It started with the crickets

It all started with the crickets.

And it got a lot bigger than that.

I couple of weeks ago I received a gift from one of my MSc students – a lovely little tarantula that we affectionately call “Shelob”. My family was reasonably tolerant of this new addition. Shelob is a Chilean Rose-hair, a sort of pet that is sometimes referred to as a pet rock. But it’s a rock that needs feeding, hence the crickets. “Feeder crickets” are crafty little insects and despite my assumption that the terrarium for the crickets was sealed tightly, that was not the case. Unfortunately we had guests over for the weekend, and they were unimpressed by the cheeping crickets from under their bed in the middle of the night. And my teenage son was very angry one morning, having been woken up a bit too early by crickets in his bedroom*. The crickets were everywhere:

 

Crickets: Everywhere

Crickets: Everywhere

 

I'm not the only one with a cricket problem.

I’m not the only one with a cricket problem.

Living with an Entomologist (or Arachnologist) can be a challenge. It requires our partners / families / roommates / friends to be very tolerant of some odd behaviours. In my experience entomologists really know how to bring their work home with them. Our field of study is a passion that moves beyond the research lab or field site. It’s a passion that means we need to have sweep nets at home as well as at work, and most entomologists I know have a vial (or two) in their pocket, so they can collect their study specimens wherever they are (although we sometimes forget). This means, by extension, that our freezers at home become a place for frozen food AND dead insects. This is clearly something that is shared with entomologists around the world (which means, of course, that there are thousands and thousands of freezers in homes that act has a short-term specimen storage location as well as a place for ice cream and frozen peas – that may either impress you, or creep you out).

A typical freezer: note the food AND the vials with dead insects.

A typical freezer: note the food AND the vials with dead insects.

Another generality that emerges from these Tweets is that our partners, friends and/or families often have to be our ‘helpers’: holding up a thumb for scale, being a good landing spot for mosquitoes, or holding various entomological equipment while we scramble on hands and knees to grab that elusive specimen.

LizzyLowe

Holidays? They sure are fun when living with an entomologist…

The division between “work” and “play” is a difficult one to make for entomologists: there is a single-minded joy associated with collecting our study species, no matter where you are (honeymoon?) and no matter the time of day. It’s actually quite fun to run around the backyard with a sweep net, chasing *that* butterfly. A few years ago I recall seeing a very lovely butterfly heading from my backyard to the front yard – I was barbequing (in bare-feet) at the time – thankfully the trusty sweep net was right next to the house. I made a dash for it, hooting and hollering the whole time. The butterfly was quick – so much so that it was about 200 ft up the street before I collected it. My neighbors then became very well aware of what I “do”: the barefoot entomologist.

The final personal anecdote I will share is the “Specimens on the doorstep” phenomenon, shared among many entomologists: once you are known as the “bug person” in your town or city, BEWARE – people will drop off mason jars with odd critters in them. You know, the beetle that is eating Samantha’s roses, or the ant found in a neighbor’s dishwasher. So often I come home and one of my kids says to me “Dad – there’s another jar for you on the kitchen table”. I guess this isn’t all that normal…?

Fire ants at the foot of the bed. Oh my.

Fire ants at the foot of the bed. Oh my.

The hashtag #LivingWithAnEntomologist certainly took off: It’s clear that this concept hit a nerve, and that my own observations were actually quite general. SO many people tweeted their stories about what it’s like to live with an entomologist. Thank you to a most wonderful community of friends and colleagues.

To my dear and loving family: I’m sorry (But not really).

Cheep cheep.

——

* Note: I have some minor hearing loss, and despite EVERYONE telling me about chirping crickets in our house, I just don’t hear them. Lucky me, I suppose.

A University in the future

What will the University of 2050 look like?

This was the fundamental question that guided a three day workshop /conference /event that I attended last weekend (you may have seen some activity on Twitter about this!). It’s a very difficult question, but an important one! Conference attendees prototyped a future university but did this in a very structured way, starting with a discussion (on the first day) about the “core values” that need to remain in University 35 years from now. There was general convergence around these values: critical thinking and unfettered curiosity, access & freedom of expression, diversity, community, and the importance of person-to-person interaction.

The second day was devoted to discussions about “game changers” – broader factors that might challenge the core values of Universities. These game changers included external factors such as shifting geopolitics or environmental catastrophes, to technological advancement such as artificial intelligence, “holodecks”, cognitive enhancement or ever-increasing life expectancy (and its implications), or some kind of Black Swan event.

Day three was about designing a future University given the core values and given the influence of game changers.

Here’s my group’s vision* for an institute of Higher Education in 2050: an institute we called “Horizon University”.

—–

Horizon University is still a campus, but is part of a globally connected network of Universities. Campus remains as a physical space for intellectual discussion, social engagement, clubs, activities, and a safe space for its students. The students themselves are from around the world, and many are returning to University after holding down a first (or second) career for many years. Although many students may attend HU classes virtually, there will still be students who will be present, physically, in classes. There are no longer large lecture halls, and instead HU is comprised of suites of collaborative learning spaces. Enrolment in a class may be large but the number of participants in each room remains small: the instructor’s avatar can move among the rooms. Students are paired with peers in most activities, and collaborative learning is the norm.

Our group's visual representation of Horizon University, warts and all.

Our group’s visual representation of Horizon University, warts and all.

Failure is also the norm: the process of learning takes precedence. The instructor is less a “professor” and more of a facilitator, largely because the sum of all information is at everyone’s fingertips (or implanted in our neuro-cortex). The classes are mostly “topic” or “project” based, because Universities are nimble, agile, and a place in which research and teaching are focused on society’s needs and struggles, although there remains places and spaces to discover for the sake of discovery. Professors still exist as subject experts, but are never working in isolation. Learning is truly interdisciplinary.

Classes run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and individuals from outside of HU may (virtually) drop into classes that are of interest to them. Many of the administrative functions of HU itself are largely run with the help of AI (artificial intelligence). In fact, AI acts as a type of “virtual assistant” for students: helping students schedule and get to class, checking in on their health and wellbeing, and doing the (objective) course assessments (i.e., to divorce this from the act of instruction), and doing the credentialing (assuming some kind of “degree” is still granted). The AI assistant can pick up on cues related to student wellbeing, and help get a student in to see a real person whether it is for counselling, advice, or to meet the facilitator for a course they are following.

—–

Our group then assessed what important actions would be required to see Horizon University come to fruition, and we felt there needed to be, in this order, (1) equality (ie, at a global scale), (2) teams of people to develop AI, (3) interdisciplinarity (within and among institutions) (4) rethinking the concept of “9 to 5” to the concept of “24/7” education, and (5) complete redesign of all learning spaces.

We then thought about the feasibility of those five actions, into the future, and came up with the following order: (1) learning spaces, (2) AI development, (3) 24/7 scheduling, (4) interdisciplinarity, and (5) Equality

Clearly feasibility doesn’t align with the importance of the actions, which is itself interesting, and challenging!

Caveats: I don’t believe everything we came up with, nor should you. Our group didn’t agree all of the time, and there are certainly some rather large flaws in some of the ideas, the logic, and the entire model may not be economically feasible.

But it doesn’t matter: it’s about the discussion. It’s about reflecting on the things we value in a university and the challenges we face. It’s about charting a path forward in an increasingly technological age and an age where research and knowledge is moving in new directions and where we are questioning fundamental concepts around teaching and leaning. Prototyping a University in 2050 is about starting a conversation and being part of an incredibly exciting time.

On a more personal level, the most valuable part of the experience was learning from people from different places, different career stages, and from different perspectives. The conference included writers, artists, computer programmers, undergrad and grad students from a suite of disciplines (e.g., humanities, social sciences, and STEM), professors, university administrators and more. It forced me to open my mind, listen, and reflect on my own biases. There is so much value in diversity, and tackling questions about the future of University means bringing in as many stakeholders as possible.

I leave you with a few questions:

What do you envision as the future of your own institution?

What are your ideas about how to maintain core values of a university in the face of game-changers?

How can technology facilitate higher education?

Have you had this discussion at your own institutions? If so, what have you learned?

Please join the discussion. And you can follow the Event Horizon Blog here.

Postscript: the day after the conference I did some field work in an amazing forest near Montebello Quebec (see photo, below). What a contrast after three days of intense discussions, full of technology, data and information! I breathed in fresh air, watched some butterflies for a while, heard the birds singing and there was no cell reception. It was wonderful, refreshing and uplifting. This had me reflecting a bit more about a University of the future, and how that University should perhaps be much more closely integrated with our natural systems. That would be a good goal.

The forest.

The forest.

——-

*  I hope I have adequately described the key aspects of our group’s vision – it was more detailed then what I have presented, and I wholeheartedly admit that my writing may not reflect everyone’s opinion of our prototype University. (Sorry if this is the case!)

© C.M. Buddle (2015)

Unanswered (Arachnological) research questions

Scientific research produces more questions than answers (at least in my experience!), and a neat paper, project or field season often leaves us with a suite of new directions to take a research program. I wish I had more time to answer some of these questions, but reality sets in: curious questions that arise aren’t always feasible, or perhaps the timing isn’t right, or the ideas aren’t funded(able), or interest from students or collaborators isn’t there. I have come to the realization that perhaps I shouldn’t keep these questions in my head, but instead should write them down, publicly. Perhaps these ideas will generate ideas for others, point me to literature on these topics, or at the very least it will help me to refine and rethink these questions. After all, coming up with a good research question is certainly one of the more challenging parts of the research process, and improving a question starts with taking a stab at formalizing it on paper.

Disclaimers:

1) I did not do any kind of extensive literature search to see whether these questions have been tackled already.

2) I think many of these questions are rather poorly formed, which is perhaps why they have not yet been answered…

Ok, so here goes, and I will start* with a few questions with an Arachnological flare:

Do Linyphiidae spiders *really* show higher diversity at more northern latitudes? This is a classic biogeographic question, and there have been hints and ideas that Linyphiidae spiders (aka “micro sheet-web spiders”, one of the most diverse families of spiders, generally small-bodied, ground-dwellers) show a reverse latitudinal trend, with fewer species in temperate regions compared to the tropics. My own lab’s research certainly supports the claim that Linyphiidae spiders dominate diversity in the North, but are they really less diverse further south?  Although this question has been partially answered at large(ish) spatial scales, I think we need to go BIGGER to truly unravel this one, and it needs to be done with sampling methods that are really comparable (i.e., standardized), along a gradient that runs from the tropics towards the poles.

What is the relationship between fang “size” in spider species and their relative venom strength? This seems like an obvious question but has perhaps not been answered. I am curious about this because I know some “small-fanged” spiders (eg, some crab spiders in the family Thomisidse) can really pack a punch, and I have heard that some larger spiders have relativity mild venom, despite the size of their fangs. I am not sure how easy it would be to answer this one: the literature about venom is probably scarce for most species, and I’m not even sure how to test for “venom strength”, or to properly quantify fang size. This question would also have to be addressed with close attention to phylogeny.

 

Check out these fangs! (and venom…). Photo by Alex Wild

In the canopy of temperate, deciduous forests, where do the spiders come from? My lab has done a fair bit of work on canopy spiders, and their dispersal abilities, but I’m just not sure where spiders come from each spring. This is particularly relevant in my region because of the strong seasonality and harsh winters. I see three options: they colonize tree-tops from afar, they climb up the tree trunk each spring from the understory, or they overwinter in the canopy. Some manipulative experiments shows some winter-active birds feed on spiders in trees, suggesting some certainly might overwinter. However, I do wonder if this is commonplace in the systems I know around Montreal. This could be a great project, and would involve perhaps tagging spiders, using population genetics, or doing some good old fashion natural history observations.

What is the relatedness of different populations of synanthropic spider species such as Salticus scenicus (the “zebra jumper“)? Many spiders are “urban” spiders, and occur frequently in association with humans. When did they arrive to these cities? Does the age (and relatedness) of each city’s population of zebra jumpers relate to the age of a city? (Eg, compare a newish city like Calgary to an older city like New York…?). When looking at population genetics, do individuals move around a lot within a city (I suspect not), or between cities (I have no idea…). This would be a neat project, in part because of the attractiveness of the spider and its close association with humans, but also because it would be feasible! I think the methods could be quite straightforward, and would address a really interesting aspect of invasive species ecology.

A cute little zebra jumper! Photo by Alex Wild.

When ballooning, how frequently do spiders take off again after they land? Spiders disperse all the time by releasing strands of silk and “sailing away”, and they certainly aren’t restricted to one flight. There has been fabulous research done about their dispersal potential and habitat suitability at a landscape scale, but I am very curious about how often they land in a location only to depart again soon after. Why would they do this? Perhaps they don’t like their landing spot, perhaps there is a competitor or predator nearby, or perhaps they just feel like it. What clues do they use to leave a spot after they land in a spot? I really have no idea how to answer this kind of question….

Why do Pseudoscorpions tend to exhibit such clumped distributions? These tiny creatures are truly fascinating, and the basic biology and distribution of most species remains unknown. I have spent a lot of time searching for and collecting Pseudoscorpions, and I have found that their local populations are incredibly “clumped”. In general terms this means you can search for a long, long time and never find any individuals and then suddenly happen upon dozens. This alone is not unusual for many animals, but I have found Pseudoscorpions to be more patchy in their distribution compared to other arthropod taxa I have spent time searching for. Why is this? Maybe I am just really unlucky or hopeless when it comes to collecting these arachnids? Perhaps their low dispersal abilities keeps them from expanding their local range (they can’t fly or walk very quickly)?  However, many are phoretic and catch rides on other animals that can disperse effectively. Maybe Pseudoscorpions have very specific niches, and perhaps those niches are relatively rare? I just don’t know.

Ok, that’s it for now…

I do hope someone out there tackles some of the unanswered questions, or corrects me if I’ve missed some key literature on these topics. Please share, comment and provide input! I also urge others to post their unanswered research questions – theses ideas need to be written down and discussed. I think we will all benefit.

———

* There will surely be a Part 2, and I think this blog is a good place to throw ideas out there. It can be a type of “research notebook”, which can and should include unanswered (or unanswerable) research questions.

© C.M. Buddle

Ephemeral art

It’s a difficult time of year for many people: Instructors are looking at how many lectures are left before final exams, and starting to panic about how much material hasn’t yet been covered! We are planning field seasons, applying for research permits, juggling meetings, and starting to think about how the summer’s work-life balance will play out. As we approach the end of term, stress levels in the classroom are also building. Students are working madly on term papers, scrambling to get things organized for summer jobs or internships, and looking ahead to final exams.

It’s busy. Everyone is too busy. The days are too full and it’s not easy.

Then this happens:

A gift on the chalkboard

A gift on the chalkboard

I teach with chalk, and in my lecture hall there’s a vertical sliding chalkboard. When I enter the room, the front, upper board is where I start the lecture and as that board fills up, I slide it up. Last week I was surprised by a beautiful woodpecker that someone had drawn. I was “art-bombed”: this drawing was ‘revealed’ about a third of the way into the lecture. It happened on #taxonomyday, which was fitting.

The woodpecker disappeared sometime after my lecture last week. Then this piece of ephemeral art appeared on Monday:

Another gift: this bird is an island.

Another gift: this bird is an island.

This is no longer a one-hit wonder! An unnamed student is taking time before lecture to leave some art for all of us. I don’t know who the student is, but this art brings joy to all of us, and provides a smile at a difficult time of year. It also allows me to modify the lecture and link the art to whatever I might be teaching. For example, lecturing about island biogeography on Monday, with a drawing of a sparrow on the chalkboard, allowed us to consider the bird as an island, and its fauna (feather mites, lice) colonize that island, and perhaps follow the predictions of MacArthur and Wilson’s equilibrium theory of island biogeography.

Dear unnamed student: know that you are doing something very special. You are taking time and energy out of your busy life to simply bring joy to others. Thank you for the ephemeral art.

Mushroom

Mushroom in chalk.

 

Anticipation

It’s been a long winter but it’s ending quickly.

March brings anticipation in this part of the world. This past week was a reminder of that, and we saw temperatures above freezing for several days in a row. The ‘big melt’ has started… dozens of tiny trickles have appeared beside roads, guided by gravity. I know these small streams are also meandering under snow banks. The snow banks themselves have begun their own transformations: looking closely reveals tiny peaks and valleys, with embedded pebbles and rocks being released from an icy grip.

The birds have noticed: for much of February I marvelled at puffed up chickadees and juncos desperately seeking seeds at the backyard feeders, huddling together through many freezing weeks. They made a few cheeps and chirps, but nothing like the past week. It was truly delightful to listen to the chorus of cedar waxwings feasting in a crabapple tree, and a male Cardinal singing with spring’s true enthusiasm. And the true harbinger of spring appeared on a frozen branch outside my office: the robin. How I missed you, dear friend!

Robin! (photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here, with permission)

Robin! (photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here, with permission)

I imagine all the smaller creatures stirring underground, under-leaf and under-bark. The protection of winter’s white blanket is ending. Perhaps super-cooled, or perhaps frozen, insects, spiders, frogs and salamanders are stirring: the days are getting longer and the time for popping up and peeping, foraging and feasting, is about to start. I eagerly anticipate the first sighting of a morning cloak, flying in forests much earlier than its cousins. I marvel at seeing that butterfly before the flush of greenery (although the buds are swelling, and ready to burst, soon after the cloak passes). The south sides of all buildings are ahead of the rest: tiny ribbons of ground and soils appear and despite snow within inches; greenery pushes up.

Spring is coming!

Spring is coming!

March is exciting every year. It is fresh, crisp and cold in the right way: the refreshing way. The sun’s rays are getting longer, and warming up shoulders as Canadians shed their toques and grab their rubber boots.

Sure the forecast calls for a bit more snow, and the furnace still kicks in with regularity, but the land, house and yard are in a state of anticipation:

Spring!

It’s near! It’s near!

 

 

 

An ode to graduate students

Last week I saw two of my graduate students successfully defend their PhDs. This is wonderful and exciting, and I am delighted that they are both moving on to post-doctoral research positions in other places. I am also saddened by their departures: seeing good students leave the lab creates a vacuum. This has caused me to reflect about the effect graduate students have on their supervisors:

I write, teach, research.

I see classrooms, computers, forests and fields.

I use keyboards, iPads, PowerPoint, and pipettes.

I publish or perish.

LOIs, RFPs, IFs, and h-factors.

Grants, emails, to-do lists and budgets.

Learning?

Always.

Literature and libraries can start the process,

But books and blogs barely break the silence.

It’s the tangible human that makes the difference.

My colleagues, my friends:

You are the Academy.

Do you have the answers?

How to avoid wandering alone in ivory towers?

How to slow the withering on tenured vines?

How to grasp frail tendrils of discovery?

How to find that perfect chorus of voices, words, arguments and insights?

Search again.

Find hope and optimism in our laboratories.

Open the door to the greatest discovery of all:

It’s their keen intellect, smiles, kind words or questions.

It’s crafted by their company.

Caffeine-fuelled conversations critique, criticize, challenge.

(Coffee is never bitter with graduate students)

Embracing curiosity, creativity and collaboration.

Wrangling words together: perform, propose, predict.

Execute, explain, engage.

Fieldwork, funding, fellowship.

Null hypothesis, clear objectives, conceptual frameworks.

Significance and broader impact,

Contributions to knowledge.

Contributions for humanity.

I hope I did enough; I wish for more.

Fleeting moments are now warm memories:

Catching spiders on the tundra, or caterpillars in the canopy.

Thank you, students: you teach me.

We move beyond metrics and money.

We write, we study, we learn.

We discover.

We grow.

Crystal Ernst successfully defended her PhD on 23 Feb.

Crystal Ernst successfully defended her PhD on 23 Feb.

Dorothy Maguire (middle) successfully defended her PhD on 27

Dorothy Maguire (middle) successfully defended her PhD on 27 Feb. Elena Bennett was Dorothy’s co-supervisor.

Homage to the squished mosquito

This work comes from a student* in my field biology class. Part of the course includes students keeping a “field journal“, and that assignment allows an opportunity for students to express their thoughts and observations about nature in many different ways, from writing, to art, and poetry.

 

A mosquito, before the squish. (photo by Alex Wild, reproduced here with permission)

A mosquito, before the squish. (photo by Alex Wild, reproduced here with permission)

 

O squished mosquito, you omnivorous parasite,

Why could nectar not quench your hunger, like your male counterpart?

Why must you thirst for my blood?

 

Of course, you need blood for egg production,

But to what lengths will you go to continue your lineage?

Was it my personality that drew you in? Or simply my CO2 expulsion?

 

Your ultimate death has left me with no answers;

Only a bump on my skin filled with histamine and regret.

 

Your short life makes me itch to know more about who you were

…or perhaps that’s just the anticoagulant in your saliva.

 

While the swelling in my arm may decrease,

My pining for you never will.

 

R.I.P., mosquito

2014-2014

Mosquito

 

What does this poem tell me, as an instructor?

It tells me that students can express natural history and biology in many different ways.

It makes me think that the student will remember the basics of mosquito biology a lot more than had this been on a multiple choice or short-answer examination.

It shows the power of allowing emotion to find its tendrils into science. We ought to embrace this a lot more.

 

*the student shall remain nameless until after the course is finished, but will eventually be credited appropriately