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!

Why undergraduate students are teaching my entomology course

This term I’m teaching an introductory Entomology course at McGill. These days, however, I’m not lecturing at all – the students are doing the teaching. For the past couple of weeks, and for the next couple of weeks, groups of students are lecturing on the part of the course called ‘overview of the insect Orders‘. Typically, this section of the class is a little dry for one person to teach – it’s a standard series of lectures on the Insect Orders – and covers the  evolution, phylogeny, biology, ecology and economic importance of the Insect Orders, starting with Collembola and moving through to the ‘Big Four’ – the Lepidoptera, Hymenoptera, Diptera and Coleoptera.

This term, I decided to turn the tables, and students became the professors. They provided me ideas on what Orders they were most interested in, and based on their feedback, I assigned them to groups and scheduled who would teach what. I also provided them a detailed outline of what was expected. This is not a trivial task – preparing lectures, and lecturing, takes an incredible amount of preparation and time and energy. These lectures are graded (with a rubric), and thus in addition to the peer/instructor pressure for students, this part of the course is part of their final grade.

Here are some refections about the process, so far:

Perhaps what has struck me most with this experience is that the students are delving into the content to a level that I would not have done on my own – in part because I simply would not have the time if I was lecturing on all the Orders. The students, by becoming ‘experts’ on a topic, have more time to dig out the most interesting and fascinating facts about the Orders. They are hunting down the true controversies surrounding the systematics of different Orders, and presenting them like seasoned veterans.  They are taking ownership over the topics, and with such ownership comes responsibility, and pride.

Lecturing is so much different than the typical short-format presentations that students are used to. They have plenty of experience giving presentations to their instructors and peers, but these are seldom more than 15 or 20 minutes. Filling up 50 minutes is a very different ball game. It requires a different set of presentation skills – skills related to thinking on your feet, preparing for unanticipated questions from the audience, and experience with a more spontaneous form of science communication. In my experience, these skills are seldom developed during an undergraduate student’s academic program.

What is also evident with this process is that the students are having FUN with the content and FUN with the lectures. They are linking to the best videos and images for their Order – they are challenging each other with who can find the most fascinating facts about a particular Order. They are smiling, laughing, and genuinely passionate about what they are presenting.  They are also deeply supportive of each other – they ask good and fair questions, engage with the content, work to make the experience positive for everyone. (by the way, I have been tweeting some of the fun facts from this course using the hashtag #ENTO330 – please follow along!)

The education literature supports the ideas I have written above, and the overall process is defined as ‘peer teaching‘.  As the title of Whitman and Fife’s report states “to teach is to learn twice”  , and although caution is warranted when executing peer-teaching, that report does highlight the fact that learning can occur effectively under peer-teaching scenarios. More recent literature from Dioso-Henson (2012)  shows that “reciprocal peer tutoring” (i.e., students run tutorials instead of instructors) “produced significantly larger academic gains than traditional classroom instruction“.  Those interested in delving into the Education literature on this topic should see Topping’s (1996) article.

Now, what I have not provided here is any perspectives from the students, and Graham Scott correctly pointed this out to me. Once the course is over, I will bookend this post with another post containing some refections from students. It’s important to see whether or not my positivity is a reality from their perspective! So, stay tuned for that!

In sum, we often talk about Higher Education being about teaching and learning, with the assumption that the teaching is done by a Professor and the learning is done by the student. Peer teaching, I believe, is a valuable method by which undergraduate students can be fully immersed in the process. The learner can become the teacher and this makes the experience so much richer, for everyone.

Instructors: please contact me if you want more details on this process. I will be happy to share the details – assignment overview, grading rubric, etc.

References:

Topping, K.J. 1996. The effectiveness of peer tutoring in further and higher education: A typology and review of the literature. Higher Education 32(3): 321-345.

Dioso-Henson, L. (2012). The effect of reciprocal peer tutoring and non-reciprocal peer tutoring on The performance of students in college physics. Research In Education, 87(1), 34-49.

Whitman, N.A. & Fife, J.D. (1988). Peer Teaching: To Teach Is To Learn Twice. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4.

Expiscor (21 October 2013)

Good Monday morning to all! I’m excited to be attending the Entomological Society of Canada’s annual meeting (you can follow along on twitter using the hashtag #ESCJAM2013).  Hope you have a good week ahead, and to help you start it right, here are some discoveries from the past while.

  • Poor spiders. So much bad press. Time for a lovely photo, perhaps? This one is a lynx spider from Crystal Ernst (Thanks, Crystal, for letting me post it here)

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  • Death of an order. (insect order, that is). An intriguing paper about Termites and their relatives (thanks to students in my introductory Entomology class for pointing out this paper, and the associated controversy)
  • Ever feel like your social calendar looks like this? (from “Wrong Hands“)

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  • To finish… an Icelandic Hymn – in a train station. Wow (thanks Jamin!)

Expiscor (7 October 2013)

Another week has passed… here are some discoveries!

  • Speaking of bugshot, here’s one of Nash Turley‘s pics from that adventure (Thanks, Nash, for letting me post it here!)

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  • Students in my intro Entomology class are teaching me a lot (they are lecturing on the Insect Orders). Last week, I learned of Desert Locusts that can swim, underwater. (note: they ‘can’ but they don’t necessarily ‘do’ the swimming.)
  • My students also told me of the hip, cool family of Orthoptera called…. Cooloolidae. Yeah, that’s awesome.
  • You like ants?  What about a jumping spider that looks like an ant? Here you go:
A species of jumping spider in the genus Peckhamia (photo by Alex Wild, reproduced here with permission)

A species of jumping spider in the genus Peckhamia (photo by Alex Wild, reproduced here with permission)

  • Tweet of the week goes to …  Erin McKiernan. This is awesome. Don’t worry: My neighbours think I’m crazy too. I’ve been caught running up and down the street with a sweep net.

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  • On robots: here’s a Wild Cat: This is both terrifying and amazing:

Expiscor (16 September 2013)

Bringing you another week of discoveries… Expiscor is here!

  • Don’t believe me? Well here’s a photo from that blog post (reproduced here, with permission)

    (photo copyright C. Ernst)

    (photo copyright C. Ernst)

  • The path of least resistance. A wonderful post about evolution, from Malcolm Campbell. I love this quote:  “Evolution shows us that, contingent on the forces that shape them, paths of least resistance can lead to stunning innovation
  • Ok, I know you are now ready for a spider photograph, courtesy of Thomas Shahan (reproduced here, with permission)
Jumping spiders are the best.

Jumping spiders are the best.

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  • How Chris McCandless died – a more scientific take on some of the mystery surrounding his death in Alaska.
  • And a spidery video to finish things off. So awesome:

Expiscor (9 September 2013)

Welcome to Monday… Welcome to Expiscor! Weekly links about entomology, nature, and a dash of the curious. Here’s what I came across this past week:

  • Speaking of Harvestmen, as Derek Hennen points out, this one is like a Christmas tree (adorned with shiny mites)
Get a load of this Harvestman! (photo courtesy or Derek Hennen, reproduced here with permission)

Get a load of this Harvestman! (photo courtesy or Derek Hennen, reproduced here with permission)

  • Beetles drinking wine and so much more: Insect dioramas. Go look. PLEASE go look.
The Spiny Oak Slug (copyright C. Ernst)

The Spiny Oak Slug (copyright C. Ernst)

  • Tweet of the week goes to…Marc Ozon. It’s just so true.

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  • Interesting perspectives on Academia, using the concept of reviewing papers as an example:… should we “give up our archaic notions of unpaid craft labor and insist on professional compensation for our expertise”
  • I was at a Science Communication workshop last week, and was introduced to this:

Expiscor (2 September 2013)

Welcome to September (and Labour day, today)! September is favourite month here in the Montreal area – the weather remains fantastic, the maple trees start to change colour, and migrating birds begin moving through.  And best of all, the Academic term starts – for me, lectures begin tomorrow.  For now, however, let’s see what discoveries were uncovered over the past week…

  • An incredible spider photo to share with you, from Sean McCann. Here’s a pair of mating Hyptiotes gertschi (Family Uloboridae) (reproduced here, with permission)

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  • OK, let’s spread around the love. Ants are also beautiful (look, a moustache!), as Alex Wild shows us here:
Cephalotes atratus (photo (c) A. Wild) - THANKS Alex, for allowing me to post your photos on Expiscor!

Cephalotes atratus (photo (c) A. Wild) – THANKS Alex, for allowing me to post your photos on Expiscor!

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  • Close to home, McGill’s Tomato Tornado! FUN!

Expiscor (26 August 2013)

After various trips and adventures, regular editions of Expiscor are back… Here are some discoveries from the past week! Hope you enjoy…

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  • Here’s a shot of doing Entomology on the tundra. Entomology Yoga, anyone?
#EntoYoga (photo by J. Wagner)

#EntoYoga (photo by J. Wagner)

  • Tweet of the week goes to Joshua Drew. Darn good advice!

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  • Snail trails. What a neat (and important) story. Here’s the video (check out at 3:08):

Expiscor (5 August 2013)

Welcome to August! I’m heading off for Arctic field work today, but will try to post updates and I will try to keep Expiscor posts coming, despite the remoteness of where I will be…. I’ll see how I manage…

Here are some discoveries from the past week, for your reading pleasure!

  • A spidery mysteryAdrian Thysse posted this on Facebook – what is attached or stuck to the spider’s legs?
A mystery....what is the arrow pointing to?

A mystery….what is the arrow pointing to?

  • Scorpionflies – too cool for words – good thing we have amazing photographers out there!
  • I like bees. My colleague and friend Elena Bennett likes bees, and she has some hives – here’s a photo to show just HOW MUCH she loves bees!
Bees!

Bees!

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A Devonian Platter

A Devonian Platter

Expiscor (24 June 2013)

Here’s your 13th edition of Expiscor. Some curious discoveries from the past week – from bugs to biology, field shirts to ecosystem services: it’s all here:

  • Do spiders scream?  I got an email about this… and thought it was bogus. However, spiders can make various sounds (e.g., see this courtship video!), and there are reports of Theraphosa blondi making defensive hissing sounds. (thanks to Catherine Scott for useful information about this!)
And it's an Endomycidae beetle!

And it’s an Endomycidae beetle!

  • speaking of our favourite flies…Homeopathic mosquito repellant (Mozi-Q). No, folks, it doesn’t work.
  • The Tweet of the week goes to….Steven Hamblin.  My interpretation is seasonal, as summer is upon us here in Montreal. I recall being bored in the summer, and sometimes wish that feeling could return. It seems boredom doesn’t occur in adulthood (at least for me):

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  • Grab me a double-double, you hoser. 11 Canadian words that most Americans don’t understand.
  • Summertime – Swedish style. All you want to know about Swedish midsummer. Pickled herring, beer, singing, dancing (like a frog) oh my. (thanks, Staffan, for the link – MOST enjoyable!)
  • What are ecosystem services? …sometimes a difficult concept to explain. Thankfully, Ecosystem Services Montreal has a video to help us.  Superb.