Farewell, dear blog.

I’m pleased to announce that I have been appointed as the Dean of Students at McGill! This appointment will start on 1 August, and will certainly involve a lot of changes to work, life and everything in between.

As many of you know, I have long been involved with University administration, and I have written before about why I enjoy administration, and why it is valuable. Being a Dean of Students is especially interesting to me, and here’s why:

The Dean of Students is an appointment that can help facilitate positive change at my University. I have developed a deep passion and interest in student affairs, and I have developed broader interests in administration and service. The motto of my campus is “Mastery for service“, and although cliché, I want to work to further my skills and abilities as an administrator, and I want to use these skills to best serve this University and most importantly, its students. I want to continue to work collaboratively with all members of our community, build respectful and trusting relationships among all, and help our students achieve success in and out of the classroom.

I want to help students have a truly exceptional experience at University.

Form me to you: goodbye to Arthropod Ecology, as this blog enters a long diapause.

Form me to you: goodbye to Arthropod Ecology – it’s been great!

I will certainly continue to keep my research program moving along: my institution supports this, and administrative leaders at McGill are encouraged to continue to be well-rounded academics, as much as is possible. However, there are always trade-offs, and becoming the Dean of Students will indeed affect my ability to blog with any regularity. I am, therefore, announcing that the blog will enter a very long diapause. I’ll certainly leave my old posts up, and I hope people continue to enjoy and share them, but I just won’t have the time to keep blogging on a regular basis.

Arthropod Ecology has had a great ride! The blog started back in 2011, and has been going strong for five years: I’ve written almost 300 posts over the years; I had a go at a few regular features (the most recent being “Spiderday“), and some posts continue to generate hundreds of hits per day (especially “Spiders do not bite“, “Tips for succeeding at University“, and “How to ask for a letter of recommendation“); I’ve been thrilled at the reception my blog has received: 500,000 visitors have come to Arthropod Ecology which is so far beyond any of my expectations! A lot more people visit the blog that would ever read my research papers. I hope writing about spiders, science, teaching, and higher education as proved useful to some. Personally, it has all contributed to my own growth as a scientist and a professor, and I have no regrets.

To my faithful readers: THANK YOU for being such great friends, for being critical, and being supportive. I’m sorry to be bowing out, and I do hope others continue to blog. Working to be good science communicators as well as good scientists, is so very important.

Onward to new adventures!

Spiderday (#27)

I know, I know… it’s been too long since the last SPIDERDAY post! The end of term proved busy, but I’m trying to get back on track. So: here are some of the best arachnid-themed stories of the past couple of months. I hope you enjoy all the eight-legged greatness! Let’s start things off with a beautiful photo:

Zora hespera, photo by Sean McCann

Zora hespera, photo by Sean McCann



What does it mean to “do science”?

This is a guest post by PhD student Shaun Turney. I fully endorse it. It’s awesome.

As a scientist, when I’m brushing my teeth, I’m doing science.

This thought occurred to me yesterday as I was trying to reason myself out of a bout of imposter syndrome.

I was thinking: I don’t work hard enough to be a good scientist. I haven’t even done any science all day. I helped a francophone colleague with grammar, I read some stories on Eureka Alert, and I wrote up a field work budget. And that’s just some of the more useful sounding stuff: I also spent a fair amount of time playing basketball with a boy I mentor, cooking dinner, staring into space, telling my partner about my imposter syndrome issue, and reading a science fiction book. I looked through zero microscopes, wrote zero papers, and made zero hypotheses.

I convinced my brain to stop bullying me by distracting it with a question: What does it mean to “do science”?

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra. It's part of doing science.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra. It’s part of doing science.

It would help to know first what exactly “science” is, but philosophers are nowhere near resolving that debate. Science is often defined as a set of processes or tools, the most notable of which being the scientific method. Science is also the body of knowledge produced by that set of processes. These definitions seem pretty solid until you prod them a little: which tools and processes count as scientific? Which knowledge counts as being part of Science? What is “knowledge”, for that matter!

So “Doing science” could be roughly and problematically defined as carrying out scientific processes, like the scientific method, to add to science’s body of knowledge.

But tell me: Is wiping down the counters after your experiment part of running an experiment? Does arguing over beers about whose study organism can jump the highest count as a scientific debate? Can writing a blog post about your research count as writing a paper?

I think times are a-changing enough that many scientists, especially early-career scientists, would feel comfortable with including some instances of lab “house-keeping”, socializing (ie, networking), and social media-ing as part of doing science. Here’s a more radical proposition: taking care of yourself is also part of doing science.

Here’s a strange-but-true thought: If you’re a scientist, your body is a piece of scientific equipment. Your mind is an even more important piece of scientific equipment. If maintaining scientific equipment is a part of doing science, then equally so is maintaining your mind and body. This fuzzy line between doing science and not-doing science is especially evident in field work. In the field, ensuring that your traps don’t get holes and the soles of your feet don’t get holes are equally important parts of the scientific process.

We wear gloves when working with hazardous chemicals, and we consider this part of our scientific protocol. I brush my teeth before engaging in scientific debate so I don’t repel anyone with my breath, and this is part of my scientific protocol. We read papers and sketch down ideas to encourage our minds to come up with interesting hypotheses, and we consider this part of the scientific process. I play with children and read science fiction to encourage my mind to come up with interesting hypotheses, and this is part of my scientific process.

Teaching in an Active Learning Classroom: Pros and Cons

Earlier this term I wrote about my excitement with teaching in an active learning classroom: as a quick refresher, my course had just over 80 students, and is an introductory ecology class. The course has a strong focus on quantitative approaches to population and community ecology, from equations to modelling. I gave up doing traditional PowerPoint slides for this class a long time ago, but until this term, I was still teaching in a theatre-style lecture hall. With continuing to push the “active learning” agenda, it was great to have an opportunity to teach in a classroom specifically designed for active learning!

The Active Learning classroom

The Active Learning classroom

So, here are some perspectives and thoughts about teaching in an active learning classroom now that term is over.


1. I found the tables (with rolling chairs!) were especially great when I did in-class quizzes, especially with group-based problems using “IF-AT” cards. Given the configuration of the tables, I sometimes did the quizzes with two groups at each table (so, 14 groups total, with 4-6 students per groups), or sometimes with three per table (21 groups total). Because the tables had three “wings” and chairs that rolled, it was quick and effective to make groups for these quizzes.

Students working in group quizzes using IF-AT cards (sample shown).

Students working in group quizzes using IF-AT cards (sample shown).

2. The configuration of the room made it feel like a ‘small’ class even though there were over 80 students in the room. From what I understand, a lot of care and attention was taken to the acoustics in the room, and I was truly amazed that even with active group work, the noise level was not overwhelming, and groups could work effectively.

3. Almost every class this past term included some kind of peer-to-peer discussion. Because students were facing each other, this was easily done in an active learning classroom: quick problem solving challenges, or getting students to come up with real-work examples related to course content, all was done easily on the spot. In a large lecture theatre it’s clunky and difficult to form discussion groups. A key strength of the active leaning classroom is certainly the configuration of tables: the learning space is optimal for active discussions.

4. I used some, but not all, of the technology in the room. The Tablet was fantastic (but see below…) and allowed me to write and draw, and those notes would be projected on one of the screens. At the end of lecture, the slides were immediately posted as PDFs on the course website. The room actually had dual projectors, and I used the second screen with a document camera so I could project graphs or text from the course textbook: students therefore had the course content from the textbook and from my lecture notes on the screens, during lecture. Although the room was also equipped with screens for each of the tables, I didn’t use these much, but the potential for each group to project their work has great potential.

5. Another advantage of the room was that the walls next to all the student tables were whiteboards. This allowed groups of students to work on problems using markers on the whiteboard, and draw out answers to problems, or do things like create ideas about food-webs. Again, the configuration of the room made this very quick and easy, since the students were just a few feet away from their whiteboard.

Students using the whiteboard to make food-webs.

Students using the whiteboard to make food-webs.


1. Sometimes you just need to lecture, and an active learning classroom isn’t set up very well for more traditional lectures. Active teaching and learning can be exhausting for the teacher and the students, and sometimes the content really lends itself well to a more traditional lecture. The active learning classroom and its configuration means that a third to a half of the students aren’t facing the podium (which is in the middle of the classroom), and it can feel quite awkward lecturing in that kind of room. I also bring in guest lecturers throughout the term, and it can be daunting for a guest lecturer to be inserted into an active learning classroom (although I briefed them on the layout, it is still difficult to fully grasp the classroom until you actually teach in it).

2. When I sat at one of the desks (as a student would) during the guest lectures, I also discovered another problem with the room: you don’t know where to look. There are dual screens in four different corners of the classroom, and the teacher is standing in the middle of the room, not in front of any of the screens. I can be a bit weird and unsettling. Students have told me about this quirk of an active learning classroom, and after being a student in the room, I get their point.

3. Although I listed the whiteboards as a “pro”, above, they also get labelled a “con” because of their configuration. Since there were only seven tables and one main whiteboard for each table, it got crowded around the whiteboard when students at each table worked together on the whiteboard. Group work with 12 students is really tricky.

4. When technology works, it’s wonderful. When you rely on this technology, and it fails, it can spell disaster. Towards the end of the term the Tablet pen stopped working and this happened in the middle of a class (of course!). This meant I had to quickly change strategies, and I used a sheet of paper under the document camera, and wrote the class notes in that fashion. It was less than ideal, and was frustrating for me and for the students. And, it meant I couldn’t get the notes transferred to the course website. The IT folks did get this fixed, but there were a few classes where I had to adapt on the fly.

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 11.11.28 AM

The dual screens.

In sum, the experience of teaching in an active learning classroom was very positive: students seem engaged, and the room was well suited to group activities. As with all teaching, everything takes practice, and I know it will be much smoother next time I teach in that room. The space is really impressive, and I certainly did not use the classroom to its full potential.

If you want to dabble in active learning in your own class (or other approaches, such as flipped classrooms), I do highly recommend trying to teach in a classroom space that is conducive to your style of teaching . That being said, it’s a very bad idea to teach a traditional podium-style lecture-based class in an active learning space: it just doesn’t work, and under that scenario, stick to a theatre-style classroom.

I also want to give a big shout-out to Teaching and Learning Services at McGill – brilliant minds in that unit worked on the design of the room I taught in this past term, and after spending a term in that space, I am in truly in awe. Well done to the TLS team! And thanks to McGill for supporting Active Learning classrooms across its campuses.

Using Twitter in science: advice for graduate students

I recently gave a hands-on workshop to graduate students in our department about using Twitter in science. As part of that workshop, I provided some bullet points about this social media tool, and I thought it might be useful to share these perspectives more broadly!


Twitter can be useful for:

  • Filtering, accessing science stories relevant to your field of study (e.g., EurekAlert!, news media, science writers)
  • Assisting with your career (job ads, getting to know potential colleagues/supervisors)
  • Creating a research network
  • Doing research
  • Forging collaborations
  • Attending conferences virtually
  • Engaging with a broader audience (e.g. Directly or through journalists, media offices, science writers)
  • Social justice, political change, activism
  • Being inspired by great thinkers, innovators, writers, scientists etc
  • Seeng the human side of science
  • Becoming a better writer and science communicator
  • Track the reach of your work (analytics)

When using Twitter as a scientist, here are some things to think about:

  • What you might want to do on Twitter? (Learn? Engage? Have fun? Grow a following? Do research? Promote your work?). Craft your profile and approach based on these objectives (Note: this can change!)
  • If your objectives are about science, find a balance between professional/personal (actually: ALWAYS think about this… And remember that “personal” is seldom completely private with social media tools)
  • Don’t overwhelm your followers with self-promotion
  • When tweeting try to “Be professional, and Be positive” (note: I learned this advice from Adam Taylor who runs #SciStuChat)
  • You don’t have to Tweet to be on Twitter: Watch and learn before jumping in (many months, perhaps!)
  • Curate who you follow carefully (Don’t be afraid to unfollow people)
  • Don’t obsess about growing your own following: this will happen over time
  • Don’t feel you have to read your entire feed: important and interesting content appears multiple times
  • If you per objective is to share content, aim for information-rich tweets (links/photos etc)
  • Use “draft” features – sometimes it’s good to write Tweets without sending them right away.
  • Learn how to use Hashtags effectively (they are, essentially the “magnets” of the Internet)
  • Own up to mistakes / apologize
  • Give credit where it’s due, especially when thinking about sharing photos or art: ask permission before sharing!
  • Curate content! (e.g. “Like” button, or better yet, another program – Pocket, Evernote) – it’s easy to forget about neat things you have seen on Twitter, so it’s important to find ways to save the things you may wish to find later on.


  • Twitter can become a time-waster and great procrastination tool: learn to be careful with your use
  • Often, your community ends up being limited to like-minded people
  • It’s easy to get embroiled in debates and controversy: be careful
  • Trolls can ruin everything; people can be jerks.
  • Twitter is certainly not for everyone

There are heaps of other resources out there, and I do recommend checking out this page on Science Borealis.

Have things to add? Please comment, below!

Spiderday (#26)

Finally, SPIDERDAY is back! (Sorry about the delay – it’s been a busy term, so I’ve not been able to keep up on the blogging). Here are some Arachnid-themed stories pulled from the web over the past month or so:

Two of my favourite Arachnologists (Sean and Catherine) have been on a great SPIDER TRIP adventure! This is one of the species they stumbled across in Texas. Yes, it's a brown recluse (photo by S. McCann).

Two of my favourite Arachnologists (Sean and Catherine) have been on a great SPIDER TRIP adventure! This is one of the species they stumbled across in Texas. Yes, it’s a brown recluse (photo by S. McCann). Check out more photos from their adventure, here.


Pyramids of species richness

This post is written by PhD student Shaun Turney, and highlights a recent publication from the lab.

Two years ago, I was finishing my MSc and considering whether I’d like to do a PhD, and if so, with whom. I met with Chris and we threw around a few ideas for PhD projects. It was when he brought up a certain mystery that my decision to do a PhD in his lab was cemented. The mystery? Chris and his former PhD student Crystal Ernst were puzzled why there seem to be so many carnivores on the Arctic tundra, and relatively few herbivores to feed them.

How could it be possible? Is there a high level of cannibalism? (But then it would be like pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps — how does the energy and biomass enter the carnivore population in the first place?) Are the carnivores really omnivores? Is our methodology for sampling the tundra biota biased towards carnivores? Is the transfer of energy from herbivores to carnivores somehow more efficient (less energy loss) than in other ecosystems? These sorts of questions touch on some fundamental questions in ecology and I was hooked.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra.

It seemed to me the logical first step would be to find out what is a typical predator-prey ratio. In what proportions are the organisms in an ecosystem divided up from plant (lowest trophic level) to top predator (highest trophic level)? The answer to that questions has already been very much explored when it comes to biomass and abundance. Charles Elton explained about 80 years ago that typically the mass and number of organisms form “pyramids”: They decrease with trophic level because energy is lost with each transfer from resource to consumer. But what about diversity? How does the number of species change with trophic level?

I decided to look at the food webs in the data base GlobalWeb to answer this question, and we just published a paper in Oikos on this topic. I found that typically ecosystems form “pyramids of species richness”, just like the pyramid of numbers and pyramid of biomass described by Elton. But some types of ecosystems, notably in terrestrial ecosystems, we can consistently observe a uniform distribution or even an “upside-down pyramid” rather than a pyramid like Elton described. That is, there are consistently cases where there more carnivore species than herbivore species in an ecosystem.

An example of aquatic compared to terrestrial food-web structure (from Turney and Buddle)

An example of aquatic compared to terrestrial food-web structure (from Turney and Buddle)

So evidently, at least when it comes to diversity, the pattern that Chris has observed in the tundra is not so unusual! The next step for me is to try to figure out why. Stay tuned!


Turney S and CM Buddle. Pyramids of species richness: the determinants and distribution of species diversity across trophic levels. Oikos. DOI: 10.1111/oik.03404