, no great problem to solve, and no experiments to run*. It was based on observation and observation alone, and it was a long slog – done over many, many years (it took about 7-8 years to pull together this story, and this story is really only a prologue). Fundamentally this research was about trying to gather some base-line data about a small animal living in a big landscape.

The big landscape: A river above the Arctic circle: our pseudscorpion friend can be found under the rocks alongside this river.

The big landscape: A river above the Arctic circle: our pseudscorpion friend can be found under the rocks alongside this river.

This work presents some life-history data about a fascinating northern pseudoscorpion species, occurring only in the north-west of North America. As far as I know, it occurs only in regions that were primarily unglaciated during the last glaciation event which covered pretty much all of the northern half of the continent. However, unlike other Beringian species (e.g., the wooly mammoth), this little arachnid did not go extinct but rather continues to thrive in its somewhat unusual habitat under rocks, near rivers or streams.

After collecting and measuring nearly 600 specimens, I can now tell you a bit more about the species distribution in North America, and provide some insights into its life history traits. For example, larger females tended to have higher clutch sizes, a very common and well-known pattern with other arachnids, but there was certainly a paucity of data about this for pseudoscorpions. I also know that all its life stages can be collected in the Yukon in July, and that females can carry around quite a few young (over a dozen!).

But that’s about it. Beyond those fundamental life history measurements and comments on its distribution, the bulk of the species biology remains a mystery.

It may be possible to look at this work as a failure. Heck – a LOT of specimens were collected, by many, many enthusiastic helpers. It took some resources to get the work done (although it was mostly through stealth). A lot of time was spent at the microscope, and it certainly took a bit of time to pull together the paper. And what for? We still don’t know very much about the species: how does it disperse? How does it overwinter? How does it survive flooding of its habitat? How restrictive are the habitat affinities of the species? Do females and males tend to hang around the same rock, or do they mill about with others? What does it eat?

I don’t see this as frustrating, or discouraging, because it’s a start. Before thinking about bigger questions in ecology and evolution, your first need some basics. Only then is it possible to ask broader questions about, say, phylogeography, dispersal limitation, or behaviour.

I hope this work encourages others to seek out and discover new and interesting things about the unnoticed species that walk underfoot, live in tree-tops, swamps, or beneath park benches.

The Arctic pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus

Another image of the Arctic pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus taken during the 2015 field season

I was very pleased to publish this work in the Canadian Field-Naturalist. Sure, it’s not a ‘high impact’ journal, but it’s a rather special and unique journal for being an excellent location to publish work on the natural history of our species. I hope others consider this journal as an outlet for their curiosity-driven science. Over time, I hope the pendulum does swing, and as a scientific community we really embrace the value of “basic” natural history data. Without a fundamental working knowledge of our species we are hamstrung when it comes to solving the big environmental challenges facing our planet. It’s time to play catch-up. Let’s worry less about impact factors and show some love for smaller journals that are brave enough to keep on publishing about natural history. Let’s spend time observing our natural world, collecting interesting data just because.

I ended my paper with a paragraph about what it felt like to do this research. I am so thankful the editors allowed me to keep this paragraph. It’s important, and reflects my long-standing belief that the lines between a subjective love of nature, and objective observations about nature, should be blurred. They certainly are for me.

In conclusion, observing these marvelous animals in one of the most beautiful areas of the planet, was gratifying, awe-inspiring, and helped solidify a love of natural history. What has been learned is only the prologue to a truly astounding epic: many more discoveries await.

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*Please check out this amazing blog post about the value of ‘observation’ to ecology. It relates closely to what I have written.

© C.M. Buddle (2015)

Yukon field work: Arachnids, landscapes, and the inspiring North

It’s a dream for an arthropod ecologist: a dramatic biome transition from boreal forest to subarctic tundra, a beringian landscape, and diverse and abundant insects and spiders. I have just returned from field work along the Yukon’s Dempster Highway, Canada’s only road to cross the Arctic circle. And again, I was not disappointed!

A stretch of the Dempster Highway

A stretch of the Dempster Highway

This year’s expedition was focused on three projects:

1) Tiny, wonderful arachnids:

On this trip, I continued to document the distribution of an arctic Pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus. This is a beringian arachnid, known from the old world, and known in North America from almost exclusively unglaciated parts of the Yukon and Alaska. Like wooly mammoths and giant short-faced bears, these tiny arachnids roamed North America while the rest of the top half of the continent was buried under ice. But unlike the mammoths and giant short-faced bears, the Arctic Pseudoscorpion is not extinct! It’s a relict of the past, thriving today under rocks near beringian rivers and streams. I have been working on this species for many years (and a life history paper about this arachnid will appear in the Canadian Field-Naturalist sometime this month), and each time I visit the Yukon, I leave with more questions, and more specimens. This time, I collected some animals to hopefully work on their population genetics: I am curious about the relatedness among the populations from different watersheds along the Dempster Highway (by the way, I am seeking collaborators [phylogeographers!] for this work… If interested, let me know!)

The Arctic pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus

The Arctic pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus

2) Northern food webs:

I have left my PhD student Shaun Turney up in the Yukon (along with his field assistant) where he is working on characterizing the arthropod-based food webs along the latitudinal gradient of the Dempster Highway. Past research has given some hints that northern food webs may be atypical, but to fully test this we decided to characterize the entire fauna from 1 x 1 m patches of the tundra. This involved placing tents over the tundra, and Shaun collected critters within those tents, and even “vacuumed” the tundra within the square metre. Shaun started this work near the stunning Richardson mountains above the arctic circle, and over the month of July, will repeat the sampling at different locations along the Dempster Highway.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra.

3) Thermal biology of wolf spiders

Colleagues from Western University joined me in the Yukon to start some projects related to the thermal biology of the extremely abundant Pardosa wolf spiders which inhabit the tundra. There are several species that occur along the Dempster Highway, and when the weather is good, it’s quite possible to collect hundreds of individuals over the span of several hours. Past work has suggested the density of these spiders is about 0.5 per square metre, and those past estimates certainly seemed accurate on this trip also! The spiders will be taken back to their lab, and I am eager to find out how northern Pardosa may be adapted to Yukon conditions.

Searching for wolf spiders on the Tundra

Searching for wolf spiders on the Tundra

All the sciency parts of our field work were exciting and gratifying, but there are other reasons why the Yukon is special*: it is a breathtakingly beautiful place. From stubby black spruce trees to tufts of tundra-dwelling cotton grass, every turn of the highway or footstep over a hummock is a treat. It’s not all easy (hordes of mosquitoes at some of the campgrounds, or being driven off the tundra by cold rains and strong winds), but it is all inspiring.

The lines between science and passion are blurred on the tundra, and that is a good thing. Searching for spiders is work that is fun; seeing a northern shrike or watching two lonely caribou dart up a river valley is fun that comes with the field work. I am immensely grateful for being able to hike under midnight sun, and be a northern researcher during the day. I am delighted to be able to discover some of hidden secrets of the Yukon.

The northern landscape, near the Yukon-Northwest Territory border.

The northern landscape, near the Yukon-Northwest Territory border.

For more photos of the recent trip, check out my Flickr page.

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* my colleague Terry Wheeler shares a passion for the Yukon – here is his post which outlines why he keeps returning to the region.