Meet the lab: Crystal Ernst

This is the first in a series of posts where each Arthropod Ecology lab member can introduce themselves. First up is PhD student Crystal Ernst:

I’m a Ph.D. candidate in the final stages of my program: these days I’m crunching out analyses and writing papers as I prepare to submit my thesis at the end of the term. As a community ecologist, I spend a lot of time thinking about how and why different species assemble together in space and time. These questions are foundational to the study of ecology and provide the overall framework for my research program, which uses beetles and other ground-dwelling arthropods to study the structure and determinants of terrestrial animal assemblages.

PhD student Crystal Ernst installing pan traps along the Dempster Highway (Yukon)

PhD student Crystal Ernst installing pan traps along the Dempster Highway (Yukon)

I have spent my summers conducting field research in gorgeous, remote regions of our northern territories, including Kugluktuk Nunavut and the Dempster Highway in the Yukon. My colleagues, members of the Northern Biodiversity Program, have contributed to the collection efforts as well, resulting in specimens being obtained from twelve different locations in the boreal forest, the subarctic and high arctic, spanning Canada coast to coast. I’m now neck-deep in the joy of interpreting the stories contained in my collection of specimens.

Specimens in pan trap (photo by C Ernst)

Specimens in pan trap (photo by C Ernst)


Sorting specimens back in the lab

Sorting specimens back in the lab

I’ve taken two approaches with this work. First, I’ve used a fairly traditional taxonomic approach to studying these animals: by identifying them morphologically (with a microscope and identification keys), I can associate each individual with a known insect species – although some new species have also been discovered! With this information I can describe the species richness (diversity) and distributions of different beetles in the north, and see which species are associated with each other at different northern locations. Secondly, I’ve looked at my arthropods from the perspective of their ecological functions – their roles in their environments. For example, some insects are responsible for pollenating plants, others are important decomposers, and others still are predators; arthropod assemblages can therefore be described in terms of the diversity and dominance of different functional groups. I am in the process of comparing taxonomic and functional assemblages found across northern Canada, and working to determine what aspects of their ecosystems (things like: temperature, wind, and sunlight; the diversity and structure of the plant community in which they live; soil characteristics) are associated with the way these assemblages are structured, and how they change over time and across space.

Three color morphs of Blethisa catenaria, a rare subarctic species (H. Goulet)

Three color morphs of Blethisa catenaria, a rare subarctic species (H. Goulet)

A fun complementary topic I’ve researched is the relationships between some high arctic ground beetles and a fascinating group of parasites called hairworms. I found a number of beetles from different locations to be infested with these worms; in one instance almost a quarter of the beetles were infected! The parasites are aquatic as adults and must first infect an aquatic insect (like a mosquito larva) before being transmitted to a terrestrial host (like a beetle) via the predation of the aquatic host by the terrestrial insect. To complete their life cycles, the worms somehow compel the beetles to enter the water, effectively forcing them to drown themselves so that the worms can emerge safely into their aquatic habitat. This discovery suggests an important link between the creatures living in terrestrial habitats and those in aquatic habitats and tells us about the arctic food chain: beetles must be eating mosquitos or other insects that have aquatic larval/immature stages. These prey items may, in fact, be a very important source of food. More work needs to be done to confirm this! In the meantime, I am excited to have found these associations – the fact that these particular species of beetles can be hosts for hairworm parasites is new information, and it appears that the parasite itself is a new species!

Pterostichus caribou with hairworms (C. Ernst)

Pterostichus caribou with hairworms (C. Ernst)

When I’m not writing my thesis or putting obscure little black beetles on pins, you can probably find me working at McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services, enjoying my time as a teaching assistant, networking on Twitter, mucking around in my vegetable garden (or putting said veggies in jars), walking my dogs, enjoying nature while canoe tripping with my partner, poking wildlife, or lifting heavy things at the gym. I’m on the hunt for a fantastic postdoctoral position that will allow me to continue studying different communities of living things in other ecosystems, and that factors that affect how they’re put together, and I’m excited about the many opportunities out there!

Meet the 2014 Arthropod Ecology Lab!

Welcome back to the new Academic term!  We had our first lab meeting yesterday, and made sure to run outside to get a “Start of year” lab photo:

The Arthropod Ecology Lab (2014)

The Arthropod Ecology Lab (2014)

From left to right we are: Yifu Wang, Anne-Sophie Caron, Sarah Loboda, Shaun Turney, Chris Buddle, Elyssa Cameron, Jessica Turgeon, Crystal Ernst, Etienne Normandin, and Chris Cloutier.  (missing is Dorothy Maguire)

We are smiling for good reason: September brings enthusiasm, and optimism. We are ready to have an exciting year. Learning from each other, doing science, and sharing our passion for arthropods.  This year, this blog will hopefully host a lot of news from the lab, and will include posts from many of the students. Starting next week, we will roll out “Meet the lab” posts, where each student will write a short post about themselves, and about their projects.  Stay tuned!

Congratulations to the new Doctor of spider behaviour

I’m delighted to announce that lab member Raphaël Royauté successfully defended his PhD yesterday….  and he did it with grace, maturity, and poise. The defence was fair, but tough, and Raphael was able to show his breadth and depth of expertise on the broad topic of behaviour in arthropods.

Raphaël’s thesis was titled “Factors influencing behavioural variation in apple orchard populations of the jumping spider Eris militaris (Araneae: Salticidae)” and the during the defence, he was asked (not by me, remarkably!) to offer a ‘tweet’ of the his thesis. Here it is, coming in at almost exactly 140 characters.

Raph's thesis, in a tweet.

Raph’s thesis, in a tweet.

So, his research looked at behavioural syndromes in this remarkable jumping spider: Raphaël collected spiders in apple orchards, maintained them in a laboratory and ran them through a battery of behavioural test. He defined behaviours, looked at correlations among these behaviours (sometimes called ‘personality’), and how these traits varied during the development of individuals, consistency of these behaviours and whether behaviours differed depending on whether the spiders came from insecticide-free on insecticide-treated orchards.  Raphaël also looked at the direct effect of sub-lethel effects of insecticides on behaviour and will soon be publishing the ways that insecticides mess up their personalities.

Raphaël has really done incredible work – but looking back, I should not be surprised. Soon after he arrived in the lab we worked together on a short project about the activity of spiders right after snowmelt, at at that point, I was impressed with his intellectual curiosity, drive and motivation, and overall approach to scientific research.

Raphael and me, in 2008

Working together on Raph’s first project at McGill

After that first project, Raphaël came back to McGill to work on a PhD with me and Dr. Charles Vincent as co-supervisors. And now, many years later, he is now successfully defended a PhD. What a marvellous journey, and I can honestly say that I’ve learned far more from Raphaël than he could have learned from me.

Good luck Raph! (And you’ll be missed in the lab)

Charles Vincent (l), Raphaël (c) and me (r), just after the Defence (17 March 2014)

Charles Vincent (l), Raphaël (c) and me (r), just after the Defence (17 March 2014)

Tablets in the forest: using mobile technology in Higher Education

I am pleased to present a publication that came out earlier this week in Educause Review On-line. This article resulted from a pilot project done in Fall 2012, in which students in my field biology class at McGill used tablets to enhance experiential learning.  Authors on the paper included colleagues from Teaching and Learning Services at McGill (Adam Finkelstein and Laura Winer), and PhD student Crystal Ernst.

Here are the ‘take away’ messages from the project:

  • Environmental biology students mobile devices to gather rich data in the field and to support learning through real-time interaction with their instructor and the larger research community.
  • The project included an analysis of survey and interview data to determine the impact of tablet use on student engagement once the project was complete.
  • Students recognized the value of the tablets as a research tool; however, the tablets’ most important contribution to learning was the real-time communication and feedback they enabled between students, instructors, and the scientific community.
A group using a Toshiba tablet to help identify an aquatic invertebrate

A group using a Toshiba tablet to help identify an aquatic invertebrate

Stated another way, tablets are wonderful to use, and can be effective tools in a field biology course, but the students felt connectivity (which facilitated communication) was essential: the mobile WIFI units paired with the tablets made the project successful.  Here’s a quote from the paper to further illustrate that point:  “most students (53 percent) reported that the tablets increased their interaction with the instructor and TA. This was corroborated by their responses on tool use: 72 percent of students thought that live communication with the instructor and TA helped develop their skills.”

I previously highlighted a video from that project on social media use in the class, and the video (below) is more specifically about the use of the tablets in the class.

This work was done in collaboration with Teaching and Learning Services at McGill, McGill Libraries, and the tablets were generously provided by Toshiba Canada, and Bell Mobility helped us with mobile WIFI units.  I am immensely thankful for the support and I am truly honoured to be able to explore these adventures in teaching and learning.  We are continuing with these kinds of initiatives, and a Brown-Martlet Foundation grant has allowed my Department to purchase some of the tablets originally used last year.

Congratulations to the lab

Last week my laboratory attended the Entomological Society of Canada’s annual meeting, held in Guelph. I was so proud of the whole lab – we had an impressive showing at the meeting, and I was especially impressed with the three undergraduate students who presented their research to Entomologists from across Canada. Wow – I don’t think I had that amount of confidence when I was an undergrad!

I am THRILLED to announce that three arthropod ecology students were recognized for their excellent presentations.

First, Master’s student Étienne Normandin was awarded first prize for his oral presentation in the Biodiversity section.  His talk was titled Biodiversity of wild bees in two urban settings: Montreal and Quebec city. He’s co-supervised by Valérie Fournier at Laval University. Here’s a photo of Etienne doing some field work:

Field work!

Field work!

Second, PhD student Dorothy Maguire was the runner up in the the same Biodiversity section. Her oral presentation was on Insect herbivory in fragmented forest landscapes: linking land use with changes in biodiversity and ecosystem function. Dorothy is co-supervised by Elena Bennett. Here’s a photo of Dory doing what she loves!

Tree climbing!

Tree climbing!

Finally, PhD student Raphaël Royauté was runner up in the student poster competition, for his work titled Does physiological state affect individual variation in boldness in a jumping spider?  Raphaël is co-supervised by Dr. Charles Vincent, from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.  Here’s an older photo of me and Raph, not long after he first came to the lab for a short internship.

Raphael (left) and Chris (right), working hard.

Raphael (left) and Chris (right), working hard.

Social media, mobile technology and an outdoor classroom

Last year, my field biology course took part in an amazing project – we used mobile technology in a field setting, and combined that with social media tools.  This was done in collaboration with Teaching and Learning Services at McGill, McGill Libraries, and the tablets were generously provided by Toshiba.  I am immensely thankful for the support and an truly honoured to be able to explore these adventures in teaching and learning.  More specifically, Laura Winer, Adam Finkelstein and PhD student Crystal Ernst helped make this project a success.

One of the ‘products’ of this pilot project is this 5 minute video about using social media to engage students in inquiry-based learning:

We are continuing with these kinds of initiatives, and a Brown-Martlet Foundation grant has allowed my Department to purchase some of the tablets originally used last year. This is terrific, and as the video illustrates, the students end up benefiting.

This term, the course is again using social media, and you can find details in this post, and follow along with twitter using the hashtag #ENVB222.

Undergraduate students tweet their research questions.

As part of my field biology class this term, students (in groups) are working on research projects about natural history. As part of this, they have set up twitter accounts, and groups were challenged to “tweet their research question“.

This is a great exercise: it forces concise writing, and allows for help and feedback in the development of a good research question.

Here are the tweets – please feel free to direct comments to the groups! (the research projects are officially starting today, 1 October) [click on the tweet to get to the group’s twitter accounts)

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And yes, these groups DID receive help from people outside of the course (and from around the world) as they developed their research question. For example, the group studying medicinal plants discussed some ideas over twitter with a biologist in Germany:

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And in the following conversation, the Chickadee group received some reinforcement from Prof. Margaret Rubega, at the University of Connecticut, about the need to develop a solid research question:

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SO… what do YOU think?  Could you tweet your research question? Can you help these students improve their questions? Feedback, as always, is welcome!